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Theories Behind History's Witch Trials: Sexism, Dogma, Superstition, Greed

Updated on November 19, 2015
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Kitty has been fascinated by witches since she was small. She has studied the folklore and history of witchcraft for the past sixteen years.

A witch meeting with the "black" magician and his familiar.
A witch meeting with the "black" magician and his familiar. | Source

She's a Witch! Get Her!

Most people have heard of the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century. Many of us have also learned of the hundreds of witch trials that occurred all across Europe, starting in the Middle Ages and going through the Early Modern Period. The question has stood against time - why did these atrocities occur? Why were thousands of people accused, tortured, and many killed in the name of witchcraft?

There have been countless theories presented by various historians and researchers in modern times. And for each theory provided to us, there has been someone else to disagree and provide a different theory. The reality is we don't know the exact reason why the Witch Trials happened, and this is probably because there isn't just one cause. If we combine these theories and take another in-depth look at the witch trials, maybe then we'd come closer to the truth. I intend to take a brief look at each of the major theories behind the Witch Trials in this article.

Notice there are men torturing and executing female witches in this Medieval Miniature.
Notice there are men torturing and executing female witches in this Medieval Miniature. | Source
Not just women were accused and killed for being "witches"; men were too.
Not just women were accused and killed for being "witches"; men were too. | Source

Theory #1: Sexism

One of the first things we think of when we hear the word "witch" is an ugly old woman with a war on her nose, a green face and a pointy hat. When you hear the word witch, have you ever thought of a male witch? Not usually. This is because we have mostly associated witches with women for centuries. Because of this, one of the major theories behind the Witch Trials is sexism.

The Dark Ages was a time of uncertainty, a time when many people felt threatened and fearful in various ways. Power was not just a desire but a necessity for survival. The idea that men felt threatened by women permeates this theory. There are other theories in conjunction with this one, including the idea that midwives and female healers threatened the male doctors' business. So it was proposed by some theorists that doctors in the Middle Ages and beyond would accuse midwives of witchcraft in order to be rid of them.

Others have said women were looked upon as mere property in the Middle Ages, and any woman who rose up and spoke her mind would be considered a threat to her husband or other men. She had to be put in her place, so often she was accused of witchcraft because what better way to get her back under control? In the ancient world, in many cultures, women were not only respected they had power over their tribes/clans. Moving into more modern times, a matriarchal type-society had turned patriarchal. A place where men ruled and women were just "objects" to have. Women were not allowed to have an opinion or speak their minds, and if they did they were often accused of being witches.

But this can't be the ONLY reason people were accused of witchcraft. Yes, I said "people" because it wasn't just women who were accused and killed in the name of witchcraft. Men and children were also included in this atrocity. So sexism is a good theory, but it doesn't explain the entire phenomenon.

Francisco De Goya's piece depicting a witches' sabbath. Is that Satan or is it actually one of the old pagan gods?
Francisco De Goya's piece depicting a witches' sabbath. Is that Satan or is it actually one of the old pagan gods? | Source
A woman in Salem after accusations of Witchcraft. Was this religion at play?
A woman in Salem after accusations of Witchcraft. Was this religion at play? | Source

Theory #2: Religion

During the Dark Ages, religion was a dominant part of government and society. The Church had much more power then than it does today. It had its hands in almost every part of life. It was growing stronger and stronger, and it was doing so by converting anyone who wasn't Christian and by requiring the people to give their money to the Church. So one can imagine if the Church didn't have the allegiance of all of the local residents, this meant they also weren't acquiring all of the money they possibly could. So they sought to convert all of those individuals who weren't Church-goers.

There were those who refused to convert and therefore were accused of heresy or witchcraft and were executed. This is just another theory behind the tragic phenomenon of the Witch Trials. Some people argue that this was not the case. Because if the Church killed off the people who wouldn't convert, how would they ever acquire the extra money and power? Another part to this theory though, and perhaps some might argue for this theory in that if someone was to rebel against the Church and that person had enough influence on his or her surrounding town, he or she might have the ability to lead an uprising or a whole new religious movement. So this threat would've had to have been eliminated.

Think about when the Protestants broke off from the Catholic Church...what happened? The Protestants were thought of as blasphemers and fighting ensued between them and the Catholic Church. Then if we looked at the changing major religions in England, we can see that when the Queen was Protestant, the Catholics were then looked upon as blasphemers. And so it goes in history. It's almost as if anyone who wasn't the major religion could be looked upon as a witch or heretic and accused as such.

But religion is just one theory and could most likely be combined with a few of the others to make a solid argument behind why the Witch Trials occurred.

