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Rise and Decline of the Witchhunts Essay

The Reformation era was a time of great change in Early Modern Europe. Sixteenth and seventeenth century Europeans were attempting to make sense of the frightening events that were happening, such as the Black Death and famine. To find meaning in a world that seemed in constant chaos, early modern Europeans looked to find patterns that would set things right. “The Reformation would not have happened if ordinary people had not convinced themselves that they were actors in a cosmic drama plotted by God: that in the Bible he had left them a record of his plans and directions as to how to carry them out.” The Reformations brought a new direction of faith, where one had to be more active in one’s own salvation. They also brought a profound sense of the fear of hell, and this directed much of the actions of the reformed.

The Reformations were a catalytic force in the rise of the witch hunts during sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Europe because they brought a new emphasis on the fear of the devil, a new direction of faith that required personal accountability and brought a sense of guilt to the one that felt they were not doing as they should, and did away with the familiar tokens and practices of magic that characterized an aspect of pre-Reformation, early modern European religion. The Reformations also contributed to the decline of the witch hunts as theology evolved during the time period to include an awareness of the sovereignty of God as well as Biblical literalism. The Reformations contributed to the development of the witch hunts in several ways, the first being a new emphasis on the fear of the devil. In terms of the Protestant Reformation, this was not necessarily a contradiction to former Catholic beliefs of demonology, as Catholics had an awareness of the presence of the devil.

It was simply a new heightened fear of the devil and his influence in the world. “Although the great reformers did little to change traditional Catholic demonology, they did tend to emphasize the presence of the Devil in the world and exhibit a more profound fear of him.” Catholic theology incorporated the presence of the Devil, but did not adopt the concept of diabolical power. However, during the Counter-Reformation, Catholics became just as diligent in expressing this fear of the Devil. “Catholic priests often matched their Protestant colleagues in convincing their parishioners of Satan’s omnipresence and in raising their fears of him. They could also be equally effective in encouraging them to campaign ceaselessly against him.” This awareness of diabolical activity for both the Protestants and Catholics was a new phenomenon, and it was a beginning phase in the persecution of witches during the Reformation era in that witchcraft came to be viewed as the work of the Devil.

Along with this new emphasis on the danger of the Devil and diabolical temptation was an emphasis on one being active in leading a morally conscious life and being responsible for one’s own salvation. “Instead of merely encouraging conformity to certain standards of religious observance (such as attending church), the reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries instructed the people to lead a more demanding, morally rigorous life.” Personal sanctity became the new means for one’s salvation. A side effect of the emphasis on personal piety was a deep sense of sin that people sought to relieve in any way possible. Naturally, one of the methods of relief was projection of guilt onto another person. A person regarded as a witch often took the brunt of that projection during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

“[I]n sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, many accusations arose when individuals refused to provide economic assistance to people who needed it and who came to one’s door asking for it. In denying this aid, which both Catholic and Protestant moral teaching enjoined, the person naturally felt guilty, but by depicting the unaided person as a witch and therefore as a moral aggressor unworthy of support, he could rid himself of the guilt he was experiencing.” Projection of guilt on to the witch eliminated the responsibility of the pious person to cope with it, as the witch was seen as someone practicing morally dubious acts. The traditional blend of pagan forms of magic and religion in Europe came under attack during the Reformations, which changed the methodology of early modern Europeans.

In the opinions of the reformers, this was an effort to teach people the true Christian faith and proper forms of worship. “One of the main purposes of this instruction was to purify the faith by eradicating superstitious beliefs and practices, eliminating vestiges of paganism and suppressing magic (the great rival of true religion) in all its forms.” In the minds of the reformers, anything that was not expressly from the Bible was not true. Furthermore, a belief in anything not found in what was believed to be the direct word of God, the Bible, was a sin. “Those persons who sought to use objects for purposes which nature could not justify were guilty of idolatry, superstition, and at least implicitly of soliciting the aid of the Devil.” This contributed to the witch hunts in that it took away the usual forms of protection that those who believed themselves victims of witches were accustomed to, such as using the sign of the cross or holy water, as the reformers considered these to be external tokens that distracted one from true communion with God.

“When that happened, the victims of witchcraft could easily have been led to the conclusion that the only way to deal with witches was to take legal action against them, thus leading to an increase in the number of prosecutions.” The prosecutions of those suspected of witchcraft was a new direction for dealing with a familiar problem, brought about by the societal shifts that the Reformations brought to early modern Europe. Just as the Reformations contributed to the growth of the witch hunts, they also contributed to their decline. This can be attributed to such things as the Protestant emphasis on the sovereignty of God and Protestant Biblical literalism. The Protestant view of the sovereignty of God made the idea of the Devil’s diabolical power a heresy, as this implied that the Devil had power equal to that of God’s.

“The insistence upon God’s sovereignty led a number of Protestant writers and preachers to deny the Devil’s ability to produce certain types of marvels, such as hailstorms, and this fostered a scepticism toward maleficia that involved such wonders.” To the reformers, God’s sovereignty not only meant that the Devil did not have equal power to God’s, but that he was under God’s control. “And therefore let us mark (as experience also shows) devils may work many illusions by enchantments. And truly such things are not done in the dark. For as long as we are enlightened by God, we need not fear that a man shall seem a wolf to us, or that such trishtrash shall get the upper hand of us.” This evolving theology changed the view on the diabolical power of the Devil through witches in that God’s power began to be viewed as absolute and God’s word as absolute truth.

Protestant reformers’ focus on Biblical literalism contributed to the course of the witch hunts in that the Bible contained very few references to witches, and none to devil-worship. The Bible also gave evidence of the restraints that God placed on the Devil’s power. “Calvinism may have encouraged people to engage in an incessant war with Satan, but it also encouraged them eventually to define exactly what he could do and to adopt [a] purely spiritual view of him.” Therefore, the previously held belief in the diabolical power of Satan, and the fear of the Devil, were virtually eliminated. The Reformations brought great change to early modern Europe – a new direction of faith, a new sense of the fear of Hell, a new emphasis on personal responsibility for salvation, and the elimination of magic as an aspect of life.

These changes drove an increase in the witch hunts as early modern Europeans sought to make sense of the changes the Reformations brought by recognizing the witch as an instrument of evil rather than a practitioner, a projection on to the witch of their own guilt for sin, and the removal of magic as a familiar token of comfort when attempting to cope with their surroundings. Likewise, as the Reformations caused an increase in the witch hunts, they added to their decline as the reformers introduced the sovereignty of God which took away the diabolical power of the Devil, and the acceptance of the Bible as a literal instruction manual where mention of witches and worship of the Devil was virtually absent.

Works Cited

Calvin, John. “Sermon on Deuteronomy (1550).” In Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History, Second Edition, by Alan Charles and Peters, Edward Kors, 267. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Levack, Brian. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, Third Edition. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006. MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1971.

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[ 1 ]. Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History, (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 550. [ 2 ]. Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006), 112. [ 3 ]. Ibid, 114.

[ 4 ]. Ibid, 114.
[ 5 ]. Ibid, 115.
[ 6 ]. Ibid, 117.
[ 7 ]. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1971), 256. [ 8 ]. Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006), 118. [ 9 ]. Ibid, 128.

[ 10 ]. John Calvin, Sermon on Deuteronomy (1555), in Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History, Second Edition, ed. Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001) 267. [ 11 ]. Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006), 129.


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