The Factors, Motivations, and Superstitions Behind Witch Hunts
The persecution of “witches” in Europe was a horrid practice during a time when the modern values of toleration, reason, due process, and gender equality were far more seldom manifested than today.
When examining the causes of the witch craze from 1480 to 1700, consideration must be given to those attitudinal conditions which, in later eras of European history, were far less prominent. Among these were the expectation of religious orthodoxy and behavioral uniformity, the lack of restraints on politicians’ desires to thrive at the expense of their subjects and competitors, and a widespread distrust of women and the aged.
During the Pre-Enlightenment era, the ideas of individual intellectual and religious freedom were largely anathema to mainstream thought, and opposed by a both a Catholic church striving to re-assert its temporal authority and the leaders of the Protestant Reformation attempting to aggressively gain control over mass followings.
Pope Innocent VIII wrote “The Witch Bull” in 1484, during the late Renaissance, when the Catholic Church was infamous for its pomp, love of worldly wealth, political scheming, and economic corruption. Part of the motive for this edict may have been the restoration of the Church’s prestige in the eyes of many fervent Christians, who held great disappointment and frustration at the Church’s perceived departure from spiritual matters.
By embarking the Church on a quest to purge spiritually “tainted” individuals, the Pope might have hoped to restore the image of his organization’s intense religiosity, while the Church’s political and worldly authority only increased. Indeed, the Holy Inquisition, which was just beginning to arise during this time, was greatly empowered by The Witch Bull to spread its physical power to all places where suspicions of witchcraft were present, effectively giving the Church the doctrinal means to implement a near-absolute ideological stranglehold over the Catholic world.
The tremendous success of both the Catholics and the Protestants at using the fear of witches to entrench their domination over the masses could only have been made possible by the masses’ tremendous susceptibility to such irrational superstition. A diary from a young Protestant boy illustrates a child’s fear of supernatural terrors, such as the devils that perpetually tormented his mind. Children, not yet having had adequate exposure to the workings of reality, are even today often pervaded by fears of monsters and other bizarre harms emerging from the unknown, but this boy lived in an age when the adults did not discredit such worries.
Indeed, because one church or another exerted a monolithic control over people’s intellectual lives, an individual would grow up in an environment where his childhood fears would only be further fed and fueled by the messages emanating from the religious orthodoxy. Entire generations would grow up in this manner, convinced since their earliest days that any individual oddity, coincidence, or uncommon occurrence was a sign of supernatural evil. Such masses were willing audiences to whatever ideological craze churches would concoct to extend their authority over individuals’ lives.
Anti-Female Prejudices Displayed in The Malleus Maleficarum
The 1486 book, The Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) was among the most violently prejudiced writings in history; it claimed the inferiority of women to males in every respect and blamed on this inferiority women’s alleged susceptibility to witchcraft. This book’s teachings inspired a bloody series of witch hunts that ravaged Europe for the next two centuries.
According to Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger in The Malleus Maleficarum, female susceptibility to superstition and witchcraft has among its causes women’s excessive credulity. The devil prefers to target the more credulous since “the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them” (1). Kramer and Sprenger thus imply that the devil seeks to destroy religious integrity in the largest number of souls, and that his odds of success at this are greatest when targeting women. Women’s impressionability, defined by Kramer and Sprenger as the readiness “to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit” (1), renders their souls wide open to the devil’s manipulations.
Moreover, according to Kramer and Sprenger, women’s general inability to keep a secret, illustrated by their “slippery tongues” (1), is claimed to be a cause for the frequent public exposure of their witchcraft. Continuing their presentation, Kramer and Sprenger assert that women are intellectually inferior to males, and in this respect analogous to children, devoid of the knowledge of such fine disciplines as philosophy, which could have shielded them from maleficent influences. Furthermore, women are portrayed as being more motivated by bodily lust than males, and are, throughout the text, characterized as having insatiable carnal demands. This is derived from the inherent nature of woman, who obtained this defect as a result of her formation from an improperly bent rib.
Kramer and Sprenger claim that “The Malleus Maleficarum portrays the vices of deviousness and envy as pervasive in women. Kramer and Sprenger contend that women’s displays of emotion are insincere, since “[w]hen a woman weeps, she labours to deceive a man” (2). Women’s constant conniving and treachery are due to the jealousy that even the best women exhibit toward both their female counterparts and males. Even among the holy women of the Bible, Kramer and Sprenger find numerous examples of this trend, and assert that its harm will be magnified even further if it is directed against males. Female witchcraft, then, is the material manifestation, by means of manipulation and treachery, of the rampant envy that women exhibit.
Though Kramer and Sprenger assert that women are susceptible to irrational superstition, it is they, the authors of The Malleus Maleficarum, who fell prey to the most disastrous of superstitions: superstitions that enabled the killing of thousands of innocent people.
