The 'Wicked Witch' in the Sixteenth Century... and Today

The word ‘witchcraft’ brings to the mind visual images and emotional reactions for many people. So it has from the creation of the idea of magic, witchcraft, etc… but even in our civilized and enlightened society today. The origins of magic and its practitioners or ‘witches’ are unclear; there are various references to both in the King James Version of the Holy Bible, in the Jewish holy scripture book called the Torah, in laws and court hearings in both Ancient Greece and Rome as well as references and myths written by the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Early Egyptians and the Persians. Depending on the time frame and the culture in which you live, the images and emotions provoked are very different. Today as I get ready for the Halloween traditions in my culture, I expect to see costume- clad children knocking on my door and I will ‘ohh and aww’ over their choices while I pass out goodies and smiles. It was not always this way and the ideas of witchcraft and magic, or ‘unnatural acts’, have provoked much less benign and more violent reactions from those who feel threatened.

So what is witchcraft… and who are those who practice it? Again, that definition can change based on time, place and culture, but the generic definition of witchcraft can read as follows: the practice of magic, especially black magic; the use of spells and the invocation of spirits… the art or practices of a witch. Those who practice the craft are thought to be individuals with three specific qualities; use of malevolent power, a depraved heretic towards the majority religion and/or power structure, and also the acts of sexual deviancy. It was thought that both men and women could practice the art of magic and in some cases that magic could be ‘white’ (good) or ‘black’ (bad). During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the idea of witchcraft and its practitioners changed in the minds of many and how it was dealt with became a larger and more significant issue then it had been in other times during human history. Many aspects of culture at this time can be analyzed to understand and recognize how situations like witch-hunts happen, how the targeted individuals are picked and why, and what forces are in play to cause the volatile fearful situations. I wish to look at the political, education, social, and religious constructs of early modern Germany as well as the continent of Europe as a whole to try and understand how all the violence came to be and who it was against. It is hopeful by understanding it, we can work to not perpetuate it in our own lives and cultures.

This time period was a time of great change and many of these transitions help explain some of the fear and escalation in these communities. This was the time in history that we also call the Reformation when the Christian religion was going through a significant change as the Catholic Church no longer had a complete monopoly on Christ and Christian thought. Individuals such as Martin Luther and John Calvin wrote about their ideas/ thoughts on their concerns in the Catholic Church and its teachings following with suggestions for change and needed reform. These men and others created new communities or groups that came to be known as Protestants and which vied with the Catholic Church for converts. Rulers, kings and other political elite found that the doctrinal instability in the religions and communities correlated into political instability. One side benefit - rulers who converted to a Protestant religion could stop paying the Roman church high taxes and could also seize Catholic funds and assets in their own lands providing themselves with a new source of revenue. During this time there were also times of sickness and famine as the ‘Little Ice Age’ passed through which caused a lot of hardship and death for all. Protestant thought at this time also stressed that Satan was a physical being and Luther himself described himself as having many encounters with Satan who attempted to keep him from reforming the church. So it is into this time of insecurity- both of doctrine, politics and the beginnings of the questioning of sexual relationships, power that we start our journey into sixteenth Germany.

Before the sixteenth century, the idea of witches and their ‘craft’ were fading from the public sphere across Europe and magic was thought to be a superstitious practice with very little real power. In the early Catholic church, the ideas of witchcraft were thought to consist more of idolatry and illusion- sins to be sure, but not the cause of direct harm to others and, in an anonymous text titled Canon Episcopi from the ninth century which is part of canon law, it states that ‘there was no such thing as an actual witch’. During the development of early modern Germany and other states, misogynist writings and men in power worked to change the viewpoint of the whole society towards witches, magic and its practitioners. Books such as the “Malleus Maleficarum” helped to define and spread the new image of witches; they were real, they were women, and the source of all societal degradation. Add to those ideas the concerns of Catholics at a rapidly changing religious landscape, the changing power structure, and the tensions between the differing factions began to stretch and break. Some women joined one of the differing groups of Protestants and found they had more opportunities and influence than they had when participating in the Catholic Church. The obvious threats to the power structure of the church caused the religious male hierarchy to go on the offensive. Under the belief that the female sex is more susceptible to evil influences and is the inferior of both genders, any woman who did not strongly conform to the local religious and cultural expectations was easily accused of being a witch. (Some historians show evidence that the witch hunts were strongest and encompassed the most victims in territory that was 'Protestant controlled' but that is not definitive- Sociologist Nachman ben-Yehuda states, “Only the most rapidly developing countries where the Catholic Church was weakest, experienced a virulent witch craze.”) It is quite evident that both religions and their leaders used the supposition of witchcraft as a way to try and regain their lost power and hierarchy in areas where they were at risk. In some cases, there is evidence that men who were not seen as being vigilant enough in finding and persecuting witches were disparaged as men who were weak, womanly, etc... What is clear is that the idea of witches/witchcraft was no longer a subtle idea or existed only in the realm of thought- these ideas were now useful as a confrontational and aggressive way to deal with ‘enemies’ or other undesirables in the community.

