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How to Find Witches

The period from the end of the Middle Ages to the end of the Reformation marked a period of intellectual unrest. For the first time in a very, very long time, the world as Europe knew it appeared somewhat unstable. Theology fell victim to pluralism. The scriptures drew challenges from theologians that the Church called heretics. The world seemed not quite as black-and-white as the Church had always made it seem. This unrest seemed particularly high in those places where the Church seemed to be losing its grip. For example, Spain and Italy experienced far less hysteria than places like Germany, France, and England. This intellectual unrest and hysteria often manifested itself in the form of witch hunts.

While there had always been suspicions of witches and witchcraft in Europe, the concerns never got out of hand until around the end of the Middle Ages, when the economic, social, and religious landscape of Europe underwent rapid changes. Generally, even as the number of trials of “witches” began to increase in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the greatest increases in panic coincided with economic hardships, crop failures, social unrest, or tragedy. After all, if all was well, there probably were no witches at work. Conversely, if a cow dropped dead for no apparent reason, if crops failed, or if an epidemic broke out in a village, then there probably were witches or witchcraft afoot.

The Changing Status of Women

While not all accused witches between 1450 and 1650 were women, certainly most were. Some regions of Europe actually tried more men than women, but those regions were exceptions. Perhaps the root of the witch hunts was misogyny. 

Misogyny has existed throughout history, perpetuated by male-dominated, patriarchal societies. The evidence is easy to see even in ancient cultures. In many ancient religions, mysterious, mystical powers and the unpredictable forces of nature were identified with women. Goddesses of the ancient pantheons often possessed these powers. Even in Christianity, it was Eve, the woman, who was seduced by Satan and, in turn, lured Adam to do evil in the Garden of Eden.

Define Your Terms 

Misogyny is the hatred of women.

Historically, men have blamed the female gender for the Fall of Man. With misogynous tendencies already, men didn’t need much imagination to believe that women were potentially evil.

Conflicts over the social status of women played a significant role in the witch craze that swept over Europe. During the Dark Ages or the Low Middle Ages, when barbarian kingdoms dominated the continent, women were considered little more than property. In fact, barbarian chieftains and warlords often measured wealth and worldly success according to the amount of land and the number of cattle and women they possessed. Women had nowhere to go but up. Though they didn’t climb high on the social ladder, women’s status did improve somewhat during the Middle Ages. Because women often were left at home to manage affairs while the men were at battle or on Crusades, there were many examples of women managing and owning property, particularly after their husbands died. It may not seem like much, but that was a huge leap from just a few hundred years before. As the years passed, not many but a few women actually became educated. Again, not much of an improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.

While the Renaissance did see a few women achieve notable status, the resurgence of humanist ideals probably did more harm than good for women. Traditional humanism, not to mention traditional Christian doctrine, portrayed women as the “weaker vessel,” man’s less-than-equal partner, the inspiration for art, not the creators of art. Any progress women had made was set back by this ideology. As society and religion seemed to come undone after the Middle Ages, the antithesis to the traditional patriarchal Christian society seemed to be the matriarchal society governed by the devil.

One of the greatest detriments to the status of women was the publication in 1485 or 1486 of the Malleus maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. The equivalent of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Finding and Identifying Witches, the Malleus served as the leading authority on witches for centuries to follow. According to the Malleus, women were “by nature instruments of Satan” and “by nature carnal.” Because the Malleus was endorsed by the Church, the handbook became as good as law.

In fact, the Malleus became practically irrefutable. For those who did not believe in witches and witchcraft at the time of its publication, the book made them change their minds. The Malleus states that “people who hold that witches do not exist are to be regarded as notorious heretics.” The language couldn’t be more clear about the Church’s position on the existence of witches. This opinion and this book, combined with the misogyny that already existed in Europe, fueled many fires upon which witches were burned.

Continental Quotes 

Note the misogynous nature of the text of Malleus maleficarum as the authors consider women and their “addiction to evil": “Therefore, let us now chiefly consider women; and first, why this kind of perfidy is found more in so fragile a sex than in men."

