As should be obvious, in light of the writings of Thomas Aquinas and the dualism of Catharism, people were interested in Satan. If God was all-powerful and had created the world, hearing about a rival to God would have attracted a lot of attention. If God created, could Satan destroy? Were God and Satan the same or different interpretations of the same story? With so many discoveries being made in science and culture, what might the Catholic Church be hiding from the world? These were very real, very pressing questions from the 13th through 15th centuries and in the absence of informed doctrine, all of Europe began to fill the void with folk religion. Martin Luther, writing the theses he would nail to the church door in Wittenburg, felt that Satan was a very real presence, even tangibly so in his friar’s cell. Luther, over the course of his life, will speak of how genuine a fear Satan was for him – as real as the gnomes, sprites, fairies, and forest creatures his parents assured him would kill him if he didn’t go to sleep as a child or obey their parental orders. Which is to say, as Europe and the known world began to ruminate on Catharism’s proposal – that Satan was a true rival to God, demons the equal of any angel – fear of and interest in Satan began to be a burgeoning enterprise for those who traded in religion.
French historian Jean Delumeau believes that the end of the Middle Ages and beginnings of the early Modern Period created widespread fear, a kind of mass pathology, among Western Europe. The world was simply changing too fast for individuals to adapt, creating residual panic. This fear resulted from social, economic, political, and religious transformations taking place at the time and the anxiety was, in some sense, “birth pangs” for Modernity. This fear was intense for lower, even some middling classes of people who perceived the changes as a threat to their well being. Having come from poverty and looking to eke out a living, they were now being told that the assumptions of survival in the world as they knew it were wrong because, lo and behold, the world itself was entirely different – much larger, much more intelligent, much more lucrative. The disparity between present circumstance and the largeness of the world still causes anxiety for us today, how much more then? Bandits, criminals, vagrants, those on the margins of society all represented another form of this discontent. They broke the laws and thumbed their noses at tradition because te rules no longer applied. Albert Einstein, speaking of the Atomic Age, said that “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” The world had changed and so would they. It is ironic that these forms of resistance increased the degree of anxiety of their contemporaries, ratcheting the world toward pandemic social violence. A violence that, ultimately, most affected those at the bottom of society.
Satan, the Husband of Witches
All fears must be embodied at some point. According to Delumeau, fear was directed against certain social groups for the betterment of the oppressor. Persecution was an antidote to discontent redirected at Jews, lepers, Muslims, women – especially old women, heretics, and groups already excluded from the construction of the nation. These persecutions diverted attention away from more pressing problems like inflation and taxation, war, crime, and other social ills by shifting the blame (for our purposes, witches) to diabolical conspiracies; state-supported scapegoating strengthened the institutions and coercive mechanisms of the nation-state. Before discussing how women were half the problem by virtue of their birth, we must comment on Satan.
The Satan of Hebrew scripture is ambivalent; he is an adversary of God, certainly, but he is also an agent of God’s providence and restrained in power. The story of Job, for instance, records that Satan is a busy walking the Earth, observing the righteous. He confronts God on the qualities of Job and is allowed to test Job, even kill Job’s family, but restrained from taking the life of a righteous man. In the story, he and his role in God’s purposes is vague, even ambiguous. Scattered across the rest of Hebrew scripture, Satan is not the tempter or challenger to the one depicted in the Christian scriptures. There, he is depicted as a tempter who reinterprets scripture and walks about, at times, “as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” By the time of John’s revelations at the end of the first century, Satan can be seen working through the political structures of Rome, making victims of Christians. He will one day lead a rebellion against God with a host of other fallen angels who become, in time, dark spirits known as demons. If anything, we might say that looking over the story Satan begins to collect power over time. If Job is the oldest story in the Hebrew canon and Revelation the close of the Christian canon, there is a decided difference between the passive wayward angel with a grudge against humanity and the malevolent dragon who eats babies and overthrows nations that he will one day become. Seen on a continuum, we might say that the Satan of the Middle Ages is darker and testing the limits of evil in the world though not a true rival of God just yet. Nevertheless, because of Catharism, there existed the idea of Satan as a fully developed rival of God who had eluded capture and confused the whole world into believing he did not exist but was here now, among the godly people of Europe, as a ravening wolf. Beliefs in the devil and his demonic army really developed in early Christianity and again in the Middle Ages when those original documents were being discovered in libraries as the channels of information and trade unveiled new worlds. Images of the devil during this period and iconographic representations varied a great deal, contributing to the mercurial appearance of that slippery serpent, Satan.
