Witchcraft in the 16Th Term Paper

Pages: 11 (2959 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 14  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Mythology


Cohn goes on (101) to say witches "exist in imagination only..." And passes them off as a "non-existent" society, a society that has been re-interpreted "in the light of the intellectual preoccupation of the moment." That's pretty damning stuff, considering that respected - albeit controversial - researchers like Carlo Ginzburg put forth very different explanations of witches.

The Benandanti

Ginzburg (1966) is reputed to be among the more credible of investigators looking into witches. His work, The Night Battles, examines volumes of available research surrounding the activities and beliefs of the fertility cult called the benandanti (roughly translated, "good walkers"). Ginzburg has taken the testimony of many witch trials and intertwined other historical records to build a case for the benandanti possibly being witches.

The present research now establishes...the positive existence at a relatively late date (from c. 1570) of a fertility cult whose participants, the benandanti, represented themsleves [sic] as defenders of harvests and the fertility of fields...This belief is tied to a larger complex of traditions (connected, in turn, with the myth of nocturnal gatherings over which female deities...presided)...In the span of a century, as we shall see, the benandanti were transformed into witches and their nocturnal gatherings, intended to induce fertility, became the devil's sabbat, with the resulting storms and destruction. Ginzburg (xx).

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The testimony in these various trials included information that the benadanti denied they were witches - that much is generally accepted by scholars, according to Ginzburg. But apparently there was no evidence presented that would show proof these benadanti actually performed rituals, for evil or for good. What they did claim is to meet in a spiritual state, that, given the lack of science in the times, perhaps led to the paranoia and hence the punishment meted out by the authorities.

Term Paper on Witchcraft in the 16Th & Assignment

But as to Ginzburg's research, he at times seems perfectly objective, and even doubtful as to "evidence" of benandanti's powers - to heal, to leave their physical bodies and morph into night-time phantoms. But then he weaves one report on top of another and still another, and meshes dates of reported events - and he begins to sound as if this is subjective, historically factual material. He seems intrigued, and then, as though backing away from his assertion, he becomes a skeptic. It's somewhat troubling, and provides ammunition for even more skepticism - the theme of this paper.

For example, Ginzburg (pp. 24-5) is describing women who fell into "swoons" or "trances" during Ember Days (a religious celebration of the four seasons), and who fought witches (who were armed with sorghum sticks) with fennel stalks. Why did witches use stalks of sorghum? "It's not clear," he states, "unless it could be identified with the broom, their traditional symbol." He goes on to make a statement, then backs off:

It is a compelling theory, especially in light of what we will say about the nocturnal gatherings of the witches and benandanti and the antecedents of the diabolical sabbat...but obviously this is a theory which should be advanced with caution (Ginzburg, p. 24-5).

Well, is it fair for a modern-day, 21st Century student of the witches' issue to ask, which theory is it? Compelling? Or a theory that should be approached with caution? Ginzburg, in the same section, discusses why the benandanti and the witches fought with fennel and sorghum, respectively; he believes that an ancient fertility rite evolved into actual combat between two bands defending the fate of the harvests. "But these are pure conjectures that can be confirmed only on the basis of solid evidence, unavailable at present..." he disclaims. Again, he makes a pronouncement that has an air of clarity, and then backs off like a fighter whose aggressiveness has led to sudden, near-lethal punches from an opponent. This is not to say Ginzburg is milquetoast in his research. Quite the contrary: he boldly lays out a plethora of impressive research to back up what he is trying to convey. In many instances, he is an inquisitor, himself, searching for ways to connect the dots. But in examining these Ginzburg materials, one reads between the lines and concludes that much of his documentation is subject to further analysis, and is often pure conjecture on the part of Ginzburg.

Having said that, at least one historian, Coudert (1989), gives kudos to Ginzburg for the way in which the German researcher "...documents the quite extraordinary patience and leniency with which Italian Inquisitors treated this sect [benandanti] of self-proclaimed witches."

Witchcraft in Colonial America

Like their European predecessors, some colonists attempted to blame their illnesses or misfortune on Witchcraft. And, according to Richard Godbeer (1992), putting a witch on trial in early America involved the creating of a definition of witchcraft.

The courts followed theological principles: they wanted proof that the witch was in league with the Devil. Yet most of those who brought complaints against witches made no mention of any external agency, diabolical or otherwise...indeed, accusers hardly ever referred to the Devil in their testimony...[making] legal conviction extremely difficult...the courtroom became a battleground on which New Englanders contested the meaning of witchcraft...(Godbeer, 1992, pp. 154-5).

Among the witch-hunting clergy in colonial America was Cotton Mather, who wrote a book called Wonders of the Invisible World. Mather's work was, in the words of Larry Gragg (1992), "...an eclectic collection of trial narratives, sermons, extracts of other works on witchcraft...and Mather's efforts to defend [trial] judges' actions." Mather's biographer, Kenneth Silverman, quoted by Gragg (pp. 191-2), claimed Mather's book was "...an effect of endless jerky beginnings, obscured by tedious verbosity and an insuperable difficulty in getting to the point."

It seems not too much of a stretch to say that the Salem witch trials were among the first cases of "church VS state" litigation in the new democratic nation. And while it might be easy to cast aspersions on those long-ago and far-away witch-hunting trials - church / state confusion - the truth is, for America, religion is still pushing its weight into governmental matters. One need only observe the power of the "Christian Right" (which urges school prayer, frowns on inter-racial relationships and supports right-wing American politicians) to know that a new witch-hunt could begin at any time.


Were there really witches in the 16th and 17th centuries? And did they perform diabolical acts such as eating children's flesh and placing curses on people merely for the perverted, devilish joy of inflicting harm? Or, to the contrary, did witches secretly perform good deeds, and because they were unusual in their mannerisms and lifestyles, were misunderstood by the majority? There is ample evidence that some people in history have possessed unusual powers, but to the skeptic, those people might not have been witches, but rather, merely mystics, or shamans, or medicine men (much like Native Americans' spiritual leaders). Meantime, the argument for and against the existences of witches will not soon fade away. Nor will the desire of skeptics to continue to gather data on the matter. And that research - whether it supplies "proof" of witchcraft reality or not - is a healthy, enlightening thing.


Behringer, Wolfgang (1997) Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria: Popular magic, religious zealotry and reason of state in early modern Europe. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Breslaw, G., Elaine (2000) Witches of the Atlantic World: A Historical Reader & Primary Sourcebook. New York, New York University Press.

Cohn, Norman (1975) Europe's Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt. New York, Basic Books.

Coudert, Allison P. (1989) The Myth of the Improved Status of Protestant Women: The Case of the Witchcraze. In: Brink, Jean, R., & Coudert, Allison P. ed. The Politics of gender in Early Modern Europe. Kirksville, MO, Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers.

Ginzburg, Carlo (1989) Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ginzburg, Carlo (1992) Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. New York, Penguin Books.

Ginzburg, Carlo (1992) The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries. Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Godbeer, Richard (1992) The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in early New England. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Gragg, Larry (1992) The Salem Witch Crisis. New York, Praeger.

Kramer, Heinrich, & Sprenger, Jacob (1486) The Malleus Maleficarum. London, Pushkin Press, 1948.

Michelet, Jules (1939) Satanism and Witchcraft: A Study in Medieval Superstition. New York, The Citadel Press.

Newall, Venetia (1974) The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft & Magic. New York, The Dial Press.

Summers, Montague (1965) The History of Witchcraft and Demonology.… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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