In the first of three episodes on Europe 1600-1650, we talk about religion, scientific revolution, and Witchcraft. And why Galileo was a weaker No 8 than Dean Richards.
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For those of who, as few and far as the Jumblies presumably, who know nothing of Deano, here is a picture of Deano and Galileo. I will leave it to you to guess which one is which (Hint: Look for the trademark sock positioning, and the jug ears formed by placing them continually between the buttocks of two burly blokes)
While we are on the subject of Walrus’s, and indeed carpenters, it is time to talk about the wider European context for the next stage of the history of England, and time to stop warbling on about, I don’t know, shoes, ships, sealing wax, cabbages and all that, and focus on the kings once more. Many moons have gone by, and possibly also many moonies, since we had some history of Europe episodes. In fact I seem to remember writing part of the last one in the early hours in a B&B in North Wales before Henry woke up and we could start the days walking along Offa’s dyke. Happy days. In such furnaces are the words of history forged.
Anyway, enough of the hyperbole. These episodes cause me an inordinate level of pain and grief actually, because they are quite impossible really; one week there I am talking about petty sessions in small English country towns, and the next we have 4 and a half seconds on the rise or otherwise of Absolutism, followed by 35 seconds on the deaths of millions in the Thirty Years’ war. It’s impossible to do it justice. Now, more and more, though as we advance, tortoise like, towards the foothills of modernity, Europe and indeed the world becomes ever more interconnected, and our story will include that.
However, I do like you to have a glimpse of the world in which England operated, if it’s only a peep through the warped boards of a Suffolk door. So I’m going to try and cover the earlier part of the 17th century of Europe for you, rather excluding England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland of course because we’ll cover all that in greater detail. I’m not suggesting for one moment therefore, that England isn’t part of Europe, because of course Brexit or no Brexit, it is, was, and ever shall be.
The plan is, I am afraid, to avoid the horror of unreasonable compression, to take 4 episodes to talk about Europe in the first lets say 2/3rds of the 17th century, yes that’s four episodes. Today I thought some themes of religion, witchcraft and a smidgeon of Science. Next week we’ll talk a little about the Nation state and Absolutism, and start the rounds about various nation states – focussing on Eastern Europe, since a bit like having the surname Walker, they normally get called up to the front last. We’ll talk a little about the economics of the 17th century too. Then episode 3 it’s the biggie – the Dutch golden Age, the progress of European Colonialism and the brutality that was the 30 years war. Then, we’ll have a bit of fun, with an interview with Zach Twambley, of this parish – Zach has written a book on the 30 Years War and is now branching out into novels.
As you can see, we will talk about some themes, the sort of general things for what the period is known. Right at the top of the list should let us talk religion; the next stage in the confessionalisation of Europe; the strength of the Counter reformation which finally began to turn the tide of Protestantism the spread of which at one stage had begun to look alarmingly unstoppable. We will as I said talk about the 30 Years’ War in a later episode, but worth saying here that the conflagration which used to be seen as a religious war is now seen very differently – as much about the continuation of the struggle between France and the Empire, and other secular territorial ambitions as about religion. None the less religion played its part, and Germany had been part of the battleground between Protestantism and Catholicism; and the Treaty of Augsberg in 1555 had not resolved the conflict. Protestantism had continued to spread until the War of Cologne from 1583 proved the first time that the Protestantism of an ecclesiastical territory in Germany had been stopped from conversion, and from the war the Catholic cause took heart. And they had staunchly on their side the Habsburgs, whether in Spain or Empire; and in areas like Austria Catholicism was re-established – and of course in Bohemia in the 30 Years War. But the chaos of the war that followed resolved little; by the end of it, still no one believed that religious uniformity was any less critical for a country, with the possible exception of the Dutch republic. All they reluctantly conceded was that Europe could no longer hope to be religiously uniform across its breadth; the best that could be hoped for was that states not fight each other over religion. So next time we come back to the topic, prepare for continuing religious persecution as states sought in vain to extirpate heresy – although with some success in France of course when the Huguenot were expelled.
