Monday, October 6, 2014

You don’t need a Witch, to have a Witch-Hunt

October is the time for Halloween, when the nights begin to get darker and our fears begin to manifest themselves into beings that creep in the shadows.  Actually, since it is the month of Halloween, I would take some time to blog about monsters and creatures in my medieval novel.
Although they are not featured directly in my novel, Legend of the Mystic Knights, witches are mentioned numerous times. I will give one spoiler of my novel, there is a mention of a particular witch, and this witch will become very important in the sequels.

Note, what I post I am not approving, condoning nor condemning anyone’s believe system. I am merely stating the facts about how people perceived witches during the above named time frame.

First, we must clarify what a witch is. To the medieval person, a witch was someone who practiced black magic with ill intent towards those who lived around her. This person made a deal with the devil for their power and it was the duty of the church to seek them out and destroy them.

We should not confuse a witch with the wise folk of the middle ages. Wise folk, or cunning folk, were people who understood nature, and used herbs and plants as medicine to help those around them. These wise folk may have understood the principles of healing better than the physicians at the time, and were valued and respected members of the medieval society. Unfortunately, they too would fall to the madness of the witch-hunts.

A witch of course is a female who practices magic. There were men who did the same, but to the medieval layman, a female witch was more powerful than her male counterpart. Of the people who were convicted of witchcraft, over 80% were woman. This concept in itself may be a significant realization of the fear of witches.

Nature has always has a persona of a female, this is why we use the phrase “Mother Nature.” Nature was something to be feared by medieval people, in the deep woods there were creatures ready to kill and devour you. Some of these creatures were fictitious, most were real, wolves and bears were a threat to the people of a village. Witches being strong powerful woman may be a reflection of the fear of nature itself.

Pagan religions, which had dominated Europe before Christianity, also worshiped nature, in a feminine form. The persecution of witches could be also a way to ensure that these religions would not resurface and then become a threat to Christianity.

Another reason why woman were targeted as witches, was the perception that they were weaker than men, especially spiritually. The argument made is that since women are weaker, they would be more susceptible to the temptations of the devil, and thus more witches would be women.

At one point the Catholic Church repudiated the existence of witches. It was actually deemed heresy if you believed in witches or witchcraft. This theory was based on the writings of St. Augustine, who believed that God had ultimate authority, and neither witches nor the devil had any spiritual powers. This attitude over witchcraft soon changed over time.

When there was an acceptance of a witch, you had to remove them, and thus were born the witch-hunts. A witch-hunt was more than a mob grabbing someone and burning them at the stake. The witch-hunt consisted of an investigation and legal proceedings to prosecute witches, and were described in a binding publication or treatise. The most famous of these were the Malleus Maleficarum, or the Hammer of the Witch. I will describe more the Hammer of the Witch in my upcoming blogs.

I want to add I will be discussing about the witch-hunts in Europe and not the United States. One fact though about the witch-hunts in America was that none of the accused witches were ever burned. The practice in the United States was to hang an accused witch. This was also the practice in many parts of Europe, but there they also took the corpse after hanging and then burned it to destroy any remnants of the evil.

Witch-hunts became a way of pursuing those who opposed the teachings of the church. The witch-hunts began with Pope Innocent III attack on the Cathars. Cathars thought human spirits were the spirits of angels trapped within the physical creation of Satan, cursed to be reincarnated until one achieved salvation through a ritual called the consolamentum. They were a direct threat to the Catholic teachings and the Pope referred to them as “The Church of Satan.” We know little of the original Cathars for the majority of their writings were destroyed.

Another target of the church would later become Protestants. (The oddity about this was once Protestants were well established in some countries; they continued or accelerated the witch-hunts which were once were directed at them.)

At the time of the witch-hunts, there began a division in the church and the reformation had begun. Not only were Protestants, but anyone who questioned some teachings and philosophizes promoted by the Catholic Church was considered a target for their attack. If someone would dare to question or disagree with these teachings, they must be heretics and possessed by the devil, hence anyone who was a heretic must also be a witch. Being a witch, they too would be accused of sorcery and receive the same punishment.

