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European Witchcraft and Popular Culture

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Belief in European witchcraft has been described as an 'elaborate fantasy that has no foundation in reality.' Questions have been raised over whether witchcraft just produced large numbers of criminals, innocent victims of a 'deluded judiciary system and an oppressive legal system,'# or whether witches actually performed the misdeeds for which they had been prosecuted. For Reginald Scot, witchcraft was "false and fabulous,"# yet Richard Bovet concluded that the superstitious are likely to be drawn towards, and into, the 'fatal snare' of witchcraft, where if the Devil 'finds an invitation, he ever after haunts.'# Nevertheless, whether the practice was in fact real or fantasy, the popular and educated belief in early modern England was that a form of magical power used for both good and evil did exist, and was practiced by those on the fringes of urban and village community life. James Sharpe (1996) has noted that there is substantial evidence that people accepted the reality of 'ghosts, fairies, poltergeists, the power of prophecy and sprits' and therefore "the presence of witches is hardly surprising."# Although it remains difficult to judge accurately the extent of actual witchcraft practice, it is possible to understand part of the process that helped develop the notion that supernatural powers were indeed a reality, and therefore explain why folk in early modern England assented to witchcraft beliefs.

1542 to 1735 was a period of English history when witchcraft remained a statutory crime punishable by death; moreover, these years marked a significant increase in the number of witch-hunts and prosecutions. However, this does not necessarily mean that there was a comparative rise in witchcraft beliefs. The period reflects a populace that were ingratiated in the art of social intercourse, gossip and social interaction that meant if witchcraft was suspected, then it was talked about and opinions were formed. The secular and ecclesiastical courts merely allowed existing beliefs to be given the forum to express grievances against supposed witches, and subsequently extract some form of punitive action. Belief in witchcraft, it seems, had in some form always existed, manifested by a timeless belief in magical powers whether for good or bad. Many historians have identified three areas of witchcraft belief and have categorised them according to their sociological and theological context. For the purposes of establishing differing witchcraft beliefs, it appears necessary to distinguish between actual practices, the educated elite's perceptions of the rejection of the Christian Church, and the popular tradition that feared witches that could do harm in the community; but despite contextual differences, there remained a degree of commonality between the popular and learned tradition.# European continental belief mainly centred on the nature of the 'diabolical pact' between the witch and the Devil, and related to the condition of the witch. This belief was shared by some of the educated elites in England; however, the English popular tradition was chiefly concerned with 'maleficium' and the 'ability to do harm through 'black magic,' as opposed to the beneficial aspects of 'white magic.' This conviction in 'local malice'# reflected the popular beliefs of the common people, ingrained over generations by ancient folklore and 'superstitious sentiment,' and was less about learned theory than explaining the harsh realities of day-to-day life. Although the writers of the Malleus Maleficarum suggested "all the superstitious arts had their origin in a pestilent association of men with devils,"# it was Reginald Scot's contemporary view that "witchcraft and inchantment is the cloke of ignorance."#

One explanation for witchcraft beliefs could indeed be a lack of education among the simple folk. However, witchcraft belief was prevalent among the more 'elite' classes. Learned opinion constructed the idea of a 'black mass,' but it has been argued that there is no foundation in the claim that witches 'worshipped the Devil collectively,' and that such notions were formulated in the minds of the persecutors and the accused themselves.# Nevertheless, genuine fears were aroused by the idea of collective Devil worship, and indeed may have been based on the evidence that secret groups did gather for purposes of religious worship, thus cultivating witchcraft beliefs. Nevertheless, the belief in the demon remained and the association with witchcraft strengthened the belief that a witch's power came directly from an entity whose quest it was to cause harm. England produced a wealth of witchcraft literature that covered the 'religious, legal, medical and sociological aspects of witchcraft.'# Moreover, it could be concluded that such an array of literature must have promoted and stimulated beliefs in witchcraft, although mainly among the literate and elite classes. In Brian Levack's (1987) opinion, the innovation of printing "made it possible for learned beliefs to be spread more broadly and more rapidly than in the manuscript age."# The Christian Church recognised the theological threat of witchcraft and produced manuals and tracts condemning the practice. The Church saw the act of witchcraft as fundamentally a reversal of Christian doctrine, and therefore a threat to the stability of maintaining a 'godly' and well-ordered society. For Christian political ideology, "witches represented the most extreme form of deviance."# The Devil and his associates, according to the Malleus Maleficarum, were not just agents of deception, but actively deluded "those... who are not in a state of grace."# Indeed, it has been argued that the Malleus Maleficarum "transmitted an entire set of learned beliefs to a larger audience," and by declaring that those who denied the reality of witchcraft were heretics, the book encouraged a belief in witchcraft activity.# If it was not Christianity, then it was heretical and part of the black arts of witchcraft, commanded by the enemy of God, the Devil. In Reginald Scot's view, Catholic law and investigation towards witchcraft in England resulted in extending the beliefs of a large number of the populace, noting that "these inquisitors added manie fables" to justify the persecution of English witches.# In addition, it has also been claimed that witchcraft was in fact a complete fiction conceived by Christian theologians and had no foundation in popular belief or practice.# However, theological constructions of faith and what it means to be a 'good Christian' provoked ideas on what defined the contrary, and on a popular level, this served to strengthen notions of community



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