Don't Be Such a Basic Witch
The Old Hag Profile
If someone asked you to describe a witch, it's likely that your description would be similar to most others. It'd probably be something along the lines of an ugly old woman, a pointy hat and nose to match, with a wart or long fingernails, generally out to get people. Most likely someone you wouldn't want to come across in your everyday life and someone Dorothy wouldn't want to ever see again.
Witchcraft dates back to around 300 CE and originally was not gendered (Lucas). It was simply a term to describe the crafts of the wise, such as healing and medicinal practices. That is, as long as their magic worked. If it was to fail or cause harm, their community would likely turn against them. Also, as the church in Europe began to expand, witchcraft was condemned as being an act against Gods people and God Himself. However, knowing this doesn't quite explain where the gender split profile began.
We know now that 75% of the accused in Europe and 80% of the accused in America were women (Lucas), so it’s not surprising that we would make a gender assumption when we hear the word “witch.” So why such high female numbers? In todays world, we would probably be quick to assume that the accusations are based solely on sexist agendas, but to understand the true reasoning it’s important to step out of our modern worlds views.
Back before our technological advances, our understanding of disease and chemistry, and before research and hospitals made life processes such as childbirth an almost certain success, every beginning medicinal remedy was pretty much a shot in the dark. One reason why women were likely to be pegged more heavily with the accusations is due to the lines of work their time period allowed them to take part in. Most women were in charge of collecting herbs for medicinal purposes and of course, cooking (Lucas). Therefore, knowledge of what plants were and how they did or didn't work came easily to most females as they grew older. As women used this knowledge of herbs to heal the ill, it's likely that on occasion their remedies fail. Not surprisingly, communities didn't take to these harmful practices well and frequently threw that women under the bus for witchcraft.
Witches communing with the devil and sacrificing a baby
Another job that led to the condemnation of females was one known as lying-in-maid. The occupation was typically taken by older women who no longer had families of their own to take care of because they would be brought in to live and take care of a woman and her newborn baby. Because giving birth was more dangerous and brutal in those days, a woman would likely be on bed rest for many days, therefore needing someone to do the usual chores of a wife and mother (Lucas). Naturally, newborns made connections with the lying-in-maids and as witch accusations were on the rise, jealous mothers were able to make vicious claims against these older women simply to get rid of them. You know, because witches obviously take and kill newborns to be able to fly.
It wasn't just the hobbies of women that raised suspicions against them, but simply the beliefs of the church that governed Europe at the time. Biblically, it was Eve who was tempted by the serpent to eat fruit off of the forbidden tree; therefore it must be women who have communed with the Devil. Women are the bearers of children; therefore it must be women who hold the most power on this earth. They also have much more access to perceived powerful substances such as blood, milk, placenta, and umbilical cord; and, because of procreation, mans high-powered genitalia (Lucas). To the Catholic and Protestant churches of the time, women were inherently dangerous and inherently evil, however "necessary" they may be to life (Lucas).
In modern times, we fight for equality in the outlook of women and men, and that fight generally transcends whatever religious belief someone may have. But in these times, a crisis is a crisis and the psychological need for a scapegoat definitely played a role as much if not more then as it does now. It's an obvious assumption too that men who believed such things about women were likely to fear losing whatever control or power they had over their communities. Therefore, a woman who was outspoken or stepped out against the stigmas against them wouldn't be favorable to society (Lucas). With witchcraft accusations and executions as a means to rid themselves of these problem women, men could easily turn a woman's projected beliefs into devilish constructs.
Now, while there are all of these pieces of historical evidence that back up the profile our society has created, not every witch fits the bill. There were men accused as well, most likely because of their connection to female witches (Lucas), but you can see why our perspective of witches tends to be feminine. There's a reason for such a stereotype and that's a big reason for our need to throw out our hold on the modern outlook of gender roles and hopes of equality. People in the 4th-17th centuries (and beyond) were not looking to level sex/gender playing fields.
