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Professor Jason Coy

Coy Professor Jason Coy

Bewitched by Europe's Witch Legacy
By Jessica Fogarty

"There is no doubt that many people are attracted to the diabolical and to explorations of the nature of evil just- look at the popularity of horror films," says Jason Coy, a history professor who has studied extensively the "tremendously important historical phenomenon" of early modern European witch hunting between 1450-1650. Coy's mission is to put this dark period in accurate context.

"While there was enormous regional variation, the witch-hunts relied upon the powers of European governments, the denunciations of thousands of ordinary townsfolk and villagers, and the demonological writings of prominent inquisitors, theologians, and intellectuals," he says. "So, studying witchcraft beliefs and witch-hunting can help us to understand early modern state formation, cosmology and religiosity, as well as shifts in gender norms and popular beliefs."

The purging of suspected witches during these centuries has scale and numbers that are staggering. "The best estimates suggest that during this period, at least 100,000 people were tried for witchcraft throughout Europe and that some 60,000 were executed for the supposed crime of swearing a satanic pact and then harming their neighbors with black magic," according to Coy. "While all sorts of people were tried for witchcraft-men and women, young and old-around 80 percent of those tried, convicted, and executed were women. Older women and widows were especially vulnerable to witchcraft allegations and official prosecution and made up a large proportion of the victims of the witch-hunts, so there is a grain of truth to the stereotypical depiction of the typical witch that we see on Halloween decorations and in pop culture today."

Most of us have learned that during the Age of Reason Europeans abandoned "superstitious" beliefs in sorcery and the supernatural in favor of more rational, scientific ways of understanding the universe.

Coy, however, begs to differ. He argues that the transition to modernity was more gradual and contentious than is often supposed. Based upon contemporary sources like the 1674 treatise by the Swiss theologian Bartholomaeus Anhorn called the Magiologia, Coy's research demonstrates that beliefs in sorcery, witchcraft, and the demonic were still very prevalent among even highly educated Europeans until well into the 18th century. "At the same time as rationalist scientists and philosophers were using reason and experimentation to understand nature and society, theologians like Anhorn feared that abandoning beliefs in witchcraft and demonic sorcery was a dangerous form of skepticism that would surely lead to radical materialism and even to atheism," Coy says.

Coy describes the Magiologia as a 1,000-page compendium that describes everything the author, Anhorn, believed about witches, sorcery, and the supernatural, an impassioned attempt to persuade readers of the reality of malevolent magic and of the power of the devil in the world.

"It is a fascinating text," Coy says, "because it appeared during the so-called 'Age of Reason' when Western society was supposedly becoming more secular, more rational, and more scientific in its outlook, but it shows clearly the stubborn persistence of supernatural beliefs during this period."

Funded by a Dorothy and O.J. Small Faculty Development Grant from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Coy has launched a new research project on the debates surrounding witchcraft and the supernatural during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Coy's interest in this topic stems from a book he wrote on law enforcement in early modern Germany, as well as from a course he teaches on "Witchcraft and Witch-Hunting in Early Modern Europe." With the support of the Dorothy and O.J. Small Grant, one of his students from this course, Bill Harris, is assisting Coy on preliminary research.

Due to be published at the end of 2008, Coy's law enforcement book is titled "Strangers and Misfits: Banishment, Social Control, and Authority in Early Modern Germany." He says it will be part of the "Studies in Central European Histories" series published by Brill Academic Press, a European scholarly press that's celebrating its 350-year anniversary in 2008.

About this book, his first, Coy says it "examines how early modern magistrates used banishment in an attempt to rid society of outsiders and criminals, how these efforts related to Reformation-era moral reforms, and how expelled offenders resisted these efforts. Before the widespread use of incarceration in the 18th century, authorities throughout Europe banished thousands of criminals and these sentences reveal a great deal about the role of popular cooperation in official law enforcement and social control efforts."

He next plans to write a book based on his ongoing research on Europe's witch era. "Hopefully, once this book is published it will help to show that the decline of witchcraft beliefs was not an easy transition or a steady process, but rather a site of contestation marked by battles over demonism and spirituality with high stakes for both religion and science," he says.

Raised in Chicago, Coy grew up in the Oak Park suburb, famous for Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio and its prarie-style architecture.

He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in European history at Ohio State University. He then received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2001 and conducted his dissertation research in Wurttemberg, carrying out archival research on criminality and social control in Reformation-era Germany. He has taught at the College since 2003, offering courses on the history of Renaissance and Reformation Europe.