Religious disputes were not just about the continuing confessional borders; within Reformed and Catholic religion there were also very significant debates too. In the Spanish Netherlands the Bishop of Ypres, Cornelius Jansen became worried that the Catholic church was too focussed on monetary concerns and outward forms, and wrote of the need for personal holiness; Jansenism became a popular movement, proposing greater lay involvement in church services, greater attention to inflexible moral principles, but reducing the role of confessors and other clergy over their congregations. Jansenism was popular with the Philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal but not popular with successive Popes, who published more than one bull of condemnation. Of course it’s impossible to mention Pascal without mentioning his famous attempt to prove that belief in God was rational – because if you believe in her it could do you no harm if she did exist, and so you might as well. That tale first told me by BO Fernandez, our Maths teacher and tennis, um, coach I guess. It came as a shock to learn, though, that Pascal was in fact a very devout Christian, because the tale always sounded a bit cynical – sort of linked to his theories of probability somehow. Anyway, a big hand for Blaise Pascal everyone. Give, it, up.
Probably more directly relevant to the story of England and Scotland were the works of another theologian from the Low Countries, Jacobus Arminius. Arminius and his followers created a Remonstrance to the Synod of Dort in the Dutch Republic in 1610 – hence the name of his followers, the Remonstrants, though since they are also known as Arminians I should probably not have told you that – since it’s one extra bit of information, and less, of course, is more. So maybe strike the word Remonstrants from the record. Anyway, Arminius argued against the purity of the doctrine of predestination and argued that people could affect whether or not they were saved; this produced the eminently predictable barney within the Reformed church since Predestination had been a sort of core, widely agreed article of faith across all forms of reformed religion. Initially the Dutch synod took a hard conservative line, but after 20 years of arguing and pinching each other the States General in 1631 decreed that a range of Calvinist opinion was allowable, on its path to the famous levels of religious toleration that, arguably contributed towards the Dutch Golden Age as I believe I am not supposed to call it any more. Interestingly, from that point the secular authorities in the Republic took far less interest in the world of theological sheganiganising and let the religious lot get on with it. This contrasts very much with the approach in Germany, where secular Lutheran Princes cast a keen and jealous eye over the intricacies of church operation, and in looking throughout Europe it’s worth remembering that not all secular governors saw intervention as their role. Just to finish the Arminius thing though, it’s particularly important for Scotland and England, because a famous Arminian was Archbishop Laud, who tied the belief up with a whole of stuff about the formalities of church services that drove Puritans up the wall and would famously lead to conflict. Anyway, that is for another day.
Science too was a subject that excited some controversy; because the period from the mid 16th to the Mid 17th centuries has a surprisingly big reputation I learn; I must admit I put it a century later, but I am told this is a period known as the Scientific Revolution. Well you could have blown me down with a feather; after all the astrologer and the alchemist are still all over the place – we talked about John Dee for example on the history of England, a very influential chap. But true enough I read that this is the age of Copernicus – or well Copernicus died in 1543, but close enough. He of course was the son of a German merchant, a loyal Polish subject, apparently expounding Gresham’s law that Bad money drives out good thirty years before Gresham. But of course more than that, he published that the earth circled the sun, not the other way round; which seems like so obvious a thing now to us, a bit like realising now that the earth is of course flat, rather a sphere as some loony ancients thought. I remember though a story from my youthful education, Loughborough being an unacknowledged centre of world learning of course, a story from Wittgenstein. Ludo, as he was known by the Dons at Cambridge, who overheard a bunch of drunken English football fans booing the past, as they tried to push their way into Wembley without tickets, booing the past for being daft enough not to know the earth of course went round the sun; or maybe they were students at Cambridge, the story grows in the telling, but anyway, Witters uttered an impressive put them down by asking them what to would have looked like if the sun had in fact been circulating the earth. That shushed them, good and proper I can tell you. Ha, boo to Chronological Snobbery. Worth noting that Tycho Brahe, the man with the coolest name in European history and a brass nose apparently, vastly famous for his attention to accurate empirical data and overturning the Aristotelian theory of an unchanging universe, even Tycho an acknowledged genius rejected heliocentrism in 1601, so what’s good for Tycho is certainly good enough for a wobbly footie fan.
