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Witchcraft: An Historical Overview

In the Medieval period witchcraft emerged from relative obscurity into the forefront of the European social consciousness. The witch-hunts of the Medieval period had the dual effect of demonstrating the power of the Catholic church and the removal of many marginal groups within European society. While the persecution of witches began in the Medieval period, it extended well beyond that, and the period of the greatest persecution was between 1500-1700 A.D. In that period, men and women suspected of being witches were executed by the thousands, but whether they were witches, or even if witches existed, is something that is still the subject of much debate.

There are several theories to explain medieval witchcraft and its persecution, four of which are identified by Jeffrey Russell:

The liberal tradition, which argues that there really were no witches, and that the concept of witchcraft was the result of overactive ecclesiastical fears.

The Margaret Murray tradition, which suggests that European witchcraft was actually an ancient fertility religion based on worship of the horned god Dianus.

The social history view which looks to the social pattern of witch accusations as more important than the actual study of witches, if they existed.

The history of ideas school in which witchcraft is thought of as a composite of concepts gradually developed over the centuries. (Russell)

A fifth was elucidated by Anne Barstow:

The study of witchcraft and its persecution is part of the study of women's history, specifically the history of social and sexual violence against women. (Barstow)

And a sixth is suggested by G. Zilboorg:

The Psychopathological interpretation in which it is contended that demonology overwhelmed psychology in the late Medieval period, with the result that many of the mentally ill were executed as witches. (Zilboorg p. 73)

Reading these six theories, there is no reason why any of them must be m...

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