Conjuring Up a Storm: The European Witch Hunts
Since the beginning of time, Europe has witnessed much turbulence, strife, upheaval. However, few periods in European history have seen events more unique than those that occurred between 1530 and 1680. The witch craze of the 16th to 18th centuries was characterized by widespread fear and instability within nations dealing with internal strife. It was not attributed to any one cause; a multitude of other factors contributed to the rise of witch hunting during the time period. The witch craze was an inevitable product of this tumultuous era, reigned by a society that was highly religious, misogynistic, and politically unstable. The different beliefs that emerged during the 15th century are largely attributed to the rise and spread of the witch hunts. The concept of sorcery and witchery had existed long before the witch trials had even occurred, and in the Middle Ages, European society was extremely religious and believed that man’s greatest enemy was Satan, who intended to destroy Christian civilization and required hordes of witches as his minions to do so.1 People feared that the devil’s power was greater than that of God’s himself.2 The key to understanding the start of the witch craze lies in understanding the misconceptions to the theories as well. It was widely believed that large waves of social change correlated with an increase in witch hunting.3 However, witch hunting was mostly endemic, which meant that it was largely contained within the boundaries of a nation and rarely spread elsewhere or influenced the witch hunt movements in other countries.4 Another fallacy regarding the witch craze was that the hunts themselves
Anne Llewellyn Barstow. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. (Harper: San Francisco, 1995), 61. 2 Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, “Malleus Maleficarum.” http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/mm/ 3 Rodney Stark. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery. (Princeton UP: Princeton, 2003), 214. 4 Stark. 215.
and was promised 20 shillings for every woman who was condemned. out of desperation. indiscriminately threw out accusations in an attempt to salvage any property they could. many individuals selfishly attempted to exploit the witch hunts for their own personal gain. most of them were indeed found guilty. These beggars. Accusations were thrown indiscriminately out of personal vendetta— sometimes over trivial matters such as jealousy or spite—and other times for political gain. and were essentially forced to resort to begging. 216. Although many people did accuse witches out of their own sense of righteousness.5 People even began taking up witch hunting as a full time occupation.Yao 2 were solely based on society’s notion of spiritual righteousness. since the Netherlands provide to be a very prosperous nation that still produced a witch hunt. And despite the laws encouraging
Ibid. because capitalism displaced families who were dependent on agriculture. and no mass panics ensued. women lost their main source of incoming. and predictably. In 1649.6 Another common misconception about the witch hunts was that witch craze correlated with increasing poverty.7 The Netherlands’s witch hunts were largely uncontrolled by the Hapsburg emperor until about 1579. 89. a Scottish pricker (referring to the method of torture used while interrogating presumed witches) was hired to rid Newcastle-upon-Tyne of witches. Barstow 104. This notion was not entirely true. 7 Ibid. 88. when the Hapsburg laws encouraging witch craze were revoked. less than 150 people were executed.that society only hunted down members who were potential threats to its religious purity. Aristocrats could ruin the relationships and reputations of political rivals by accusing their wives of witchery. Over 30 women were stripped and tortured by having pins thrusted into their bodies. 8 Barstow.8 However they were still considered mild. The spread of capitalism throughout Europe directly influenced the spread of witch accusations.
. and thus the family members were forced into wage laboring.
133. which was considered to be European society’s greatest sexual sin. which made them victims to the myths of imps and familiars. as over 90% of those accused were women. 139. the status of European women dropped significantly. 15 Ibid. Inflation and overpopulation due to wealth from the overseas colonies contributed to the increased vulnerability of women. 14 Ibid. misogyny played an important role in the decreasing status of women as well. 141 13 Ibid.9 Between the 16th and 18th centuries. women were trapped by the inability to practice birth control. In some areas of Europe. 156. and between the years of 1627 and 1629. who were believed to have fed off of witches disguised as nurses. Punishments for crimes were often more severe for women than those for men for the same crime. social pressure to restrict court officials
Ibid. 12 Ibid. 99. which ended the financial success of the wealthy and worsened the condition of the impoverished.11 Some women were nurses and midwives. They were seen as the cause for the crisis in industrial production. 100. Women were seen as inferior because of their association to Eve.10 A combination of both factors led to land shortages.
