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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.