Which brings us to Galileo Galilei, who lived from 1564 to 1642, and who must be one of the most famous names in European history, even more than Dean Richards of the Leicester Tigers, though Dean was a better number 8 than Galileo it should be said. Galileo built on Johan Kepler’s explanation of the laws of motion underlying Copernicus’ theories, and discovered that the moon was not in fact a perfect sphere as everyone had thought under God’s celestial sphere theory, and he proceeded to trash the existing theory of perfect spheres. Rather rashly he caustically described the astronomical language in the Bible as ‘designed for the comprehension of the ignorant’ which was considered rude at the time; and in 1616 he was summoned to Rome by the Pope and given a ticking off. He carried on publishing though, so much so that famously he was tried by the inquisition in 1636 and forced to recant. In fine, and I have to say, very English style he was to mutter ‘Yet it does move’ as he went off to spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Though I suppose the English approach would have to tut and roll his eyes rather than actually saying anything.
Galileo I understand was more than a stargazer, he was generally a brilliant physicist, Engineer and polymath; and so he studied the mechanical processes of the body – how the pores secreted, how the mouth and stomach digested, how blood flowed through the blood vessels. Which brings us to William Harvey, 1578-1657, who demonstrated that the veins and arteries are one system, with the same blood being pumped throughout the body by the heart. I am now rushing desperately through vast numbers of famous people – rationalist philosopher Rene Descartes who uttered that line, you know the one I mean, emphasised also a mechanistic view of the world; and Francis Bacon, who found time when not being a Chancellor, apologist for absolutism and a royal suck up, was described as the father of the scientific method – that knowledge should proceed by orderly and systematic experimentation, and by inductions based on experimental data.
There is no way, of course to sum up all of these brilliant people who I assume are well known to all of you; but it is maybe a major theme that the world, from human body to the movement of the spheres, became seen in the period as a mechanical system, composed of machines or sub systems maybe, that could be investigated and understood. We stand at a cross roads though, and crossing the road would not be an easy process, there were many stingers in the path; the idea of the human body as a system would be fought in the next century by the “vitalists,” some of whom asserted the importance of the soul as a “life-force” or “life-principle,”. It’s also interesting to note that when a group of ‘experimental philosophers’ as they called themselves, met in England during the civil wars by led by Dr Wilkins and Robert Boyle, and formed the Invisible College in Oxford which would be a forerunner to the Royal Society, they included a number of magicians.
Which seems to lead in a straight line to talking about Witchcraft, because it really is a feature of the time. Now in doing this I am conscious of another personal failure. I really meant to do an episode just on witchcraft, but that, like Joseph’s technicolour dreamcoat appears to be fading from view, so let me do a sort of summary here. Maybe I’ll come back to it, but there are very excellent podcasts available if you have a passion for the subject notably I may say, the History of Witchcraft by Sam Hume.
Ok, so Witchcraft. I don’t know about you, but when I came to this I had some very clear preconceptions about witchcraft, and I have to say on the truth-o-metre I have in the shed I scored very low. Firstly, obviously witchcraft persecutions were a feature of the middle ages, just like in you know, Monty Python & the Holy Grail. Nope, much stronger in the early modern era. Secondly, it was all obviously caused by the patriarchy and misogyny, which is why witches were all women. Well, a little closer but still nope, however many memes continue to suggest that on the inter tubes. Thirdly it was clearly a protestant thing, puritans and all that. Well no also as it ‘appens, Catholic and protestants both indulged. Fourthly, once you were accused, you were toast – also wrong, in fact even the famous witch hunter James VI of Scotland turned more to uncovering false accusations as he got older. And finally, the worst Witchfinder was Vincent Price. Also not true, I had yet to hear about the Burning Bishop of Bamburg, or Dr Benedict Carpzov who claimed with some smugness that he had procured the death of 20,000 witches. What is clear, though, is that as a topic it deserves much more than I am giving it. Although estimates of 9 million women accused in Europe have been nailed as bonkers, this is something which might have ruined as many lives as many of the competing man-made disasters of European history. Estimates are hard, because records often don’t survive, but current estimates of the number of accused between 1400 and 1750 hang around 100,000, up to 200,000; and that somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 were executed. It’s worth noting that being convicted, even if not executed, was also very serious – people were ostracised, whipped, excluded, almost as bad in many cases as being executed. So it must still have been a persistent terror, and especially when there was a mass panic on; and the mania worked itself up – in Ellwarden in Germany for example 400 people were executed between 1611 and 1618; over a hundred were accused in North Berwick in Scotland in 1590; there were panics in Eastern France and Southern Germany in the 1570s, 1590s, 1610s and 1660s, reaching at times all the way up to Sweden. And of course there was Matthew Hopkins, self appointed witchfinder general in 1644 in Essex.
