Why was witchcraft a crime in early modern Europe? Essay Example

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    Sociology
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    Undergraduate
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Witchcraft in Europe

Witchcraft in Europe

Analysis of witchcraft is among one of thoroughly researched subjects in the setting of early modern social history of Europe as stated by Barry et al. (257). Many historians have been faulted for spreading assumptions and generalizations about witchcraft gathered from modern authorities whose perception and understanding of witchcraft has been either incomprehensive or inaccurate (Barry et al. 261). Witch hunt and witch trials are among the most significant phenomenon that characterized the early sixteen and seventeen century in early modern Europe. It is approximated that more than one hundred thousand witch trials took place in the wider region of Europe with more than sixty thousand executions of persons convicted or who confessed to be witches (Konnert 52). Witchcraft as a crime was predominant in Germany, Switzerland, Eastern France, Poland, Scotland, England and other low countries of Europe as described by Konnert (52).

Important to note is that witchcraft remained a crime way before the sixteenth century though it was perceived to be an isolated offense where a person thought to be a witch would inflict harm on people, animals or properties by use of supernatural powers and means in what was referred to as maleficim (Konnert 52). In this instance the act was punishable but not the person but by 16th C, the prosecution would include the very aspect of being a witch. There are many debatable reasons as to why witchcraft was a crime in early modern Europe. Therefore, this report seeks to analyze why witchcraft was a crime in early modern Europe.

Why was witchcraft a crime in early modern Europe?

Witchcraft refers to supposed utilization of paranormal and mystic powers and means to influence events and occurrences. A person who practices witchcraft is known as a witch. In ancient European times, witchcraft was intertwined with devil worship and the powers were primarily used to cause harm on people and property. According to Oldridge (8), witchcraft was considered a crime owing to its connection with a pagan cult that did not believe in the Catholic and Protestant religious ideals and principles and instead conducted rituals to appease gods. Therefore, witchcraft was considered a crime to limit the members of the witch cult.

Assessing the varied reasons as to why witchcraft was a crime in early modern Europe, the most notable underlying reason is the effect it hard on social, cultural and religious beliefs and ideals. The courts and religion were the two most relied upon institutions to guide people on what was right or wrong. Owing to the fact that religion influenced greatly what was decided in courts, witchcraft was considered an offence against God and man in religious beliefs and consequently it was considered so in courts, which prosecuted, tried and tortured suspected witches to get confessions out of them. Although witchcraft was more of a spiritual offence than it was a criminal or civil offence, prosecution, conviction and execution of witches was carried out by courts and other governing authorities who argued jurisdiction over the infliction of harm on others and the fact that witchcraft was considered a rebellion against law (Konnert 54).

The reason why religious systems outlawed witchcraft is because witchcraft was associated with Satanism where witches were alleged to worship the devil, which is blasphemy against God, practice cannibalism, give human sacrifices, meet in witch Sabbaths and had contrary beliefs termed by the Catholic as heresy, an act of diabolism, to be able to practice black magic (Konnert 53). This linkage of black magic with satanic connotations can be identified as to why religious systems considered witchcraft a crime and thereby, influenced the elites of the time and courts to consider it so. Therefore, anyone found or suspected of witchcraft was perceived as a traitor of God and man, and had gone against divine religion, which was the most serious sin one could commit as implied by Oldridge (4).

Among major witch trials that occurred in the early modern Europe include Scottish North Berwick witch trials in Scotland, Torsaker witch trials in Sweden, Salem witch trials, Fuilda witch trials, Wurxburg witch trial and Bamberg witch trials among others.

Witchcraft was considered a crime owing to the fact that people at the time were looking for other invisible or unfamiliar causes and persons they could blame or attribute to the misfortunes that befall them that were not easy to understand (Oldridge 11). For example, due to limited research and medical equipments and technologies in the 16th century, more than twenty million people lost their lives to the bubonic plague, and as people were engulfed in fear, anxiety and panic, they sought the cause of this phenomenon that they did not understand and pointed fingers to witchcraft. This continual link of witchcraft with all the harmful, damaging and devastating events and occurrences in the lives of people can be attributed to why witchcraft was outlawed and considered a crime in early modern Europe.

There are other theories that can be used to explain why witchcraft was a crime in early modern Europe among them is the macroeconomic theory that suggests that the fact that majority of women who were considered witches had astounding midwifery skills and proficiency, their practice of witchcraft was considered unlawful and an offence in a bid to eradicate the knowledge on how to control birth. This was meant to repopulate the continent of Europe that had suffered considerable loss of its working population to the Black Death in the fourteenth century. This means that terming witchcraft a crime was not only developed and promoted by the Church which included Catholics and Protestant Reformist but also autocratic, important secular elites and philosophers who wanted to increase the European population (Kornet 56). Outlawing witchcraft was efforts geared towards retarding women midwifery competences and skills, which succeeded as more births were not attended by the alleged witches which saw a boom in the rates of births which is termed the population explosion of the early modern Europe which coincides with the massive witch hunts, trails and executions of the 16th and 17th century in wider Europe. The population boom generated a large population of young people who provided surplus supply of labor that would help European continent prosper and take control of its global colonies.

Although there is no clear pointer as to why witchcraft was a crime in early modern Europe, it is clear that social instability (Barry et al. 268), economic uncertainty and turbulence, religious opposition, political and judicial centralization would have led to outlawing witchcraft that catapulted allegations of witchcraft that would then set of the official and legal systems in motion as stated by Konnert 76. The mere fact that witches would knowingly or unknowingly inflict harm on persons or properties within a community is reason enough why it would be considered a crime. Linking witchcraft as a source of harm, diseases and injuries that befall people would have contributed to the reason why political and judicial elites would have outlawed it and gone ahead to persecute and execute persons suspected, confirmed or confessed to be witches.

Conclusion

Witchcraft refers to supposed utilization of paranormal and mystic powers and means to influence events and occurrences. A person who practices witchcraft is known as a witch. Between the 16th and 17th century in Europe saw massive witch hunts, trials and executions takes place which is estimated to have been more than one hundred thousand trials and more than sixty thousand executions of alleged witches. There are diverse explanations as to why witchcraft was a crime in early modern Europe which includes the link of witchcraft to Satanism/ devil worship which was the most serious sin against the Church and the Courts, macroeconomic reasons to stop female witches from controlling births and the perception that witchcraft was the cause of all harm and inflictions that happened to humans that had no describable or known cause such as deaths and diseases of young children. Social instability, economic uncertainty and turbulence, religious opposition, political and judicial centralization would have led to outlawing witchcraft that catapulted allegations of witchcraft.

Works Cited

Barry, J., Hester, M., & Roberts, G. Witchcraft in early modern Europe: studies in culture and belief. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.

Konnert, M. Early Modern Europe: The Age of Religious War, 1559-1715. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Print.

Oldridge, D. The witchcraft reader. Upper River Saddle: Routledge, 2002. Print.