11 October 2013

Witchcraft and Sorcery: You might just be a witch if…

By Lisa J. Yarde

Medieval people in Europe were a superstitious lot. As unexplained phenomena appeared in the skies, and plague, famine and other calamities befell them, they looked for explanations from the Church. A belief in witchcraft and sorcery flourished as a result. You might wonder what would cause such panic-stricken beliefs among masses of people. It would be wrong to say medieval people acted without reason; within their realm of understanding, they remained unaware of certain scientific concepts we take for granted today. Altered perspectives allowed the birth of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment later in society, but for most of the medieval period, whenever tragedy took hold, many blamed witches. Views about the potency of witchcraft and sorcery extended into later periods evidenced by the hysteria of the Salem witch trials in the late 17th century.

Throughout the ages, stereotypes of witches have been consistent. Invariably, witches were women. Sometimes the old and infirm, but in Anglo-Saxon times, people deemed most young, unmarried women as witches, especially those looking to cast love spells to get husbands. Common thought prevailed that by their naturally weak nature, women were more susceptible than men were to the Devil’s influence. Women with their domain often restricted to home and family developed an interest in the healing arts, from which the idea of the white witch derived. English people in the Middle Ages relied on the invaluable aid of wise women who knew the healing properties of plants. More troublesome were the witches who practiced dark arts with a malicious intent.

During the late Middle Ages in 1486, two Dominican monks Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger created the Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of the Witches, summarizing over 200 years of thought about medieval witchcraft. The text served as a guidebook for inquisitors in the identification and elimination of elements of witchcraft from European society. The Malleus Maleficarum became a response to changing societal attitudes about whether witches were real. The book affirmed that witches were a valid threat to Christians and laid out means for discovery and eradication of the practice.  According to the book, Christians had a duty to root out witches and certain groups could so this without impunity. Naturally among them were agents of the Church and the inquisition.

Reading the Malleus Maleficarum gives insight into the medieval mindset. In such thinking, the Devil was real and the book condemns the Devil’s use of the witch as an agent of immorality; in effect, the Devil had taken over a witch’s will and it was only by the strength of her character or lack thereof that the Devil could not or could achieve a desired aim. The text also acknowledges the differences between women as faith or folk healers and those who practice dark magic, indicating that just because a woman does the former, it doesn’t make her susceptible to the latter.

Why were witches such a plague on humanity? The book indicates the extent of their powers:

For they raise hailstorms and hurtful tempests and lightnings; cause sterility in men and animals; offer to devils, or otherwise kill, the children whom they do not devour. But these are only the children who have not been re-born by baptism at the font, for they cannot devour those who have been baptized, nor any without God's permission. They can also, before the eyes of their parents, and when no one is in sight, throw into the water children walking by the water side; they make horses go mad under their riders; they can transport themselves from place to place through the air, either in body or in imagination; they can affect Judges and Magistrates so that they cannot hurt them; they can cause themselves and other to keep silence under torture; they can bring about a great trembling in the hands and horror in the minds of those who would arrest them; they can show to others occult things and certain future events, by the information of devils….

Any natural occurrence or accident could be the result of witchcraft. Who did the Malleus Maleficarum single out as being susceptible to its effects?  In medieval times, you could have been a witch or afflicted by one if…

You were wearied by life’s trials, which isn’t such a stretch to imagine given the drudgery of the medieval period. Also, if you neglected or corrupted your spirituality.

There are three methods above all by which devils, through the agency of witches, subvert the innocent, and by which that perfidy is continually being increased. And the first is through weariness, through inflicting grievous losses in their temporal possessions. For, as S. Gregory says: The devil often tempts us to give way from very weariness. And it is to be understood that it is within the power of a man to resist such temptation; but that God permits it as a warning to us not to give way to sloth.

You had any carnal thoughts.

…Towards young girls, more given to bodily lusts and pleasures, they observe a different method, working through their carnal desires and the pleasures of the flesh. Here it is to be noted that the devil is more eager and keen to tempt the good than the wicked, although in actual practice he tempts the wicked more than the good, because more aptitude for being tempted is found in the wicked than in the good. Therefore the devil tries all the harder to seduce all the more saintly virgins and girls; and there is reason in this, besides many examples of it.

You were poor. In an age where the effects of feudalism had reduced large numbers of the population to an almost servile existence, those Inquisitors must have been hard-pressed to deal with increased evidence of witchcraft among people who had no choice in their socioeconomic status.

There is also a third method of temptation through the way of sadness and poverty. For when girls have been corrupted, and have been scorned by their lovers after they have immodestly copulated with them in the hope and promise of marriage with them, and have found themselves disappointed in all their hopes and everywhere despised, they turn to the help and protection of devils; either for the sake of vengeance by bewitching those lovers or the wives they have married, or for the sake of giving themselves up to every sort of lechery. Alas! experience tells us that there is no number to such girls, and consequently the witches that spring from this class are innumerable.

Since witches would not confess their crimes, even under rigorous torture or unless the demons that had taken hold of them suddenly fled and thereby loosened witches' tongues, Inquisitors had to adopt a variety of methods. After all, there were wrong ways to undo witchcraft. Using counter spells was a no-no. Only sanctified religion could remove the taint.  How would a clergyman get rid of a witch? By invoking God through prayer.

