Malifecium and Witchcraft: How Being a Witch and Magic Was Viewed in Early Modern Europe
Burning at the Stake
Witchcraft of the early modern Europeans is not the witchcraft we know of today. It was a world of prejudice, hatred, and ignorance, which ultimately led to the death of many people, especially women falsely accused of impossible things.
The infamous witch-hunts throughout Europe were caused by intense feelings of fear, hopelessness, greed, and jealousy. Europeans in the Early Modern period relied heavily on the courts and their religion to guide them in principles of right and wrong. Unfortunately there was a new shift in how people viewed religion, and it extended beyond God, focusing on the Devil and evil. With a new emphasis on Satan, churches began looking for a clear definition of witchcraft, legalizing the penance for such acts, and unknowingly pointing fingers at innocent people. Then with the devastation of the bubonic plague, the courts became involved, not only as an ineffective means to eradicate witchcraft, but also as an inadvertent way of catapulting the witch-hunt craze through the use of torture in order to force confessions. All of these combined is what led the witch-hunts in modern Europe.
Witch Brewing Potion
Malificium: Harmful Magic
According to Levack, between 1450 and 1750, thousands of humans were burned for being witches, and thousands more accused. Though black pointy hats and flying broomsticks symbolize the modern image of a witch, in the Early Modern period, witches were defined by other means. Levack, gave two concrete meanings. The first meaning was that a witch used magic to harm people. This kind of magic is known as maleficium. What defined harmful magic was not always clear. Is a love potion harmful? If it causes infidelity, then some would argue yes. If the love potion was used on two single people and it benefited both parties, then one could argue a love potion is good. Because of these discrepancies, there was a lot of grey area that was open for interpretation to the courts on whether a magic was good or evil.
Diabolism: Worshipping of Satan
The second meaning of witches Levack addressed was those who worship Satan. The belief that witches participated in diabolism arose because the educated believed the only way that one could perform black magic was if that ability was given to them from Satan.  The Catholic Church was very powerful during this time, and people did not have freedom of religion. If you were among the Christian community, you must believe what the Catholic Church believed. Any other belief would be heresy and could be punishable; therefore, any act of diabolism was punishable by the Catholic Church, because it was heresy.
The Catholic Church believed that a witch not only worshiped Satan, but made a pact with him. As the Augustine Teachings suggest, an actual pact between a human and the Devil must take place in order for a witch to do black magic. The educated of the time, believed that witches made these pacts for their own personal glorification. During Medieval times, burning at the stake had not yet begun as a punishment for witchcraft, though the taboo for it was definitely present. Hugh of St Victor had defined magic in the Didascalicon and listed twelve different kinds. Among them, he listed fortune-telling and astrology along with others not as well-known today. This writing further clarified to the population what is meant by magic. He clearly states that magic is “not an accepted form of philosophy,” and “seduces (people) from divine religion.”
Levitation Caused by a Witch
The Public Repulsed by Magic
This was only the beginning of people becoming repulsed to the idea of magic, and seeing it as something horrendously wrong. Because it was seen as a way to go against divine religion, specifically Christianity, the church believed it was one of the most serious sins in which one could partake. Therefore one needed to ask forgiveness for participating in any form of magic. Each act of magic had a listed penance that one would be expected to do if they involved oneself in such an act. These penances were listed in The “Roman” Penitential. For instance a soothsayer, someone who does any type of divination, would need to do penance for five years, three in which they would only be allowed bread and water. This was still a long way away from burning people for practicing witchcraft. Though, the fact that there was written penances for such crimes is a small foreshadowing of the finger-pointing, torturing, and burning that lied ahead.
Not only was the church concerned about blatant acts of magic, but they also became fearful of minor superstitions. These beliefs were deeply ingrained in the Christian people, causing them to feel their own personal fear of God towards such crimes. Caesarius of Arles exemplifies this fact very clearly as he states, “No one should summon charmers, for if a man does this evil he immediately loses the sacrament of baptism.” To the person in the Early Modern period, this fear impacted their actions; not only in what they did or did not do, but how they felt and approached other people who might be guilty of such crimes.
Beginning To Doubt Control over One's Own Self
The fear of losing the sacrament of baptism was so great that people became fearful that they might accidentally perform magic by lack of faith or merely being present when such acts are taken place. This fear caused such documents as The Corrector, sive Medicus, in which it also gives direction for penance. This document covers such superstitions as fearing to go out before the cock crows, or even merely believing that Fates exist. Much of these were not provable, and relied on the Christian themselves to repent. These things were considered abominable, because they relied on looking to someone other than God for divine assistance as Regino of Prum warns Bishops against.
