Two aspects of pre-witch-craze Europe may be considered a particularly important basis for the witch-hunts: peasant beliefs regarding the existence of witches; and the establishment by the ruling class of an inquisitorial apparatus. Norman Cohn argues that it was the alteration of traditional peasant beliefs and incorporation of these into the beliefs of the ruling class (and especially the clergy), combined with change in the legal system via the inquisitorial process, which provided the necessary elements for the European witch-hunts to take off. 1 In other words, actual witch-hunting relied on peasant beliefs, but could not have occurred without the intervention of the upper echelons of society. I will examine these issues before going on to look at the main period of witch persecution.
The belief in maleficium, that is, doing harm by occult means, has been shown to have a long history among the European and also the English peasantry (see Thomas 1971). According to Cohn (1975), such beliefs can be identified in historical documentation stretching back to the fourth century and persisting during the Middle Ages. He distinguishes between sorcery and witchcraft, because ‘sorcery’ refers to general techniques while ‘witchcraft’ denotes particular powers residing with only certain individuals, and the witches could use their powers, or substances, objects, gestures or spells to carry out their supposedly evil deeds. However, although sorcery and witchcraft were known in pre-witch-hunt Europe as distinct concepts, these forms of maleficium were also perceived to overlap (ibid.: 148).
During the medieval period the practice of maleficium was