The Witch-Hunt in Modern Europe by Brian Levack proved to be an interesting as well as insightful look at the intriguing world of the European practice of witchcraft and witch-hunts. The book offers a solid, reasonable interpretation of the accusation, prosecution, and execution for witchcraft in Europe between 1450 and 1750. Levack focuses mainly on the circumstances from which the witch-hunts emerged, as this report will examine. The causes of witch-hunting have been sometimes in publications portrayed differently from reality.

The hunts were not prisoner escapee type hunts but rather a hunt that involved the identification of individuals who were believed to be engaged in a secret activity. Sometimes professional witch-hunters carried on the task, but judicial authorities performed most. The cause of most of these hunts is the multi-causal approach, which sees the emergence of new ideas about witches and changes in the criminal law statutes.

Both point to major religious changes and a lot of social tension among society. The intellectual foundations of the hunts were attributed to the witch’s face-to-face pact with the devil and the periodic meetings of witches to engage in practices considered to be barbaric and heinous. The cumulative concept of witchcraft pointed immediately to the devil, the source of the magic and the one most witches adored.

There was a strong belief then that witches made pacts with the devil. Some would barter their soul to the devil in exchange for a gift or a taste of well-being. Many believed that these witches observed a nocturnal Sabbath where they worshipped the devil and paid their homage to him. They were also accused of being an organization known for its cannibalistic practices of infanticide incest.

Another component of this cumulative concept was the belief in the flight of witches. The belief for this was contributed to by the assumption that witches took flight from their homes to go to nocturnal meetings without their absence from home being detected. The belief in “flying night witches” was shared by many cultures in the modern world. These women were referred to as striae, which was one of the many Latin terms for witches. As the reader first opens the legal foundations of witch-hunting, one finds that historically it was a judicial process from discovery to elimination.

Levack states that before the thirteenth-century European courts used a system of criminal procedure that made all crimes difficult to prosecute. This system was known as the accusatorial system and existed predominantly in northwestern Europe. When the thirteenth century came into being, a new technique, which gave more human judgment in the criminal process, was adopted in Western European secular courts.

This new court was known as inquisitorial courts. The only difference between the new system and the old when suits were begun by accusation was that the accuser was no longer responsible for the actual prosecution of the case (pg. 72). The new procedures were not in reality an improvement due to the fact that the standards of proof according to the inquisitorial procedure were very demanding.

Since the adoption of the inquisitorial procedure represented a shift from reliance upon man’s rational judgment, jurists agreed that it was absolutely necessary for judges to have conclusive proof of guilt before passing a sentence (pg. 79).

They relied on Roman law and based their conclusions on two eyewitnesses and the confession of the accused. The development of full judicial power given to the state in the prosecution of a crime was a major event.

From the early times, the secular courts in Europe had taken part in the witch-hunts, and now as the hunt developed, further along, the secular courts grew an even greater role in the process.

This caused a decline in ecclesiastical court participation due to the fact that governments defined witchcraft as a secular crime, and the temporal courts of some countries had a monopoly on the prosecution.

The prosecution of magic was a “mixed jurisdiction” taken on by both courts but when convicted the guilty were executed under secular law. Since secular courts had jurisdiction over magic and maleficium they primarily assumed a significant role in prosecuting witches.

As the hunt gathered steam in the sixteenth century, the developments resulted in a reduction of clerical jurisdiction and an increase in the amount of secular concern with it. The main reason was the defining of witchcraft as a secular crime.

All of these factors led to a large-scale witch-hunts in Scotland but in some countries, the retention of ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the crime led to a decline in the number of prosecutions. Local court decisions during this time also played a role in the conviction of witches. They had the ability to perform with a certain amount of independence from higher political and judicial control.

