Witchcraft in the 15th Century

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In this paper, I will explore many aspects of the outbreaks of the witch accusations and witch trials which plagued England and the rest of Europe from approximately 1450 to 1750. Though numerous theories have been provided as to the reasons for these hunts and trials, there are three which are the most prevalent, and able to support themselves. These three theories are the topics of: gender, as a stepping stone towards the oppression of women; social class, as a relief of tension and stress formed by the socio-economic gaps between the wealthy and the poor; and finally religion, as a result of the encouragement to conform more steadily towards one religion. I chose to argue towards the third theory I have stated, that of the religious changes facing England at the time. Throughout the three hundred years that the perceived problems of witchcraft haunted this nation, the religious momentum swayed back and forth many times. My decision to support the religious theories attached to witchcraft may not be as traditional as most student's. It was a decision based more upon the motives and not so hidden agendas that the theorists who were (obviously) not present at the times of the trials. Historical fact has been in debate for as long as history has been recorded, because everything written or spoken is rhetoric, and this impossible to escape from. Therefore, in order to defend my decision to choose religion, I will be adopting a new historicist point of view for the first few paragraphs of this paper.

To me, the other two major theories applied to the problems of witchcraft seem much to politicized to be considered as historical. As Sharpe states, addressing the gender issue first, "The crucial development here was the rise of the Women's Movement in the United States and Europe"(9). He continues to say that these women "sought to construct a history of oppression which would help inform their consciousness in their ongoing struggle"(10). This theory absolutely reeks of ulterior motives. Though it cannot be denied that approximately eighty percent of the witches executed during these times were women, it seems odd that no scholars felt inclined to point this out as relevant until the 1970s when it fit into the "construction of a history." History should not be constructed in order to suit the needs of the present, nor the future. Actions like those simply push history closer towards fiction, though they are hard to stray from. In addition, if this was, as the Women's Movement wished to convey, an oppression formed by the men in order to hold the women down, then "why [were] there … so few witch-burnings"(6)?

Leaving the gender issue for a moment, and addressing the possible relevancy of social class as a means for the witchcraft, one must appreciate the fact that this is a heavily politicized theory as well, though I do find that it has more backbone than the gender theory. Those theorists who wished to solidify the reasons behind this craze, and not leave them floating in the heavens, attempted to ground their beliefs by transferring the blame to the socio-economic gaps between the villagers. They blamed the increasingly widening bridge that separated the poor from the rich, and the peasants from the noblemen. Unfortunately, this theory, or at least the most groundbreaking strides towards it, emerged in the 1970s as well. The two leading theorists on this approach were Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas. They believe these acts to be as much a purging of unwanted vagabonds and other drainages on the economy as a genuine fear of witchcraft. As Sharpe states on pages 43 to 44, "elderly women were more likely than men to be economically, and socially marginalized within the village community." This expanding of the boundaries of a caste system which Macfarlane and Thomas theorized has occurred numerous times throughout history. The 1960s were a period, not strictly in America, but England as well, of...
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