Witch Trials

European Witch Trials

In the mid-1400s, the residual effect of the bloody Crusades was a new holy war on the mysterious “other.” What started as a religious war between Christians and Muslims to secure control of holy sites, ended as a massacre of women, Jews, and other non-Christians.

The invention of the printing press sent the written word of God far and wide. With the spread of that knowledge came the spread of another knowledge as well. The ‘Malleus Maleficarum,’ or The Hammer of Witches became the second most printed book in the late 1400s, after the Bible. The book was a guide on how to identify, hunt, and interrogate witches. It caused a witchcraft hysteria that took hold of Europe for over three centuries.

Motivation to characterize people as evil, was sometimes fueled by fear of the unknown. Medieval Europeans nearly universally believed in supernatural means for healing, growing crops, and to create fertility. Ways that were considered strange or magical were mysterious, and what was unknown was frightening. The accusation of witchcraft was often cast on midwives, women with herbal knowledge, who may be single or elderly, or to create a scapegoat to explain misfortune, disease, or death.

Neighbors accused one another of witchcraft when something unexplainable would happen. The accused party was subjected to interrogation, a brief trial that may use savage and brutal torture to extract confessions, and then the drowning, hanging, or burning of “the witch.” This demonization of women’s spiritual arts passed down from generation to generation was a means to denigrate women’s power and confirm the absolute power of the Church.

After an accused witch was executed, her property was appropriated by the village, state, or ruling party of the time. This was a time of economic shift from a matrifocal land-based barter system of shared resources, to a patriarchal currency-based economy.

Outbreaks of witch hysteria continued in Europe until the late seventeenth century. In that time an estimated 80,000 people were tortured, drowned, hanged, or burned at the stake. Although the era is named the “Witch Trials,” it is in fact a Church ordained holocaust that executed people that did not align with Christian traditions. Nearly 80% of the people killed in this time were women.

Woodcut Broadside. Burning witches claimed by the Devil at the time of their death. (16th Century)