The geographical distribution of cases through Europe was very uneven. This is also true of the chronological distribution. But Levack suggests they can be seen as parts of one very large judicial operation, focused on Europe in the early modern period.
This is usually referred to as the European witch-craze or witch-hunt. The first term is most common, but has to be treated with caution. European authorities and communities had such deep fears of witchcraft that they did often result in irrational and frenzied behaviour. But one should not think that the set of beliefs underpinning the prosecution of witches was a product of mental disorder.
The hunt was based on identities, not locations. It was like hunting an underground organisation. This was done by various individuals, usually judicial authorities, but sometimes professional witch-finders. Accusations, denunciations or rumour would lead to arrests, interrogations, and strenuous attempts to extract confessions. Sometimes confessing witches were forced to name accomplices. The process would usually end with formal conviction, followed by execution, banishment, or imprisonment.
Witchcraft real or fake
We need not ask whether magic works or The Devil exists. We would like to understand whether all victims of the witch-hunts were totally innocent. In other words were any of the deeds for which people were prosecuted actually performed? Maleficium has a stronger base in reality than diabolism. Most societies have some individuals who practise harmful or evil magic; there is much physical, legal and literary evidence for this eg. tools, manuals etc. But it is harder to prove some kind of guilt in our area of focus. The tools of witches in the early modern period were rarely produced in court. Since most of them would have been illiterate, there are few black magic manuals. Legal evidence consisted of confessions and the depositions of neighbours accusing them of harm. One is often made under torture; the other is made by hostile parties. However, the depositions often contain records of spoken curses, spells etc., suggesting that at least some of the accused did use harmful magic. Indeed, sorcery was one of the few means of protection available to women in our period, especially older, unmarried women. Some studies of the 1692 Salem witch-hunt suggest that several of the women were actually practising sorcery. But we must not assume that a majority of the accused were practising evil magic. Most historians think the percentage was very low. A larger number, but still a clear minority of the accused, probably practised white magic, which was then either misinterpreted or deliberately portrayed as maleficium by neighbours or superiors.
Intellectual basis of witchcraft
By the end of the 16th Century most educated Europeans believed that witches, as well as performing harmful magic, practised some form of Devil-worship. Above all, they believed that face-to-face pacts with the Devil were made. This would normally take the form of the appearance of the Devil as a well-dressed man who would promise material and sexual rewards in return for a rejection of Christian faith and rebaptism by the Devil. He would the give instructions for the maleficent work to be carried out. Secondly, it was widely believed that witches who had made pacts with the Devil periodically gathered together to perform blasphemous, obscene rituals. Preparations would be made for the continuation of their work. A corrupted version of the Eucharist was often performed. Allied to this was the belief that the Devilís power enabled witches to fly, thus allowing them to get to the meetings quickly, a long way from their homes. It is important to remember that such beliefs, which link witchcraft and the Devil, were mainly those of the literate and educated, and not of the common people. Popular beliefs in orgies, demonic spirits etc. had provided some raw material, but these ideas were developed by theologians, lawyers and philosophers. Those who believed in them were judges, clerics, magistrates and landlords. It was possible that the first time peasants came across such ideas would be at their own trials. But such ideas were not alien to a peasant mentality, and were easily accepted. But they generally did not fully understand these theories; their fears were much more based on harmful witchcraft than Devil-worship. For the great European witch-hunt to occur it needed the ruling elites of these countries to subscribe to those beliefs outlined above. Belief in maleficium was not enough by itself. There had to be a belief that the crime was of a great severity, and was being practised conspititorially on a very large scale. It had to be more than a question of harming neighbours. The key idea here is that witchcraft came to be seen in this period as undermining Christian civilization. Some important questions arise here. Where did all of these ideas regarding pacts with the Devil, the Sabbath and ability to fly come from? How were they fused into the concept of witchcraft? Secondly, how were these ideas developed and spread amongst the European elites? Finally why did these ideas have such appeal at the time, and why were they not challenged until the late 17th Century?
Images of the Average witch