What was up with European witch trials in the Middle Ages?

This tweet by Chris Schleicher:


got me to thinking.  What with plagues and beheadings and barbarians, droughts and wars and rumors of wars and all, it can feel like end times.  But there’s nothing new there, people have pretty much always thought it was end times.  In 2 Thessalonians Paul has to calm down the panicky Thessalonians that the second coming hasn’t already happened – he’s like guys, I promise, you’ll hear about it.

A good book on this subject is In Pursuit Of The Millennium:

The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (1957, revised and expanded in 1970) isNorman Cohn’s study of millenariancult movements.

Covering a wide span of time, Cohn’s book discusses topics such as anti-Semitism and the Crusades, in addition to such sects as the Brethren of the Free Spirit, flagellants, the Anabaptists, and the Ranters. The Pursuit of the Millennium concludes with a discussion of the theocratic king John of Leiden, who took over the city of Münster in 1534.

(You can, apparently, still see the cage where they left John’s body on the steeple of St. Lambert’s in Münster)

Germany is twisted.  Anyway: read Cohn in high school because I was interested in what kind of weird and creepy cults emerged from the bubonic plague.  Cohn doesn’t have a ton on that, if I remember, but he does have lots of interesting stuff about flagellating cults of penitents and so forth.  And he talks about the Children’s Crusade, a deeply sad event which is all the more intriguing because of how hard it is to sort out.

ANYWAY: went to wikipedia Cohn, and learned about another topic he was into: witch trials.  In this book:

Cohn tries to sort out what the hell was going on with medieval witch trials.

Within the book, Cohn argues that there never were any Devil-worshiping witches in Early Modern Europe, and that all of those persecuted for being so were innocent. In this he specifically rejects the Witch-cult hypothesis put forward by English scholar Margaret Murray, which argued that there really had been a witch-cult religion which had been pre-Christian in origin. Cohn notes that accusations of worshiping a beast-headed deity, eating children and committing incest were not new to the witches of Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, but had originally been leveled at Jews in the first century and then at Christians in the second, before being reused against Christian heretical sects like the Waldensians and the Knights Templar during the Late Medieval.

Now, the Margaret Murray hole is a great one to go down.  Basically, her argument was that there was a pre-Christian folk religion in England that worshipped a horned fertility god, and that witch hunts were Christian efforts to stamp this out.

Amazing book cover.

Murray’s is a great, exciting idea and it still can put a twinkle in the eye of deep English folk hippies.  But the prevailing historical view started to go at it:

In his 1962 work A Razor for a Goat, Rose asserted that Murray’s books on the witch-cult “contain an incredible number of minor errors of fact or of calculation and several inconsistencies of reasoning.”[75] He accepted that her case “could, perhaps, still be proved by somebody else, though I very much doubt it.”[75]Highlighting that there is a gap of about a thousand years between the Christianisation of Britain and the start of the witch trials there, he asserts that there is no evidence for the existence of the witch-cult anywhere in the intervening period.

That last part seems like the best argument to me – if there was a horn-god religion, why didn’t we hear about it before the 1400s?  But, of course, there were ancient pre-Christian religions in Britain:

In keeping with what was by then the prevailing academic view, [Ronald Hutton’s boo] disputed the widely held idea that ancient paganism had survived into the contemporary and had been revived by the Pagan movement. In turn, it proved somewhat controversial among some sectors of the Pagan community, with two prominent members of the Goddess movement, Asphodel Long and Max Dashu publishing criticisms of it.

The Murray “witch-cult hypothesis” was talking about Britain, but people picked up on it elsewhere:

During the 1930s and 1940s, Heinrich Himmler organised a branch of the SS to undertake the largest survey of witch-hunt trial records in Europe ever taken, with the dual aim of using it as anti-Christian propaganda, to claim that the inquisition had been a repression of an indigenous Völkisch Norse-Germanic nature religion, and as evidence for reconstructing that religion.

Ultimately it seems like your more serious British historians, going through more and more documents, picking away at Murray, found it didn’t hold up.  But that still leaves us with the question of what the fuck was going on with witch trials?

Down in Italy in the ’60s, Carlo Ginzberg started looking into benandanti:

The benandanti (“Good Walkers”) were members of an agrarian visionary tradition in the Friuli district of Northeastern Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries. The benandanti claimed to travel out of their bodies while asleep to struggle against malevolent witches (streghe) in order to ensure good crops for the season to come. Between 1575 and 1675, in the midst of the Early Modern witch trials, a number of benandanti were accused of being heretics or witches under the Roman Inquisition, and their beliefs assimilated to Satanism.

He suggested that these guys were in line with “shamanistic” traditions which anthropologists note all over the world.  Over in Hungary, Éva Pócs started getting into a similar idea:

But man, some people weren’t into it:

Writing in the journal Anthropos, T.O. Beidelman lamented that despite the huge amount of source material that Pócs had to work with, “No account whatsoever is provided to set these witch-hunts and trials (and thus the data at hand) into any kind of historical, cultural, or social contexts. We gain no idea of just what kind of materials may be found in these accounts, who transcribed them, or how these transcriptions may or may not relate to what actually occurred and just who believed what.” He argues that Pócs “displays little sense of proper historical procedures” in her method, and that she also “has little concern for any anthropological, sociological, or psychology theory”, remarking that ultimately the work is “essentially [a] folkloristic, neo-Frazerian account content to describe a large aggregation of terms, beliefs, and practices mainly with the aims of comparing them to materials from elsewhere in Europe… and of tracing the possible origins of such ideas and customs to earlier beliefs and customs of the pre-Christian or even prehistoric past.” He furthermore criticised the style of writing, claiming that it was “rambling and discursive”, to the extent that it became “the most serious weakness of this volume”. He similarly criticises the translation into English, asserting that it “reads poorly”.


(Let me pause here to note I’m just digesting all this from wikipedia, Helytimes’ greatest friend, and haven’t read these books).

They got into the shaman idea in Germany, too:

Anyway, back in England, Emma Wilby at the University of Exeter picked up on this “shamanic” idea:

she has published two books examining witchcraft and the cunning folk of this period. In these, she has identified what she considers to be shamanic elements within the popular beliefs that were held in this place and time, which she believes influenced magical thought and the concept of the witch.

Wilby started digging into on something interesting, the confession of a witch named Isobel Gowdie, who was arrested around 1662, but apparently confessed without being tortured:

Wilby herself was able to obtain copies of the trial records, which had been presumed lost for two centuries, from which she concluded that Gowdie had been involved in some form of shamanic visionary trances.

Isobel sounds like an interesting lady:

A young housewife living at Auldearn, Highland, Scotland, her confession painted a wild word-picture about the deeds of her coven. They were claimed to have the ability to transform themselves into animals; to turn into a hare, she would say:

I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again.

(sych: such; meickle: great)

To change back, she would say:

Hare, hare, God send thee care.

I am in a hare’s likeness now,

But I shall be in a woman’s likeness even now.

What was going on here?  Were these people psychotic?  Is a word like that even useful or transferable across centuries and cultures? Was there some kind of folk shamanism that stayed alive all over Europe through the Middle Ages?  Is that so different from what Margaret Murray was saying?

I don’t have time to sort it all out, but I’m glad somebody’s on it.

I’m just talking about Europe, too – the Salem witch trials are a whole different ballgame.  There you can get into theories about West Indian psychotropic hallucinogens, real estate dynamics, wild ergot poisoning, social politics, post-Indian wars PTSD, proto-feminism and fear of adolescent girls’ sexuality, and so on forever down the worm hole.

I guess my point is, 1) history is interesting and 2) dope book cover from Margaret Murray.




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