Witchcraft in the Early Modern Period: Views from the Villagers

From the early fifteenth to the late eighteenth century, witchcraft trials and accusations spread throughout Continental Europe, the British Isles and the colonies in America. Through accusations from below, to witch-hunts and mass hysteria, the reality of witches, demons and the Devil were strife across all social classes. Despite the consistent theme of witches and witchcraft, there were significant regional variants in both the intensity and the extent of witchcraft persecutions across the different countries. Society at this time was experiencing extreme political and economic change which further heightened witch concerns. Alongside the fracturing of religious unity with Protestant and Catholic reformations, the early modern period in Europe was unstable and difficult, especially at the village level. It is no surprise that with the belief in witches and demons, magic soon became a part of everyday life. Witchcraft being viewed as a secret crime caused further unrest and suspicion amongst neighbours in these small communities, leading to quarrels and accusations of witchcraft. With the main village concern of witches being able to cause harm through occult means, secret spells and open curses were common trepidations found within the European village. However, in order to gain a fully comprehensive understanding of these two concepts it is also important to consider how they were used and understood at the more literate levels of society. When considering the above factors during the discussion of secret spells and open curses, it is vital to keep in mind the historical debate concerning the relationship between magic and religion. It is a debate which stretches from contemporary demonologists to scholars today and remains important especially when analysing magical practices. Despite the lack of concentrated analysis on open curses and secret spells in the current scholarly literature, the use of primary source materials such as demonological treatises, witchcraft confessions and trial records will aid in our discussion on how the villagers perceived these magical practices and how distinct they are from one another.

The early modern village was a very close-knit society with a distinct lack of privacy, especially between neighbours. With such a tight community, neighbours would rely on each other to survive. However, due to the economic changes and population growth in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, this once charitable society began to refuse those who were in need of help due to the harsh conditions. Keith Thomas states that there was a breakdown in the tradition “of mutual help upon which many English village communities had been based.”. Thomas is focusing his discussion on England; however, this was a common theme which could be found throughout Europe as a whole. The refusal of aid led to conflict within the community and is referred to as the “charity denial” model in the scholarly literature. This model usually entails a beggar going to their neighbour for some form of relief and being refused. However, if the neighbour was later struck by some type of misfortune, the beggar would be blamed and accused of being a witch. In some cases, the beggar would curse the neighbour or would be heard cursing the neighbour as they walked away, which creates the idea of the open curse. Other cases you find the refusing household suddenly falling ill or their crops being destroyed, formulating the concept of the secret spell. The “charity denial” model cannot be considered as the only form of explanation for cases of witchcraft. However, when considering villagers’ ideas and beliefs it could be argued as the most common explanation.

Beggars were viewed by the village community as a burden and threat to public order with the majority of them being poor, widowed and old. With the stereotypical image of a witch being a female who was old and poor, it is understandable how beggars became linked to witches and the possibility of this then leading to bewitchment. The issue of stereotypes in a village setting is shown by the case of Marguerite Carlier in the Spanish Netherlands. Marguerite was a poor but extremely outspoken woman who was married with three children. A common argument made by demonologists as to why women were more likely to be witches than men was due to their sharp tongue and quarrelsome nature. Therefore, when a poor and argumentative female began to cause disruption in the village, they were accused of witchcraft and this is exactly what happened in Marguerite’s case. Several male figures within the community testified against her as they feared Marguerite would cause them harm. However, there was no evidence of this, and Marguerite continued to deny all accusations throughout being tortured. Despite Marguerite being released, she was still banished from her village due to the fear she caused by defending herself against the false accusations made by influential men in the community. Marguerite’s case perfectly demonstrates how influential stereotypes were in the villagers’ ideas about witches and witchcraft and how much power fear had over this community.

Witchcraft during this period was used as a way for people to understand the world they lived in. Death was a common feature in the early modern period, as well as harvest failures and people being forced off of their lands. The lack of privacy in these villages made misfortune a community concern and a problem that needed to be explained. Therefore, witchcraft became the most reasonable answer to villagers for these misfortunes which could not be logically understood. Briggs explains that the “popular image of the witch was that of a person motivated by ill-will and spite who lacked the proper sense of neighbourhood and community.”. Therefore, when considering the villagers’ views on a witches motivation it is understandable how they came to the conclusion that a curse or spell resulted in their misfortune. Briggs goes further with this idea and explains that this society during the early modern period believed that curses and spells had “genuine power against the suggestible.”. Words during this period were seen to hold a distinct power and were not to be ignored lightly, especially within the village setting. However, village communities were not only concerned with the power of words, but the fear of the unknown. Witchcraft was viewed as a secret crime with many people not knowing how they became bewitched or by who. Evidence is often circumstantial, based on stereotypes and both popular and elite beliefs of the time. With the early modern village being one where everyone knew everyone and everything, the secret nature of witchcraft stirred even more fear in an already quarrelsome and misfortunate society. 

07 July 2022
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