The witch-hunt period is most often understood as the persecution for witchcraft in Europe in the 15th-17th centuries. To be a witch means to consciously make a deal with the devil, it was believed then. Allegedly, women sold their souls in order to gain magical abilities and sow evil. We understand what crimes women were accused of and why they were suspected more often than men.

What atrocities, according to the Inquisition, did witches commit?

In 1484, a bull was issued by Pope Innocent VIII. The papal law spoke of the need to destroy heresy and witchcraft in the Rhineland. This document officially recognized the existence of witchcraft and served as the beginning of the “witch hunt”. In 1486, based on the bull, the inquisitor Heinrich Kramer and the demonologist Jakob Sprenger wrote the book The Hammer of the Witches . It has become the unofficial guide for witch fighters. The authors of the work explained what crimes the witches were capable of. They can be conditionally divided into three major categories.

prevented childbearing

Witches were accused of preventing women from getting pregnant, causing premature births, and killing babies in the womb or immediately after birth. The Hammer of the Witches explicitly states that the midwives were witches.

Witch doctors and midwives in that historical period were among the few who could have an abortion. There were almost no working and affordable contraceptives, so abortion remained the main way to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The church, on the other hand, considered abortion and contraception a sin, therefore, it tried in various ways to stop the activities of midwives.

Miscarriages and problems with conception were also explained by people as witchcraft. Often, women who lost their children believed that witches could be to blame.

“There lived a famous witch who knew how to bewitch and cause a miscarriage with one touch at any time. <...> After a few weeks, the pregnant woman, having forgotten the warning, left the castle to visit several women who had gathered to visit. Soon the witch appeared there and touched the lady, as if for a greeting, taking her stomach with both hands. Instantly, the lady felt the child moving painfully.

Quote from The Hammer of the Witches. Part II. Chapter VI. Of the way in which witches are in the habit of delaying the power of procreation

“Depriving a man of his penis” was another interesting witch crime in this category. However, the authors of The Hammer themselves indicate that in fact no one deprived a man of anything.

“It must by no means be believed that such members are torn out or separated from the body by sorcery, they are hidden by demons so that they cannot be seen or touched.”

Quote from The Hammer of the Witches. Part II. Chapter VII. About the way witches deprive men of the penis

Such a description can serve as an example of erectile dysfunction – a condition when an erection is not enough for sexual intercourse. Men often blamed former lovers for such problems, believing that they bewitched them after parting.

Created natural disasters

Downpours, hail, thunderstorms and other climatic incidents that caused damage to the economy were also explained by the actions of witches. Sometimes, because of the weather, the entire crop died, and people could not believe that what had happened was an accident. Sufficient scientific data that could explain a sharp change in climate or an unexpected hurricane did not exist then. And people were looking for someone to blame.

“… there was a great hailstorm. All field crops, all crops, as well as vineyards were beaten by hail. The vineyards suffered so badly that everyone thought about the possibility of getting a harvest from them no sooner than in three years. <...> and the people began to demand her (the Inquisition) intervention, considering this misfortune to be the result of sorcery, then for fourteen days the Inquisition was engaged in interrogations and taking testimony. Two women were sentenced to punishment.”

Quote from The Hammer of the Witches. Part II. Chapter XV. How do witches produce hailstorms and thunderstorms and direct lightning on people and animals?

Usually, the Inquisition did not have specific evidence indicating that it was the woman who caused the destructive natural phenomenon. Most often, the main evidence of witchcraft was the recognition of the witch herself. At the same time, the inquisitors received it under torture. Also, the inquisitors often proved the fact of a crime due to the connection with other acts. For example, some witch under torture took the blame for a thunderstorm over the village. The inquisitors concluded that since one devil’s handmaiden did this, the next weather problem could be the work of another witch.

“Thunderstorms are also produced without the intervention of witches. However, the voluntary confessions of witches prove that they do often do this harm. This is also evident from the ease with which they hail. If they can cause hailstorms, why shouldn’t they also cause thunderstorms.

Quote from The Hammer of the Witches. Part II. Chapter XV. How do witches produce hailstorms and thunderstorms and direct lightning on people and animals?

