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date: 21 May 2019

Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses how notions of witches and witchcraft appeared in the early fifteenth century and why they remain basic problems in the historiography of European witchcraft. Evidence suggests that the spread of the specific conception of diabolic witchcraft across Europe originated from the Council of Basel (1431–1449). Through an unfortunate coincidence, the Council brought clerical representatives from all corners of Europe to Switzerland at precisely the moment when the persecution of heretics was giving way to witches. Local inquisitors were in attendance, and given the contemporary interest in heresy and sorcery and the roles of magic and spirits in the recent trial of Joan of Arc, considerable discussion of the locally ubiquitous ‘new sect’ of witches was inevitable. Informal and undocumented conversations were probably the most significant avenues of diffusion, but several of the earliest and most influential witch treatises also have clear connections to the Council. Over the next several decades, outside the confines of the western Alps, the concept of the witch remained extremely fluid, while generalized fears of witches grew. Fuelled by widespread plagues, terrible weather, wars, and millenarian fervour, the prosecution of witches continued in many parts of Europe through the early sixteenth century.

Keywords: European witchcraft, witches, historiography, Council of Basel, prosecution

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