Why was witchcraft considered a crime? 
Monday, November 19, 2007, 04:40 AM - Witchcraft history
Contemporary people are often incredulous that any form of belief system could have ever been regarded as so dangerous as to constitute a capital crime. For such persons it is difficult to imagine a society where norms of both social and religious behavior were determined by the laws of the state.

Concerning this point, it is important to remember that during this period, the strength of a society or nation state was closely associated with its uniformity of religious belief. Whatever the faith of a monarch happened to be, Protestant or Catholic, such would also be the faith of the population of his kingdom. This was the norm.

At this time, the solidarity of religious belief of a nation's people was perceived as a strength. Diversity of belief--even among various sub-sects of reformed Protestantism--was viewed as an essential weakness in the fabric of society. The one notable exception to this practice was the Dutch Republic, which had only recently achieved its independence from Roman Catholic, Habsburg Spain. In fact, Holland was the only European nation which was essentially tolerant of religious diversity throughout most of its existence.

In England, until the reign of King James II(1685-1689), the population was expected to belong to and worship as members of the Church of England. Thus English law, prior to 1688, prohibited all other forms of worship except that of the state church.

That is not to say that England did not possess many religious dissidents and non-conformists as well as a significant community of Jews and Roman Catholics. But these minority groups understood that they were always at risk. They were generally regarded as less than loyal subjects since the monarch was the head of the Church of England, and to break away from that Church was to call your loyalty as a subject into question. It was an intolerant age.

Witchcraft, as a crime defined by the law codes of most European nations of this time, was achieved by persons who had deliberately attempted to communicate with Satan. Such communication was attempted to establish a relationship whereby individuals would exchange their soul to Satan for supernatural powers. Such individuals were regarded as a threat to society because they had agreed to perform malefic, harmful, often destructive, anti-social acts at Satan's request.

Naturally, implicit in such legal codes was the generally accepted belief in the existence of God, Satan and other spiritual beings comprising what Reverend Cotton Mather would characterize as "the invisible world".

Beyond this perceived societal danger, the political loyalty of alleged witches was clearly in question because they had, by definition, betrayed all religious institutions including the predominant state church. Thus to the legal minds of the 1500's and 1600's, witchcraft was a form of secular treason, a form of anti-social behavior, always punishable by death under secular legal codes whenever discovered. For this reason, such cases were not tried in ecclesiastical but state courts which enforced secular statutes and their prescribed punishments.

For these reasons the secular legal records of most European states--Spain, France,Switzerland, the Italian and German ststes, Scotland and of course, England-- from the 1400's through the 1600's, are full of cases of thousands of individuals charged with the crime of witchcraft. Salem is a New England manifestation of this horrific and widespread phenomenon, and when compared to Europe, a relatively minor one.

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