The Burning Times: The Witch Hunts, Trials, and Massacre in Europe
Witches on Trial
When people hear the words "Witch Trials", the first thing that usually pops into their minds is Salem. What most would be surprised to learn is that the unnecessary and heinous act of trying, torturing, and killing "witches" goes back centuries before the Salem Witch Trials, actually originating in the fifteenth century in Europe. The first witch trials were held in a town located in Southern France and then spread like wildfire across the entire continent of Europe and eventually made its way to the US colonies. An "estimated" forty to sixty thousand women, men and even children were tortured and killed during these trials; however, many scholars believe the numbers were even greater than that.
One of the speculated main reasons why these witch trials began was due to an overwhelming fear that Satan and his followers were going to outnumber and destroy Christianity. Because the old Pagan beliefs and rituals were still being practiced by some, the Christian church felt extremely threatened and needed a means in which to completely rid the world of the "old beliefs", which to them were blasphemous. Many women were accused of being Satan's witches, a large number of these women being midwives. In case you didn't know, a midwife is a woman who aids a pregnant mother during her labor and delivery of her child and also aids in the starting process of nursing the child after birth. There were many midwives back in those days and one of the theories is that the male doctors felt threatened and wanted to rid the continent of these midwives...apparently they were taking too much business away from the doctors!
The sad part of the Burning Times was that women and even some men who were considered allies and healers to their communities were inevitably turned against and turned into the Church and the law for being Satan's soldiers. The Church preached that anyone with supernatural abilities, in many cases (particularly midwives) with the knowledge to heal, was in cohorts with the devil and acquired these superhuman abilities from a pact made with him. For many years during the Middle Ages, the actual belief in witches and witchcraft was against the law, but thanks to Bernadino of Siena and Pope Innocent VIII. These two Christian men sort of paved the way for the mass hysteria that would grip the continent of Europe, beginning in the late fifteenth century.
Much of the stereotypes and images that we imagine witches today has been fed and fueled by the Burning Times of Early Modern Europe. Riding on brooms, meeting at night to perform evil-doings, shape-shifting into cats, and the like can all be attributed to the ignorance that can be found in large masses of sheep-like crowds.
Methods of Testing and Torturing
Many of us are aware of the fact that these tried women and men would be burned in the end, sometimes hung; however, we forget that during many of these trials these people were actually succumbed to despicable "tests" to ascertain their wickedness.
After the church's court had questioned the so-called "witch", one of the ways in which to tell if she was Satan's wife was to weigh her on a scale on one side against a heavy, metal-bound Bible on the other side. If she was a witch, she would weigh less than the Bible. How ridiculous? I'm almost one hundred percent sure many of these women were young women, and also many of these women were peasants so how much meat could they have had on their bones anyway? Weigh a hundred pound, eighteen-year-old girl against a hundred and twenty pound, metal-bound Bible, which do you think will weigh more? Have you ever seen a Bible from those times? They were huge!
More tests involved forcing the witches to recite the Lord's Prayer without mistake and also tying rocks around their ankles and seeing if they sank or floated when thrown into the river. If they floated, they were proclaimed to be a witch and killed. If they sank, it was said that they were innocent but most of the time those people died by drowning before anyone could pull them up from the bottom! Another stupid test was to examine the body of an accused witch for the "mark of the devil", which was said to be a black or dark mark somewhere on the body. If they poked it with something sharp and it did not bleed, they figured that the person was a witch. With how incredibly stupid these "tests" were, it makes me wonder...how did these people wipe their own butts in the morning?
If these tests were not performed, many would die by hunger or disease in a dungeon or prison cell before they could even go to trial. Others would be tormented and told that if they confessed to witchcraft that they would be let off the hook...when in reality many of these people were burned at the stake anyway. So think about this...even the women who considered themselves totally innocent and faithful Christian women, who would not give in to the Church's methods of torture and confess to "witchcraft" would then be tortured, publicly humiliated, separated from their families, and then slain in an agonizing fashion...many times by burning.
A Patron Saint Accused of Witchcraft?
Remember learning about the courageous and fearless warrior Joan of Arc, who led her people to victory and saved a nation? This lovely and god-sent woman was also accused of witchcraft because she claimed to have talked to Saints and they also did not like the fact that she wore "men's clothing." They captured her, tried her, tested her, and could not find any fault with her answers to their mocking questions. But in 1431, Joan of Arc (now a patron Saint, by the way) was burned at the stake in front of a crucifix which she had requested to be there to comfort her during her passing into god's arms.
The End to the Madness
Following the Salem Witch Trials in America, the last witch trials in Europe occurred in Scotland in the mid-1700s. This was due to a few movements and laws put into place by some respectable men who claimed that the trying and accusations against old feeble women was improbable and incorrect. These women were referred to as "Moll Whites", which is interesting because where I grew up in Maryland there was a woman in the early settlement of St. Mary's County known as "Moll Dyer", who the townsfolk blamed to be a witch. Her story is a sad one and can be read in my other hub: American Witches (link below).
There has been numerous amounts of theories as to why this mass hysteria and massacre occurred; however, not one particular theory has stuck as the real true reason behind the insanity. Some modern-day Pagans believe it was a sexist revolution against women, brought about by men of the Church who were doctors or just in search to scare women into submission (by means of eradicating many midwives from their industry). Interestingly, some cases of tried witches were also accused of being "werewolves" and "vampires", as well! The belief that witches could shift into werewolves was more of a Northern European tale, one of the most famous cases being that of Hans the Werewolf (link to my werewolf hub below which tells the whole tale of Hans).
Whatever the cause of this genocide, we can be content that such idiocy is through in Europe and the United States. We have freedom of religion in the United States and I thank my lucky stars for that, because if I lived in the Burning Times I have a feeling I would be one of the first women to go!
© 2011 Nicole Canfield