Witch Hunts as a Form of Anti-Female Discrimination
The witch hunts that took place from 1480 to 1700 were in part facilitated by the negative perceptions of women during the time period of their occurrence. Alan Macfarlane’s statistics reveal that females typically comprised about 80% of the total amount of “witches” executed, implying that, for every male victim, four females lost their lives.
Writing The Hammer of Witches (Malleus Maleficarum),the monks Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger entrenched this misogynist bend into official witch-hunting doctrine. Kramer and Sprenger describe a woman as inherently more fallible than her male counterpart, and from her very nature as one originating from an improperly bent rib, prone to evil. However, Kramer and Sprenger also write that, though women are susceptible to evil influences, they can also be “very good” when they use their impressionable qualities in a certain manner.
Given the heavily patriarchal nature of their time period, the monks may have been suggesting that the proper place of a woman is to obey male influences, so that her imperfections may be compensated for by the males’ lack of such fallibilities. The threat of being branded a witch more readily than a male would be might have served as a deterrent for women from defying the commonplace expectations imposed on them by the social and religious paradigms surrounding them.
Women like Alice Prabury, who diverged from the expected role of a woman as a mundane housekeeper and instead obtained uncommon skills to cure people and animals of diseases, were targets for persecution. The Churchwardens of Gloucestershire may have filed their accusation of witchcraft against Prabury due to their disapproval of the excessive independence that the woman manifested, as exemplified in her refusal to tell others, including the representatives of the dominant paradigm, the unique means by which she went about to performing work.
Additionally, women, like Walpurga Hausmannin, who exercised initiative in romantic relationships, were suspect of being in league with the Devil. In the patriarchal society of that age, romantic advances by females were considered highly improper and threatening to the social order. Perhaps Hausmannin’s death was a result of the dominant paradigm’s attempt to criminalize such behavior under the guise of witchcraft, but with the true purpose of enforcing male domination in relationships.
The creative, individualistic, and independent women were most often the targets of the two-century-long spree of witch hunts. Such persecution unfortunately destroyed many talented individuals who could have lived fulfilling lives and made tremendous advances in the arts and sciences.
How Martin Luther and John Calvin Conducted Witch Hunts and Persecuted Dissenters
The early 16th-century Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin were not enlightened, forward-thinking individuals. They were brutal, superstitious, intolerant, and repressive individuals who exploited popular stereotypes of “witches” in order to persecute those who disagreed with their views.
The Protestants’ use of the witch craze to enforce religious orthodoxy was no less dramatic than that of the Catholics. One of Martin Luther’s tools for attracting a mass following to his breakaway movement from the Catholic Church was the use of powerful emotional imagery. Just as he compared Rome to Babylon and the Pope to the Antichrist following his rejection of papal authority during the Leipzig debate in 1519, Luther was ready to brand eccentric or ideologically divergent individuals as “the Devil’s whores.”
Luther, in his 1522 sermon, charged the “witches” with a litany of supernatural behaviors, including transformation into different animals, accusations which, to the rationally thinking mind, would be ludicrous indeed. This further demonstrates that Luther’s motive for breaking away from the Catholic Church was not to defend freedom of individual thought, but to establish a religious orthodoxy of his own.
Luther, in addition to his intense anti-Semitism, strived to encourage the adoption of his version of Protestantism as the state-sponsored religion of numerous German principalities, at the expense of the religious freedoms of those principalities’ citizens. His intolerance extended even to the Zwinglians in Switzerland, with whom he exhibited only a minor disagreement over transubstantiation. Luther would undoubtedly have been eager to use the fear of witches as yet another weapon to direct mass hostility against those whose views diverged with his own.
John Calvin’s description of witches in the Institutes of the Christian Religion even more transparently revealed his true motives of combating dissension from his version of Protestantism. Calvin draws, from his passage on witchcraft, the conclusion that “we have to wage war against an infinite number of enemies.” Calvin might have included under this category anyone who did not conform to the dicta of his strict church government in Geneva.
Calvin’s policy was to stringently oversee people’s private lives, church attendance, and intellectual expression, and ensure that nothing they said or did would displease God. It should therefore come as no surprise that Geneva experienced a far larger number of witch hunts than most other major European cities. H.C. Erik Midelfort’s statistics show Geneva as having experienced 95 cases of witch persecution over 125 years, almost two and a half times more than had occurred in the entire Department of the Nord in France during 137 years.
Calvin was frank about his use of the witch craze to enforce the power of his own theocratic order, stating in the Institutes that he had brought up the entire issue “in order that we may be aroused and exhorted,” i.e., rallied behind Calvin’s religious movement.
The Political Motives Behind Witch Hunts
Aside from religious motives, the witch hunts that took place from 1480 to 1700 were made possible by the time period’s lack of restraint for political practices that provided only a flimsy cover for outright theft of property and politicians’ wanton attempts to destroy both their subjects and each other.