- Lucas, Wendy. "Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?" History of Witchcraft. University of Central Arkansas. 12 Jan. 2017. Lecture.
- Lucas, Wendy. "Folk Magic & Christianity." History of Witchcraft. University of Central Arkansas. 17 Jan. 2017. Lecture.
- Lucas, Wendy. "Witchcraft in Germany." History of Witchcraft. University of Central Arkansas. 19 Jan. 2017. Lecture.
Don't Worry, We'll Save You
Spanish Inquisition torture
The Church Will Do the Trick
It's really interesting to cross the history and growth of the Catholic and Protestant churches with the growing demonization and convictions of witches. It's no surprise that the Church played a major role in providing "justice" for the communities in which they thrive, but the extent of their reigns in these times truly created the perfect storm for persecuting incredibly massive numbers all throughout Europe.
For instance, the Spanish Inquisition went into effect to purge Spain of Jews and Muslims under Pope Sixtus IV. During this purge, all heretics became targets of widespread persecution and often, execution by burning. As Pope Sixtus IV called for greater restraint, the Inquisition slipped from his hands only to get more and more brutal. In 1483, many inquisitors were appointed to areas of Spain including the infamous Tomás de Torquemada. Torquemada was a big fan of torture and made no excuses for those Jews or Muslims who had converted to Catholicism. These "conversos" were viewed to still have the hearts of heretics.
The next papal supreme, Pope Innocent VIII, came in with a burning fire (if you will). It wasn't just about purging the country for him, as exile of the heretics wasn't good enough. Any Jews that fled were to be brought back and put on trial. Crossing the histories here is where things get a bit too convenient for the Church. Considering it was generally Jewish families that owned the large plots of land, the Churches acquired a great deal of their land and money from executing roughly 4,000-8,000 of them. And it wasn't just executing, but also publicly humiliating them with flogging, then burning them on a stake at a big Sunday festival known as "Auto de Fé" which translates to "Act of Faith," but which I like to call the "Sunday torture fest." People were practically mandated to attend to watch which, also how convenient for the Church, provided a pretty good display of their power.
A little later in Germany in 1556, the instability of the countries religion was the reason for the growing executions of witches. The individual princes chose the religions of the land they ruled so the shifts between Catholic and Protestant "correctness" led to heavy accusations against people of the conflicting religions. With the stabilization of the Church, when the Prince-Bishops came to charge the numbers increased exponentially. Bishop Johann Gottfried von Aschhausen executed 300 witches, then Bishop Johann Georg II executed 600 witches (including a Chancellor and his family because he basically told Georg to chill), then Bishop Phillipp Adolf executed 900 witches (including a child as young as 7-years-old).
The most intriguing part of the church being in charge of the trials and executions of witches is their ability to place their guilt elsewhere. Especially within the realm of torture, they believe that they're doing right by God. These non-believers, heretics, and witches–they're in dealings with the devil and need to confess their sins. Under the Church, torture creates a cathartic experience with God in which the confession saves their soul. Of course, they're still going to be killed in the end (not via torture) but at least the Church doesn't have to hold the guilt of the heretics' damnation. It was truly believed that they were doing good for the accused.
A pretty profound and recognizable movement of the Church into the justice system happened in Scandinavia. Originally, groups of men called Ping's took care of the community and the needs of the people such as deciding punishments for crimes or changes in the community. Magic was occasionally frowned upon and generally only became a serious trial if death occurred due to the magical practices resulting in exile or fines. Soon enough though, the Church sort of realized this big hunk of land they'd missed and they began moving in. As soon as that happened, witchcraft (or as it was known in Scandinavia "Trolldómr") was all looked at as a crime against God and against His peoples given free will.
In Denmark in 1540, Lutheran Bishop Peter Palladius arrived to inform the people that they were trying witches all wrong and that they were to be hunted and persecuted. Conveniently enough, under the umbrella of witches fell Catholics as well.
