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Why did regional variations in the intensity of early modern European witch hunting exist? Free essay! Download now

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Why did regional variations in the intensity of early modern European witch hunting exist?

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Essay investigating the reasons behind regional variation in the intensity of Early-Modern witch hunting in Europe


Each autonomous region was distinguished in character from the next and, while certain states can be grouped with others in terms of levels of intensity, the pre-conditions in place for witch hunting to take place were in no instances the same from one country to the next. Each one had varying political, social, intellectual and religious foundations that would determine the extent of witchcraft theory influence. The degree to which these fundamental conditions effected the intensity at which witch hunting took place in a region is highlighted by the contrasting casualty figures for each of the European States. For example between the years of 1560-1572, the English county of Essex witnessed just 74 executions, contrasted with the province of Trier in the Holy Roman Empire which undertook the execution of 300 persons in less than a fifth of the time. The overall figure for European witchcraft prosecutions and executions has been subject to discrepancy and constant revisions, however many would currently estimate the figures to be approximately 100,000 and 50,000 respectively. While this total is lower than has previously been perceived, it is significant enough to explain in depth the social nature of Early Modern Europe.

For witch hunting to exist at any level, there first had to be some knowledge and acceptance of witchcraft theory. The nature of this theory consisted of a development from the initial stages of simple maleficia, to a belief in the more complex concept of diabolism. Maleficia was an attribute of witchcraft theory that had existed long before diabolism and one which made most ground amongst the peasantry. It purely describes the witch’s ability to cause harm and instigate malicious deeds through occult means, as opposed to focusing on the supposed relationship the witch had with the devil. This notion was where witchcraft theory evolved into a diabolical concept, whereby the witch had come face to face with the demonic spirit and formed a binding pact with him, utilising his powers and acting under his instruction, symbolising a rejection of the Christian faith. Diabolical speculation included also the theory that the witches, having made their pact with the devil, would gather periodically with other witches in their hundreds or even thousands, and perform a series of blasphemous, obscene and heinous rites, in what was known as a Sabbath. While identification of the devil as the source of witch magic may have aggravated the lower classes, it is likely that illiterate peasants had a limited understanding of sophisticated demonologist theories, and that their main concern in term of witchcraft was the result of the witches magic, as opposed to diabolism. In each European country witchcraft theory was at a different stage of development, and the extent and sophistication of this development acted as a strong catalyst for the eventual intensity at which witch-hunts took place. Large-scale witch-hunts could not have taken place unless the ruling elites of European countries, especially those men in control of the judiciary system, adopted the beliefs regarding the diabolic activities of witches. This is therefore one factor which can explain why Spanish and Italian witch-hunts were largely sporadic and isolated, with the growth of diabolical theory suppressed by firmly entrenched beliefs in traditional Catholic orthodoxy.

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