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THE WILD THING Experience


An talamh álainn

The Burning Times

In honor of March being Women’s History Month, I chose to write about a time in women’s history that often is overlooked. If you’re a witch, it’s a time you never forget. As a woman, you should remember. It’s a sign of how far we have come. It is from that point of view I write this.

This period in history, was terrible for both men and women but mostly for women. It is estimated that approximately 10,000 or more people were burned at the stake during this purge of what was thought to be witches. A horrific death for anyone to experience.

Why did this happen? It would be so easy to just say fear. Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that. So, we must look at it from a broader perspective. In the beginning, there were no such thing as doctors in those days. Women and men who knew the ways of the various herbs, plants and the like were the healers.

In villages, all over Europe and England they were called in to tend to the sick and attend at the birth of children. They were considered wise and respected for their knowledge. In the Celtic world, often you would see that women were also leaders of their tribe as the belief that the healing hands of a person were the sign of a leader.

The downfall occurred with the advent of Christianity. Catholicism precisely, and I say this because it never ceases to amaze me that Christians forget that all Christianity descends from the Catholic faith. It riles me, that today, some “Christians” look down on the very church that their faith’s foundation is built upon. I’ll crawl off that soap box now and ask for your pardon on getting on it.

Where was I? Oh yes, the spread of Christianity. Once that began, it was imperative that conversion was total. It began around 900 C.E. when a young abbot named Regino of Treves writes the Canon Episcopi. This Treatise reinforces the Church’s stance on “witchcraft”, which is that it doesn’t exist. They were going to ignore it. Good for witches and healers. They are left essentially to continue with their ways of healing and in secret for those who were still followers of the old ways, to practice their faith.  

Sadly, seventy-five years later, the church changes its mind and decides that there should be a penalty for witchcraft ignoring the Canon Episcopi’s assertion that it doesn’t exist. The penalty is mild, but worthy to note as it states: “A woman convicted of the use of ‘witchcraft and enchantment and magical philters’ shall be sentenced to a yearlong diet of bread and water.” It distinctly singles out women. The magical philters are probably the small vials of healing herbs, oils and other items she used.

This began the shunning of “witches”, of their being seen as “others”. They were still called upon when needed, but in the dark of night, when they couldn’t be seen coming.  They practiced their rituals at night to be undiscovered. Deep in the woods as always, but it too helped in hiding them from view. So the secrecy of their ways began and the myth of “dancing/fornicating with the devil” was born. So many tales were made up of these wise women and men who held to their faith and are still believed to this day. Again, I digress, my apologies.

In 1227 C.E. Pope Gregory IX announced that it was time to form an Inquisitorial Court to weed out heretics who are then executed. This is where it truly becomes the most horrifying time in world history. Pope Innocent III in 1252 carries on the Inquisition but decides that torture delivers a higher rate of confession and summarily execution by torture and burning. By 1326 the Church allows the Inquisition to go beyond investigations of heresy and they begin to ferret out people practicing “Witchcraft”. The theory of demonology is created. This forever establishes a link between witches and the Christian Satan.

When the Black Plague takes over in the 1340’s, people are dying all over. The healers can find no cure and despite their odd masks, (beginning of surgical masks, think about it) they themselves even get infected and die. But because they are healers and trying to help, they are accused of being the ones who are bringing this disease upon the people intentionally. Grouped in with them are Jews and lepers. Why Jews, whom the Church descended from is beyond me, as Jesus was a Jew. I’m sure it harks back to the whole the Jews crucified Jesus debate. As to lepers, it’s an easy jump to think that leprosy caused the Black Plague. So the burnings increased. Ahhhhh, good times.

Now that the witches have been completely vilified, the Catholic Church issued edict after edict condemning witches. They accused witches of eating babies, of selling their soul to the Devil, of fornication with the Devil and other types of debauchery. Witch hunts then began in earnest throughout Europe. The slightest ill, drought, crop failure, still born babe, was blamed on witches. The burnings continued and became village outings.

In 1487 The Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches Hammer) was published. It outlined the “vile activities” allegedly practiced by Witches, and then detailed some very creative methods of getting confessions from them so you could burn them. This book was the epitome of misogyny towards women. The ways of getting confession only a sadist would use and delight in. The monk that wrote this had to of been a sadist himself to come up with the ideas. At first the Church accepted the book as the book to use but eventually denounced it. Despite the Church having done so, many still used it for years after that thinking the Church had gone “soft” on this due to the rise of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in 1517 C.E. who said Protestants did not torture.

By this time, the trials and burning were reaching their peak. Many of the people accused were actually being targeted in battles between Catholics and Protestants, others were landowners whose property had been seized by the church. At this point, all one had to do was cry “Witch” and a trial was held. Scanty evidence was needed and the witch was burned. Whatever they owned was seized and given to whoever made claim to have been harmed by the witch in reparation for their loss/damage/pain.

A majority still though were women. Old sick women who had no home and were most likely covered in dirt and sores; with senility or some other mental illness like Alzheimer’s were called witch and burned. Women who were midwives and attended births that resulted in still born babies, deformed babies were burned. Women who were caught practicing the old ways, worshiping the Divine Sacred were burned. Widowed women with property adjoining a larger landowner would be accused of enchantment and seduction of the landowner and burned; her property then given to him. These were the so called “witches” of the burning times.

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Wild Thing Photography is one of my favorite stops on the Internet. There is something satisfying and comforting in the rural photos that are obviously taken with care and love. - Dr Don Noyes-More Ph.D.

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photosbywildthing.com

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