European Witch Hunts and the Christian Church Part 1

 “A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.” –Leviticus 20:27

Few topics have suffered the plight of revisionist history as severely as the European witch hunts. Christian fanaticism is often blamed for the atrocities that took place in the name of snuffing out witchcraft, but like other events in human history, the actual explanation is extremely intricate and will likely never be understood comprehensively. However, much fact can be teased out of the abundant folklore; recent scholarship can be analyzed for a better understanding of witch hunt history and the involvement of the Church. This article, the first in a three-part series, will briefly outline key facts of the European witch hunts of the 15th through 19th centuries and seek to demonstrate that, while the Church certainly played a part, claiming that it deserves the ultimate blame is misleading and a gross oversimplification of the complicated dynamics involved.

 Witches and Witchcraft

For the purpose of this discussion, it is important to define precisely what is meant by the terms “witch” and “witchcraft.” A careful distinction must be made between “magic,” “sorcery,” and “Satanism.”[1] According to historian Rodney Stark, “ordinary magic was widely practiced in this period and was much like magic everywhere, involving simple charms, spells, and potions…By itself, magic was seldom regarded as a serious misdeed.”[2] The use of magic to harm others was labeled “black magic” or “maleficia.”[3] Examples included causing bad weather, blighting crops, inducing illness, and bringing about still-births or miscarriages.[4] This type of activity is sometimes referred to as “low magic.”[5]

Sorcery is a highly sophisticated form of magic that involves dedicated training. According to historian Brian Pavlac, “High Magic, often called sorcery, requires deep learning and scholarship of arcane texts, formulas, and rituals in order to master formidable supernatural forces such as demons.”[6] Sorcerers, both male and female, were known for performing certain curses, spells, alchemy, divination, astrology, and necromancy.[7]

Satanism goes beyond magic to be classified as religion, incorporating the worship of, and collaboration with, supernatural evil entities, including Satan.[8] It is Satanism that was the concern in the European witch hunts and used as the justification for the death penalty.[9] Witches were those who were believed to be practicing Satanism with intent to bring harm to others, usually through low magic methods. According to historians Alan Kors and Edward Peters, “The role and power of Satan is critical to the concept of witchcraft as it had evolved in Christian Europe, as is the concept of the pact between Devil and witch.”[10]

Even educated Europeans believed that witches existed, conspired and acted in secret, plotted evil against their neighbors in service to Satan, blasphemed God, roasted human babies for consumption, and participated in wild sex orgies with each other and with Satan himself.[11] Among ordinary people, a fearful superstition developed about actual Satanists with the power to cause others harm.[12] Confessions, whether voluntary or extracted by torture, fueled the superstition. Political rulers came to be influenced by the branch of theology known as demonology and its new scholastic claims about the capabilities of evil forces to affect the natural world.[13]

In my next post (part 2 of 3), I will discuss the historical details of the witch hunts and expose the common exaggerations perpetuated by popular media and quasi-historical writings.


[1] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003): 205.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brian Pavlac, Witch Hunts in the Western World. (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009): 7.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stark, 205-206.

[8] Stark, 206.

[9] Ibid..

[10] Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001): 265.

[11] Stark, 201-202.

[12] Stark, 207-208.

[13] Pavlac, 17.