They sent diseases to people and animals

It was believed that witches could send damage to people, put them into a fitful state. Everything that was not clear to the healers was considered the result of dark magic. But sometimes people pretended to have suffered from witchcraft, and simulated seizures in order to blame some woman because of personal dislike or a desire to avenge something.

Pets were an important source of income and subsistence. Their death was a real tragedy. If people could not find a reason, they often blamed witches for what happened. To fall under suspicion, the woman did not even need to do anything.

“It can be concluded that witches only need to touch or cast a glance to defeat cattle, and the demon does everything else.”

Quote from The Hammer of the Witches. Part II. Chapter XIV. How do witches induce various damage to livestock?

Having no explanation for what was happening, people agreed that what had happened was the result of witchcraft. In fact, any incident, the cause of which a person did not understand, could be attributed to the action of dark forces.

“No plague or other disease was seen among the livestock. The said owner of the animals claimed that in case of any illness they do not die immediately, but gradually wither away. With the aforementioned bewitchment, they died immediately. Everyone was of the opinion that this disease was not natural, but induced by spells.

Quote from The Hammer of the Witches. Part II. Chapter XIV. How do witches induce various damage to livestock?

Why were women accused of witchcraft?

In the book “Hammer of the Witches” it is indicated that anyone can refuse God and make a deal with the devil. However, the authors devoted several chapters to convince readers that it is women who are more often associated with dark forces. Here are Kramer and Sprenger’s arguments:

  • Women are gullible and stupid . Demons seek to lead a person away from the Christian faith, and women are much easier to confuse and deceive.
  • Women are chatty. It is beneficial for demons to tempt women, because because of their love of gossip, they will spread dark magic among their girlfriends.
  • Women are lustful. The authors believe that women crave “carnal pleasures.” They cannot and do not want to control their passion and are ready to turn to dark forces to satisfy their desires.
  • Women are lying . The authors believe that this is a natural property of women.
  • Women are vindictive . They rage with anger when they are abandoned by their beloved, and are ready to resort to any means to take revenge on them.

“As from a lack of reason, women depart from the faith sooner than men, so from their extraordinary affects and passions they more zealously seek, invent and carry out their revenge by means of charms or other means. It is therefore not surprising that there are so many witches among women. <...> So they resort to the help of the devil to console their passions. It would be possible to tell about it in more detail. But for a reasonable person, this is enough to understand why witchcraft is more common among women than among men.

Quote from The Hammer of the Witches. Part I. Why are women more prone to witchcraft?

Thus, the authors conclude that female nature itself becomes the basis for practicing witchcraft. This means that any of the female representatives falls under suspicion and may turn out to be a witch.

In what case could a woman be recognized as a witch?

Witch-hunting in each European country took place in different ways. Most often, accusations of witchcraft were brought against women not by clergymen, judges or representatives of the nobility, but by ordinary people: peasants, artisans, townspeople. Such accusations could be the result of personal conflicts, rivalry, resentment. The inquisitors usually did not take the woman away after the first denunciation. But if the neighbors repeatedly reported oddities or made accusations, then the woman’s reputation could no longer be saved.

Women were suspected of being connected with the devil for any behavior that did not fit into the norm. For example:

  • Unmarried and childless women who led an asocial lifestyle rarely aroused the confidence of others. Such behavior could indicate a collusion with the dark forces.
  • Women who had many children , a good house, a lot of livestock, could also fall under suspicion. Happiness and prosperity, especially against the background of less successful neighbors, could seem to someone as evidence of a deal made with the devil.
  • Beautiful women could indeed be envied and could bear false witness against them out of revenge. But this rarely happened. In reality, older women were more often blamed . One of the reasons is age-related diseases that influenced a person’s behavior, making him strange and suspicious to others.
  • Lonely, sick and impoverished women , that is, those for whom there was no one to intercede, more often than others became suspected of witchcraft. It was easier to blame them for an inexplicable incident in order to calm the people.

Men also faced accusations of witchcraft. For example, this often happened in the Scandinavian countries or in France. But in the countries of Central Europe, in the USA and in England, accusations of witchcraft were made mainly against women. And the men were usually put on trial because they were connected in some way to the accused women. There were cases when not only the alleged witch was tried, but also her husband as an accomplice.

Cover: Asya Sokolova / Burning hut

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