By Michael Sauter
One big theme that has run through the previous lectures is the importance of religion to the politics of early-modern Europe. Although never motivated wholly by religion, the strategic competition among Europe’s major powers took on religious overtones, as political and religious opposition often amounted to the same thing. Looking at early-modern Europe along these lines is illuminating at a political level, because it explains the nature of key divisions that motivated European politics. That is to say, religion was a divisive force in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Still, although the political divisions are neat, we don’t want to lose sight of common problems that all European states faced, be they Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed. One central problem for every state was that by 1500 much of Europe was not fully Christianized. In the cities, towns, and villages across Europe pagan beliefs and practices persisted, regardless of church opposition to them. It was believed, for example, that urinating on the walls of a monastery caused kidney stones. Some also held that a woman who clasped her hands tightly during intercourse would conceive a son. Many believed that sorcery could prevent couples from consummating their marriages. In one town in southwestern Germany, the peasants insisted on burying a live cow in order to combat a cattle-plague. In sixteenth-century Italy, a miller named Menocchio asserted before his inquisitors: “I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together, and out of that bulk a mass formed—just as cheese is made out of milk—and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels.”
So if there was one thing that united all early-modern powers, it was the need to get a handle on popular culture, and to expel from it heretical ideas. Thus, during the sixteenth century Lutheran and Reformed preachers, as well as Counter-Reformation priests ministered to the benighted masses, intent on rectifying their awkward beliefs, though not always successfully. These beliefs could simply be ancient practices that had been grafted onto Christian celebrations. For example, in 1655, the synod of Utrecht lamented that the common people still slaughtered and salted a pig during the feast of St. Martin. Such sacrifices were pagan practices that had simply been grafted onto Christian culture, but they persisted because they were part of daily practice. We can add things such as Carnival, which persists into our own day, and the tradition of Charivari, which was public humiliation in response to a violation of community standards, especially in sexual matters.
Although many pagan practices persisted at the popular level, it is important to recognize that pagan practice was not static. It was not as if early-modern common people simply did what their pre-Christian ancestors had done. Common practice was malleable and constantly in flux. In part this was due to the persistence of unregulated information networks. Most information in villages was passed on orally, particularly from old to young. But there was also movement of information between villages, cities, and towns in the form of chapbooks. These books were nothing more than pamphlets printed on the cheapest paper, and they contained tales of extraordinary happenings, such as visions or prophecies. In 1648, for example, a man name Hans Keil, who lived in southwestern Germany, claimed that an angel had visited him in his vineyard, lamented the people’s sins, and then cut six of Keil’s vines, which began to bleed. Keil’s tale spread across southern Germany in various chapbook editions. The state of Württemberg pursued the chapbook printers and distributors and destroyed every copy of the offending text that they could find.
The chapbooks are a concrete example of popular culture’s distribution, but most popular culture was difficult to find. Early-modern Europe was full of itinerant entertainers of all sorts. You have probably all heard the tale of the Pied Piper, who led the children of the German town of Hamelin away, after the elders refused to pay for his rat catching services. This story is a fanciful representation of daily reality. Early-modern Europe’s roads were full of dramatists, storytellers, musicians, preachers, and healers who moved from town to town, spreading the latest news of events here and there, or offering descriptions of strange practices. As you may imagine, the town’s local authority figures, especially the clerical ones, did not look kindly on such people.
Before I continued with public authorities’ view of popular cultural practices, I should note something that did not happen in the early-modern world. The various churches and states did not expel magic from the world. There is a tendency today to hold that the Reformation was the first step toward a more rational world that had no place for magic. This is not true. The fight, for instance, between Lutheran preachers in Germany and pagan practices was not about ending magic, but was centered on the belief that human beings could do magic. Martin Luther believed all sorts of evil forces were at work in the world. His attack on magic was theological, for he held that man had no influence on the world, but was subject only to the word of God. Thus, from a Lutheran perspective practices such as the use of talismans, or the invocation of curses were not irrational, but heretical, because they denied Man’s complete subjection to the Lord’s will. Still, Luther did have room in his theology for witches, about which I will say more later.
Lutheranism’s attack on magic brings to the fore the universal pursuit of heresy in Europe. Not all religious traditions were as vigorous in this search as, say, the Spanish Inquisition. Nonetheless, by the sixteenth century, ending heresy (or even heterodoxy) was common across Europe, and it was usually the responsibility of the state apparatus. Thus, the city of Geneva burned the heretic Michael Servetus with John Calvin’s urging. Thus, also, we see increasing attempts by states in Europe to teach the populace the proper path and make certain they remained on it. In 1534, the Württemberg reformer Johannes Brenz taught that local magistrates should punish people who were stubborn, quarrelsome, and disobedient. Over time, this relatively simple mission expanded ever further into social practice, as magistrates punished those who scorned God or refused to take the sacraments. In 1587, one Hans Weiss of the village of Neckartailfingen was thrown in jail for refusing to take Communion. Throughout the early-modern period religious and political authority reinforced each other and grew together. To the extent that these authorities made the world more rational, it had nothing to do with reason.