.13 On the other hand. who succumbed to temptation. Barstow.Yao 3 witch hunts. 11 Ibid. the Dutch were known for their tolerance and restraint. and societal turmoil. ultimately causing food shortages. unemployment. over a hundred women were put to death for practicing these methods of birth control. a woman was burned at the stake for teaching women how to prevent pregnancy. especially crimes that involved sexual encounters. and therefore were believed to have greater susceptibility to Satan’s enticement.12 However. 134.14 In the 1620s. charges of sex crimes and witchcraft were one and the same. Dutch society however did display traces of misogyny.15 As the status of European women continued to decline.
Riding the Nightmare: Women & Witchcraft. Many innocent women were overcome with humiliation at having their bodies probed by a foreign man that they became numb and could feel nothing.16 And because women had never before been prisoners in such large numbers. and witch accusations increased. a notion that was exploited severely during the witch trials.19 The policy of forcing a witch’s confession was almost like a cover for making a socially sanctioned assault upon the woman’s body. Europe's Inner Demons: an Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-hunt. as a result.Yao 4 from acting upon women more harshly soon reduced as well. prosecution for abortion. 18. the witch hunts were the first instances in which women were specifically targeted and criminalized as a group. midwives. 48
Stark. particularly old. 130. in fact. were feared because many had great power as healers. lower class women. (Basic: New York. 1975). 132.22 Many herbal remedies developed by female apothecaries are
Ibid. 20. Barstow. 22 Ibid.20 Women. diviners—many of whom had the ability to manipulate supernatural forces. 1978). 21 Selma R. (New York: Atheneum. Williams and Pamela Williams Adelman.17 One reason was that distinctively female external body parts were models for the Devil’s teat. But why exactly was the woman’s body such an influential factor in the witch hunts? It was one factor to single out women as a group and target them exclusively. Norman Cohn. men for the first time had unrestricted access to them. nurses. 20 Ibid. and were seen as miracle workers if the infant and mother survived. thus having the appearance of guilt when faced with interrogation. and therefore would be more likely to psychologically deteriorate in the face of shame and guilt.18 In addition. 133. apothecaries. Midwives used charms to assist pregnant women in labor.
. women were seen as submissive and weak. infanticides. 37.21 These midwives and healers were widely respected. which was considered a sure sign of guilt.
Hanover Historical Texts Project. According to Barstow. and also that it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what that evidence consisted of. 135.”23 The witch trials allowed men to assert their authority over the women. In regards to rape. the mother is liable for the death sentence on a murder charge. 28 Ibid. the witch hunts basically “gave influential European men to
Ibid.26 The misogynistic attitudes prevalent during the time period were also evident in the fact that laws were erected regarding witchcraft and rape which worked against women.Yao 5 presently still in use. since few people knew about demonology and sorcery. Burr. because it established their authoritative positions.27 In 1556. The trial officials constituted of a panel of male only judges. women virtually unable to prove their innocence since they were automatically suspected for having invited the assault. But in lieu of the respect they garnered.25 Such spectacles were meant to teach society that women were untrustworthy and susceptible to seduction.
. 27 Ibid.” the worst type of crime. Jailers and court officials took sadistic pleasure in inspecting women accused of rape. 109 George L. can kill. and these judges were free to subject their victims to any kind of torture they pleased. If a witness is not present and the infant dies.24 The magistrate would often watch as a male searcher stripped a woman down. many believed that “she who can cure. including sexual favors. the French Parlement passed a law dictating that all women had to register their pregnancies and required a witness at birth.28 Witchcraft and rape were difficult crimes to disprove since there was little to no substantial evidence toward them. rendering her speechless from humiliation and shame. and therefore must be controlled and. The Witch Persecution at Trier. the law essentially turned infanticide into a “crimen exceptum. 26 Barstow. fearing an imbalance of power in the male dominated society. if the situation wills it. 25 Ibid.165. punished by men. such events were displayed public. males perceived such capabilities as threatening. and in many cases. 131.
