From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Europe’s Inner Demons
A great witch hunt took place across the 16th and 17th centuries in every country in Europe. Tens of thousands, mainly women, were cruelly tortured and burnt alive.
Norman Cohn seeks to explain the atmosphere in which this could happen by examining the history of the persecution of religious groups and the demonisation of those who criticised the Church.
In ancient Rome, Christians were accused of cannibalism and infanticide. Confessions were secured by horrific torture, but were then accepted as statements of fact. These accusations of cannibalism, infanticide and sexual debauchery were revived and applied to heretical religious sects in early medieval Europe. Groups of religious dissenters were persecuted viciously.
The Waldensians and the Fraticelli were groups who rejected the worldliness and hierarchy of the Catholic Church. They lived lives of poverty and abstinence and were hunted down by the authorities, and tortured until they died or confessed.
The confiscation of all the property of so called devil worshippers meant that greed fanned the flames of many witch hunts. Through the centuries, secular authorities became involved in witch hunts, and each bout of ‘confessions’ and ‘accusations’ fed the belief in witches.
Isolated witch hunts in the 13th and 14th centuries were motivated by fanaticism, greed and the need to enforce the authority of the Catholic Church. At their height such sprees could strike terror in the hearts of whole communities.
The scale of the Great European Witch Hunt was only possible because the idea of devil worship and witchcraft had been used to justify persecution for centuries. By the 15th and 16th centuries, witches supposedly met in organised sabbats, could fly and could perform maleficium (anything from causing floods, killing neighbours’ cows to causing impotence in an unfaithful lover).
Amongst peasants the fear of witches was widespread. It sprang from ignorance of the workings of nature and rising social tensions caused by economic changes such as the enclosures of the land.
Accusations of witchcraft often stemmed from rivalry between peasants as old kinship networks of support were torn away. Cohn argues that the scale and severity of the witch hunts would have been impossible without the role of the authorities, with their inquisitorial method of investigation. For them, witches embodied subversion and were a threat to the whole of society.
The strength of this book lies in its historical detail of the needless suffering in the name of Christianity and the heroism of dissenters who died rather than denounce others or renounce their beliefs.
The weakness of his account is the lack of explanation of social and economic changes that were shaping people’s lives, especially during the 17th century when the witch hunt was in full swing. Cohn explains the witch hunt in terms of a history of ideas about witches. He does not seek to explain how the crisis of religious ideas and established ways of living must surely have contributed to the persecution of so many women, who were becoming a burden because of the break down of old village life.
A better account of the terror and hysteria witch hunts caused in isolated rural communities is Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.
Last updated: 25 February 2017