Of course, we should not oversell Catholic and Protestant attacks on popular culture. For the most part, the authorities ignored those practices that seemed no threat to the established order. Those practices that threatened order, however, came in for significant criticism. Already in 1495, for example, a renaissance lawyer named Johan Geiler von Kaiserberg criticized Carnival in Strasbourg, because it undermined order. Erasmus, to take another example, thought that Carnival was “unchristian,” because it contained practices that he thought were pagan, and it encouraged the common people to get drunk, which was always a problem. Catholic reformers also attacked the Charivari, seeing it as a mockery of matrimony, which was a Holy Sacrament, after all. Protestant reformers betrayed the same instinct to protect marriage by prohibiting rowdy funeral parties, which may have contributed to illicit sexual activity. Other reformers attacked the traditional of public festivals, especially in France, seeing them as wasteful and full of political danger. As the century progressed, the state became ever more enmeshed in controlling common behavior.
A good example of the increase in state scrutiny was the spread of witchcraft trials early in the sixteenth century. Witchcraft was not a criminal act in the early Middle Ages, though concerns about witches grew during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Medieval popular culture held that the world was full of male (incubi) and female (succubi) demons, poised to do harm to humans. By the fifteenth century, this basic belief in demons was transformed by the growing certainty that these demons engaged in sexual intercourse with human beings and, thus, imparted to them magical powers. The concern over occult powers transferred in this way to human beings is already evident in the first witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486 by two German witch hunters named Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer. The Malleus introduced incubi and succubi, noting thus that both men and women could become witches, but claimed there were more female witches since women were more lustful than men. All told, this text went through at least 29 editions in Germany, France, Italy, and England.
The (elite) religious attitude toward witches is difficult to gauge. On the one hand, official Catholic Church doctrine recognized the power of witches, and Jean Bodin wrote an entire treatise against them, the Démonomanie des sorciers (1580). On the other hand, some members of the elite such as Erasmus satirized the fear of sorcery in his Praise of Folly, while other humanists ridiculed the belief in witches. Still, as the sixteenth century progressed, the belief in witches seems to have become firmer, as in the case of Martin Luther, who decided in 1522 that witches “Devil’s whores who steal milk, raise storms, ride on goats or broomsticks, lame or maim people, torture babies in their cradles, change things into different shapes…” Nor was Calvin any better, as he was frightened of so-called “plague-spreaders” (engraissuers). So, in general, belief in witches was both widespread and, at the same time, subject to ridicule.
The ambivalence I have noted in elite culture goes some way to explaining why, in fact, witchcraft was not as widely prosecuted, as were other crimes. It is true that witchcraft trials increased in number by comparison to the Middle Ages, and this increase came in a relatively compressed period. But it is still an exaggeration to see the sixteenth century as a great European witch-hunt. Much more important were trials for infanticide, and these ended much more often in a death sentence. Moreover, diversity rules the day on this issue. Witch trials were rare in England. In France, Germany, and Italy, there were more of them, though the number of depended on the region and the local situation. The worst areas for witches were Lorraine and the Rhineland. In Lorraine, for example, there were some 3000 witch trials between 1580 and 1630, with a conviction rate of around 90%. Other areas were less vigilant. Geneva had 477 witch trials in a similar period, but here the conviction rate was only 30%.
In spite of this mixed picture, we do need to keep in mind that witchcraft trials did increase in number during the sixteenth century. This may have been due to a general increase in the fear of witches, but it seems more likely to me that it was due to the general increase in supervision of state and religious authorities over common people. Common people had always been afraid of witches and throughout the early-modern period were wont to take the law into their own hands, leading to local prosecutions. During the sixteenth century, however, local prosecutions were themselves a problem, and they were rapidly enveloped by written law. Thus, in 1532 Charles V promulgated a new law code, the Constitutio criminalis carolina, which systematized, among things the prosecution of witches.
And, indeed, authorities in the Spanish Netherlands and Lorraine used the new laws to encourage their people to prosecute witches. Moreover, in southwestern Germany, where the small size of the states meant that the local government was relatively close to the people, local magistrates listened carefully to witnesses against witches, asking questions and writing extensive reports. The point is that the appearance of more effective government across Europe made the major uptick in witch prosecutions possible, in those areas that were already susceptible to such fears.
Let me conclude then by offering a few general points. First, regardless of the religious confession, all states had to confront the problem of educating a populace that still practiced pagan rituals. This was accomplished across Europe by an ever-greater array of public functionaries that extended state and religious power into the countryside. Second, although general trends are visible in this alliance between religion and state, it is important to keep in mind the diversity of experience across Europe. One state was certainly different from another in enforcing the law, but even within a state, neighboring towns and villages could act differently. Finally, it is important not to accept the simple idea that religion and the state banished magic and set Europe on the path to a rationalist worldview. In fact, as we have seen, it was often quite the opposite. Either ideas that we may consider magical persisted within religion, or religious thinkers came to accept magical ideas. No clear line was ever drawn between magic and reason in this period. Next time, we will turn our attention to the Counter Reformation.