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The Development of the Belief in Witchcraft, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1263

Essay

The Development of the Belief in Witchcraft from the 13th to the 16th Centuries

Having been considered a pagan superstition in the earlier centuries, the belief in witchcraft evolved tremendously from 13th to 16th centuries. Several documents of the time help researchers to understand this phenomenon and to evaluate how the fear of witchcraft became such a widespread phenomenon starting with the 13th century.  Three of the most important of these documents are “Vox in Rama”, redacted by Pope Gregory IX, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s “The Mallus Maleficarum and “On the Demon-Mania of Witches” , written by Jean Bodin.

Pope Gregory IX issued the bull “Vox in Rama” in the first half of the 13th century as a response to the alleged malefic rituals performed in the German territories. In “Vox in Rama”, this ritual is known as “Lucierian”. The document is important because it describes the rituals performed by the members of the satanic cult in great detail, thus offering an insight regarding the performance of witchcraft in the 13th century. Moreover, in the bull, the black cat is mentioned as a representative of the demonic forces, being called “the master”. Subsequently, the reputation of black cats as embodiments of Satan will increase and consolidate.

The second document which documents the belief in witchcraft in the Middle Age is “The Malleus Maleficarum” by Heinrich Kramer.  Translated as “The Hammer of the Witches”, the book argued in favor of the existence of witchcraft and explained how magistrates could find and effectively accuse witches.  The book was an extremely important “textbook” for the European courts of law and became very popular throughout Europe, containing not only evidence or the existence of witches and witchcraft and links these practices to the Devil, but also practical advice and actual cases of witchcraft.

Finally, Jean Bodin’s “In the Demon-Mania of Witches is a book on witchcraft which was published in 1580.  The work, which was immensely popular from the first years of its apparition, influenced the thought on occult practices to a great extent, particularly since its author was already a distinguished author, having written books in a variety of domains. In this work, Bodin builds a strong case against witches, arguing not only that they are real, but also that they represent a great danger to the state.  The author also provides ideas on how judges can prove the culpability of a witch. The book is extremely valuable and provides a very interesting account on the ideas that circulated in that age.

The three books are valuable because through them the interested reader is able to trace the development of witchcraft and to discover how ideas concerning witches and the rituals associated with occult practices changes throughout the centuries.

The Salem Witch Trials

The famous Salem Witch Trials took place in 1692, and is one of the most renowned witch trials in history, particularly because nineteen men and women were found guilty of witchcraft and hanged near Salem Village, Massachusetts. Other hundreds were accused of witchcraft and many faced months of trial in prison. It all began when Betty Parris, daughter of Salem’s minister, Samuel Parris, started accusing strange illness symptoms, to crawl on the ground and adopt other strange forms of behavior. Many of her friends also began to display the same conduct and so, the doctor concluded that they had been bewitched. As a consequence, the girls started to accuse people they knew of being their afflicters and it all transform into a hysteric witch hunt which involved some of the most respectable members of the community.

For the trial of the accused, Governor William Phips created the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692l. This expression in the Law French signifies “hear and determine” and represents the main duties of the judges, who must “hear and determine”. The Court of Oyer and Terminer had an important role in the condemnation of so many of the accused witches. Members of the commission however, later apologized for accusing and condemning to death so many women, men and children and even tried to stop the commission. One of the people who stood against the commission’s mass convictions was Minister Increase Mather who was a very influent figure in the community, having religious and political influence over the community.

The accusers were at first a group of young girls who started to show evidence of illness in 1692, among whom Betty Parris, Ann Putnam and Mary Walcott. The first to be accused by witchcraft in the case was Tituba, the Indian slave of the Parris family. For fear of torture and hope that she might be forgiven, Tituba accused other two women of witchcraft, Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good. Sarah Good was a beggar and Sarah Osborne did not attend church, so they were easily incriminated with witchcraft.  Then, the girls started to incriminate other women, by claiming that their specters had also tormented them. Accused women started to name others as accomplices and the number of arrests grew further. Apparently, there was some material motivation behind the accusations and the accusers had feudal and personal disputes with the accused.

Spectral evidence consists in evidence which draws from a vision, a hallucination, a dream or an apparition and was very important in condemning many of the people involved in the witch trials. During the trials, spectral evidence consisted in the accuser’s claim that the witch’s specter had appeared to him and had hurt him in one way or another. Such evidence could be accepted because at the time, all people believed in Satan and his power to affect people’s life directly. Also, most people believed in witchcraft and were ready to accept any strange happening that involved the existence of a witch. Spectral evidence represented the basis of the accusations against the Salem witches and dozens of arrests were made based on this type of evidence.

Increase Mather was involved in the Salem witch trials and tried to keep the community united and to maintain a level of fairness and objectivity regarding the issue, by promoting caution through his sermons and in his written works. Regarding the trials, he is famous for having written the “Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits” in which Mather, though approving the trials themselves, pleaded against the use of spectral evidence to condemn a defendant. Cotton Mather, Increase Mather’s son, argued that the Devil could deceive the victim into believing that the specter of a person he knew was responsible with the attack, thus contributing to the end of the trials and to the clearing of many people.

The Salem Witch Trials represents one example on how religious extremism and erroneous application of justice in one’s own interest can lead to great injustices.  The mass hysteria that comprised Salem concerning the presence of the Devil in the community is also representative of how deep and powerful was the belief in witchcraft and the power of occult practices in those times.  While the elite started to voice at one point, their doubts that so many witches could coexist in such a restrained space, most of the population did not doubt that this was true, even though the accused were esteemed members of the community. Learning about Salem and what happened there is very important not only for historical purposes, but also in order to understand the power of religious belief and how the justice system, if not effective, is able to lead deepen the existent problem instead of solving it. Finally, by studying the Salem Witch Trials, one is able to understand the role of fear in the developing of the belief in witchcraft.

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