But there the idea of unity ends; there are common themes about Witchcraft, obviously, but there are a lot of variations and differences. Things were different according to region and timing, which affected who was accused, how many, what percentage were convicted, how their trial was carried out and whether or not torture was used, how the convicted were executed. In general the average across Europe was 0.5 executions per thousand of the population; but that hides wide differences – much higher for the Holy Roman Empire for example, broadly Germany, and indeed in Scotland, where in a population of about 1 million around 2,500 people were executed. Other areas were much lower; in England and Wales about 2000 people were accused, and 500 witches were executed in a population of about 4 million. In Portugal, Spain and Italy the numbers were tiny, because the attitude towards witchcraft was different; the Inquisition tended to see the accusations as a matter of ignorance, and usually dismissed cases; the need they perceived was not for punishment but for education. In the Holy Roman Empire meanwhile it seems to have been the atomised central authority that led to such large numbers; by and large central authority tended to be sceptical. As mentioned before James VI of Scotland might be seen as an exception to this rule – the author of a book on Demonology, personally involved in the North Berwick witch trials; but by the end of his reign he seems also to have become very much more sceptical, and his interventions often led to the accused being freed rather than convicted.
There were two broad traditions in the perception of Witchcraft at the time. The first, and the oldest was maleficium, the use of witchcraft to do others harm; curdle the milk, blight a crop, injure a cow, or in the Python idiom, turn someone into a newt though I don’t think there are in fact any example of that. But in the late middle ages, a new strain began to enter the ring – demonology, and a belief that witches had made a pact with the devil; this new strand was driven by theologians and intellectual elites, and led to beliefs we are familiar with – witches flying around on broomsticks, meeting in covens, weird dances and all that. So witches by this philosophy were no longer people who used magic to get what they wanted, but who used magic to help the devil to get what she wanted. In many areas where this philosophy took hold, panic was sharper and heightened; some even believed that witches were part of an international conspiracy to overthrow Christendom.
The earliest trials involving diabolical heresy were in the 1430s in the area around Lake Geneva in Switzerland and France, and in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII authorized two German Dominicans, Heinrich Krämer and Jacob Sprenger to hunt witches in nearby areas of southern Germany. Krämer oversaw the trial and execution of several groups – all of them women – but local authorities objected to his use of torture and his extreme views on the power of witches, and banished him. Kramer took his exile as an opportunity to write that most famous of witchcraft books, the Malleus Maleficium in 1486. The Maleus drips with misogyny as well as with demonology, and its influence spread the use of the demonology approach to witchhunts. In areas where it took hold, witch crazes were much more common; so in areas like Finland, Iceland, Estonia and Russia, where it never took hold there were no large scale crazes. Witch hunts might also be much more gender neutral, away from the demonology; generally, about 75% of those accused were women and in Scotland that rose to about 85%. In Estonia and Iceland about half were men.