In Norway, however, it was the Lutheran clergy members that were charged for destroying holy relics. But eventually because they were clergy members, they couldn't be targeted directly so their wives became the brunt of the accusations.
With all of these countries in the late 1500's and early 1600's being so heavily patrolled and controlled by religious systems, witchcraft was easily looked at as the devils work. It meant that people could put their hatred and hurt on a power they couldn't see but that they trusted reigned via bishops. It was just a manmade crime against a non-human power, and the Church was going to do everything they could to save their people from it.
You Might Make It
Not All Witches Were B****es
Though many of the early witchcraft accusations often ended in humiliating deaths, some countries and some different time periods experienced some pretty radical changes from the "Burn her at the stake!" states of mind.
In the 18th century, Russia experienced a dramatic shift from Peter I to Catherine II. Peter I governed by the Military Statute of 1716 that stated witchcraft and any occult practices were forbidden and punishable by death. When Catherine II was in charge, however, she governed by what I like to call common sense. First, she stated that witchcraft should be handled as a crime of fraud. To her, it was obvious that no one was truly using magic, they were therefore lying about their medical practices and powers. In 1775 she put "courts of conscience" (sovestnye sudy) into play. These courts treated witchcraft with cases such as juvenile offenders, criminally insane and the possessed.
Knowing the excuses made by the Church to accuse and kill so many in past decades in other countries, Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, was a surprisingly enlightened ruler. It's easy for us to look at all other countries and statements from them damning witches as heretics and say that they're crazy and spiteful. Catherine II deciding to finally see witchcraft as fraud seems to deserve a round of applause.
Another area that didn't quite punish witchcraft so heavily was Italy. To me, this was surprising considering the strength of Catholicism in Italian roots. And it's not to say that part isn't true, considering that witchcraft allegations started in the middle of the 16th century due to Protestantism threatening the Catholic Church. However, local tribunals saw the cases before the Holy Office and were sort of left with the decision to involve the Holy Office or not. The Venetian Inquisition was in full effect during these times out to get heretics, but most local tribunals were unsure whether to classify witchcraft as heresy (which is much different than other countries we've looked at). With this being the case, witches could only be found guilty of heresy if their craft included the devil and abuse of the sacraments, which was not normal for most Italian witches.
Another reason for few charges of witchcraft in Italy was that there simply weren't enough judges in the local tribunals. Considering the complications involved in sending witchcraft trials to the Holy Office and knowing if it'd be worth it, it wasn't exactly worth the lower courts time either. There were more pressing matters than someone with too many seeds and powders in their kitchen.
But it wasn't just the laws that made it easier for witches to get by. The traditions behind witchcraft in Italy, Sicily especially, distanced the people from the negative perceptions other countries had towards witches. "Donna di fuora," or "the lady from outside," was commonly used to reference witches and fairies. It was believed that the witches, who were mostly cunningfolk and healers, learned their craft from the fairies of the woods that used the power of nature to practice their magic.
Magical power from nature generally meant that it was used for the better. There would occasionally be mischievous spells cast or what I think more of as pranks, but no "maleficío" (or magic resulting in purposeful death) was ever recorded so the cases against witches or fairies were few and far between anyway. In fact, between the years of 1579-1651 the Holy Office only had 65 people accused. It's even said that the interrogations of these people often consisted of the accused becoming confused on what they even did wrong in the first place. The Holy Office couldn't really pin them with murder or anything so the witches were sort of left questioning, "Wait, what am I in trouble for? Using nature is wrong?" and basically the Holy Office just decided to leave them alone.
All this to say that in the history of witchcraft, there really were good and bad witches. But as we've seen, even the good were prosecuted as bad in other countries. In Russia after Catherine the Great and in Italy for many years, however, witches were looked at for being exactly who I think we would consider them to be today. Either lunatics who deserved to be tried as insane, or hippies who maybe just made a couple herbal mistakes here and there.