Religion's Role In The European Witch Hunts

While it would be simple to attribute the witch hunts and trials that pervaded Medieval Europe to mass hysteria, religion played a markedly significant role.

The Reformation added a new context to the European witch-hunts. This newly revised Christianity focused more on the individual achieving moral perfection, while Catholicism tended to focus more on the family. The takeover of Protestantism led, then, to a breakdown of the community system. This resulted in social turmoil, where the people who couldn't care for themselves, such as the needy and the young, were left without a support system. The witch hunts and subsequent trials then became a forum for transferring the guilt left over from not helping others in the community. It was far easier for many people to stand up in a courtroom and accuse someone of witchcraft than to face their own shame.

The motives for the heresy persecutions were therefore not merely a means of wiping out Paganism, but were also an attempt to eliminate the threat of any dissension to the community and the power of the Church. The change from an accusatory to an inquisitorial process became conventional, and the legal apparatus from then on not only encouraged, but advocated the persecution of individuals who perceived to be a threat to Christianity.

Procedures for trying witches varied from region to region and the distinction between religious and civil authority was blurred. Overlapping religious and civil laws controlled the cases. A church court would try to determine if a person was a witch, get the person to confess the sin, and assign penance. People convicted would then be turned over to civil authorities for punishment. In England, after the passage of the statute making witchcraft a felony, the civil courts also began trying witches.

In Germany, literally hundreds of people were tried for witchcraft during the Warzburg trials. In fact, the prince-bishops of Bamberg and Wurzburg burned more people during the 1620s than any other hunt on record. The true origin of the daily accusations and death-sentences for sorcery are rooted in both personal and political antagonism, and, above all, in the hatred that the Catholics felt toward the Protestants.

While it would be easy to write off the phenomenon as mass hysteria, the presence of credulous and perhaps intimidated local dignitaries, as well as those who commanded the respect of the common people, helped to guarantee recognition of the witchcraft ideology and its perpetuation.

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