There are two main reasons why local courts proved to be less lenient than central courts in the prosecutions of witchcraft (pg. 93). The first is that local authorities that presided over witch trials were far more likely than their central superiors to develop an intense and immediate fear of witchcraft (pg. 93). The second is that central judges were generally more committed to the proper operation of the judicial system and more willing therefore to afford accused witches whatever procedural safeguards the law might allow them (pg. 94).

The decentralization of judicial life had lasting effects in countries like Germany, where no effective control by central authority led to increased hunts and more torturous executions. The formation of the cumulative concept of witchcraft and all the legal precedents introduced made the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth-century witch-hunts possible. To look at the understanding of the hunt one must examine the religious, social, and economic conditions that began in modern Europe.

During the time of the Reformation, the Europeans increased their awareness of satin and started to wage a larger war against him. A second effect of the Reformation on witchcraft arose from the emphasis that both Protestant and Catholic reformers placed on personal piety and sanctity (pg. 106).

The Christianization of Europe also added to this war against the devil by eradication superstitious beliefs, eliminating paganism, and suppressing magic. Witch-hunting was the most frequent in countries where large minorities adhered to different religions. Witch-hunting was the most intense in Germany, Switzerland, France, Poland, and Scotland (pg. 114).

The effects of the Protestant and Catholic Reformation did have an effect on witch-hunts; they laid the foundation for their decline. There were various types of hunts that took place during European witch-hunt times. The main feature of the small hunt is that the search for malefactors is limited to the individuals who were originally accused (172).

The main characteristic of a medium-style hunt was that it included five to ten victims. The final type of hunt was the large hunt where tens to hundreds of witches were hunted and panic and hysteria were rampant everywhere. The end of the witch-hunts was usually an abrupt procedure. The small hunts for example were isolated prosecutions that ended when the accused were either executed or given an acquittal.

Most of the time the end of a hunt lasted for many years, and up to generations. The explanations for the geographical unevenness in the hunts cannot be simply put. According to Levack, there were four separate but related factors. The first was the nature of witch beliefs in a particular region and the strength in which they were held (231).

The disparity can be seen for example in countries like England, the Scandinavian countries, and Spain where the prosecutions included a number of individual trials for maleficium and some for Devil-worship. The second factor is determining the relative intensity of hunts was the criminal procedure used. Not all countries used the inquisitorial procedure and torture method.

The third determinant was the extent to which the central judicial authority had control over the trials. Central control did not always prevail, since some rulers wanted to completely exterminate witchcraft. The final factor is the degree of religious zeal manifested by the people of a region (232). This was most evident in large hunts and countries known for their large numerous executions and not known for their Christianity.

The decline in witchcraft can be attributed to a multitude of factors. There were three main judicial and legal developments that contributed to the decline of witchcraft: the demand for conclusive evidence regarding maleficium and the pact, the adoption of stricter rules regarding the use of torture, the promulgation of decrees either restricting or eliminating prosecutions for witchcraft (236). The mental outlook was also changing at the time as judges and princes set out to create new rules for torture and restricting witchcraft.

The most important religious factor in this decline was the change of the religious climate that occurred in the late seventeenth century. The socioeconomic changes could be felt in a general improvement of living conditions that reduced some of the local village tensions that lay at the basis of witchcraft prosecutions. Witches no longer posed the threat that they once did.

The economic and social chaos of this century and the political and religious instability caused anxiety that led to witches becoming a scapegoat for the general ills of society during their rapid time of change. Witchcraft had become somewhat of a hobby!

In conclusion, Levack gives the reader a full understanding of witchcraft during this time and the historical insight and vivid description adds to the livelihood of the period. Levack’s insight gives the consistency that witch-hunts were sparked by diverse and complex causes, which he supports in his book.

According to a book review by Elizabeth Furdell, “Levack uses many sources to provide national examinations of the witchcraze.” An example of this Levack’s conclusion that while German communities exhibited frenzied paranoia directed at “witches,” England did only a little witch-hunting. He uses reliable and multiple reasons to prove his thesis.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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