On Blame as a Method of Escape from
Misfortune in Early Modern Europe
The phenomenon of witchcraft in early modern Europe adopts theatrical garb when viewed in the wake of the increasing hardships of the era and the pageantry of escape which great hardship necessitates in man. Robin Briggs argues that when examining the witch-hunts, the “peak decades for persecution were ones in which communal and family bonds were being tested to the limit, for European society was passing through a phase of change accompanied by severe hardship for many[,]” and as that argument is develops, convincingly shows that the populations of persecuted regions were not so much adherents to an arcane belief in the supernatural, but rather devoted to the belief that acting as though such superstitions were primary in evaluating their tribulations would free them from the burdensome bonds such hardships presented.
Escapism was the motivation behind the witch-hunts of early modern Europe, and it took on the guise of ritual precision in encountering affliction. This facetiousness underlies each of the four types of accusations brought forth by neighbours and even family members. An analysis of Briggs will show that the witch-hunts were not calculated in the sense that control over another was sought, but rather that control over one’s fate and situation was craved, and rather ravenously. The present writer will exegete the four points of Briggs so as to draw from each a collective sense of the despair and disassociation which, because of worsening social and economic conditions, overtook the climate of fear that preceded it in the peculiar history of witch persecution in Europe, and leant to jurisprudence an entirely new motivation.
In a Europe which was facing increasingly taxing stress upon its agricultural and trading systems, the social climate of the population was paralleling the dismal outlook, and it is no surprise that even the folklore of the time became increasingly dark, and more and more superstitious. Widely-told stories even went so far as to stipulate that “[w]hen the devil promised witches prosperity and freedom from want he invariably proved to have deceived them[,]” and even “[h]is money [he offered in assistance] might turn into leaves[;]” invariably, just as in the scourge of farmer’s failed field, crumbling “powder . . . remained with his new servants [who] were all too efficacious” and used to being disappointed. Witches were not the cause of hardship, and even they could not fare well, but they could very easily take the pain of it away if seen on the surface as its cause. Essentially, it was the idea of the witch which soothed a disparaging population. Superstition did not fuel Europe’s quest for social and material redemption, but it did pervade the very superficial means used to achieve it.
Accusing another, usually of some relation to one in suffering, of being a witch transferred all hardship to that individual, and in a perverted Christ-like allusion, made the ‘witch’ a sacrifice for the ills of the community. This is evidenced by what Briggs has found in researching the trial records of the era; before actually being accused, the ‘witch’ was invited or expected to visit the ailing or troubled individual, and to actively offer penance for their tribulation. “Just as witchcraft could kill those who believed in it, so faith in divine power might well cure or succour them[,]” Briggs prefaces the notion. It was this early concept of psychosomatics that leant to ‘witchcraft’ the sacrificial satisfaction of escapism. Establishing that the early moderns of Europe found something transcendental in the assignment of responsibility to something beyond their control, the first type of accusation examined by Briggs is that of “[r]eligion, medicine and misfortune.”
“[N]atural philosophy, largely borrowed from Greek antiquity and imperfectly merged with the Christian tradition . . . governed everything from meteorology to medicine” in the world of the witch-hunts, so it is no wonder that the populations of European communities sought the “[b]alance and harmony [which] were the keys to peace in the skies, the state and the body alike.” The pursuit of this balance led to the selfishness which pervades witchcraft persecution; it is not personal gain, but personal welfare being sought, and this is what must always be understood when researching the era and its conflicts. People were trying to keep their humours, as natural philosophy determined to posit were the composite substances of human existence, health and behaviour, in balance, and hoped that this personal comfort would be conducive to bringing about the harmony of a prosperous harvest or good trade. Briggs, though never expressly presenting such, argues for the case of escapism. Comfort in any hardship is sought by any and all means, which usually entail some form of self- or community-destruction. Such is the saga of the witch-hunts.
If religion intermingled in the early modern world with medicine and misfortune, then, too, other facets of daily life must have been seen as part and parcel of the fate-controlled whole. Similarly, “[i]f practitioners [of early modern medicine and natural philosophy] had resorted to this technique [of intertwined causes] to explain every failure, or those cases they did not understand, then accusations would have proliferated dramatically, far above the levels of which we know[,]” so there had to have been other aspects of daily life that the early moderns felt witches could have been easily blamed for manipulating.
Briggs resolves the question of the accusatorial statistics in relation to the natural philosophy that bound religion, medicine and misfortune together, and identifies the common thread running through the hunts: that of trying to outrun, or escape fate and chance. Moving to the next type of accusation found in the trial records, Briggs encounters what can be defined as that blame which honed in on “[p]arents, children and witchcraft[,]” and showed that even familial bonds were torn by the pervading sense of hopelessness hovering over all of Europe like a mist. One of the most intriguing and implicating factors of this form of witch accusation is that it sought a paradoxical exclusion through inclusion:
Whereas illness was unpredictable, the dangers of childbirth were the opposite. Women had every reason to be nervous about the risks to themselves and their babies, against which they sought to mobilize help and protection. The presence of neighbours and relatives offered a moral as well as practical support at a moment of great danger and stress. Failure to summon a neighbour with a reputation as a witch to either the birth or the christening was to keep them at a safe distance, while running the risk of giving offence that might provoke hostile action. This scenario appeared frequently in the trials as the explanation of a bad outcome for mother, child, or both.
