CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Images of witches often evoke Halloween stories of green-skinned figures standing over a bubbling cauldron. But in medieval Europe, ideas about witches were the products of fear of the seemingly mystical powers of a village healer or midwife, despair over failed crops or religious views on the existence of demons.
Curators from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will talk about the history of European witchcraft in the 15th through 17th centuries in a webinar co-sponsored by the Champaign Public Library. “The History of Witchcraft” will be presented Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. CDT.
The event has drawn a huge response, with more than 91,000 people from all over the world expressing interest on a Facebook post about the talk. Registration for the Zoom webinar filled within a few days. Because of the overwhelming interest, the talk will be livestreamed on the Champaign Public Library’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. A prerecorded version of the talk will be posted on the YouTube channels for the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Champaign Public Library.
The Rare Book and Manuscript Library has many materials related to European witchcraft in its collection, including the 1613 book “The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancashire” – accounts of the 1612 Lancashire witch trials in England that resulted in the execution of 10 people.
The notion of what we think of as witchcraft began 200 years earlier, around 1400, said visiting curator Ruthann Miller. Pagan and folkloric practices had been taking place for centuries, but beginning in the 15th century, the idea of witchcraft revolved around devil worship and interpersonal relationships with demons, after the church changed its stance on whether interactions between humans and demons were possible, Miller said. Some scholars argue that accusations of women having sexual relationships with demons were a way to prove that demons – and therefore God and angels – existed, she said.
“It started out as a way to prove the legitimacy of the church and expanded from there,” Miller said.
The Rare Book and Manuscript Library holds a 1496 copy of the “Malleus Maleficarum” – a Catholic publication endorsing the torture and execution of witches.
Both women and men were prosecuted, but the focus was on what women were doing.
“Widows and midwives were targeted, because midwives had the seemingly mystical ability to heal things,” Miller said. “Women, especially midwives or village healers, would have used herbs or other traditional forms of healing to deliver babies and assist people in the village. They eventually became targets when people were being persecuted.”
For example, if a baby didn’t survive childbirth, the midwife, with her specialized skills, might be accused of ending its life.
“There’s the anxiety of expertise. People want to pick and choose what is or is not true, despite what society has already identified as experts. Human nature gets ugly,” said curator Cait Coker, who specializes in 17th century England.
In other cases, greed likely was the underlying motivation for accusations of witchcraft. A neighbor might turn against a neighbor over a crop failure, when one’s real objective was to take the other’s land, Coker said.
The Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s collection includes a handwritten manuscript from 1590 titled “The Craft of Conjuring and How to Summon the Fiery Spirits of Hell.” It contains what we think of as witchcraft, as well as astrology and references to Jesus and saints.
“Five hundred years ago, the idea of summoning demons or angels or other beings was considered dangerous but not inherently evil. This was considered another way to access information,” Coker said.
The Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s collection includes a handwritten manuscript from 1590 titled “The Craft of Conjuring and How to Summon the Fiery Spirits of Hell.” It contains what we think of as witchcraft as well as astrology.
The manuscript was meant to be shared widely, as evidenced by the script used and the careful ruling, curator Cait Coker said.
Courtesy Rare Book and Manuscript Library
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At the time, people distinguished between “high” magic and “low” magic, Miller said. Low magic was a holdover of pagan or folkloric traditions, and it was the source of most of the accusations of witchcraft, she said.
High magic included alchemy, astrology and the summoning of demons.
“They’re viewed as a more intellectual pursuit that’s going to bring some level of knowledge,” Miller said. “It’s a point where magic and science are blurring – for example, Newton’s alchemical manuscripts. He’s talking about alchemy, but it’s on the cusp of chemistry.”
The thinking about witches also influenced the pop culture of the time, Coker said. For example, Shakespeare wrote about witches in “Macbeth” when King James was newly crowned, she said.
“King James was famous for persecuting witches and for being terrified of them,” Coker said. “It was something he was obsessed with.”
The library’s collection includes a screed against demonology and witches written by James, who argues that identifying witches is part of theology, Coker said.
The “History of Witchcraft” webinar is the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s first collaboration with the Champaign Public Library. One of the goals of the collaboration is to emphasize that rare books and special collections are for everyone, not only scholars.
“We do a lot of collaboration with faculty and classes and lecture series on campus, but we really want to interact with the community as well and foster that relationship,” Miller said.