Hunting Witches: a Social Constructivist Perspective

Lauren Thompson is a senior majoring in Psychology and minoring in Asian Studies. Lauren was a student in Prof. Loewen’s REL101 “The Violent and the Sacred” in Spring 2022. As a senior this year, Lauren will further explore an interest in Religious Studies and Occultism while applying for graduate studies.

First page of Malleus maleficarum from 1572

The history of Western Europe is punctuated by massacres and individual killings of ‘witches.’ Neighbors turned on neighbors, Church turned on parishioners, and the higher classes turned on the lower: all in attempts to rid the world of “witches”. Sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda writes, “From the early decades of the 14th century until 1650, continental Europeans executed between 200,000 and 500,000 witches.” (Ben-Yehuda, 1980). Witch trials waxed and waned between the years 1450 to 1750. Experts and researchers have not been able to determine exactly how many lives were lost during those years. Today, the accusation of “witch” continues to play a role in gender-based violence. And while we know much about post-Reformation Europe and its attitude towards the “other”, there are still questions and theories left unanswered.

I wrote a research paper on the European witch trials for my final project in Professor Loewen’s REL 101, “The Violent and the Sacred.” Our class discussed how social constructivist theory understands ‘violence’ and ‘religion’ as part of a society’s “legitimation toolkit” to create their worlds. With this theory, I pieced together how the Catholics and Protestants both categorized witches and used the fear of them and their magic to legitimate the witch hunts from 1450 to 1750. I claimed there to be a  social rivalry for parishioners between Catholics and Protestants that can be understood through the lens of economics, too. These competing churches co-created the image of the “witch” to legitimize their authority and place in Europe’s religious market.

To early-modern Europeans, “witch-craft” was usually used to describe two activities. The first, use of or the performance of “magic.” Usually referred to as maleficium, black magic was often performed by means of the supernatural and occult. White magic, in its most simplistic form, is magic used to benefit oneself or others. The second activity early modern Europeans used to define ‘witchcraft’ was the relationship a ‘witch’ held with the Devil. Brian P. Levack defines ‘witch’  in this way: “A witch in the fullest sense of the word was a person who not only performed harmful magic but who also made a pact with the Devil and paid some sort of homage to him. Witchcraft was therefore diabolism, the worship of the Devil” (2015, 7). Levack points out that the category of witch linked specific people with the devil. The crime of not only practicing maleficia but also serving the Devil put practitioners at the same level of murderers and heretics. When witchcraft was considered a deeper and more serious form of heresy in the latter fifteenth century, those who were tried were often asked of their relationship with the Devil rather than if they had performed any specific acts of magic. The act of siding with the Devil was far more important to the judges than the specific, magical acts the accused performed. The link created by the category legitimated the violence.

Peter T. Leeson and Jacob W. Russ (2017) argue that the European witch trials were result of Catholic and Protestant competition in the religious market square of Europe. Although that there no single cause for the witch trials, Leeson and Russ side with those who believe the Protestant Reformation led to the mass of witch-hunts in Europe. The authors note that the Catholic church was not concerned with witchcraft up until around the 1400’s. In medieval Europe, belief in witches was common but never contested. From the 9th to 14th century, witchcraft was neither a crime nor something one would be tried for. Pope Alexander IV even issued a canon to prevent the persecution of witches and witchcraft in 1258 (Kors, Peters and Peters 2000, 117). By 1550, however, witchcraft became a heresy. So, what led to the shift in attitude? The approach of social constructivism provides one plausible answer.

Prior to the Reformation, the Catholic church stood alone in the religious market square. After the Reformation, however, both sects were making attempts to prove themselves as the “better” church. “Two kinds of competitive strategies may be available to religious producers who confront competition for their services in the religious marketplace.” (Leeson and Russ 2017, 2072) The first is what Lesson and Russ call “coercive exclusion.” If a religious organization, the “supplier,” is able to formally criminalize a rival’s faith, the law can then be applied to legitimate using violence. Despite the success of this tactic in the Middle Ages, the Catholic church did not have the same luck in early contemporary Europe.

In countries where the Reformation had more success and Christians were left undecided, the second type of strategy was employed. In this, both the Catholic and Protestant churches engaged in activities that made, “their brands more attractive to religious consumers” (ibid.). Protestants established a singular ten percent tithe in comparison to the Catholics many tithes and taxes and also preached a lack of corruption within their (Protestant) clergy men. In the same fashion, both churches used the common belief and newfound fear of witches to advertise their success in ridding the world of the Devil by killing more witches. In condemning and executing witches, the sects could not only advertise protection from witches and Satan and thereby legitimate themselves versus their competitor churches. These strategies not only brought in new parishioners, but also brought in the economic means to support the winning Church.

From a social constructivist perspective, creating the image of the “witch” allowed Catholic and Protestant churches to legitimize themselves and prove that their competitor was weaker. Their race for social legitimacy transcended the borders of witch hunting as well, since each accused the other of witchcraft. Johannes Brenz, a Protestant reformer, argued that witchcraft and the subsequent effects were God’s way of punishing his people. The Protestants also would argue that Catholic rites and masses were “magic” on the basis that rituals like the sacramental rites were considered “enchantment” or conjuring a non-earthly or tangible effect. Likewise, Catholics argued that the actual cause of witchcraft was the Protestant Reformation. Catholics argued that Protestants were witches themselves for rejecting or ridiculing aspects of the church and masses. Both used these arguments and their successes in hunting witches as ways of legitimizing their violence towards the other.

The fear of both Satan and magic served as the fuel to power both the Catholic and Protestant’s justification of witch hunting in post-Reformation Europe. And while there still isn’t a concise or single answer as to why Europe engaged in such widespread violence, I aimed to give an answer some of the many question surrounding witches and their persecution. I explored how to answer what ‘magic’ was and who the ‘witches’ were in terms of social dynamics. Adding economic theory helped me understand how European churches created and then leveraged public fear as a marketing scheme. Overall, using what I learned in Professor Loewen’s class, I was able to explore how the major Christian sects of Early Modern Europe defined what a “witch” was and how they used trials and executions to legitimize themselves in a turbulent world.

2 thoughts on “Hunting Witches: a Social Constructivist Perspective

  1. Enjoyable read. This brings to mind John Dee, who was in the court of Elizabeth I during the 16th century in England. From reading John Dee and the Empire of the Angels it’s as if Dee floated between Catholicism & Protestantism depending on what power structure was prevalent in his surroundings and much of the occult magic he was involved in could either be viewed as witchcraft or strategic political intelligence depending on who was viewing it (a friend or rival).

    1. Hello Christopher!

      I’m glad you enjoyed my blog post! While I don’t know much about Dee he seems like an interesting person to research. I might add him to my list of people and things I would like to know and learn more about!