Witch Hunts and Witch Persecution

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Witch-hunting has elicited tremendous attention from historians and fashioned more than a few number of books. There seem to be as many diverse analyses of the spectacle as the number of books produced. The wonder spreads far in time, envelops an assortment of provinces, and involves so many aspects of people and community, that it is problematic to form a clear depiction of the topic. The word witchcraft is frequently associated with negativity and, often, to a more specific religious belief and practice known as Satanism. The history of witchcraft, it’s beliefs and practices, is vast and contains much violence and inequality among different religions, cultures, and genders. Individuals accused of witchcraft were executed in various ways, for example, hanged, burned at the stake, or drowned. There were times the accused were killed without any tangible evidence as in the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. This discrimination continues today in many countries and communities around the world, carrying the same outcomes of death, isolation, and torment. Men, women, and children have been accused of witchcraft by others in their community for reasons such as race, income and social status. The mentality and perception associated with witchcraft and with those associated with its practice, face as much persecution within their community in society today as they did in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Witchcraft, better known as Neopaganism, fluctuates among countries and cultures, and has many subcategories of variation such Wicca, Voodoo, Hoodoo, and Santeria; all of which face the same pessimism and alienation. The belief in witchcraft aides in creating life perceptions, regulates the way people in a community act, especially toward women, and is used to answer inquiries connected to misfortunate events. This paper will address the rise in regularity of witch persecution during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, and the gender and socioeconomic allocation of those accused and tried of witchcraft using sources from various historians.

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Witch hunts and witch persecution were ramped in European countries long before the Salem Witch Trials in America. A popular model used to describe witch hunting in seventeenth-century England is the Thomas/Macfarlane socioeconomic model. Malcolm Gaskill claims “Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas applied social anthropology to archival findings to transform understanding of English witchcraft.” These two historians argued that witch hunting was a bi-product of the wealthy vs. poor caused by tensions between neighbors. Their argument was when wealthier neighbors broke common ethics of neighborly assistance, they would become enveloped by guilt. Common misfortunes such as illness, herd death, and unproductive work became punishments for their negative actions and turned on their underprivileged neighbors, alleging the use of witchcraft as revenge. The accusations of witchcraft then began the rise of witch hunts across England and other European nations. The positive to this argument is addressing where a large number of the accused were coming from; the lower-class population. They also created the negative aspect to their argument in forming this positive connotation. They fail to account for and explain gender and the common assertation that more women were accused then men. A second negative is not all of those alleged were from the lower-class. The upper-class were not immune to accusations of witchcraft. A north county depositions in 1673, for instance, claims Ann Armstrong, a bachelorette and servant, suspects a number of her neighbors of witchcraft. It follows the Thomas/Macfarlane model as a case of social quarrel, created from a clash over the exchange of eggs. Anne Forester, the alleged witch, was the individual declining to meet Ann Armstrong’s price, not the scrounger. Armstrong’s focus was largely of the same social class as her or an even higher class. Those implicated include three men, one bachelorette, six widows, and three married women, all possibly farmers, land owners, or servants. The occurrence of these type of cases, people of the same or similar social class charging each other, weakens the Thomas/Macfarlane model.

The labeling of witch-hunting as a “witch-craze” gives an in improper connotation that Europeans were running around and killing people without provocation. It also denotes historians lack of understanding of witchcraft, falling in line with those who believe witchcraft to be devil-worship and black magic. Europeans were not crazy in their pursuit of alleged witches. Intellectual, reasonable people believed in the threat of Satan and Satanism. Richard Golden suggests instead of labeling this time period as a witch-craze, an alternative would be to call it the “era of European witch-hunts.” This would be a more appropriate title according to Golden, as the act of pursuit, persecution, and prosecution of alleged witches. The terms “hysteria” and “mania” have also been inappropriately used to describe witch hunts. These terms only create widespread panic and fear. Large scale witch-hunting took place on an occasional basis, as explained by Pavlac. The most common type of trials only involved one or two witches at times, which do not represent the mass as a whole. There was no constant frenzy of panic and hysteria. Edward Bever further cites that this mania led to the torture of accused witches and many innocent individuals in an effort to extinguish the fear. In her book, Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts, Anne Barstow attributes the rise of torture and violence against women in villages across Europe to the reduced population of women, as many were unjustly killed and tortured, leaving one village with only one woman. She claims the investigations alone would destroy a village. The instances of torture increased in the sixteenth century leading many judicial leaders and theologians like Johann Weyer to conclude “old women who thought they were in league with the devil were either victims of drug-induced hallucinations or mentally incompetent, and therefore deserved religious instruction or medical treatment rather than punishment.” This skepticism shared by many created reform in the legal system throughout Europe. A crisis point in Württemberg, Germany was a mass panic in 1656 that directed the duke to reprimand a number of officials for their “appalling errors,” enlist a retired monitor to end the proceedings, and establish a series of transformations in trial methods. Bever lists legal consultations before sentencing and the demand for sufficient evidence to keep the trials on course were some of the new methods to be used for future witch trials and prosecutions.11