Stepping back, we might also say that the differences in depiction and appearance vary so much because of the relatively slow construction over time towards a final image of a captain of demons with horns, hooves, glowing red skin, the beard of a Spaniard, and pitchfork as in Dante’s Inferno. Whatever the appearance, perhaps even because of the elusive appearance, the devil came to play an important role in the beliefs of most Europeans, linked to a range of activities. Chief among these activities was as a ringleader of sexual misconduct among women.
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII announced that those in league with the devil, satanists, were meeting regularly with demons and casting spells to destroy the crops of Germany, aborting infants, causing mischief and curious occurrences, subverting authority by way of criminal activity, and spreading darkness throughout the world. Pope Innocent asked two Dominican friars, Heinrich Kramer (a papal inquisitor of sorcerers from Innsbruck) and Jacob Sprenger to publish a full report on suspected witchcraft. Two years later, they had produced the Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches”) to establish means of discovering, accusing, revealing, and ultimately punishing witches wherever they might be found. Average Christians, not just the armies of a nation or of the Church, had an obligation to defend their lands by hunting and killing those who opposed God. Conveniently, this united pockets of people under a national banner for a spiritual purpose.
The Malleus told frightening tales, read publicly, of women who would have sex with any convenient demon or passerby, kill their babies, even steal penises. One such story concludes with the chilling reminder, “what is to be thought of those witches who collect as many as twenty or thirty members together, put them in a bird’s nest or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members and eat oat and corn?” Given the novelty of the Malleus and the tales contained therein, it would be reprinted thirteen times in the next four decades alone and define the crime of witchcraft more than any sermon, tract, political or philosophical treatise, or papal edict.
Much of the book offers tricks to confuse a witch’s testimony and suggested tests for a judge or prosecutor to reveal a defendant’s guilt and complicity with the devil. The authors suggested, for instance, that a suspect be brought into court backwards to minimize any opportunity to cast dangerous spells or hexes on officials, then to be stripped completely so that their body could be inspected for curious moles or birthmarks – a telltale sign of consort with demons.
The Witch Craze
There are two narratives about the role of women in history. One is that women have always been the equal of men – hunting and gathering alongside them during primitive periods – and over time acculturating by their own choice towards the “division of labor.” The other narrative is that early on, as recorded and supported by historical records and religious texts, men began to dominate women through use of force and sexual violence, enacting severe even terminal punishments for “disobedience” to the “natural order.” In either version of history, women were not the equal of men in any society of which we have record. Apart from mythology and fables like the Amazonians, the story of Lysistrata, and the Isle of Lesbos, there is no substantival account of equality for women. Quite the contrary. The special place of women in Western civilization and their pejorative representations in normative texts holds the key to reconstruction of the unique phenomenon known as “the witch craze.”
What we have realized in the last century of scholarship regarding the ancient world is that invasions of pastoral people ushered in a dramatic transformation of religious worship from female-centered religions (fertility cults and sacrifices of grain, etc.) to male-centered ones (animal slaughter). This change is most evident in Judaism, but also can be interpreted from Greek mythology as well. The book of Genesis in Hebrew Scriptures indicates that worship of a deity involved offerings of “firstfruits” and grain (the celebration of life) but became fixated on death through the sacrifice of life with involvement of blood (evidence that life could no longer be sustained), and the deeper archeologists dig, the more evidence they find of female-centered worship. This is why it is distantly intriguing that the normative texts of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and classical works contain pejorative representations of women. Women, even from the early annals of Greece, tend to be associated with evil and described as weak or easily deceived and seduced. At their strongest, women were capable of leading men into temptation and “astray” from worship of the gods.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. Deborah is a leader in Israel during the period of the Judges, Miriam leads the Hebrew people in worship of God after their flight from Egypt, and Jesus seems to give equal attention to women. Plato and Euripides advocate a kind of rough equality between the sexes, and the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes shows that women can change the political future of a country by uniting against men. But these are rare exceptions given the volume of privilege and attention given to men in these accounts; the normative reality of social, cultural, and economic conditions indicate that women were inferior to men. The cradle of democracy then was not democratic when it came to women.