The personal avarice of many politicians of the time period impelled them to seek to thrive at the expense of others’ lives and suffering. The canon Linden, in his account of the persecutions in Trier, Germany in 1592, describes many of the city’s prominent magistrates as victims of the witch hunts, while others, including numerous political officers and the men hired by them, grew wealthy off the confiscated possessions of victims.
Indeed, Linden’s description suggests that witchcraft was “mass produced” and that the furnishing of accusations was a profitable industry for those on the receiving end of the property. The vehemence of a large segment of the population in supporting the witch executions might have been reinforced by the material gains those people would expect to obtain from them, gains that Linden personally witnessed when observing such men as the executioners.
Linden, himself a canon, saw many of his fellow canons lose their lives in the witch-hunting frenzy, and evidently considered himself at risk as well. His critical attitude toward the persecutions further illustrates that the witch hunts were an attempt of one class of people to prosper at the expense of others, and recognized as such by their victims.
Political rivalries, too, were motives for accusations of witchcraft. Among the victims of such ploys was Mayor Johannes Junius, who, though entirely innocent, was confronted with a trial whose proceedings were clearly not aimed toward an objective determination of guilt or innocence, but rather at causing Junius to “confess something, whether it be true or not.” The trial was rigged against Junius, and there was to be no possible outcome but his death. Such a case could not have existed had Junius not possessed rivals who wanted him eliminated at all costs. A vacancy in the post of mayor could, after all, assist someone’s political ambitions, either to occupy the position or place into it a man acceptable to some religious or political faction with the means to carry out witch hunts.
Roger North’s account also shows that witch hunts were often approved of by officials who themselves feared persecution by the masses. North, the brother of a chief justice, clearly sympathizes with those judges who were intimidated by mass fervor into condemning individuals accused of witchcraft, lest the judges themselves became targets of mass rage.
Even though most judges and officials, especially in the late seventeenth century, toward the end of the witch-hunting period, were sufficiently educated and rational to recognize the belief in witchcraft to be an “impious vulgar opinion,” those who stood on their principles could often find their careers, reputations, and even lives at risk.
Hatred of the Elderly as a Motivation for Witch Hunts
The era of witch hunts (1480-1700) exhibited a noticeably smaller life expectancy than the modern age, and living until an age even as advanced as sixty was extremely rare. Older individuals were seen as abnormal and thus, to the conformist mindset prevalent at the time, a threat.
W. Fulbecke expressed this view in writing, claiming that the bodies of the old become increasingly decayed and impure, and thus susceptible to corruption and evil. Having no rational, scientific explanation for the aging process, Fulbecke suggests that people senesce because they are “by the Devil whetted for such a purpose.”
The scientific ignorance of the witch-hunting period thus provided fuel for the creation of severely negative stereotypes on the basis of which aged individuals were persecuted. H.C. Erik Midelfort’s statistics show that the median age of accused witches across Europe was most frequently sixty, and at least fifty-five.
Given a general state of physical incapacitation among the elderly of the pre-modern era due to the lack of adequate medical knowledge, another reason for the frequent witch hunts against the senile may have been the inability of many of the latter to support themselves independently.
An English householder, as described by Thomas Ady, had a reputation for accusing of witchcraft those elderly beggars who had come to his door asking for assistance. The householder considered it his religious duty to give his aid to the poor, and would ask God’s forgiveness for denying it to an elderly woman, but would subsequently accuse the same woman of witchcraft. Perhaps, by the invention of such charges, the householder attempted to eliminate those elderly beggars whom he would otherwise have been compelled to support out of his Christian principles, likely to the detriment of his own economic well-being.
But even in such a time, more scientifically oriented individuals, such as the physician Johan Wier, had attempted to “fight with natural reason” the cruelties inflicted upon the aged. Wier refers to commonsense observations regarding the harmlessness of old individuals and the natural origins of the diseases which often clouded their reasoning.
Wier’s ideas were progressive for his time, and were used to argue for the humane treatment of the elderly. Nevertheless, the pervasive dominance of religious dogma over rational thought during his era left a mark even on Wier, who attributes witches’ false confessions to devilish influence, as opposed to the physical, this-worldly threats of torture they were faced with.
As the Enlightenment swept through the Western world during the early 18th century, the attitudinal conditions facilitating the persecution of witches were steadily moderated or eliminated. Religious orthodoxy gave way to greater toleration for a variety of faiths, and even strains of thought such as deism and atheism, whose advocates would not be accused of witchcraft.
The ideas of universal natural rights of individuals to life, liberty, and property made due process a legal priority and rendered it tremendously difficult for politicians to employ transparently artificial charges to wantonly expropriate the population or eliminate their competitors. The belief in the limitless potential of the rational faculties of all individuals, male or female, young or old, rendered misogyny and hatred of the elderly far less prevalent than previously. Along with the ideas that fostered it, witchcraft was relegated to the dustbin of history.