The Social Context of Witch Trials

The Social Context of Witch Trials

The historical importance of diabolism is elusive. It is of some interest in intellectual history; its significance for judicial history lies mainly in the fact that it embellished the charges against many people who were burned, and no doubt led to the execution of some who, on the charge of sorcery alone, would have received more lenient sentences. Yet the allegation of diabolism does not appear to have arisen out of the tensions of society at large, and its relevance to social history is meager. Sorcery, on the other hand, was clearly an offense that aroused widespread anxiety. Prosecution for sorcery is a subject that has furnished important data regarding societies’ problems and obsessions. The sources for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries do not permit exhaustive analysis of the social context of witch accusations and trials. For later periods there is firmer, more abundant, and more diverse documentation: not only are the judicial records frequently informative on matters of social relevance, but supplementary pamphlets and other sources sometimes help to establish the subjects’ place in society and relations with the accusers. The documents prior to 1500, however, shed so little light that one can merely probe in the darkness, in hopes that the patterns discerned are more than creations of one’s imagination and expectations. In some ways the most one can do is point to analogies to witchcraft in other eras, and such correspondences are never altogether safe. Still, it may prove useful to examine the sources for whatever information they yield on this topic.

Apart from the general paucity of evidence, there are other serious methodological problems in studying the witchcraft of this era against the setting of social history. Records of manorial courts are seldom extant. In some cases the documents of ecclesiastical and municipal courts contain cases from rural areas subject to their authority, but for the most part the documents that survive are from towns and their suburbs, and show trials that arose out of distinctively urban tensions. H. R. Trevor-Roper has suggested that the European witch-craze began in the pre-feudal societies of the Alps and the Pyrenees, and only later spread to the feudal society of the plains.1 It is true that in the period 1300–1500 there is a preponderance of witch trials from Switzerland. And if one can accept the evidence that Lamothe-Langon presents, there were numerous trials in the valley between the Pyrenees and the Cévennes—though as has been argued above, the authenticity of his sources is highly dubious.2 In any event, most of the trials in these lands took place in or near urban concentrations. The great majority of Swiss trials occurred not in the Alps but in the urbanized region of the Swiss midlands, which had a cultural, social, and economic complexion quite distinct from that of the mountains. There was also a substantial number of trials in the French- and Italian-speaking Alps, but the connection between mountain culture and witch trials is belied by the extreme rarity of such trials in the German-speaking Alps.3 There were important cases in Innsbruck and Andermatt, but these were significant (if modest-sized) towns lying along trade routes. If anything, then, the trials for which records survive arose not out of a pre-feudal context but out of the post-feudal, or post-manorial, environment of towns.

It is possible that the rural villages of Europe experienced an increase in witch trials along with the towns. Certainly in the modern period witch trials were predominantly rural rather than urban phenomena.4 Fuller records might show that the rural cases vastly outweighed those in the towns, and further information on known cases might reveal that many urban trials had their origins in surrounding agrarian communities. On the other hand, however, it is conceivable that witchcraft before 1500 was primarily a preoccupation of townsmen. Recent work has shown that there was a breakdown of the traditional family structure specifically in the towns of certain parts of Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.5 This kind of social disintegration is precisely the sort of development to which Keith Thomas ascribes early modern witch trials.6 And there is anthropological precedent for witchcraft as a predominantly urban concern. In his work in Yucatan, Robert Redfield found that allegations of witchcraft were most common in the urban areas near the northwest coast of the peninsula.7 In the agrarian villages of the southeast there was severe punishment (such as public execution) for alleged witches, but cases were rare. In the heterogeneous society of the cities, however, accusation of witchcraft was a common phenomenon, resulting from the manifold tensions and quarrels of the complex environment. Anxiety about illness was a frequent source of such accusations. With less fixity in the role of women, and greater insecurity for females, rivalry between two women was another common incentive to charges of witchcraft. In the town of Dzitas, it was estimated that one out of every ten adults had been suspected of witchcraft or had been thought of as a victim of some witch. Likewise in other societies, there is a correlation between social disorientation and charges of witchcraft.8

It remains ultimately impossible to prove whether late medieval witchcraft was preponderantly rural or urban. Yet most of the trials for which evidence survives can be explained only as outgrowths of specifically urban developments and tensions. There may have been other trials that arose for other causes, but on this matter the records yield extremely little evidence. Among the urban developments responsible for witch trials, the incipient breakdown of family structure—with the need for reliance on one’s own resources and on the aid of potentially hostile neighbors—probably played an important role. The movement into cities during and after the Black Death furthermore created a large class of new town-dwellers who were unaccustomed to urban life.9 These newcomers did not necessarily sever all ties with their original homes and social systems, but to the extent that they did so they must have suffered profound disorientation, which would help to explain the rise in trials during the late fourteenth century. (Later outbreaks of the plague may have helped to perpetuate this effect.) The opening of new Alpine passes in the thirteenth century may also have intensified this development specifically in Switzerland, by eventually bringing new classes into an urban environment. And as suggested in an earlier chapter,10 the introduction of inquisitorial procedure into municipal proceedings may have been partly responsible for the rise in witch hunting fervor.

Even in municipal records, important information is frequently lacking. The documents rarely reveal the social class from which an alleged witch came. On occasion they were members of the urban patriciate, as at Basel in 1407,11 and in some instances the records of judicial confiscations indicate possession of substantial property.12 In the majority of instances there is no such evidence. This silence itself may serve as prima facie evidence that the suspects were from the lower or middle classes, since the prosecution of prominent citizens was likely to occasion special notice of their socio-economic standing. The age of the suspect is seldom given, and when it does appear it suggests no significant pattern of ages. When marital status is indicated, the subject is more frequently married than unmarried or widowed. One is on somewhat firmer ground in speaking of the sex of the accused. Roughly two-thirds of the accused witches for whom personal information is recorded were female, with perhaps a smaller percentage in the early years of prosecution and a higher proportion in the late fifteenth century.