Witch-hunt, or the discovering of hidden witches, was practiced in Europe from the Late Antiquity, during the Middle Ages, and until the Early Modern Period. During the Middle Ages, the witch trial has its particular specialties that make this period different from the Late Antiquity and the Early Modern Period. The main characteristic of the witch-hunt in the Middle Ages is the diversity of the definitions of magic and witchcraft, as well as assumed signs of witches. As a result, targets for the accusation were also diverse, including not only the adepts of “low” and “high” magic but also heretics within the Christian church, as well as orthodox Catholic clergy. This paper will investigate the special features of witch-hunt in Europe during the Middle Ages, focusing on the definitions of witchcraft and the perception of the figure of a witch.
The Historical Background of the Witchcraft and Witch-Hunt
The phenomena of magic and witchcraft may be found in the sources of Antiquity as early as 184-153 BCE. Some of the mythological female characters, such as Circe, Medea, Canidia, were supposed to have supernatural powers, being the prototypes of the witch image (Montesano). Mediterranian Dyonisiac rituals, containing dance, songs, and consuming raw meat, otherwise prohibited, may also be considered as the sources of witchcraft. Among the mythological figures, a unique role belonged to the goddess Diana and her Greek counterpart Artemis, a “maiden huntress” that was supposed to “transform her lovers into animals and slay them” (Russell 47). Celtic Valkyries were sometimes bearing the same qualities as supernatural creatures (Russell). As it may be observed, mostly, the concept of “witch” was connected to females. However, male figures were present as well in the form of so-called “wild men.”
Further, the matter of magic and witchcraft arose during the establishment of Christianity. Since that time, ongoing debates about heresies as “not true” religion were often causing the accusation of magic and witchcraft. The heretical movements within the Christian church that existed throughout the centuries until the Early Modern Era. The latter, in turn, appeared as a culmination of witch-trial; one of the reasons for that might be the establishment of science in its modern “objectivist” and “empirical” mode.
Specifies of the Witch-Hunt in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, the witch-hunt was existing in the form, different from the previous and following eras. The main characteristic of it could be defined as the diversity of the opinions about the nature of the witches, and the concepts of magic. As Russel (23) argues, “witchcraft is a composite phenomenon drawing from folklore, sorcery demonology, heresy, and Christian theology.” The latter was of particular importance as, during the Middle Ages, the social and ideological influence of the Christian church was all-pervading.
The folkloric figure of the witch implied the associations with the goddess Diana, wild dances, incubi. The sorcerer was connected with supernatural abilities, such as shapeshifting, flying, possibility to communicate with demons. At the same time, not a smaller number of accusations appeared due to heresies with their implication of “secret meeting, desecration of Cross, formal repudiation of the church (Russell, p. 23). The examples of such heresies were the Reformist movement of the eighth century, or Catharians that appeared at about 1140s.
Russell generally considers European witchcraft a product of Christian religion, thus, connecting it to heresies within the church more than to sorcery outside of it. Moreover, not only assumed heretics, but also Catholic clergy (priests, monks, friars, and nuns) were often accused as magicians and sorcerers, or as confessors of other witches (Voltmer). In this way, those usually considered conductors of a witch-hunt could be its targets and victims.
Witchcraft and Witches: the diversity of the targets
The Definitions of Magic and the Images of Witch
It is arguable that modern definitions of “magic,” “witchcraft,” as well as “religion,” with which they are interconnected, would not necessarily have the same meaning as they had in earlier eras. Thus, aiming to understand the reasons behind the particular assumptions about the signs of witchcraft and the attributes of a witch, it is necessary first to explore the authentic meaning of these definitions in the minds of people in the Middle Ages.
Magic was assumed to be distinct from religion and science, at the same time, interconnected with both. Unlike religion, it was practically oriented, i.e., based on the concept of possibility to contact and control supernatural powers. Unlike science, the mechanisms of such actions seemed not to be explainable within the frame of proved, “scientific” knowledge. However, during the Middle Ages, the concepts of magic and science were standing closer, being at least not contradictory. Thus, magic was divided into two levels, “high” and “low” (Russell). The former was interconnected with astrology, numerology, and alchemy, while the latter was mostly based on the folkloric traditions. However, in both cases, the essence of the magical worldview remained the same. It was the belief in the interconnection of the microcosm (a human with his physical body) and macrocosm (the universe), and the ability of a human to gain control over the natural powers.
The constructed images of a witch were diverse as well. For example, Goodare argues that the concept of witchcraft is “fourfold,” and the different classes of people have different images of the “witch” in their minds. He introduces such types as “demonic witch” of the elite, “village witch” of common people, “folkloric witch” of stories and legends, and “envisioned witch” of trance, dream, or nightmare. Each of them had a particular appearance and characteristics.
Apart from it, the witches were chased and accused within the Christian church. It also may be assumed a specialty of the Middle Age; as Voltmer (1) states, “it was only during medieval and early modern times that the crime of heresy and witchcraft cost the life of friars, monks, and ordained priests.” As she further argues, Catholic reform was caused by a “massive crisis of the papal Church” that, among all, included “labeling popes as diabolic necromancers.” Thus, the targets of the witch-hunt were identified within the different layers of society.
Assumed Signs of Witchcraft and Attributes of Witch
In order to identify a witch, the “hunters” were searching for special characteristics appearing on the physical level. Particular bodily features or states were assumed to be signs of the possession or the presence of the Devil’s force in a human. These symptoms included “physical convulsions, extra-ordinary facial or bodily contortions, levitation, exceptional strength,” as well as not visible signs, such as “speaking unknown foreign languages, babbling meaningless phrases, and impenetrable silence” (Dunn, p. 23). Some of the marks were identified by doctors in the process of the examination of the body of the accused individuals. However, contemporary texts were emphasizing the presence of the physical marks on witches that can be visible to ordinary people as well.
As it was demonstrated in the paper, the witch-hunt existed in the Middle Ages in its specific form, distinct from the previous and following eras; also, despite common assumption, the Middle Ages was not the culmination of witch trials. The specificity of the period was searching and discovering the targets within the clergy of the Catholic church, not less often than outside of it. Probably, such dissatisfaction with the qualities of the church service was one of the reasons for further Reformation.
- Dunn, Sarah. The mark of the Devil: Medical Proof in Witchcraft Trials. 2017. University of Louisville, Master’s Thesis. ThinkIR University of Louisville’s Institutional Repository, doi.org/10.18297/etd/2804
- Goodare, Julian. The European Witch-Hunt. Routledge, 2016.
- Montesano, Marina. Classical Culture and Witchcraft in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Springer, 2018.
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press, 2019.
- Voltmer, Rita. “Debating the Devil’s Clergy. Demonology and the Media in Dialogue with Trials (14th to 17th Century)”. Witchcraft, Demonology, and Magic, special issue of Religions, vol. 10, no. 648; 2019, doi:10.3390/rel10120648