witch hunts were the first instances in European history when women as a group were criminalized. there was a chance that her statements were false. public burning was the most horrifying symbol of man’s power over women. The Bamberg witch hunt which took place in Germany from 1628 to 1631 was a particularly wild case of hysteria. 31 Ibid. Walpurga Hausmann in Southern Germany was charged with the murder of her children.31 But women were not the only ones who were psychologically tormented by the prospect of being convicted for witch craft.Yao 6 punish [women] in a sexually sadistic manner. The torturing methods demonstrate that there was a clear psychological component to the witch craze as well. 18. So why did she confess? The most likely possibility was because her body simply could no longer endure the pain of being tortured any longer. she confessed to her crimes and declared that the devil had given her an ointment to kill babies and induce labor to give birth to premature children. so she told the officials what they wanted to hear. innocent I must die. and the extent to which a man would go just to prove his dominance was far. she was still below them. 168. Another possibility was that she felt that she had to redeem herself for a past guilt. For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or
. Upon questioning and torture. because even in the presence other accused males who were being tortured. innocent have I been tortured.30 The ultimate form of torture.”29 In general. Since these testimonies were given solely upon torture. which were later proven to be so. she may have harbored a great deal of guilt over being unable to save a child as a midwife. Fifty-five year Johannes Junius is accused of performing witch craft and in a letter to his daughter. Ibid. and since she was a midwife. he reports his mental anguish: Innocent have I come into prison. a live. and even claimed to have had a love affair with the Devil. 143.
Burr. God would raise hell with them for disobeying him. 239. Hanover Historical Texts. and banish them to hell in the afterlife. and quickly spread like wildfire. In Southwestern Germany alone.229 of the 4. The more and more people confessed. or they could plead innocence and continue to endure torture from the officials. because there was no way to contain the spread. either physically through brute torture or psychological deterioration. Victims were essentially forced into confession either way. the only alternative was to plead guilty and repent. the crazier the hunts had become.208 people accused were burned at the stake. They needed to find “scapegoats” to mitigate the impact of social disasters for which they had
George L. The lack of a centralized government was a major contributing factor of the witch hunts. Junius’s experiences depicts how hopelessly out of control the witch hunts became. and many believed that their fates truly were bestowed upon them by God. The Witch Persecution at Trier. The Rhineland region had no special unity. three out of four of all witchcraft executions were carried out in the Holy Roman Empire.
. over 3.33 Not only was the spread of the witch craze unattainable. Stark. and was largely characterized by instability.Yao 7 be tortured until he invents something out of his head and—God pity him— bethinks of something…32 Clearly. They then believed that if they were to somehow escape their fates. The influence of the witch craze was most clearly seen in Central Europe. and he in fact willed their circumstances. but the ruling classes were tasked with the job of keeping order amongst the lower classes. they realized that the trial was a lose-lose situation altogether: either they plead guilty and end up burned at the stake. hence. Even if they knew that they were truly innocent. There was no escaping their fates. the location where the concentration of the witch hunts was the heaviest. especially in Germany.
34 It was also no coincidence that the majority of religious wars took place in these regions as well.Yao 8 no remedy. and mass hysteria ensued. which further fueled the witch movement. were instigated by the authorities’ attempt to deal with the discontent due to famine and drought. 264. and the food shortages. Desperate for an explanation for this natural disaster.35 In 1562. and the plague. In general. Political stability was lacking in these regions because the North was dominated by the Hapsburg Empire and the Ottoman Turks controlled the south. disease. For example. Stark. believed it was because women garnered so much power in the late Middle Ages as mystics and saints. Statistician Gabor Klanisczay. the largest witch trials in Hungary.8% of death sentences were against women.37
Barstow. Amidst the religious turmoil. such as poverty. 36 Ibid. 88. Hungarians also had a deep belief in folk magic. These factors all contributed to societal instability. 87.
. it was really no wonder that the height of the witch craze was predominantly in the Central Europe regions. a freak hailstorm wiped out all local crops. However. the people lashed out at people whom they presumed to be witches. The struggle for autonomy kept the nation in constant turmoil. Hungary and the Balkan region were areas that were faced with extreme panic. areas with weak political governance were susceptible to witch hunts. fear of war. which again show the extreme gender bias against women. famine. the Szeged Trials which lasted from 1728 to 1729. which contributed to the spread of the belief in witches and consequently the spread of the witch craze itself. and men felt that they had no choice but to diabolize women out of self defense. 90% of accusations and 91. 36 The witch craze in Hungary showed how witch craze could have been influenced by situations outside of personal vendetta. 37 Ibid. 57.
though much milder than that of Central Europe. but also because Spain was more concerned with the eradication of the Muslims and Jewish. Italy had absolutely no witch craft related crime executions. 93. Spain had a strong. but lenient inquisition to help prevent widespread panic throughout the country. and while fear and suspicion grew throughout Spain. 40 Barstow. the Spanish Inquisition was also largely restrained by the Spanish monarchy because of its lack of restraint when dealing with the Jewish. which made for little likelihood of mass panics. 41 Ibid.Yao 9 However.43 Despite the lower concentration of witch hunts in Great Britain. centralized government. which was much more efficient in dealing with the witch crisis. In fact. who were perceived as a larger threat than witches. Spain’s systematic method of dealing with the witch hunts largely contributed to the lack of trials and executions. 43 Ibid. on the outskirts of the continent. the Inquisition ruled over the nation with a rational mind. on the other hand.39 Even so. 157.