It used to be thought that the type of legal background, process and approach had a big impact on the severity of witch hunts; i.e. that where an inquisitorial procedure based on Roman law was used, witch hunts were worse, and were driven by elites determined to root out witches. There seems to be some justification for this in England, where juries were used; in 1604 James actually extended the Elizabethan witchcraft laws of 1563 to include demonology related accusations but ironically convictions fell, because it was more difficult to prove that Old Nick was involved. However the link between Roman law and conviction rates is weak; juries were used in Denmark with no mitigating impact; inquisitors were used in Portugal, Italy and Spain where as we have seen the conviction rate was low. Attitude was much more important; in England, the belief in demonology and pacts with the devil was weak, and magistrates sceptical. Accusations all had to go through the court system, so secular magistrates were very much involved to exercise their scepticism; accordingly in England, only 25% of those accused were actually convicted and executed. Where the demonic beliefs were strong conviction rates were much higher; in the Pays de Vaud in France the conviction rate was 90%; in Germany when asked how a victim might avoid execution, one commentator just could not think of a way it could be done.
The type of legal system though did have an impact on the use of torture and the danger of individual convictions turning into panics. Under English common law, torture was not allowed and so in England torture rarely used; in inquisitorial systems, a confession was required. Now that was designed to protect the innocent, but unfortunately rather than doing that, it encouraged the use of torture, both to extract a confession, but critically to get the accused to name other guilty people. So torture such as wracking or burning by a candle were used until the inquisitor was convinced that sufficient beans had been spilled – so again leading to a greater extent of further accusations, so there was a mechanism whereby individual accusations could snowball. In Germany in particular in the Prince Bishoprics the civil authority was also a church member, whether Catholic, Lutheran or Calvinist, so there was little to stand between accused and the sword of the magistrate. There are true horrors where such things occurred. For just one example then. The Catholic Prince Bishop of Bamburg in the 1620s had become suspicious of his chancellor, who showed distressing levels of leniency in pursuing witches – so he had him accused. Said Chancellor was tried and before he was burned, he was also tortured. One of the accomplices the Chancellor screamed out in his agony was Johann Julius, a Burgomeister, who smuggled out a note from prison to his daughter
My dearest daughter…it is all falsehood and invention, so help me God…they never cease to torture until one says something …if God sends no means of bringing the truth to light our whole kindred will be burned
The Prince Bishop, it is said, possessed a purpose built witch house with a torture chamber covered with biblical texts. He is said to have burned 600 witches. Worth noting that not all witches were burned, that varied again according to region; they were burned in Germany, hanged in England, burned in Scotland but strangled first. It is all pretty grisly.
We should turn then to who was accused; and unsurprisingly, given that the overwhelmingly high proportion of those accused and convicted were women, it is on women where the research has focussed, and my misconceptions about why women were so predominant in crazes was probably derived from the early work on Witchcraft by radical feminist authors. These narratives portrayed witch-hunts as a brutal means by which the patriarchy exerted control over women, and to curb the perceived threat posed to male dominance by women’s supposedly rapacious sexuality. They saw hatred of women, misogyny, as the cause of witch hunts, and described a top down approach. The movement also led to a myth of witches as wise women and pagan priestesses persecuted by the church, and talked of massive numbers – 9 million accusations for example.
So, historians have been most disapproving of these interpretations; I may not be going too far to use the word scorn, for the idea that witch hunting was a euphemism for woman hunting; they cite an over reliance on the Malleus Maleficarium which is indeed deeply misogynistic, historians accuse radical feminist commentators of unwillingness to engage in the actual records of witch trials, and the vast exaggeration of numbers. In addition, there is no evidence of the survival of pagan cults. Finally, an important point to make is that witch prosecutions were very rarely initiated top down; almost all of them had to be initiated by individuals within the community, ordinary villagers, maybe your neighbour.
The rejection of the radical feminist views by historians should not obscure the fact, however, that there’s no doubt that witch prosecutions were deeply gendered, and that misogyny played a part in that. Here for a demonstration of, is the Malleus maleficium on its theory about why women were more susceptible to the devils’ wiles. Take a deep breath before you listen, and afterwards count to, say, a hundred, and repeat to yourself ‘the past is a foreign country’.
As for the first question, why a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men … the first reason is, that they are more credulous, and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them … the second reason is, that women are naturally more impressionable, and … the third reason is that they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from their fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know … But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations … To conclude. All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.
So, on the nose, misogyny in a patriarchal society was a cause for the focus on women; however demonologists were also quite capable of conceiving men as witches too – 20-30 percent of them overall. So there are other things going on.
