Witchcraft in the Atlantic World

Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online June 2011 | | DOI:
Witchcraft in the Atlantic World

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The early modern period of Atlantic exploration and connection coincided with a wave of witchcraft persecutions, sometimes called the “witch craze.” Although belief in witchcraft—generally understood to be the use of magic to harm others—has been present in many societies, people in Europe and its colonies in the 15th through 18th centuries believed that witches were warriors in a vast conspiracy with the devil to undermine Christian society. Common, familiar fears about witches, focused on harmful deeds (maleficia), were enhanced and transformed into panicked suspicion that significant numbers around the globe were signing pacts in blood with the devil to do his bidding. Historians have puzzled over this transformation in beliefs, as well as the timing of increased, organized persecutions of accused witches that resulted in the deaths of more than fifty thousand individuals. Some see the events as a response to socioeconomic change associated with the rise of merchant capitalism and the renaissance of learning—a coping mechanism for those torn between village culture and modern culture. Other scholars emphasize the power of Atlantic institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Inquisition, which helped spread the texts and technologies of witch hunting. Still others see the history of the witch craze to be a history of boundaries being drawn between religion, science, and magic at a time of rapid expansion in knowledge. All face the difficulties of “explaining” a phenomenon that varied greatly in particulars from place to place and across time—for example, whether the witches’ Sabbath or demonic possession were important parts of witchcraft beliefs, whether the convicted were hanged or burned, what ratio of women to men existed among the accused, and when mass trials started and stopped. And most face the theoretical challenge of studying a “thing,” witchcraft, that most do not believe truly existed.

Article.  8234 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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