Volume XXX is the last of the nine volumes, which
document the dualistic tendencies of the Early Modern Period, 1500-1800. It is
a short one. It discusses population groups that do not fit harmoniously in the
social pattern of this period. The last chapter is devoted to an analysis and a
This chapter describes the general position of women,
and more particularly that of the so-called witches, who were mostly women.
The current opinion that persecution of witches was a typical medieval phenomenon is refuted: the highwater tide of the persecution was the period 1550-1650. It was also not a specific Catholic phenomenon; the persecution raged just as fierce in Protestant as in Catholic regions. Medieval people believed in sorceresses and spells, but a sorceress is not the same as a witch. There was also magic, white (benevolent) and black magic (harmful). Sorceresses and magicians could be condenmed by ecclesiastical tribunals, but there never were massive persecutions. During the fifteenth century several treatises on witchcraft were written; one of the most authoritative declared that witches, sorcerers and magicians were mentally ill. The most outspoken critic of belief in pernicious witchcraft was the Dutchman Johannes Wierus, who wrote two books on this subject, published respectively in 1563 and 1577.
The decisive mental change was caused by the precarious situation of Europe during the first half of the sixteenth century. The Reformation had split Europe into two; no longer the Catholic faith was the solid base of medieval society, but there was no real alternative. Then there was the Turkish menace; the Turks had conquered Constantinople in 1452 and all the Balkans, and even the greater part of Hungary; in 1529 they besieged Vienna. This caused an atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty. People went looking for scapegoats.
After 1550 witch hunting became a craze. The weirdest stories were told and believed; the witches sabbath became a highly popular legend. People, mostly women, mostly old and ugly, but sometimes young and beautiful, were accused and subjected to proofs. When they were found guilty, which usually was the case, they were sent to the pyre. The total number of victims must be about fifty thousand.
Accused people could escape this fate by travelling to Oudewater in the Dutch Republic. Witches were thought to weigh next to nothing, but at the public weigh in this town their real weight was certified. They returned home with a `Certificate', stating this.
The Dutch Reformed pastor Balthassar Bekker wrote a courageous book against witch hunting, published in 1693. During the late seventeeth and the eighteenth centuries the craze gradually abated. The last execution in the Netherlands was as early as 1603; the last historically recorded one was an execution in Switzerland in 1782.
To illustrate this, two spectacular cases are related. The first is that of the so-called `devils of Loudun', a French city. The scene of action was an Ursuline convent, of which a young nun, Mère Jeanne des Anges, was the prioress since 1627. This nun began to show signs of demonic possession. It was obviously contagious, for most other nuns also became hysterical. Almost all citizens of the city believed the phenomena to be authentic. It became a cause célèbre in which all France, even the court and the government, were interested. The man who was believed to have caused the possession was a priest, abbé Grandier, who had never had contacts of whatever kind with the nuns. He was arrested, cruelly tortured and publicly executed.
The second case is that of the `witches of Salem', a small town in Massachusetts; the events happened in the period 1692/1693. Some children began to show signs of what was thought to be possession. The whole town became involved and was on the lookout for culprits. People accused one another; husbands denounced their wives. It ended with nineteen people being hung, because they were believed to be witches in the service of the devil.
There is a separate chapter on the general situation of the women during the early modern period. First, the medieval situation is recapitulated. On the whole the sixteenth century saw women not as the lesser, rather as the weaker sex, needing protection. During the Later Middle Ages aristocratic circles embraced a new ideal, that of `feminity', but this was not generally accepted. The plump women of the Renaissance constituted also an ideal. This caused a dualistic split in society, that between the `lady' and the `woman'. Towards the end of the eighteenth century yet another ideal originated, that of the `natural woman'.
This period was no longer so carefree about sexuality as the Middle Ages had been. People no longer slept naked; swimming naked was found vulgar. The Age of Reason was also rational about sexual matters; masturbation, visiting prostitutes and `intemperate' sex within marriage were judged detrimental to health. Puritanism played a great role in this. The attitude of the Reformers with regard to marriage is discussed. Some influential and emancipated women are mentioned. The attitude of the `philosophes' towards women was not so enlightened as might be expected. The final conclusion is that the situation of women during the early modern period must be dubbed dualistic.
Read the complete text of Chapter 1:
Another disprivileged group was that of the Jews. During
the sixteenth century a long battle raged over the question of whether the
Talmud was an anti-Christian book. The centre of the anti-Jewish agitation was
the University of Cologne. Those who found it a book that must be condemned and
forbidden had never had in the hand and did not know Hebrew. Many anti-Jewish
publications appeared. On the whole the ecclesiastical and public authorities
did not follow suit. The Talmud and the case of the Jews was manfully defended
by Reuchlin, a famous humanist who knew Hebrew and refuted the arguments of the
opposite party. For a long the battle time raged to and fro, but in the end
Reuchlin and his party triumphed: the Talmud was not forbidden, neither by the
Pope nor by the Emperor.
Luther had put high hopes on the massive conversion of the Jews, but as this did not happen, he became rabiately anti-Jewish. He wrote three anti-Jewish tracts, the last of which fills the modern reader with horror. The attitude of other early Reformers was not more friendly. From many German regions and cities the Jews were expelled.
The attitude of the Popes differed from pontiff to pontiff. Whereas Leo X allowed the Talmud to be printed, Julius II ordered its burning. The most Jew-unfriendly Pope was Paul IV, but his successor Pius IV protected them. Pius V would have them expelled, but Sixtus V revoked this measure.
The best place to be for the Jews of this period was doubtless my hometown of Amsterdam. Towards the end of the sixteenth century the Marranos began to arrive, Sephardic Jews from the Iberian peninsula. A municipal decree of 1616 recognized them as a separate community with freedom of religion and worship. Later Ashkenazim Jews arrived from the east. Amterdam became the `Jerusalem of the West'.
The situation of the Jews in Poland was relatively comfortable. but they were stupid enough to treat the Cossacks of the Ukraine, which was Polish then, harshly. This led to a fierce Cossack reaction, which cost the lives of a great many Jews. At last a Polish army succeeded in defeating the Cossacks.
This catastrophe gave rise to a Messianic craze. The Jews wanted a Redeemer. The one who presented himself as this Redeemer was Sabbatai Sevi, born in 1625 in Smyrna; he was an unbalanced person. The rabbis of western Turkey did not believe him. Soon he had a large following, not only in the east, but also in Europe, for instance, among the Jewish community of Amsterdam. Suddenly it was all over, for Sabbatai Sevi apostatized to Islam in 1666. He died in 1676. His movement, Sabbatianism, existed, although on an ever smaller scale, until 1950.
The situation of the Jews of England was not enviable. Towards the end of the thirteenth century all Jews had been expelled from England, but towards 1500 they began to return, to be expelled again in 1542. After 1560 they came back again, this time to stay. They were not very welcome. Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is analyzed. During the seventeenth century the climate became gradually milder. In 1753 all Jews residing in England became citizens. Synagogues were opened.
The attitude of the philosophes regarding thee Jews is discussed. It appears that they were less progressive and tolerant than they thought themselves to be.
Read the complete text of Chapter 2:
A short note on Chapter III. This is at the same time an assessment, an analysis and a summary of the entire early modern period. It stands under the sign of the destruction of Europe's religious, ecclesiastical and political unity. At the end of the sections A and B the reader will find lists, entrywise, of the principal issues.
Read the complete text of Chapter 3: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9.