In England, McFarlane and Keith Thomas explained accusations in the context of requests for material assistance made by poorer villagers. Now in the context of the economic crisis of the 16th and early 17th centuries, many wealthy villagers might turn down such informal requests, figuring that through their contributions to the poor law they had met their social obligations. But it went against the traditions of charity and so in their guilt, they feared the rejected would seek vengeance. The most economically vulnerable were often older single women – which has a strong similarity with the profile of prosecutions.
This is a popular theory; however there are others. Lyndal Roper identified that older women were sometimes over represented because they were past child bearing age – in a world where fertility was revered. So other, younger women worried that they would be the target of their envy and hostility; and it’s true to say that many of the accusers in witchcraft trials were women. Roper also argued that older women physically were more easily imagined as the popular image of witches. Robin Briggs also presented another reason why older women were targeted; because they were more likely to be widowed and therefore vulnerable to accusations; in some places 60% of the women accused were widows. They may have acquired their reputation for witchcraft while married, and when they were less defenceless.
Another theory from Christina Larner relied on research in Scotland, and identified a theme of women who broke social stereotypes; she described the typical Scottish Witch as ‘a married middle aged woman of the lower peasant class with a sharp tongue and a filthy temper’. Not only did this reflect the breaking of social rules; it could also be about power. Diane Purkiss suggested that worries about housewifery and motherhood led to women accusing other women, female neighbours who they thought threatened their domestic reputation.
So, many and varied reasons explain why women were so over represented. It’s interesting to ask, then, why men were also accused, and again there are many reasons; in Norway the shamen of the Sami people were very vulnerable, in Normandy it was herdsmen – and there’s a theme there of mobile males, especially vagrants, feared as outsiders, threats to the social order. Or again, where men failed to live up to the social norms and personal control required of men as heads of household – they may have had an affair, or committed a crime for example. They also got drawn in during mass panics, when the tortured thrashed about handing out accusations to make the pain stop.
As to why witch trials petered out…well, there’s a question! No one seems very sure. There were always pressures acting against witch trials it has to be said, and a strong sceptical tradition; the German Physician Johan Weyer, English author Reginald Scot and the Jesuit Frederick Spee for example wrote widely against witchcraft persecutions. Reasons for scepticism varied; in England the idea that the devil could ever assume physical forms was much weaker among thinkers, which nicely meets with the traditional English view of themselves as practical down to earth people not given to flights of fancy. I am put in mind of a friend’s uncle, who shall remain nameless, when an older member of his family had a serious though thankfully temporary mental health problem; she wrapped herself in cling film and convinced herself that the neighbours were using a ray gun against her. Obviously, this would be a deeply upsetting situation; but the response of the Uncle made us laugh. ‘Don’t be ridiculous June’, he snapped. ‘How could your neighbours afford a ray gun?’. Down to earth you see. Not necessarily empathetic, but down to earth.
Others doubted that the devil was really forming pacts, others focussed on process, and worried about whether torture could ever yield truthful confessions. Civil authorities had always disliked and mistrusted the chaos of witch crazes. Notably, it’s not necessarily anything to do with doubts about the existence of the devil or even witchcraft, or at least not at the popular level; but elites began to sneer at these beliefs, and see them as superstition and the result of poor education. Anyway, by the end of the sixteenth century, prosecutions for witchcraft were already difficult in the Netherlands, Bavaria, and the area under the jurisdiction of the parlement of Paris; although there was a splurge in the later 17th centuries in the Nordic countries, the last official execution for witchcraft in England was in 1682, and by then trials were increasingly rare even in the Holy Roman Empire. Witchcraft trials were prohibited in France in 1682, England in 1736, Austria in 1755, and Hungary in 1768.
Right, that is where we shall, finally, end this episode on Europe. Part II is in a week’s time then – see you all there to talk of the Nation state and the rise of absolutism – was it really such a thing or have we all got over excited about it all?
 Davies, N: Europe a History
 Levack, B The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft
 Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E.. Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 (Cambridge History of Europe) (p. 439). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.