Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 7 November 2022

The Witch Hunt in early modern Europe - truth and fiction

Halloween and the days around it, and, let’s be honest, the commercial hype that nowadays acccompanies it, conjures up and utilises images of witches and witchcraft, and that plays to our residual fear of malevolence, that someone means us ill - and maybe has the means to accomplish that. These days it is essentially just for fun - but in the past it was deadly serious.

The Catholic World Report has an excellent pair of articles by Sandra Miesel about the rise and incidence of prosecutions for witchcraft, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The articles are a revision of the form in which they were originally published in 2001.

The Witch craze was a phenomenon that arose from previous and occasional instances in the middle ages and which, combined with the existing laws concerning heresy, became in the late fifteenth century both more intense and far more widespread. It occurred in different forms across most of the continent in the next two centuries with varying intensity and location. It is revealing - perhaps surprising - where these events took place and where and indeed how they did not. From Europe it also extended to colonies in the New World in those centuries and lingered on into the eighteenth. 

Witchcraft and witch hunts have been a popular topic in recent decades with historians of the period. Those who identified with either a feminist agenda or who claimed spiritual kinship as neo-pagans with the victims have been prominent in this, and in the formation of contemporary popular discussion. 

In her two articles Sandra Miesel addresses this with scholarly detachment and offers a calm and balanced model about the incidence and spread of the witch mania. They are extremely useful reading for anyone interested in the period or in the topics of alternative belief systems and marginal communities in the past. 

I would thoroughly recommend the two pieces as a valuable, thoughtful and dispassionate summary of the evidence rather than popular or prejudiced misconceptions. They can be read at Who Burned the Witches? (Part 1) and Who Burned the Witches (Part 2)

There is a select bibliography at the end of the second article. I would be inclined to add to that Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons which seeks to understand what it was that so fascinated people with the fear of malign forces being assembled and used to destabilise society. Conspiracy theories anyone?

1 comment:

John R Ramsden said...

Part 2 of that pair of articles cited is quite correct to say the claim that Queen Elizabeth I executed 800 witches a year is baseless. It is actually absurd, because she was very much against witchcraft accusations and trials. This antipathy stemmed from the fact that her mother, Anne Boleyn, had been accused of being a witch!

Unfortunately, her successor James I (and VI of Scotland) was obsessed by witchcraft among other things, and I believe more tolerant (if that is the right word!) of persecutions of supposed witches.

John R Ramsden