In essence, any woman who (or was thought to be) engaged in behavior that felt threatening or was unconventional in behavior or appearance was at serious risk for problems. Many women could be accused and found guilty and executed on little to no evidence of significant wrong doing. The most common way was to accuse a 'witch' and charge her with heresy. As the definition of heresy was defined by the specific religion but usually enforced not only religious orders and leaders but also enforced by the secular legal power structure. In that light, a heresy charge was a pretty significant and threatening event in someone’s life as well as a charge that didn’t depend on physical proof for convictions- circumstantial evidence, hearsay and confessions under torture were sufficient. Due to women’s influence in their homes and as the transmitter of the culture to their young children, they were in the position to spread unconventional information to their children. As this could potential force changes in the hierarchy and its power, men were encouraged to be actively engaged in keeping the women in their family / household under their control. Single women, whether due to a lack of marriage or from being widowed, were also likely to be accused and condemned for a few reasons. Due to their single status, they had no male protectors and were easier to accuse than married females. In that same sense, they had no men to ‘control’ and keep tabs on them and their behavior and if they were self-sufficient or financially independent, any woman who could be seen as too prominent in society for any reason was in a dangerous situation. Also, by being single and taking assents, these women could and did stand in the way of the orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another.

The ways that ‘witches’ were caught and were mostly women make sense in the power structure at that time. Midwives who practiced medicine could be targeted for that by their male rivals. A midwife or healer could be accused if a birth didn’t end perfectly or a child died- even one accusation could easily multiply as other individuals looked back at past experiences and reinterpreted them with the accusation in mind. In some ways, midwives, and medical women were seen to have power over life and death. Over centuries, the Catholic Church taught that the suffering and illness of this world were only temporary and fleeting. It was thought that God was no longer involved in the physical world so anyone who was able to divine or understand natural knowledge was seen as using supernatural power… or power from the devil. As the concept of medicine and medical care developed and gained a following, the church put its backing behind the upper class men who studied and practiced it and supported medical care for the few who could afford it. To control medical knowledge, it was taught in the first universities (in which women were not allowed to study) so any woman who practiced medicine was self or informally taught – a method described as “If a women dares to cure without having studied than she is a witch and must die.” Add to those thoughts that women were thought to be more likely to be able to weld unnatural, malevolent power and even bad weather and environmental conditions were blamed on local women. Whether being accused of calling up a storm to try and drown a King in his ship at sea, a papal bull stating “…have blasted the produce of the earth, the grapes of the vine….” or the entire chapter written on the subject in the Malleus Maleficarum titled “How they Raise and Stir up Hailstorms and Tempests, and Cause Lightening to Blast both Men and Beasts” ending with the sentence “Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that, just as easily as they raise hailstorms, so can they cause lightning and storms at sea; and so no doubt at all remains on these points.”

The other thing that made women more likely to be accused and punished of witch craft was if they could be suspected of sexual deviancy. Many women were prosecuted based on charges relating to their own motherhood and role in the home. Sexual orgies, having sexual relations with the devil and the normal sexual misbehavior or fornication and adultery were all reasons that could be used in accusations of witchcraft. Any kind of male sexual dysfunction- from impotence to premature ejaculation to complete disappearance of the penis and other sexual organs was also blamed on the power and perversion of witches. To counter this problem, men used trials to assert their dominance over women and their bodies with public strip searches, torture, etc… giving themselves permission to sexual assault women and remind everyone of their place.

There seems little doubt that religion and gender played a huge role in the witch-hunts in early modern Germany. Whether the ‘witch’ was burned, hanged, strangled, or beheaded, it is clear that most of the accused were female and were chosen because they were perceived to be a threat to the male hierarchy. By criminalizing women’s attempts to share power as well as the anxiety that was felt by the male hierarchy over women’s societal roles and the influence and power in them, a women’s perceived sexual prowess, and the general weakness of women to resist and therefore were more susceptible to witchcraft, those in power had a lot of leverage to control women’s behavior, place in society and to remove them if necessary. We still struggle with these same issues today. While we no longer call women we fear witch (very often) and as a civilized society unnecessary violence is abhorred, the fears, confusion and anger over women and their choices spills out into the communities in more subtle and acceptable forms in our patriarchal society- negative labels, harassment or assault both physical and sexual, as well as cultural expectations that indirectly (and directly) place limits on the behavior of women. Politicians and those individuals on all sides of the political spectrum use their beliefs, desires, value systems and power in society to 'create' and name our new 'witches'- single mothers, poor and elderly women, feminists, working women, women in power, minorities, etc... Some religions also continue to set limits and rules on women's expectations and behavior that are not applicable to men and women who speak out against injustices in their faith communities can be removed or kicked out- many by male only courts. It is important to recognize that, while the concentrated and active witch trials of the sixteenth century are in the past and we no longer 'burn' witches, the feelings, anger, and power struggles of that era have not been resolved and are still alive in us and our society today. That different methods are used to cause fear, oppression, or motivation to keep the status quo of power in the hands of the few, the rich, and the male doesn't suggest anything other than a recognition of the gender power struggle itself will not bring about peace between genders and stability in society. Only time, a willingness to share power and humility will bring the possibility of that….

pictures from: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/dominicselwood/100252072/the-dark-deep-roots-of-britains-fascination-with-witchcraft/, http://www.damnedct.com/connecticut-witchcraft-trials, http://www.biography.com/people/john-calvin-9235788, http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/shop/the-malleus-maleficarum-in-latin-pdf/, http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/shop/the-malleus-maleficarum-in-latin-pdf/, http://witchnest.blogspot.com/2010/07/killing-witches-as-best-way-to-kill.html, http://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&ved=0CAMQjxw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fen.academic.ru%2Fdic.nsf%2Fenwiki%2F11823268&ei=cKPjVPK9L-OxsASR94DIDw&psig=AFQjCNGjAAFlzXs6eji2QEbpsIhDxcZ0Pg&ust=1424291020320634, http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/11823268,

No comments:

Post a Comment