Witch movie did you see?
And most important, do today's witches really wear those cool pointy hats?
To be sure, magic has a long history, one that's more labyrinthine than a staircase at Mallrats Academy.
In the beginning...
The new religion had to develop a coherent set of doctrines and to convert Europe's pagans, who already claimed supernatural powers. To do this, they had to demonstrate, essentially, that "our magic is better than your magic."
As proof, the early Church offered miracle cures and exorcisms against evil spirits, diseases and the unknown. Nonetheless, pre-Christian beliefs such as the evil eye "continued to exercise potent sway over people's beliefs and imagination," according to British historian P.G. Maxwell-Stuart (see History Today in the bibliography).
The difference was that Christians could now offer stronger medicine while showing those who inflicted evil eye and malicious magical intention upon their neighbors were likely to be adherents of Satan," Maxwell-Stuart says.
As traditional forms of magic continued to threaten church hegemony, in 1484, the Pope offered parishes the right to persecute witches. That started a war on witchcraft that lasted more than 200 years.
Something wicked this way comes...
But were they guilty?
Tough to say, according to Johann Sommerville, a professor of early modern British history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While "it is clear that some people felt that they were witches," coming out as a witch was about as smart as drinking death potion #9. As a result, there is little proof that those prosecuted were actually witches -- or that they were not.
Early modern people (living between 1480 and 1720) certainly had good reasons to believe in magic. Plague and famine were common, living conditions were swinish, and the family pig could make the difference between life and death. Disasters required elucidation, and "Witchcraft was a reasonable explanation for misfortune," says Owen Davies, author of Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951.
Once the source of misfortune was identified, he adds, it was possible to "fix the problem" by locating, trying and executing the witch. These trials have dominated the literature on witchcraft, leading many to claim that a disproportionate number of women were convicted in what amounted to a "holocaust of women."
Guys 'n dolls 'n witches
Instead of a misogynistic attack by the patriarchy, the large number of female convictions may reflect patterns of accusation and conviction. For one thing, most trials were local, with accusations made by one woman against another. When upset, rather than lash out physically like men, women were apt to utter colorful phrases. When these kind wishes came true and, say, another family's pig ascended to the glorious sty in the sky, people said the curse's effectiveness proved the curser a witch.
The Reformation made matters worse because Protestants shunned the exorcisms and miracles used by the Catholic Church to win adherents. Without magic to fight magic, what was left to do but hang the witches?
End of story? Not.
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