Why Witches Were

Townsend Center Lectures Explore Factors Which Led Societies to Identify and Persecute Witches Throughout History

by Fernando Quintero

In the years between 1400 and 1800, up to 80,000 women and men were believed hanged, burned alive or tortured to death in European witch hunts.

Despite more than three decades of scholarly investigation into why so many people--and why especially women--were executed for allegedly consorting with the devil, these questions largely remain unsolved mysteries.

"Modern Witchcraft Research and the Death of a Paradigm" was the topic of the first of a series of lectures on campus by H. C. Erik Midelfort, a leading social historian on central Europe during the Early Modern period.

Midelfort, a professor of history at the University of Virginia who has received a number of honors including Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities awards, presented several theories and studies which have sought to explain the social and psychological rationale behind witch hunting.

A popular model up until the '60s held that witch hunters were driven by the sexual lust of celibate churchmen who found the accused easy prey, said Midelfort. Another theory suggested witches were either surviving pagans or mentally ill.

"With the rise of historical research, these positions became impossible because the persecutors were in fact not celibate," said Midelfort. "Moreover, looking at the state of mind of the witch seemed to depend on tortured evidence and therefore was unreliable."

Discontent with earlier witchcraft research led to a more anthropological approach, looking instead at the social dynamics of villages where the witch hunts took place.

Some regional studies suggested that witchcraft accusations were used by feuding villages, families, women and men.

Twenty years ago, another branch of witchcraft research called "acculturation studies" suggested witch hunts were an assault on peasants by the elite. "The traditional, earthy values of peasants were seen as heathen and intolerable by the elite culture of the Christian magistrate," said Midelfort.

Another idea suggests witch hunts were founded and driven by the church. During the Roman and Spanish inquisitions, historians discovered that witch trials were common. However, Midelfort maintains that the kind of rumor mongering that was rampant during other periods of witch hunting was not allowed during the inquisitions.

"The thought of a flight to a witches orgy was seen as a wacko idea," said Midelfort.

"Questions such as 'Who did you see at the Witches Sabbath?' were inadmissible. Careful procedures at the inquisitions would rule out such wild accusations."

Collective dreaming and a witch's testimony under torture--fantastic tales told in desperation to put an end to the pain--are other explanations explored.

In recent years, vivid micro-historical studies on witch hunting have done much to bring life to larger, more comprehensive studies that Midelfort criticized as "too abstract, statistical and arid." These and other ideas, many formed by Midelfort himself, have since become outdated and stagnant, he said.

"The paradigm so far has been extremely useful, but it's running out of gas," he said. "It's too soon for a burial, but it is time to call in a doctor."

The three-part lecture by Midelfort, a professor at the University of Virginia, is sponsored by the Doreen B. Townsend Center, the Department of History and the Center for European Studies.


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