The Witch-Craze and the Witch-Cult

01 Jul 1997 12:28

Was there a witch-cult? More precisely, were (at least some) of the people persecuted as witches followers of a pre-Christian religion (or religions) which had gone underground after the conversions? Many people think so, but apparently this notion began in the last century, and is without foundation. Norman Cohn, in Europe's Inner Demons, rips into the supposed evidence with great vigor, and Trevor-Roper's excellent essay "The European Witch-Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries" (reprinted in a book of the same title) makes the astute points that, first, the Church didn't go crazy about witch-craft until, precisely, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, by which point every western European country had been Christianized for several centuries at least --- and the Church was split; and, second, the intensity of witch-hunting in a given region was very strongly correlated with how long it had been since it last changed hands in the wars of religion.

The best cases for an actual witch-cult or cults are supposed to be made by Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstacies and The Night Battles, which I've not read; Cohn disputes Ginzburg's conclusions, but praises his data. There seems to be exactly no evidence that the witches were followers of a single great goddess.

Supposing there was no witch-cult, why did Europeans turn to that form of violent craziness, at that time? If there was a witch-cult, why didn't the Church do anything about it before then?

And where did that 9 million figure that's floating around come from? It's much, much larger than anything I've seen in mainstream historians. Briggs, for instance, in his excellent book says "the most reasonable modern estimates suggest perhaps 100,000 trials between 1450 and 1750, with something between 40,000 and 50,000 executions, of which 20 to 25 per cent were of men" (in some regions, he shows, most witches were men) --- so where did that other number, off by two orders of magnitude, come from?