Even after all she did for France, Joan of Arc was eventually accused of heresy by the Church and burned at the stake.
Even after all she did for France, Joan of Arc was eventually accused of heresy by the Church and burned at the stake. | Source
People believed witches met at night and consorted with the devil and his legion. This is when the "witches" would plan their evil deeds.
People believed witches met at night and consorted with the devil and his legion. This is when the "witches" would plan their evil deeds. | Source

Theory #3: Superstition

During the Dark Ages and even through the Early Modern Period, superstition played a huge part of everyday life. The Dark Ages are called the dark ages for a reason - a lot of people were in the dark as far as what they were taught and knew about the world around them. Science and medicine were often considered dangerous or even considered witchcraft. And there were many things that happened in nature and in life that people couldn't understand or explain, so it was easy to explain them away with magic or supernatural forces. People wanted to believe that God blessed and punished them for their deeds and wrongdoings. But, the easier way to understanding why really bad things occurred was to put the blame on "the devil" and his "followers".

The Devil was said to tempt those who were weak and easily influenced such as the sick, the poor, and feeble-minded women. At least this is what many people thought, but in some cases the devil tempted those who were in a place of power in order to exact his will upon many through this one powerful person. Once the Devil had you in his grasp, he could then use you to hurt those around you. For instance, often disease and famine was blamed on the Devil and his "witches". When milk or beer would sour, or cows go dry, it was the work of witchcraft. If someone was sick, particularly epileptic, the Devil and his witches were blamed. You see, it was easy to blame the worst things in life on supernatural forces because it was all the people knew.

Religion plays a part in this because superstitions of various kinds often stem from religious beliefs. For example, the concept of a "Devil", or magnificently evil entity comes from the Church. And so obviously the concept of witches also comes from the Church. Superstition is intertwined with religion. Does this mean that every religion believes in the devil or witches? No. But we can see where some parts of superstition originates and how it twisted and mutated and led to the execution of thousands of people for "witchcraft".

Take for example the story of Moll Dyer, an old woman who once lived in Southern Maryland, U.S.A. in the colonial period. The local town's winter was particularly brutal, and they couldn't figure out the reason for it so the "logical" thing was to blame a witch. Moll Dyer was an old widow and the easiest target. So they blamed her for their problems and eventually ran her out of her home. She froze to death. If we could go back in time and investigate this scenario, we would probably see that one person planted the seed of superstition. I.E. "this bad weather must be the work of a witch. It must be Moll Dyer!" And then the rumors spread and fired up the whole town into believing she was a witch and was to be blamed for a natural weather pattern. No science = superstition = stupidity.

Theory #4: Greed

Another theory states that greed was the real reason behind the hundreds of Witch Trials in Europe and in the United States. It is well known that when someone was accused of being a witch in various places, their neighbor would by default acquire their land if they had no other kin to claim it. These laws varied from place to place, but you can see how simple it might've been to acquire another person's property and benefit from accusing someone of witchcraft.

The theory of sexism can be combined with the theory of greed in the idea that doctors were accusing midwives of witchcraft in order to eradicate them. This would then give doctors the upperhand of the medical business and obviously make them more successful.

And again another theory can be tied into this theory - religion and greed. If indeed the Church was blaming people of witchcraft in order to acquire the person's property and/or gain their quiet allegiance and therefore their tithes, this is blatant proof of greed mixed with religion.

Great Documentary on the Pendle Witch Trials

So What Really Happened to Cause the Witch Trials?

These are just a few theories and shouldn't be decided upon exclusively and discounting the others. In reality, I believe the real reason why people were accused and executed under the term of "witchcraft" is many-fold. If we combine all of these theories with even more theories of things such as medical illness (ergot poisoning as mentioned as a theory behind the Salem Witch Trials), epilepsy, and psychological illness we might have ourselves a solid explanation behind this tragic and historical phenomenon.

What do you think? Why did the Witch Trials occur in Europe and the United States? Why do people still get blamed of witchcraft and killed for it today in places like Africa and the Middle East? Is it religion? Greed? Or pure stupidity? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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© 2015 Nicole Canfield


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  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 24 months ago from the Ether

    KoffeeKlatch Gals - Thank you so much! I agree.

  • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

    Susan Haze 24 months ago from Sunny Florida

    kittythedreamer absolutely fascinating article. I think the trials were caused but all of the reasons you mentioned including ignorance.

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 2 years ago from the Ether

    Lipnancy - Absolutely! I would agree with that 100%...that's probably the number one reason. Thanks for adding to it. :)

  • Lipnancy profile image

    Nancy Yager 2 years ago from Hamburg, New York

    How about ignorance? Most people tend to push away what they do not understand. Then a mob ensues and so on and so on.