What Briggs has wonderfully depicted is the importance of the social occasion and decorum in early modern Europe. Intimacy and duty can be said to be the intertwining disciplines in this point, if religion, medicine and misfortune brought together the first. Crucial to Briggs’ argument here is that “[w]hereas illness was unpredictable, the dangers of childbirth were the opposite[;]” it was an act known to be inherently risky, and with the rise of economic and social failure, the witch-hunts to relieve the tension caused by that, and the primitively-stalled development of early modern medicine, childbirth was, it would seem, a determining factor in the witchcraft saga.
The strategic inclusion and exclusion of members of the community—and family—at childbirth could either alleviate the stress of the times or contribute to it. Escapism here took the shape of calculated decorum and protocol; a profound social and personal statement could easily and decisively be made merely by snubbing someone; this, however, had its pitfalls, for if one was doing it to exclude a known witch, or even to create a rumour that the excluded individual was a witch, could drastically go either way, oftentimes even ending with the mother giving birth and her newborn child the title themselves of witch. To transfer the stress, pain, dismay, and anger of the mother in her time of need and the family’s overall time of hardship—for hardship bore down on many decades of the early modern era—was as simple as not inviting he or she whom one wanted to carry the responsibility of your troubles. One must realize that very frequently, this was the means of accusation, and that such accusation came not out of fear, but as Briggs has been showing, out of a desire to simply transcend what was a meagre and disappointing existence much of the time. The witch must always be thought of as a sacrifice.
“If there was one area in which people thought of bewitchment more readily than in connection with their own illnesses, it was over the misfortunes of their animals[,]” Briggs introduces the third type of accusation, that of “[a]nimals and bewitchment[.]” This form of accusation allowed the early modern to escape most directly their hardships, which were manifestly material. Crops were failing sporadically with the changing seasons for decades, and substantially decreased financial return; “[f]urthermore, a substantial amount of the capital of early modern society, especially in the rural world, was tied up in these fragile creatures[,]” which were “extremely vulnerable to infectious diseases and small accidents[.]”
The most comforting method of escaping the dread that accompanied confronting such a horrendous and frequent loss of the “capital of early modern society” was to create the notion that another had done it; and not just to contravene the laws or to do so out of jealousy, but to transcend even such simple conventions as these, and deliver a bona fide spiritual vendetta. The ‘witch’ was the individual who sought to spiritually ruin another, not merely to set them back. The identification of such a witch was not retribution, but an utter shift of stress and dilemma to another. The farmer, in saying a witch destroyed his cattle was only trying to escape the amplified turmoil such hardship brought to his already fledgling agricultural career. Stress does not disappear by confronting an issue, but is rather completely eliminated by morally and emotionally—and in the case of the torture and punishment which accompanied the witch-hunts, physically—pushing the burden onto someone else, someone sinister.
The “[a]ccidents and poverty” which caused each other, and permeated every level of society in Europe at the height of the witch-hunts define the fourth and final type of accusation which Briggs has identified as correlating the hardships of the early modern era to the phenomenon of witch persecution. As has been demonstrated thus far, escapism underlies the consciences of the early moderns in accusing each other of witchcraft; and because this relatively modern notion of escapism can be translated so smoothly onto the form of the witchcraft saga, shows that hardship and its avoidance instead of its resolution is what drove the accusers to act as they did toward the accused. The selection of the accused was as determined by the preceding three points as it was by this fourth. “A run of bad luck was as threatening in these sectors of agricultural life as it was with animals[,]” and, “[b]ehind local fluctuations there lurked the spectre of general economic failure, bringing personal ruin with it.”
Bad luck took the form of physical and largely work-related accidents, and the poverty derived from such. “Like every other aspect of bewitchment, this one reminds us just how precarious life must have felt to ordinary people[,]” a people for whom “[n]either prosperity nor good health were to be counted on for the morrow[;]” possibly even more burdensome than the financial and material stress of the early modern era needing to be escaped was the sensation of personal failure and ruin. This would have posed the ultimate emotional threat, and would, if one is to posit escapism as the motive of the witch-hunts, warrant instantaneous—however illogical—witchcraft accusations. Continual failure and accidents—the “run of bad luck” of which Briggs speaks—could not have seemed merely circumstantial, but borne of the wiles of fate and chance, lurking above, just as the divine influenced health of every faculty as much as did nature.
It is both plausible and efficient to examine the witch-hunts of early modern Europe as expressions of rampant escapism, and in that escapism, find its well-spring to be hardship found everywhere in society. Briggs posited that four types of accusations could be identified which arose from dire circumstances and instances of horrible luck, attributed to the divine and underlying forces leant to early modern thought by Greek antiquity in the form of natural philosophy. These were the intertwined phenomena of misfortune, religion and medicine; the test of familial bonds among parents, children, and neighbours who relentlessly turned to witchcraft for an explanation; the bewitchment of animals—and therefore, the material capital and security of Europe’s people; and the heavy burden of poverty and accidents on the individual. With each of these types of hardship came a parallel type of accusation—an accusation wrapped up not directly in blame, but primarily in a desperate desire to transcend a troubled life by just escaping it. Briggs argues social and economic conditions manipulate the collective consciousness, and as the present writer has shown, too, the collective conscience. Morality turned with the times to a darkness which craved release.
Briggs, Robin. “The Experience of Bewitchment,” in The Witchcraft Reader, edited by Darren Oldridge, 57-68. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.
 Robin Briggs, “The Experience of Bewitchment,” in The Witchcraft Reader, edited by Darren Oldridge (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 68.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 60.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 63.
 Ibid., 63.
 Ibid., 64.
 Ibid., 67.