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Witch Hunts: Women and the "Malleus Maleficarum"
The Salem Witch Trials are the most well known of the witch-hunts over the centuries, but it was far from the first. The most common reason for witch-hunts came from social hardships such as epidemic illnesses that couldn't yet be explained. When leaders refused to give cause for the problems, superstition became the source of blame. At the time, there was no separation between church and state; therefore, mainstream religion's position on witchcraft was used.
The Malleus Maleficarum
The court believed so highly in the accusation of witchcraft that, eventually, anyone could accuse anyone of sorcery and win the case. Most of the strength from the plaintiff came from the famous witch-hunt manual the Malleus Maleficarum. The result was death to the accused. The Malleus Maleficarum provided evidence against any type of person one could imagine; except those in power. No matter one's gender, race, religion, class, etc. that person could be accused, and sentenced to death for witchcraft:
"That is, the Malleus gives an all-encompassing explanation of what sorcery is, how we can perceive its effects, and what role it plays in the cosmic struggle between omnipotent God and his archenemy Satan" (p.34, Mackay).
How much do you know about witch hunts?
Women made up about 78-80% of witch-hunt victims in Europe and North America. Evidence could be found in the Malleus no matter the accusations. Many scholars bring up the fact Eve was quickly named the source of evil in the Bible; therefore, when dealing with fundamentalism in law it incorporated this belief for further evidence:
"Nonetheless, even if the Malleus is not misogynistic in a narrow sense, the whole work is clearly permeated with a hostile and negative view of women as a whole. Given the often negative characterization of women in both the Old and New Testaments, it is not surprising that Christian thought of antiquity and the medieval period adopted a similar attitude" (p.26).
Single women accused were said to have had relationships with men which went wrong, and they used their sex appeal to convince the man to stay, but were left in the end for someone more appropriate. In the witch craze, the belief that women are focused on sex and controlled by the devil to act on it was the most common explanation for any accusation against a woman:
"...the strong association of female sorcery with love affairs that have turned out badly for young women who have used their sexual wiles to entice a man into marriage but were ultimately rejected for a more suitable spouse" (p.27).
Even though virgins are seen as the most pure, according to Christianity, when they were accused the Malleus makes them out to be anything but innocent. They were said to be possessed by the devil, and engage in sexual acts with him. In addition, the devil possessed virgins to manipulate men to engage in sexual acts with them:
"Peter de Palude tells a story about a man who betrothed himself to an idol and nonetheless contracted a marriage with a certain young woman. He was unable to know her because of the Devil, who always interposed himself in an assumed body"(p.95).
Married women were pointed out because of their assumed status as no longer virgin and pure. They had presumably had sex; therefore, they knew the devil and engaged in sexual acts with him. As with other accused women, they lured men to engage in sexual acts, too. It was believed that these women have uncontrollable sexual urges and that is why things go wrong in their lives:
"...if sorcery befalls the marriage before carnal union, then if it is permanent, it impedes and severs a marriage already entered into, and such a pronouncement would not be given about an illusionary and imaginary effect, as it is self-evident" (p.95).
Women educated in medicine of any kind were admired and respected until the witch hunts began. When babies didn't survive their deaths were blamed on the woman caring for them. It was a way for fathers to avoid responsibility for their children's death. Witches were categorized as unusually knowledgeable for their gender; therefore, midwives were put under the category of sorcery as well as the explanation for what could not previously be explained:
"...Husbands felt guilt and anger at the death of wife or child and readily projected these feelings upon the midwife, who was charged with negligence or, if no physical reason for the disaster could be found, with sorcery" (p.115, Russell & Alexander).
If married women were seen as no longer pure, widows were seen as worse. Widows have "known" men; therefore, they could easily be involved with Satan. In fact, the widow may be responsible for her husband's death. It was common for widows to be accused of consorting with the devil and then murdering their husbands with witchcraft:
"...Arson, for example, was frequently attributed to old women, since it is a crime that can be perpetuated by a weak person clandestinely... Once this type of crime was associated with lonely women, no lonely woman could be free of suspicion...Under the stress and fear that accompanied the plagues, it was common to suspect the women of using magic to ensure their survival or even of encompassing the deaths of the men" (pp.113-14).
Do you follow a form of paganism?
Today, the faiths within the Pagan community have nothing to do with the descriptions in the Malleus Maleficarum. To fully comprehend Paganism, as an umbrella term, takes years of study. In the simplest terms, Wiccans and Pagans worship the earth, and/or the god and goddess. Some are monotheist while many are polytheist.
Each follower is different, and defines Paganism a little differently. There are no set rules for Pagans. Many simply follow ancient types of spirituality and/or religion. Most do not recognize a devil or demons of any kind; therefore, the accusations of consorting with a devil or Satan is impossible; however, the Church recognizes anything that disagrees with their religion to be evil. The court in Salem believed this as well which made it easy to blame a mythical character for why someone has a certain popularity or strength that makes the Church feel threatened.
Discrimination of Pagans and Wiccans still exist because of misconceptions understood by society which comes from what was written in the Malleus. Some still think witches harm others with their craft. In reality, it goes against their beliefs.The most common saying by anyone under the umbrella term of Pagan is: "An' it harm none, do what ye will."
"Who Do You Think You Are" - Sarah Jessica Parker
NBC had a show Who Do You Think You Are? where celebrities research their family history. Sarah Jessica Parker played witch sister Sarah Sanderson in Hocus Pocus (1993), but found out she has a family connection to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693. The episode shows Parker's fear of her ancestor's part: Was she accused or was she an accuser?
Modern-day awareness of any of the witch hunts is important. It gives us a look into how people can act in times of hysteria. It teaches us about human nature in these conditions; therefore, hopefully, we learn from them; unfortunately, the witch hunts was not the first or the last time society has participated in accusations and blaming groups or individuals for why times are hard. World War II is a good example of a similar happening. Hitler blamed the Jewish people and continued to come up with additional groups to blame for their hard times. Educating ourselves and others to recognize when society is vulnerable to illogical explanations is the only solution to preventing future targeting of innocent groups.
1. Mackay, Christopher S. The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.
2. Russell, Jeffrey Burton., and Brooks Alexander. A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics & Pagans: With 105 Illustrations. 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007. Print.
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