Between 1450 and 1750 more than 100,000 people, mostly women, were prosecuted by secular and ecclesiastical courts in different parts of Europe for allegedly practising harmful magic and Devil – worshipping. This is a short history on the strange and terrible practice of witch-hunts and some of the art that depicted them. This will be the first in a new series about medieval art, torture devices, weaponry, battle strategies, alchemy & mysticism and symbols that we take reference from here at Sang Bleu.
Persons who were prosecuted for witchcraft were predominantly if not overwhelmingly female, the percentage of female witches exceeded 75% in most regions of Europe and in a few locations, such as the county of Essex, it was more than 90%.
‘There was nothing in the definition of a witch that excluded males. Men could, just like women practise harmful magic, make pacts with the devil and attend the sabbath. In some of the woodcuts and engravings produced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially those illustrating the pact with the devil, male and female witches are shown in equal numbers’. Briffault (1927).
The witch-hunts took place in most parts of Europe and at all different times, they also did not start without reason, many factors could have been the trigger for such a phenomenon, the centuries in which they took place were times for immense social and religious change, such as the Reformation. These factors along with peasantry superstitions, the subsequent belief in magical power and the role of the church in creating true fear of the Devil and the afterlife created tensions that clearly exacerbated the phenomenon that would go on to last three centuries. In most accounts and many people’s understanding of the trials is that most of the accused were rural peasants, this can be explained by the simple fact that the less educated, mostly uneducated, more superstitious peasantry were more inclined to jump to the conclusion of magic to explain personal misfortunes. It is also speculated that in these face-to-face small town cultures that neighbours may have started the rumour of witchcraft upon a person who was simply just a cause of agitation to them or whose inclination towards individualism irked them.
The church, mainly the great protestant reformers were responsible for much of the witch- hunt accusations as their heightened consciousness and militance against Satan in which they had ,by around 1517 declared a war against and where the trial and torture of ‘the Devils whores’ was set to purify the world. The central idea in the cumulative concept of witchcraft is the belief that witches made pacts with the Devil. Not only did the pact provide the basis of the legal definition of the crime of witchcraft in many jurisdictions but it also served as the main link between the practice of harmful magic and the alleged worship of the Devil, the war was to be waged both internally and externally by prosecuting witches and heretics.
Witches were accused of being sexual deviants, performing sexual acts with demons, dark magic workers, plague spreaders, harvest killers. The witches were thought to hold ceremonies called Witches’ Sabbaths or Sabbats, which parodied the Christian mass. Other practices which came to be associated with witches included the riding by night on a broomstick, the pact with the Devil, secret nocturnal meetings involving orgies, sacrificial infanticide and even cannibalism. Other accusations were of the power to cause impotence or diseases or to cause infants to be stillborn, to turn milk sour or to prevent cows from giving milk, to change form into a hare or other animal, to suckle familiar spirits from warts or other marks, and even to sail on a single plank or in an eggshell.
The main punishment received if accused and tried to be a witch was to burn to death at the stake, this was the punishment traditionally inflicted on relapsed heretics, and its use in witchcraft cases served the purpose of identifying the witch with the heretic, both of whom were believed to be servants of the Devil. The process of burning the body was a ritual of purification, banishing the evil from the physical earth and also that judges may not fear that witches may not return from the dead by means of sorcery.
Amongst the most famous of the trials is the one surrounding Abigail Williams and her cousin Elizabeth Parris in Salem, Massachusetts in the Salem witch trials 1692, the two little girls are reported to have been enticed into witchcraft by a black or indian slave named Tituba who was likely disliked for her ethnic differences from the rest of the towns people. The Salem witch trials lasted a year from 1692-93 and resulted in the arrest and deaths of 150 people, mass hysteria heightened by many of the accused being good god fearing church goers, if church goers could be a witch than anybody could.