Another reason for the witch-hunts was fear. The medieval period was a time of change, and also of upheaval, violence and death. The plague spread and ran rampant throughout many countries; this was also accompanied by famine and war. If the people believed at the time that they were faithful members of the church, then how could these atrocities fall upon them? The answer was someone must have cursed or placed a spell on them, and that someone was a witch. It was this desperation to remove the evil from their midst and restore order and prosperity, that innocent people would be accused of witchcraft. The poor, elderly, and the wise folk soon found themselves victims of the witch-hunts.

Another cause of the witch-hunts could be uniformity, a way to maintain conformity and unity in society. To be honest, this is my theory and I have not located others who may believe in this. Society needs a way to make sure its members are similar. In ancient Greece they had ostracism, which was a political practice against citizens who threatened the stability of the state. In our own schools, bullying is a way of keeping our children in the ranks of conformity; those who go outside the “norms” soon find themselves prey to verbal and physical attacks. When society begins to drastically change, witch-hunts pop-up as an unconscious way of trying to correct and maintain normalcy. I propose that the 1950’s America was in such a change, and the political witch-hunts trying to seek out communists were also an attempt at this correction. It is just my theory and it may not hold any weight.

The above comment is similar to another purpose of the witch-hunt, to maintain power. If you have a witch-hunt in progress, your political opponents will find difficulty in criticizing you, for the fear they too would be accused of being a witch.

We have discussed many reasoning for the persecution of witches in the medieval period. Next time I will examine how it was believed a person became a witch. And what to do once you find one.

Furthermore, since it is the month of Halloween, and I have so much to cover, I may increase my blogs to twice a week.

As always, thanks for reading and if you want, leave a comment.


  1. As usual, I am fascinated by your knowledge of this period. Witches still exist today, yes? Or at least those that claim to be. I prefer to think of all witches as Glynda's...good witches that is:)

  2. Through your blog I am having a lot of information about that time period. I do not know why people believed that witches are more dangerous then male. I never heard about wise folk. It is good that you are getting ready for Halloween. I do not have any witch-hunt and not planning for. Seems it is beneficial is some cases as well. I am looking forward to , how a person will be a witch. :)

  3. What a fantastic overview post :) Witches certainly do come in all forms. A blogger friend of mine considers herself a witch, but I haven't fully discerned exactly how and why (though I only follow her from a distance). Gotta love it though. "How dare you disagree... blah blah blah. You must be a witch!" In some ways, that line of reason still plays out all the time in this day and age.

  4. Unfortunately some more recent generations of Europeans brought this medieval concept of witches to our shores.

  5. Of course people like to pick on the weak. It's called bullying and it has always existed, I suppose. Sad that the former targets became the bullies when they could.

  6. Calling someone a witch and taking that as an excuse to do harm to her has been going on since the beginning of time. Always has happened and always will. It's just a question of if the label is witchor something else.

  7. I liked the line "Another cause of the witch-hunts could be uniformity, a way to maintain conformity and unity in society". Doesn't sound like a lot has changed from then to now; just the labels. Fear has always been a big rallying cry.

  8. William, I am constantly amazed at the depth of your research. It must literally take you months to follow each trail back. It's fascinating. Of course I've heard of witches being persecuted and the horrible things done to them but I didn't know that originated with the church. I always thought it was the villagers who were afraid of the witches.

  9. I like how you tied in our modern witch hunts and your depth of knowledge is incredible. I'm always impressed when people take their passions and do something creative with it.

  10. As much as people would rather consider witches as a thing of the past and not talk about let alone someone be pointed as one, witch hunting is very much alive in today's world. as you said, you don't need a witch to have a witch hunt, how so true that is.

  11. Witches are real and the past has a way of teaching us about people's beliefs and fears either through expereience or some level of ignorance. I hope you blog about White Wiccans and their healing abilities and help they provide others.

  12. I blogged about cunning folk, who were vital in medieval society. They knew more about healing than many of the doctors, It was sad, that many of the cunning folk too met their end with the witch hunts