Early Christianity, as shown through the work of Elaine Pagels and others, allowed women more space and responsibility in the liturgy and religious life of the Church, but this situation did not last long once Christianity was adopted as the state religion of Rome under Constantine. Throughout the Middle Ages, women of the upper class had only two alternatives: marriage or monastery. All middle and lower class women were of one destiny: marriage. There is a great wealth of material to discuss here about women and the role of women in society, but for brevity I will instead point out that women who joined the monastery and expressed themselves in any way were “mystical.” Women were not “orthodox” like men were, rather they were outside of tradition, outside of orthodoxy, and had no avenue to be either. This is, I would aver, a division of the religious experience for Christians. Men were theologically inclined and women spiritually inclined, a “natural” subordination to the male experience. At every turn, women were locked out of the privileged encounters with God that men were said to have and any attempt to exert themselves was heretical for it was outside the “divinely sanctioned” division of religion. For a brief period in the 12th century, women revelled in courtly love but this was soon quashed and condemned by the Church as sinful, even heretical.
Instead of dwelling here and focusing on gender politics, I would prefer to – again – suggest that any woman who did anything outside of the prescriptions of a male-dominated society and especially within a religious structure was destined for heresy. Later, these expressions and connection to the “earthiness” of the world instead of the idealized state will be returned upon women as evidence of their union with Satan, but until I return to this discussion I will remind the reader of Raphael’s painting, The School of Athens where Aristotle and Plato are in discussion about the nature of reality. Plato is depicted pointing heavenward, symbolizing that all reality is speculative and a sign/symbol of something greater. Aristotle, meanwhile, is depicted pointing to the ground, symbolizing his focus on empiricism – that what was real came only from experience. This division in worldview and interpretation will serve as a catalyst for much of the witch craze I will be discussing momentarily.
Returning to the choices before women, the choice was between marriage and subordination to a man (sometimes, a stranger), taking vows for the monastery (where sexuality would be repressed in exchange for a measure of safety from strange men for “brothers in Christ”), or mystical experiences that brought them to the razor’s edge of heresy. Women lived perilously close to death, especially to the hands of men, during a time of instability. With the publication and circulation of the Malleus Maleficarum, women (especially “mystics”) were viewed with even more suspicion. The mere accusation of a midnight liasion with demons was enough to bring her, naked and chained, before judges and witch hunters who could accuse her based on physical imperfections.
While many Americans tend to think of the Salem Witch Trials as a blight on their history, they would do well to remember that Salem was not without precedent and that there was a history that inspired the Puritans to risk shipwreck and illness just to get away from religious persecution. Women especially. John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman in their book, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America record that after the first exploratory missions of the original settlers from Europe (which were primarily single men or married partners), women began coming to The New World in a mass exodus, seeking any measure of new freedom to be found outside of Europe. Coming out of the Middle Ages into the early Modern Period, women were at a considerable disadvantage. Given the social upheaval that was pandemic for the time, including diseases and famine, the number of women increased and the proportion of widowed or single women in relation to the number of men rose dramatically. Women alone, living at the edge of towns and engaging in such activities as healing, herbalism, and other practices of folk medicine, became a frequent thing in rural Europe.