…There must be nothing in the words which hints at any expressed or tacit invocation of devils.

Secondly, the benedictions or charms must contain no unknown names; for according to S. John Chrysostom such are to be regarded with fear, lest they should conceal some matter of superstition.

Thirdly, there must be nothing in the words that is untrue; for if there is, the effect of them cannot be from God, Who is not a witness to a lie.

Fourthly, there must be no vanities, or written characters beyond the sign of the Cross. Therefore the charms which soldiers are wont to carry are condemned.

Fifthly, no faith must be placed in the method of writing or reading or binding the charm about a person, or in any such vanity, which has nothing to do with the reverence of God, without which a charm is altogether superstitious.

Sixthly, in the citing and uttering of Divine words and of Holy Scripture attention must only be paid to the sacred words themselves and their meaning, and to the reverence of God.

Seventhly, the looked-for effect must be left to the Divine Will; for He knows whether it is best for a man to be healed or to be plagued, or to die.

And if that didn’t work? Torture might induce the desired reaction.

The Judge should act as follows in the continuation of the torture. First he should bear in mind that, just as the same medicine is not applicable to all the members, but there are various and distinct salves for each several member, so not all heretics or those accused of heresy are to be subjected to the same method of questioning, examination and torture as to the charges laid against them; but various and different means are to be employed according to their various natures and persons.

So, if one method didn’t produce the desired result, inquisitors were to try other methods of gaining a confession, including:

If he wishes to find out whether she is endowed with a witch's power of preserving silence, let him take note whether she is able to shed tears when standing in his presence, or when being tortured. For we are taught both by the words of worthy men of old and by our own experience that this is a most certain sign, and it has been found that even if she be urged and exhorted by solemn conjurations to shed tears, if she be a witch she will not be able to weep: although she will assume a tearful aspect and smear her cheeks and eyes with spittle to make it appear that she is weeping; wherefore she must be closely watched by the attendants.

Hard to believe that anyone subjected to the torture methods of the medieval period, which included branding and racking could bear up without shedding tears.

During examinations of the accused, the book cited the following requirements for inquisitors.

And if it can conveniently be done, the witch should be led backward into the presence of the Judge and his assessors.

A second precaution is to be observed, not only at this point but during the whole process, by the Judge and all his assessors; namely, that they must not allow themselves to be touched physically by the witch.

The third precaution to be observed in this tenth action is that the hair should be shaved from every part of her body.

Throughout the 250 years encompassing the Inquisition period, the Malleus Maleficarum became the standard for dealing with witchcraft in Christian Europe. Nearly all of the hundreds of thousands accused of using sorcery were women, but other scapegoats for misery included non-Christians, Jews and Muslims who converted to Christian, heretical sects among Christians, Gypsies, midwives and poets. Proof that just uttering the word ‘witch’ had a devastating effect on European life.

All images from Wikimedia - Creative Commons attribution license. Quotes of the Malleus Maleficarum take from http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written three novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana,  Sultana’s Legacy and Sultana: Two Sisters, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.  

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Well... up to a point!

Witch trial records studied in England show that about 20-30% of those accused were male, and that many trials of both men and women for witchcraft resulted in acquittals.

Witches in England were not burnt - that was the punishment for treason (including both high treason, and 'petty treason' - women killing their husbands or servants killing their masters) and for heresy, which was a separate accusation from witchcraft in England.

Instead, condemned witches were hanged as felons, usually (though not always) only if they had been found guilty of murder through witchcraft. Lesser forms of witchcraft such as causing the death of animals or sicknesses through ill wishing, cursing etc were generally punished with fines, whipping, the stocks, public penance, being bound over to keep the peace, and so on. More accused witches (and prisoners generally) seem to have died in prison than on the gallows, most likely of infections.

Witchcraft accusations in England very rarely include making a pact with the devil or attending a witch's sabbat which were such a feature of accusations in mainland Europe and in Scotland.

You also don't usually find the bizarre confessions you get there, which tended to implicate everyone in the neighbourhood until enough people had been executed that the witch craze burnt itself out.

The reason is almost certainly that in England (where even before the Reformation the Inquisition never held sway) torture was not used as a means of extracting confessions, unlike in both Scotland and mainland Europe.

Torture produced confessions, and the torturers' demand that the prisoner implicate others led to the spiralling accusations which could engulf a whole community. In the same way, torturers who had read the same sourcebook (like the Malleus) would be asking questions based on their text, and obviously getting the answers they wanted.

The main exceptions to this in England occurred in the few months during the Civil War that Matthew Hopkins, the "witchfinder general", was operating in East Anglia. He got the confessions of sabbats and diabolic pacts exactly like those on the continent, and like them too, had few accquittals - whoever he accused confessed eventually. He probably was responsible for 40% of the witch hangings in 500 years - and he operated for little over a year.

How did he manage it?

Well, he tortured - by sleep deprivation and by 'pricking'. He also had less-qualified judges than usual pronouncing the sentences, due to the disruption caused by the Civil War.

It's interesting to note that he was opposed from the start - a lot of people doubted his methods, his results, and noted that he had a financial interest in getting the accused condemned.

Luckily he was dead by 1647.