For unlimited access to Class Notes, a Class+ subscription is required.
Unit IV Lecture I – February 28, 2012
Witchcraft, Science & Skepticism
By end of 17th c., defenders of demonology & witchcraft tried to halt skepticism/disbelief
among educated classes of Europe
By 18th c., those who wanted to end witch-hunts were triumphant – last witch trials held in
first half of 18th c.
By end of 18th c., witchcraft had become topic of historical interest
Social Improvement? Perhaps witches were hunted because they gave people what felt
like control over an uncertain world; once social conditions improved, there was no longer a
need to hunt witches.
o Unlikely. General economic conditions remained the same in the late 17th c.;
conditions of life for most remained unchanged; disease & famine persisted;
technological innovations did not occur until 1800’s.
Decline of Popular Witch Beliefs? Perhaps people felt that the regular persecution of
witches brought no end to problem that plagued early modern life – So general population
became skeptical of reality of witchcraft.
o No Evidence. Seems that villagers continued to feel anxious about birth, death,
disease, and climate during the 17th & 18th c., and continued to see witchcraft
behind many misfortunes; very little evidence about popular beliefs.
Decline in Witchcraft Beliefs of the Elite Classes? Perhaps the beliefs of the ruling
classes changed, and their new way of understanding the world resulted in decline of witch
o POSSIBLE. 17th c. saw rise to prominence of 3 profoundly influential ways of
1) Skepticism – scientific basis for belief in witches & demons was
systematically eroded over course of 17th c.
2) Mechanism – ways of explaining natural phenomena shifted from
explanations involving matter & spirit to explanations involving matter &
3) Empiricism – new methods in science began to be accepted by elite and
used in judicial cases.
Witchcraft & demonology rooted in best science of the time – formed basis of
educated/popular ways of understanding the world
Originally, to know something was to know the cause of something
o In the case of witchcraft, causes were explicitly occult
o One could not determine empirically the cause of an event caused by a witch
o Assumption made that witches cause bad events