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What does the evidence of witchcraft trials suggest about the significance of the assimilation of necromancy and folk beliefs for the understanding of witchcraft and its links with the devil?
Throughout Europe, folk beliefs surrounding magical beings, often those who would protect communities, were long-standing and mostly lacked association with the malevolent witches of the witch-hunts which grew after the 15th century. These folk beliefs also did not link magical power with the devil, rather it was usually designated at birth, yet by the 16th century, the idea of the 'witch' is strongly linked to the demonic pact, incorporating aspects of these folkloric traditions but distorting them to represent evil rather than their previous associations of protection. This is exhibited particularly through the idea of the 'sabbath' the witches' meetings, often with the devil present, which incorporates many of the same elements used in European stories of magical beings and their meetings,
but takes on a more sinister nature. As well as this, the authorities' conflation of many beneficent types of magic with maleficent has implications for gendering of witches, and the lives of those associated with folkloric types of magic who were often gradually put on trial and demonised as a consequence of the changing perception of their practice. Thus, it could be said that the assimilation of local beliefs surrounding magic into witchcraft is very evident, with many concepts replicated in the confessions of witches, yet these beliefs have often been distorted or subverted, changing what was once benign types of sorcery into the malevolent definition of witchcraft.
The concept of the 'sabbat' or the 'sabbath', 'the nocturnal meeting of witches and sorcerers' 1, is a particularly significant instance of widespread, previously existing beliefs, influenced too by folk beliefs,
with a 'a very long history' 2 which was adopted into the general understanding of witchcraft. If what is known to be the sabbath associated with witches by the 15th century is reduced to its core idea - a
'nocturnal meeting' - then a distinction in its origin must be made. Europe seems to have a longstanding notion of the 'deviant group', in other words the socially marginalised group, who holds these sorts of meetings. Accusations of this sort are seen as early as 1321 and 1347 in which Jews and Lapers,
taking the place of a scapegoat which witches would later take, were accused of poisoning wells and rivers with the plague3, and were accused of conspiring at night to do so. This concept of the sabbath,
then, seems to be a way of confirming a local conspiracy and the fear of 'an enemy within' 4. However,
the other side to this concept of the nocturnal meeting is the beneficient magic of local folk beliefs in beings like the benandanti, amongst others, who were seen to battle against malevolent witches by engaging in nocturnal meetings5. The first aspect of this belief in a sabbat-like meeting, of authorities distorting the role of marginalised groups, seems to converge with the second, previously positive version by the 15th century, sweeping up local beliefs into the more elite learned demonology and tarring these meetings as undeniably evil and linked to the devil.
1 Ginzburg, Carlo, Deciphering the Sabbath (pg. 121), in Ankarloo, Bengt and Henningson, Gustav (eds.,), Early
Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries, Oxford University Press (1990)
2 Briggs, Robin, The Witches of Lorraine (pg. 138), Oxford University Press (2007)
Ginzburg, Deciphering... (pg. 122)
5 Klaniczay, Gabor, The Uses of Supernatural Power (pg. 130), Princeton University Press (1990)
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