Professor Liv Helene Willumsen

Visiting Research Fellow

Home Institution: University of Tromsø

Project: Transfer of Ideas about Witchcraft across Early Modern Europe

Dates: January - June 2017

The project I work with this spring is part of a larger project called Transfer of Ideas about Witchcraft across Early Modern Europe. The main research question of this larger project is related to an enigma within witchcraft research: Why did the intensity of the witch-hunts vary a lot in different regions? What could be the reason for this variation? My hypothesis is that a sudden increase of witchcraft trials was influenced by specific ideas transmitted from one area to another. These ideas were related to the learned European doctrine of demonology, a doctrine which got foothold throughout Europe from fifteenth until seventeenth century due to a rapid spread of demonological works. This doctrine included ideas like a pact between the witch and the devil, witches’ meetings with the devil present, night flights, metamorphosis and collective witchcraft operations. According to this doctrine, a suspect’s ability to do evil was based on transfer of power from the devil through a pact. Confessions of witches’ meetings and collective acts of sorcery led to several new suspects being denounced. This caused a sudden upsurge of witchcraft trials, called witchcraft panics, during concentrated time periods. Such panics, lasting from some months to a couple of years, are seen in all areas suffering from intensive witchcraft persecution.

The aim of the project is threefold: firstly to study how specific ideas about witchcraft were transmitted to different areas of Early Modern Europe through printed literature; laws, sermon books, literary works, pamphlets and tracts; secondly to study the activity of travelling persons who took part in the transmission of such ideas; thirdly to study to what extent these ideas have influenced the development of the witch-hunts in specific regions by analysing court records from witchcraft trials. The most prominent feature of the project’s objectives is a combination of history of ideas, biographical studies and linguistic studies based on close-readings of court records.

Three European countries will be included in the larger study; Germany, Scotland and Norway, all areas which suffered severe witchcraft persecution during the Early Modern Period. Hence the geographical area of this project is a witchcraft triangle, constituted by border lines drawn between Trier in Western Germany, North Berwick in South-Eastern Scotland and Vardø in Northern Norway. The choice of places has to do with the first appearance of demonological ideas in witchcraft trials in three places of Europe. The project can be placed in the larger context of spread of intellectual ideas throughout Europe in Early Modern Period. By focusing on a particular sphere of notions related to witchcraft, it will be possible to trace the ways of transference.