Women, especially older women of the lower classes without protection or ties to men, were easy targets for persecution and “societal betterment.” In the absence of Jews, and sometimes in conjunction with other marginalized groups, older women made ideal scapegoats. The combination of female vulnerability, old age (which, in and of itself, makes for considerable vulnerability), begging, or “lewd behavior” (often for access to resources) made a heady concoction leading to further marginalization and persecution. Old women had long been associated with the “evil eye” and, following the publication of the Malleus, with Satan. they were both the embodiment of as much the cause of social unrest. Here, the widespread misogyny of Western society found a local and therefore convenient and perpetual outlet for unleash mistrust of women, articulated in frequent persecutions and sporadic killings.
In a very real sense, all of the conditions – as have been outlined up to this point – were right for the defeat of localized evil. All that was needed was the intellectual construction of witchcraft. This was achieved by, as should be evident by now, the Malleus Maleficarum. Pope Innocent VII’s 1484 bull, Summa Desiderantes Affectibus, commissioned the Dominican monks Heinrich Kraemer and Jakob Sprenger to investigate accusations of fringe women and the unusual occurrences attributed to local demons through Europe, especially the Harz Mountains of Germany.
Their publication in 1486, in a very real sense, would forevermore be the test by which witches were accused and executed. The suspicion of demonic activity would thereafter have hints of German folk religion and involve a decidedly rural depiction of witches. It was and has been used by Catholics as well as Protestants to identify those under demonic influence or working towards Satanic ends. As it relates to women, the book gives guidelines for identifying evil occurrences with a focus towards women who, the Malleus claims, are by nature more easily seduced by the devil and have a greater propensity to evil. Another part contains lurid accounts of how women (i.e. witches) could make men impotent, steal their genitalia, and carry out other sexual misconduct. Arguably, the linkage of women’s wiles, the devil, and sexuality was what made the Malleus so popular and guaranteed ties could be drawn in popular and elite imagination between witchcraft, women, and lustfulness. As stated previously, the Malleus also outlined procedures of interrogation, accusation, trial, and punishment of women. Written in the academic language of the scholastic Dominicans, the book carried enormous authority and shaped the treatment of women over the next two centuries. While the Malleus was an instrument of a something already happening in the zeitgeist, namely the restriction of women in society and privileging of youth and fertility, the book legitimized social anxieties, permitted aggressive behaviors and perpetuated, even escalated, rampant patriarchy towards the subjugation of women under the guise of ecclesiastical or “godly” purity.
The Witch Hunts
Outbreaks of witchcraft hysteria, with subsequent mass executions, began to appear in the early 1500s. Authorities in Geneva, Switzerland burned 500 accused witches at the stake in 1515 and nine years later in Como, Italy, a deluge of accusations led to as many as 1000 executions on the charge of witchcraft. As discussed previously, this can be attributed to the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum but it is important to note that while the Malleus was an important point in the study of witchcraft at the time, the accusation was already in circulation and “justice” was enacted in local communities against women, Jews, the sickly and infirm, and all kinds of racism, political views, and xenophobia. It was a great time of unrest for a world coming out of the Dark Ages and transitioning into a new world entirely.
The Reformation further divided Europe between Protestant regions and those loyal to the Pope, though Protestants took the crime of witchcraft no less seriously (arguably even more so) than Catholics. Germany, rife with sectarian strife, saw Europe’s greatest execution rates of witches – higher than those in the rest of the continent combined. Witch hysteria lept the border and swept through France in 1571 after Trois-Echelles, a defendant accused of witchcraft from the court of Charles IX, announced to the court that he had over 100,000 fellow witches roaming the country. Judges responding to the ensuing panic by eliminating for those accused of witchcraft most of the protections that other defendants enjoyed. Jean Bodin in his 1580 book, On the Demon-mania of Sorcerers, opened the door for use of testimony by children against parents, legal entrapment, and instruments of torture. Over the next 200 years from 1500 to 1700, Europe saw another 50,000 to 80,000 suspected witches executed. According to some estimates, four out of five (or 80%) of those killed were women. Execution rates varied greatly by country, from a high of about 26,000 in Germany to about 10,000 in France, 1,000 in England, and only four in Ireland. The lower death tolls in England and Ireland owe in part to better procedural safeguards in those countries for defendants until 1591 when King James authorized the torture of suspected witches in Scotland.
