Historians have typically viewed the Continental witch trials as fundamentally different from those in England. Some have suggested that the specifically popular notion of witchcraft was the same on both sides of the Channel, but differences have unquestionably received more emphasis than similarities. On one point there has been unanimity, either express or tacit: that if there were popular witch accusations on the Continent analogous to those in England, they are lost to history, buried under the excrescences of learned tradition. It is this last thesis that the present work seeks to overturn. It has been suggested here that one can distinguish certain types of record that are superior to others as sources of popular belief, and that by using these documents as touchstones for analysis one can separate folk notions from ideas of the intellectual élite.
The most basic distinctive feature of popular witch beliefs is their thoroughgoing preoccupation with the threat of sorcery. It was in response to this threat that the populace took suspects to court. The cosmological assumptions of the populace were relatively fluid. Long inured to religious practices that seemed to have magical effect, unsophisticated people accepted magical causality alongside natural and religious causal factors; without requiring any detailed explanation of how magic worked, they were willing to accept it as efficacious, and to experiment with various forms of magic. Educated people, on the other hand, and especially those bred on Aristotelian thought, could not accept the idea of distinctively magical causes. When the populace pointed to instances of maleficent magic, growing numbers of intellectuals could only see the influence of Satan. When these learned individuals entered the courtroom, they convicted suspects of diabolism—a charge more serious than that of sorcery, more sensational, and probably punished more frequently with death. First prominent in the Italian courts, the charge of diabolism became important throughout Europe from about 1435 on, in response to the theological literature on witchcraft.