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Witchcraft during the Middle Ages


In early Christian times, the Church’s attitude towards witchcraft was one of leniency because the Church was still struggling to consolidate its power throughout the Roman Empire. Witches and sorcerers were believed to cast spells, mix potions, call up rain or fair weather, and perform many acts typically executed by witchdoctors and tribal shamans since the dawn of time. Although the Church frowned on such people, they were not considered a threat to society. Likewise, the Church did not yet seek to challenge the many devotees of the old religions and tolerated the ancient rites of worship. Most scholars agree that surviving remnants of the old pagan religious rites, which prevailed in Europe before Christianity, later became labelled as ‘witchcraft’. These witches served the old gods and practised their rituals with no evil intent, combining remnants of pagan rites, folk medicine, and a curiosity for the unexplained. The old religions probably existed side by side with Christianity for several centuries, slowly losing adherents and significance. But, as Christianity gained in ascendancy, the Church increasingly demonised the old religions, persuading people that the pagan gods were devils and that those who continued practising the ancient ways were surely witches. 

The fact that adherents to the old religion did not accept and follow the established order and were unwilling to submit to the Church’s ruling authority condemned them outright from the growing population of converts. Consequently, these diehards began to practise the old ways in secret, making their actions all the more mysterious and clouded in superstition. At that stage, the Church required only penance to atone for performing the so-called black art of witchcraft. 

The Church’s attitude became austere towards witchcraft under two main influences: First, the Church had become so powerful that it could afford to annihilate openly any remnants of the old faith. Second, the increasing social unrest during the Middle Ages found expression in various forms of secularism. As these tendencies threatened to undermine the Church’s ecclesiastical authority, it set about eradicating them by treating secularism as heresy and identifying heresy with witchcraft. Interestingly, the word ‘heresy’ is defined as a belief or practice contrary to orthodox doctrine. It derives from the Greek term hairesis, meaning ‘choice’. Therefore, a charge of heresy was a denial of the right of choice.

Ordinary people had always been fascinated by astrology, horoscopes and various methods of divination. They bought love potions, amulets, charms, talismans, magic rings, and magic mirrors and feared comets and signs in the night sky. Superstition was ever lurking in people’s minds. During the Middle Ages, the term ‘witchcraft’ was extended to include all the black arts so popular amongst the general populace and openly practised at fairs and festivals. The Church condemned all these concepts and instilled the fear of everlasting hellfire and damnation in those resorting to divination or magic.

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