Scotland’s witch-hunting had its origins in the marriage of King James to Princess Anne of Denmark. Anne’s voyage to Scotland for the wedding met with a bad storm, and she ended up taking refuge in Norway. James traveled to Scandinavia and the wedding took place in at Kronborg Castle in Denmark. After a long honeymoon in Denmark, the royal newlyweds encountered terrible seas on the return voyage, which the ship’s captain blamed on witches. This was enough to convince the king that malevolent forces existed and were challenging his “god-given” authority. When six Danish women confessed to having caused the storms that bedeviled King James, he began to take witchcraft seriously. Back in Scotland, James authorized torture of suspected witches. It would become the largest witch hunt in British history and completely derail the nation. Even James could see he had lost control of the situation, having lended too much credence to superstition. By 1597, he began to address some of the worst prosecutorial abuses, and witch hunting abated somewhat. But the climate of the nation had changed.
William Shakespeare would immortalize the fears of the monarchy with his 1606 play, Macbeth, again relying on the depiction of witches found in the Malleus Maleficarum – and exaggerating them for dramatic effect into strange, bearded, hag-like women who cast a spell, summoning a dark spirit to advise the beleaguered Macbeth. It is probably the most famous, widely known spell in literature and theater.
ACT 4, SCENE I. A cavern. In the middle, a boiling cauldron.
Thunder. Enter the three Witches
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.
Harpier cries ‘Tis time, ’tis time.
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
Enter HECATE to the other three Witches
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.
Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ & c
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is’t you do?
A deed without a name.
I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe’er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature’s germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.
Say, if thou’dst rather hear it from our mouths,
Or from our masters?
Call ’em; let me see ’em.
The Decline of Witch Trials in Europe
Deescalation under King James was not the only effort to bring about a decline in witch hunting, nor was it immediately followed. In 1643-1645, the largest witch hunt in French history occurred. In those two years alone, there were at least 650 arrests in Languedoc. The English Civil War erupted at this same time (1641-51) and created an atmosphere of intense unrest which fueled the hunts, especially under Matthew Hopkins, who held the office of Witchfinder General. The title was never officially bestowed upon him by Parliament, but neither did they seek to discredit him. Between 1644 and 1646, Hopkins single-handedly executed over 300 women. Wallace Notestein, writing in 1911 in A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718, claimed that Hopkins and his partner, John Stearne, were responsible for 60% of the trials for witchcraft ending in execution between the 15th and 18th centuries. No other witch hunters, Notestein claimed, would reach these numbers, though the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) produced several other witch hunters who aspired to do so.
As has been claimed previously, the civil unrest of the time contributed to fears and accusations being bandied about. Trials dropped off dramatically in the latter end of the 1640s. Holland, for example, had done away with punishments for the crime of witchcraft by 1648. The country remains neutral towards witches and there remains a small but notable number of self-proclaimed witches there to this day.
The Enlightenment, beginning in the late 1680s, can also be said to have contributed to the end of witch hunts. The Enlightenment brought empirical reason, skepticism, and humanitarianism, each of which helped defeat the superstitions of the earlier age. In 1682, Temperance Lloyd, a senile woman from Bideford, became the last witch ever executed in England. Lord Chief Justice Sir Francis North, a passionate critic of witchcraft trials, investigated the Lloyd case and denounced prosecution by the Crown as deeply flawed. Sir Francis North wrote of the last witches, “The evidence against them was very full and fanciful, but their own confessions exceeded it. They appeared not only weary of their own lives but to have a great deal of skill to convict themselves.” North’s criticism of the Lloyd case helped discourage additional prosecutions. The Enlightenment suggested that there was no empirical evidence that alleged witches caused real harm, and taught that the use of torture to force confessions was inhumane.
While 1682 marked the last official execution of a supposed witch in England, historians claim witches had gone entirely underground and awaited their chance to flee to the New World. Any patient hopes for freedom they may have held were short-lived. In 1692, the Salem Witch Trials of America began.