.40 Another important aspect of Spanish culture was their view of women: Spanish men did not see women as outsiders because all Spanish citizens took immense pride in their pure blood. 42 Ibid. 92. which forbade torture and had no inquisitional courts.38 Spain. Stark. among the earliest and most influential witch
Ibid. Subsequently. Several were interrogated for “superstition. 94. and did not wish to distinguish between genders.42 Great Britain experienced very mild witch hunts as well due to its strong. 76.” but none were trialed and executed. the witch craze was much less dramatic and more contained than those of the central regions. 260. England was governed by common law instead of Roman law. the Inquisition declared witchcraft to be a delusion. there was no mass targeting of women. did experience some degree of witch craze.41 In 1526.
and her high class position had been exploited for political gain.47 New industries that began to spring up in Britain also increased the concentration of air pollution throughout the country.46 Alice escaped. 78. 46 Ibid. and were increasingly convinced that women became enticed by the Devil to attend Sabbaths to teach women exclusively the techniques of infant births and deaths. 77. sorcery became synonymous with heresy. man-hating. The truth was that her husband had been a political rival. and infanticide and women who were hostile to their husband were associated with witchcraft as well. which led to an increase in infant death. 67 47 Ibid. and her maid was instead burned at the stake in Alice’s place. and accused of engaging in sexual relations with the Devil. wealthy women. The trial of Alice Kyteler set a precedent for many European witch trials to come: women from then on became associated with demonic sex. men would accuse the wives of political rivals in order to slander them or lessen their support. These trials primarily dealt with accused.44 The North Berwick witch trials are among the most well known of the Scottish trials. 28.Yao 10 hunts took place in Ireland and Scotland. Ibid. and led to the belief that spiritual forces were at work. Men were eager to find scapegoats in order to clear up the unexplained phenomenon. and whose accusations were somewhat politically motivated.”45 The trial of Dame Alice Kyteler which lasted from 1324 to 1352 dealt with a rich woman who was accused of murdering her husband. and deserved the same punishment as heretics. 48 Williams and Adelman.
Ibid. From then on. Scottish witchcraft analyst claimed that the witch hunt of Scotland was “one of the major witch hunts of Europe because of its belief in sabbats and conspiracy. 79.
Irrationality was a key component in the spread of this movement.50 The scars of the witch hunts can be seen in Europe’s prejudice against women throughout the later portion of the second millennium. 150. With such mass hysteria spread throughout such a large part of the world. 149. Once Europe became more secular. quelling the panic caused by irrational fears. Women learned to live with a fear and distrust that extend beyond the prospect of rape or assault. and were not granted suffrage until the 20th century. but the social impact that the turmoil of the last three hundred years had on women was great. and sent messages to the public that the witches were beasts and were not to be dealt with lightly. it is almost impossible to imagine how this movement could have died down. the witch hunts seem almost unfathomable to the modern day scholar. religious superstition such as witch craft became less prominent in society. she may be exploited by devil. The public executions displayed the absolute power of the state over the individual.
Barstow.Yao 11 The witch craze began to die out in the 18th century. collectively. The notion of utilizing and taking advantage of man’s ability to reason emerged in the 18th century. because the movement was predominantly fueled by irrationality. Women who worked were frowned upon and received lower wages than that of men. otherwise. because the actions taken during the witch hunts were directly influenced by fear and panic. Ibid. even by men themselves. Enlightenment ideas began spreading through Europe. with the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. as well as ushering in a degree of secularity to European society. How exactly did it happen? In hindsight. and the witch hunts slowly died away. Rationality replaced fear and became the new driving force for action in Europe.
.49 The public witch trials also gave women the message their sexuality had to be concealed at all times. The antithesis of irrationality is reason. and as the witch trials proved.