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Witchcraft Craze History

Who Were The Witches?

Again the lack of evidence somewhat hampers the determination of who were the main victims of accusations of witchcraft. But some general attributes can be determined.

Gender

One of the most well-documented characterisitics of persons accused of witchcraft is sex. Most were female. In most areas of Europe about 75% of those accused were women.

Men

Although women were the main victims, men were also accused. There were certain instances when were as likely as women to be accused of maleficium. The first of these were cases of witchcraft that had links to heresy. The other was when the crime involved political sorcery. It was not uncommon for men to use ritual magic to advance political careers. The final instance in which men were accused was when the hunts got out of control. In these circumstances the normal sterotype broke down when indiscriminate accusations were made. Thus, men became more likely to be named.

Women

There were several reasons that women tended to be more susceptable to accusations to men, most of these related to current attitudes to women and the places and roles they held within society.

Firstly, women were suspected because they were believed to be morally weaker than men. They were therefore more likely to succumb to the temptations of the Devil. This idea had its roots in the earliest of Christian teachings.

Secondly, the idea that women were more carnal and sexually indulgent than men was also common. It was not until several centuries later that the idea of woman as sexually passive was to develop. This idea of women as sexual creatures was especially common amongst clerics, particularly monks. In relation to the charge of witchcraft this aspect is important was women were often thought to have made the pact with the Devil as the result of sexual temptation and they often took part in sexual activity as part of the pact.

Thirdly, women, especially those from the lower sections of society were seen as having the opportunity to commit harmful acts. They were the cooks who worked with herbs, the healers who used herbs and ointments as their cures.

The other most vulnerable group were the midwives. The main reason they were susceptable was that they were easily blamed for the death of infants. In a period of very high infant mortality and also occasional infanticide, to charge the midwife with causing the death of the child through magical means was both functional and plausible. It also offered the greiving family a target for revenge.

Once accused of maleficia, demonological theory, which was more important to the judges, could easily be employed. Witches needed unbaptized babies so they could sacrifice them to the Devil, feast on them and use the remains in potions. As midwives, they were in the perfect positions to procure these infants.

The final reason for the number of women accused was that they were weaker in every way. They did not have the physical or political power to defend themselves. As such, they were thought more likely to resort to magic to help themselves. Which also meant that once accused they had less to defend themselves with.

Age

There are a number of reasons why witches tended to be old. Firstly, witches tended to be prosecuted after many years of suspicion. This tended to keep the age up. Also, they tended to be wise women and healers, titles which by definition involved age. A further explanation lies in the fact that older people, especially those who were senile, exhibited eccentric or anti-social behaviour that made people uncomfortable and tended to invite accusations. A final reason was that older people were less physically powerful and therefore more likely to resort to magic to defend themselves or to take revenge.

Underlying the depiction of the old, sexually varocious was a deep male fear of sexually experienced, independent women. This is partly the reason that old widows were particularly susceptable to charges of witchcraft.

Marital Status

There is no definate trend related to the marital status of witches when accused of witchcraft. However, the percentage of unmarried (widowed or never married) was higher than the percentage of those married.

Among the unmarried the widow was most likely to be accused. In a partiarchal society, a women who was not under the control of a husband or father was a source of concern. The other cause for fear was that the number of unmarried women was increasing. These women were often considered a burden on society.

For those who were married, there were two main sources of accusations. Firstly, from conflicts with spouse and children. One of the attractions of witchcraft accusations were that they allowed the expression of otherwise sociall unacceptable feelings, for example of a child against a parent.

The second cause was when friction occured over property, often belonging to the husband. Although married women had no independent wealth or property, they often worked alongside their husbands. They therefore, often found themselves involved in disputes over rents, labour or even possession of land.

Social and Economic Status

We can be fairly certain that most prosecuted from witchcraft came from the lower levels of society. Many accused lived at subsistance level and often had to resort to begging to survive. They were the least able to defend themselves. Being dependent on the community also meant that they generated feelings of guilt and resentment.

Some economic changes in this period also made matters worse. The hunts occured at a time when the level of poverty was becoming more severe and more widespread. This was partly due to an increase in population.

While these economic changes made people more likely to contemplate using magic to protect themselves, it also made people more likely to make accusations. As more people feared the economic decline, they became least tolerant in their dealings with the poor. Accusations against the poor were a way of maintaining their own tenuous position.

Personality

Accused witches often demonstrated certain behavioural traits that made them more susceptable to witchcraft accusations.

Witches were often the village scold, the person who often had harsh words for people, who may have cursed alot. They were not people who others enjoyed having as neighbours.

Secondly, witches were oftne old and may have exhibited signs of senility. They were often cranky and hard to get along with. It could also explain why witches were considered to be mentally unbalanced. Also many accused witches admitted to running the wild with Diana, goddess of the moon. These delusions may have been due to a mental problem.

Another characteristic of witches was their reputation for forms of religious and moral deviance. Any past transgressions in these areas may have made them more susceptable to charges of witchcraft. While most were certainly not hardened criminals, some had been named in ecclesiastical courts for offences such as non-attendence of church, Sabbath-breaking fornication and even adultery. Some male witches had been suspected of homosexuality.

Sources:

Levack, Brian "The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe" (London: Longman, 1987)
Hart, Roger "Witchcraft" (London: Wayland Publishers, 1971)
Maple, Eric "Witchcraft" (London: Octopus Books, 1973)
Britannica Online "Occultism: Witchcraft: Witchcraft in Historical Cultures: Western Christendom" - http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=macro/5004/71/47.html


My aim in this section of my site is to provide some of the current academic thinking in relation to this period and the events that occured. If you would like to contribute or make a comment, feel free to contact me: laren@geocities.com.

Yours, Laren


Page Updated 7th April, 2000
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