The Great Witch Hunt

With the status of women in a dismal condition, with copies of Malleus floating around in great numbers, and with difficulties around every corner, Europe was primed for a feeding frenzy. Belief in witches far predated the fifteenth century but never before had there been so many accusations, trials, and subsequent executions of “witches.” As economic hardship, agricultural struggles, and health issues gripped Renaissance Europe, the unscientific common people needed an explanation for things that happened around them. In much the same way many people feared that the Black Death was caused by a vast Jewish conspiracy that sought to eliminate Christendom by poisoning wells, Europeans looked to witches for the explanation for unexplainable events. More often than not, women were the accusers in cases of witchcraft. Also, more often than not, the reason for the accusation was something as simple as the death of cow, the disappearance of a pig, the appearance of a rash, or the illness of a child.

Those targeted most often weren’t the beautiful, seductive young girls who tantalized men and put husbands under the influence of their charms. Rather, those most frequently accused were older women, often widowed, who lived by themselves in relative seclusion. Those unfortunate women made easy targets because they had few dealings with everyone else in the communities and perhaps lived outside community norms. Those who had never had children found themselves at a higher risk of being accused. Women of all ages did end up on trial across Europe, but men did, too, so no one really ever was safe from the witch hunts.

Once someone was accused of witchcraft, or having relations with the devil, he or she was tried in court, usually a secular court but sometimes a Church court. The Inquisitors often used torture to extract “confessions.” They searched the body of the accused for marks of the devil, or birthmarks. Other deformities, including scars and third nipples, were dead giveaways that the accused had had relations with the devil at some point. Birth defects in children also indicated that the mother had had relations with the devil. Unfortunately for the accused, rules of evidence were pretty lax and almost nonexistent. As a result, convictions weren’t too hard to come by. About half of all convictions ended in execution, often by hanging, burning, or drowning. Once one or two people in a community were tried, a frenzy often ensued and before long one or two turned into 10 or 20.

As a Matter of Fact

An often misunderstood fact about the Great Witch Hunt in Europe centers on the execution of witches. While “witches" faced a variety of possible forms of execution, the most common form of execution for the guilty was not burning at the stake. In fact, though many were burned or drowned or broken on the rack, most executions were hangings. Those not executed were sometimes mutilated, locked in stocks, dunked or beaten. The misconception about the burning of witches may result from the large number of dead “witches" whose bodies were burned by authorities to prevent any further evil from being carried out.

Between 1400 and 1700, the years the Great Witch Hunt peaked, as many as 100,000 Europeans were tried as witches. Some countries tried and executed tens of thousands while other countries tried and executed only a few. While the Church did endorse the Malleus, the phenomenon of the Great Witch Hunt should not be interpreted as an institutional phenomenon but rather as a widespread local phenomenon. The societal stigmatization of women made it easy for common men and women to accuse others, particularly women.

Would You Believe?

Even children fell victim to the witch hunt craze. The following was taken from a 1629 letter of a high-ranking official in Wurzburg, Germany: “there are children of three and four years, to the number of three hundred, who are said to have had intercourse with the Devil. I have seen put to death children of seven, ten, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen."

The Least You Need to Know

Religious tensions in France between Catholics and French Protestants, or Huguenots, led to the Wars of Religion. Ultimately, after the War of the Three Henrys, the Catholics remained in control while the Huguenots received some limited tolerance.

The Low Countries, or the Netherlands, believed they were being oppressed by the staunchly Catholic Philip II of Spain. As a result, the northern provinces broke away and fought for their independence. The Protestant northern provinces became known as the United Provinces, while the Catholic provinces in the south were known as the Spanish Netherlands.

After the English Reformation led by Henry VIII, Mary Tudor returned England to Catholicism. Upon Mary’s death, Elizabeth I adopted a moderate and tolerant religious policy, returned England to Protestantism, and maintained domestic peace.

Philip’s invincible Spanish Armada fell to a smaller, faster English fleet in the English Channel in a 1588 attempt to invade England. One of Philip’s motivations was the Protestant Elizabeth I and her aid of the Protestant northern provinces of the Netherlands.

Fueled mostly by misogyny and social and economic uncertainty, Europeans tried approximately 100,000 men and women between 1400 and 1700. Just over half of those convicted of witchcraft were executed.

While religion didn’t necessarily sponsor the Great Witch Hunt, religious denominations certainly didn’t mind and they didn’t preach tolerance.

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