Witch-Belief and Millennialism

By Andrew Gow


The Hallowe'en season is upon us and the professional witch-mongers are once again trotting out the pointed hats, warty-nosed masks, brooms and related industrial clobber of North America's endlessly camp and frighteninglyhollow fright night. What can this possibly have to do with millennialism?, most of you are now wondering. Whatever the secular witch business of the twentieth century (the sorcery-industrial complex) actually means, it does not seem to have much to do with millennial hopes or fears. And yet the witch-crazes of the early modern period and witch-hunting in general, from the early Middle Ages on, were intimately connected with apocalyptic expectations. Like the middle classes, witches were always rising, in numbers, in evil, in power, in menace. They and their increase were taken assigns of the approaching End right from the beginnings of organized Christian discourse about witchcraft.

As Richard Landes has repeatedly insisted (to anyone who will listen), 'semiotic arousal' is a primary state of apocalyptic and millennial excitement. As I have argued elsewhere, the apocalyptic world-view itself was a fundamental element of western ('Latin') Christianity and Christendom from a very early date. Semiotic arousal concerning the Last Things, then, is built into western Christian perceptions of the surrounding world. Norman Cohn has argued that first heretics, then Jews and sorcerers were 'demonized', or that their activity was redefined so as to associate it and its ends with demonic influences and causality. He cites the famous Byzantine statesman and philosopher Constantine Michael Psellos, writing around 1050 against the heretical sect of the Bogomils. They perform wicked acts, he informs us--essentially the same wicked acts Christians were accused of by Roman pagans, and the same ones with which other heretics, witches and Jews would later be charged: orgies, infanticide, ritual blood-letting and cannibalism. These deeds, Psellos relates, are being done because the End is near: the coming of Antichrist is at hand, and it must be ushered in by monstrous doctrines and unlawful practices. (Cohn 1993, 38).

Witch-craft beliefs and accusations did not spring fully-formed from the head of an inquisitor or of evil Father Patriarchy (though he was clearly midwife to them). Rather, they come out of a long line of 'otherings' that transmitted core stories of evil deeds that could be applied to any number of groups to 'demonize' them. The later Middle Ages were not remiss in doing just this, and Jews were burned and battered for allegedly killing Christian infants to use their blood; for poisoning wells and spreading Plague, etc.; and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we witness the long slow ramping up of the war on witch-craft and on witches. The Malleus Maleficarum (Witches' Hammer or Hammer for Witches; ca. 1487) was the work of two Dominican inquisitors and professional witch-hunters. Due to its savage and open misogyny, it used to be reckoned a key piece of evidence in the argument that Patriarchy was to blame for the witch-hunts--which were, from that perspective, a holocaust of women. But ever since the bottom has dropped out of the market for such simplistic arguments (or ever since some scholars have insisted on reminding us that one-quarter of 'witches' convicted were men and that there was little system in witch-hunting), belief and its specific forms and applications have come to the fore of witch-craft studies. The Malleus certainly was not a manual for witch-hunting--later generations did not need any instructions. They had drunk and digested the poison that associated 'witches' (whoever they might be) with Satan and his legions, and saw in healers, midwives, angry old women, tortured children and marginal persons of all kinds, the associates and worshippers of the devil. Wolfgang Behringer has termed this fully-formed witch-craft fantasy, complete with witches' sabbath, devil worship and so on (on top of mere harmful magic) the 'elaborated concept' of witch-craft. Its roots are visible in the Malleus, which helped to legitimate and spread it. Throughout the Malleus, the authors insist, like Constantine Psellos half a millennium before, that the reason for the increase in witches and demonic activity is that the End is near. The apocalyptic fervour of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is well-documented and reasonably well understood, given that there were more varieties and much stronger ones than Christendom had ever seen. Unfortunately, trial records do not generally record in extenso the beliefs of the accusers and judges--but it is nearly certain that all were steeped in the all-pervasive apocalyptic atmosphere that led Luther to see Gog and Magog and the Antichrist lurking around every corner--and not just Luther. The Turkish threat to western Europe, which peaked in the seventeenth century, was routinely understood as not merely as God's judgement on sinful Christendom, but as a definite sign of the approaching Judgement and End. Apocalyptic anxiety died down along with the witch-trials, and although I would not like to suggest a causal relationship, there are strong parallels and links between these phenomena, their rise at the end of the "Middle Ages", and their subsidence by around 1750.

The generation living at the end of the 15th century--the generation of the Malleus--looked forward to the beginning of the next century with a good deal of fascination and anxiety. Prophecies predicting a second great flood for the year 1524 (a planetary alignment in Pisces was to blame) surfaced in the 1470s in print and attained what was for the time wide circulation--Lichtenberger and Gruenpeck were its main proponents. Yet neither the year 1500 nor 1524 (aside from the Peasants' War in Germany) brought the End. Luther's repeated calls to his 'dear Germans' to repent and strengthen their faith in the face of imminent Judgement became the walking bass of Reformation theology--so much so that Luther neglected the refounding of a church structure, leaving that necessary but to him futile task to his lieutenant Melanchton and his successors. All this apocalyptic anxiety, which was at a constant boil from the 1470s through the middle of the 16th century at least, may have had unexpected effects. Admitting that this is not much more than a specualtion, I would like to suggest that apocalyptic anxiety and energy and millennial disappointment played crucial roles in the genesis of witch crazes: the former, apocalyptic element helped establish the stereotype of the evil sorceress/sorcerer in league with Satan (based on earlier stereotypes) and inserted into the all-encompassing ancient narratives of the End; and millennial disappointment after the failure of the great predictions and prophecies, in the face of growing religious division and strife, may have helped to fuel local communities' and authorities' search for someone to blame for what they perceived as growing evil, moral decay, even a general religious and spiritual crisis. Arguments about disciplining unruly or unmastered women and subaltern people (e.g. male shepherds in Normandy, who accounted for 80% of all convictions there) certainly have their place here--apocalyptic anxiety and social disciplining were not, when translated into their early modern equivalents of eschatological belief and "good police/good order", mutually exclusive categories.

Fear of the end and fear of the other seem so strongly intertwined in so many contexts that to ignore their mutual and reciprocal influence would be to miss the point of the first European pogroms in the wake of the year 1000 and of their immediate successors during the first Crusade; or of the persecution of heretics and Jews. I have written elsewhere about connections between Jews and the apocalypse, and refer the reader to The Red Jews. Antisemitism in an Apocalyptic Age, 1200-1600 (Leiden: Brill, 1995). This basic 'thesis statement' is not meant as a finished statement, but as a provocation. I am eager to hear from colleagues with something to say on the topic of witches, witch-craft and the Last Things.

Andrew Gow is Associate Professor of History at the University of Alberta

You can e-mail Andrew at: andrew.gow@ualberta.ca

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