Gaskill brings up a popular and elite view of witchcraft in the middle ages that is concerned with malificium, the ability of a witch to do harm, and those who viewed witchcraft this way did not think magic merited punishment. However, during the Protestant Reformation, elites began to acknowledge central views of witchcraft. This mainland view argued that all witchcraft, not just malificium, was evil as all magic was considered the result of Satanism, or some form of contact with the devil. As such, all witches were thought to be involved in bogus religion, Satanic worship, and the rejection of Christ. Some historians argue that the spread of this demonic interpretation over the malificium among the upper-class generated a religious fervor to cleanse the land of witches rather than search for societal harmony. Protestants and Puritans were concerned with the devil and the influence he welded over the earth. Satan’s power, oftentimes, was preached to be almost equivocal to God’s. Deeply religious puritans were more probable to sense a threat in witchcraft than their Catholic ancestors. It is plausible that if lower- and upper-class individuals held opposing views on witchcraft, the upper-class would use their superior diplomatic power to impose their views over the lower class, which then led to a larger number of disadvantaged convicted witches than affluent ones. Leading judges were, on occasion, compelled to accommodate the will of the upper-class and condemn witches who they felt were not guilty, for fear that they be would be accused of godlessness themselves. Religion became a tool for elite in prosecutions, and even the lower-class population used religious arguments in an attempt to obtain favor with the elite. A problem that lies with this view is it does not account for the difference of opinion between the elites themselves. Ben-Yehuda suggests that many elites, particularly conventional Anglicans, were skeptical of witchcraft prosecutions and belief of witchcraft in general. Robert Filmer, a renowned influential conservative and royalist, argued not only against the procedures used in witch trials, but also against the belief of witches as a whole. Filmer stated, “The Hebrew witch was not a being imbued with great demonic power but was a juggler, a charmer, or an Apothecary, a Druggist, one that compounds poisons.” A genuine witch was simply a swindler, and the theory of a mighty, evil being was false, even profane.

The proportion of women accused of witchcraft is vast compared to that of males. The Thomas/Macfarlane model does not explain the reasoning behind the apparent inclination to accuse women of witchcraft, however, other historians have done much research in this area and provide insight. Ben-Yehuda documents that “in southwest Germany, females constituted 85% of all victims.” William Monter claims that “a comparison of my research with that of Midelfort (another historian on witchcraft not used in this paper) shows that nearly 90% of the victims were women.” Robert Thurston states that almost every woman in Switzerland was considered or believed to be a witch. Why so many women? A functional approach to viewing witchcraft in women, as seen by Evans-Pritchard, is the “serving of certain useful functions, such as the alleviation of anxiety, integration, and the creation of cohesion.” Fear of female sexuality and the menstrual bleeding of women was seen as witchcraft, according to Barstow. She further ascertains that “the fear and disgust toward menstrual blood led to the belief that sex during menstruation could kill a man.”21 There are three other factors that can be attributed to the majority of the accused being female; structural and functional changes in the family, changes in the status and role of women, and demographic changes. Women represented the central role of a household. Women, in the Middle Ages, were the homemakers, the caretakers, and the heart of the family. Skilled crafts and other textile industries were taken over by women, advancing them in society. Women were becoming less subordinate and began refusing to be seen as a man’s possession. As families began to migrate from rural life to towns, leading to reduced wages for all and creating survival problems for males. The result had women entering the workforce to help provide for their families or for themselves if they were alone. The traditional role of women, as conveyed by Ritta and Richard Horsley, to be homemakers was shifting to a worker class, creating a misogynic ideology. Their role as mother lessened as many married and unmarried women alike used contraceptives to prevent pregnancy, a strategy not condoned by churches. Green and Bigelow designate this practice to be the work of witches. Some women subjected themselves to prostitution in areas that became synonymous with witchcraft, as Barstow points out, such as cities along the Rhine and in Alsace-Lorraine. Married women would accuse prostitutes of witchcraft in seducing their husbands. The demographical changes resulting in women being the target of accusations can partly be credited to the decline of women marrying and the late age of a woman when she marries. The stigma clinging to single women was they were witches as many of the implicated women were unmarried or widows.26 That is not to dissuade one to believe that married women were free from accusation. Many of the alleged, married women were women with disagreeable personalities who went against traditional family values. Monter offers his opinion on why women were accused by stating,

“It may be easy to show why most people accused of witchcraft should be women, but harder to show why they were accused only in one particular epoch. And it may be hard to explain the intriguing possibility that the percentage of accused witches who were not adult women tended to increase in later trials.”

Defining and elaborating on the witch hunts between 1648 and 1815 require in-depth analysis from multiple sources. Even with those sources, it can be difficult to come to an agreeable conclusion as to why they began, who began them, why certain people were targeted for witchcraft accusation. By looking through the research of others and comparing them, the rise in regularity of witch persecution during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, and the gender and socioeconomic allocation of those accused and tried of witchcraft can be inferred and understood. Further research into the validity of evidence brought forth to condemn the accused as well as testimony that may be available is needed for a greater knowledge base into the thought process of European witch-hunters, elites, politicians, and clergymen. It is clear from every source that was utilized for this paper, that a significant portion of those accused were female. The reasons mentioned for these accusations range from their marital status to their social status. The spinsters of the community were associated with witchcraft as choosing to remain unmarried during these centuries was unheard of. Many of the historians also eluded to the class of the accused as well. The upper-class tended to allege witchcraft in those who were less fortunate than them. Neighbor tensions and quarrels were explained away as the result of a witch casting a curse or spell on an unsuspecting neighbor, inducing illness or other ailments. Historians have painted a gruesome picture at times of witchcraft and its effects. These effects have carried over into modern time, leaving many with questions and no real answers. As the historian, Monter, stated, it is still hard to show and determine many of the whys of the witch hunts. The research of witchcraft and the witch hunts of the past can still be analyzed today with renewed vigor and possibly hold the answers that many have sought.

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