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LSU professor uses witchcraft as window into history

“Hocus Pocus,” “Bewitched,” “Harry Potter”—images of witches and witchcraft dominate popular culture and fill the costume aisles of big box Halloween stores.

While today’s wand-wielding iterations are entertaining, they’re a far cry from the women who were convicted of using black magic beginning in the 15th Century. Who were these women, and how did society’s concept of magic transform from malevolent weapon to wonder-inducing spectacle?

LSU associate history professor Leslie Tuttle explores these questions and more in her ongoing course, “Magic and Witchcraft in Europe.” Tuttle, whose scholarship focuses on early modern European history, uses witchcraft as a window into the period and encourages her students to immerse themselves in the society.

The explosion of witchcraft trials in the mid-15th century is one of the era’s greatest historical conundrums, Tuttle said. While Renaissance ideals were gaining traction throughout Europe, fear of witchcraft was becoming equally pervasive.

Most students are surprised to learn how educated people of the era were, Tuttle said. The people of the time possessed a comprehensive world view, and they employed scientific processes and problem-solving rationales that helped explain the world as they understood it, she said.

At the time, witchcraft was a logical explanation for sudden illnesses or agricultural losses, and the period’s logical reasoning methods often confirmed this interpretation instead of challenging it, she said. Many people truly believed that witches were in league with Satan and were collectively organizing to undermine the good order of human society, Tuttle said.

Tuttle encourages her students to shed their modern biases and accept the information provided in the trial documents and narratives they study as truth. It’s easy to conform inexplicable events to modern understanding, but embracing the wonder those people felt provides students with a deeper appreciation for the events, Tuttle said.

Viewing the world from a foreign vantage point often instills students with a sense of humility, she said.

“It really fires the imagination of students and gets them to think critically about why they think something is true or not true,” Tuttle said. “It demands a kind of empathy for the past that is really moving to see.”

Studying the material in-depth also challenges modern stereotypes of witchcraft, Tuttle said. Much of our modern witchcraft imagery, including dancing around fires and holding seances, developed through entertainment rather than reality.

No evidence exists to suggest the convicted witches practiced Sabbath rites or communed with the devil, and virtually all convicted witches were baptized Catholics and Protestants living in Christian communities, she said. The majority of the accused were older, possibly widowed women who lived on the fringes of society and were vulnerable to accusations.

The women were often accused of witchcraft following disputes with neighbors and townspeople. If two women had an argument and one woman’s husband was injured soon after, many believed it was the result of the other woman employing dark arts, Tuttle said.

LSU junior Carter Pesson, a biological sciences and anthropology major, said witchcraft trials were effectively employed to rid society of people who were unwanted. Many witchcraft trials lacked significant evidence against the defendant, but the tricky questioning processes and frequent use of torture led to the conviction of many ordinary people, he said.

Approximately 80,000 people were convicted of witchcraft throughout Europe, and the hysteria became so prominent that many of the accused came to believe they possessed malevolent powers and confessed to the crime, Tuttle said.

Though pervasive, fear of witchcraft did not last forever.

“One of the critical things that happened was witchcraft was taken out of the realm of demonic intent and so witchcraft was sort of defanged in a way,” Tuttle said. “That made it possible for it to be reclaimed for different cultural uses.”

While some cultures around the world still believe in witchcraft and demonic power, magic and witchcraft are most commonly experienced through superstitious practices and popular entertainment, she said.

Modern depictions of witches arose largely in the 1970s in connection with the second wave of feminism. Increased cultural acceptance of women’s power created an opening for witchcraft to be reinterpreted, and witches have been nearly ubiquitous since, Tuttle said.

Various offshoots of witchcraft are also recognized as practiced religions, she said. The U.S. military recognizes Neopagans and Wiccans, and their respective religious symbols can now be etched into the tombstones of service members who die in the line of duty, Tuttle said.

Tuttle said the course is one of her favorite to teach. Exploring witchcraft’s evolution exposes students to a different side of history and pushes them to engage with material in a meaningful way.

“It’s a fun thing to teach, because it’s very engaging to students and because it stretches their capacity to understand the past in really notable ways,” Tuttle said. “They don’t leave the class with the same ideas about history that they had when they walked in the door.”

Photos by Simone Schmidt.

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