Due to the church and the courts being so heavily mingled, often times what the church believed played a huge factor in what the courts decided. The Catholic Church had strong beliefs regarding Satan. Thomas Aquinas’ discusses this in his writing Jacopo Passavanti . He states:
“…as St. Augustine shows in his book called The City of God do not happen truly, but only appear to happen, since the devil plays and fascinates both by his intelligence and by his ability to control the eyes of those who see his wonders.” 
This suggests that people may have only imagined participating in acts of witchcraft. During this time, any act whether real or imagined would have been evil because of one’s reliance on something other than God. As explained above, Early Modern Europeans were vastly Christian and were strongly opposed to any form of heresy; therefore, whether your body participated in an act, or just your spirit, it was an abominable act in the eyes of the courts.
Witches Following Satan
Church Involved in the Court
As the church’s co-mingling with the courts may have allowed the witch-hunts to propel forward, the witch-hunts would not have taken place without the devastation of the bubonic plague. In 1348, panic struck across Europe when the bubonic plague devastated the world. According to Halshall, 25 million people died during this time period of the bubonic plague. This disease killed as many as 90 percent of certain communities, being one of the most deadly diseases in the world’s history. Without the medical technology and research equipment available today, they were unable to discover the cause of such a horrible plague. Due to the mass devastation in communities, fear arose, and the communities were desperately searching for the cause of this terrible disease. Court officials began incorrectly assuming the water may have been the cause. This led to Christians accusing Jews of not only poisoning the drinking water, but of being witches.
Witches Controlling the Skies
The courts became involved to bring peace to the public and punish the perpetrators. Unfortunately, judges went to terrible means to get confessions of such horrible crimes as the “poisoning” of thousands of people. As the courts became frustrated they began using torture tactics in order to force confessions. As desperation grew to convict guilty parties, laws regarding torture were being increasingly ignored. Some of the rules regarding torture included, as Levack listed: torture could only take place once, a person would need to state their confession outside of the torture incident as well, judge had to be certain a crime took place before starting torture, and leading questions were forbidden during torture. All of these rules were broken numerous times. One example of this is in the case of Agimet of Geneva. Agimet maintained his innocence until he was tortured for the second time. Only then did he confess to poisoning drinking water, claiming he received the poison from a Rabbi in Venice.
Witches and Their Familiars
Innocent Confessing Guilt
Another example where a person confessed to a crime they did not do, due to torture, was in the case of Johannes Junius. Such documents as a letter from Johannes Junius to his daughter, where he claims that an executioner stated,
‘Sir, I beg of you, for God’s sake confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture which you’ll be put to; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not if you were an earl, but one torture will follow after another until even you say you are a witch. Not before that… will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another…’
This is a very big claim, and discredits his and many others confessions.
Also the courts involvement in confessions broke yet another rule within torture. The judges often asked either inadvertently or purposefully leading questions, basically giving the accused the confessions they were looking for. As Levack pointed out, judges were very well-educated on the activities of witches. Many of them read much of the same literature; therefore, they had preconceived ideas of what witches may or may not have done. This allowed them to be able to be very specific in their interrogations.
Printing Press Causing Chaos
The printing press, which began in the late fifteenth century, influenced these leading questions due to making more literature available to the courts, as well as the public. Therefore, any person who was literate had access to stories of witches; this included judges and others involved in trying a case of witchcraft. One such writing, that many of the judges may have known about was the writings of Thomas Aquinas. His work on the Summa Contra Gentiles not only accused witches as commonly killing innocent children, but also of having a character that was “indifferent to lustful pleasure, whereas they are often employed to further lustful intercourse.” Though this is a vague explanation of what a witch does, the judges would have also been more familiar with other writings that contained more graphic explanations of infanticide and sexual encounters, such as in Malleus or Demonalatreiae . Levack states that in Malleus , it says, “the most powerful class of witches… all practice carnal copulation with devils.” Also in Nicolas Remy’s Demonalatreia gives detailed descriptions of the activities that purportedly took place when witches gathered during their sabbath.  These forms of literature would have allowed the judges to lead the convicted even further into a more graphic false declaration of guilt.
Though such crimes as mass infanticide were accused and prosecuted, those in today’s society may wonder how they could prosecute if corpses were not found. One explanation given by John of Salisbury, was simply that babies“… through the mercy of the witch-ruler, … are returned [in one piece] to their cradles.” This is one example that shows how people were prosecuted without the need of evidence at today’s standards. In Early Modern Europe, the court’s standards of evidence relied mostly on confessions. As shown above, in order to get these confessions, torture was often used.
Witch-hunts were one of the most devastating human tragedies that occurred in the Early Modern period. Without the actions of the church and the court systems, witch-hunts would have never taken place. It would be a mistake to allow the courts and religion to shoulder all of the blame. Devastation and fear played a large role in Early Modern Europe, due to such atrocities as poverty and the bubonic plague. It was not the cause of any one of these factors, but rather a collective response.
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© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz