Witches are women who practice witchcraft and/or sorcery, and their male counterparts are wizards. Witchcraft is a practice that involves rituals of healing and divination, and went under the general name of charming nature. Witchcraft statue was gained during a discriminative hunt down intended to end use of charming because of the blurred distinction between the charmer and witch (Goodare, 2002). The charmer was a healer while the witch was the contrary-that which causes illness. Goodare explores the historical discrimination using a legal framework that abolished witchcraft and sorcery. All women who contravened the abolished use of supernatural powers were stereotyped to an abomination whose commission was death through court order. The legal framework recognized definite customs and practices such as spells, curses, or maladies rather than the thought of being a witch or sorcerer. History shows that the general perception was that a witch, unlike a magician, was one who made a pact with the devil and therefore was supposed to die for causing harm to the host society. The essay delves into different historical contexts under which a magician was considered a special entertainer, but a witch who equally used the same power was perceived as demon invoker.
Customary belief that witches were devil’s agents created acrimony between the church and the pagan associated religions that ensured a battle between the church and the devilish women. Religious women and especially pronounced between the 11th and 18th century. Misunderstandings concerning the application of witches’ knowledge of unknown mysteries created the people generally referred to as witches if uneducated but the scholarly witches qualify as the mythical illuminati. The illuminati remain a group of scholars that question the philosophies and morals standards set by the church practices and because of that most were executed, though secretly they gained converts to continued pagan religion. Religion was the main source of framework that stigmatized witchcraft. “The belief of witchcraft and sorcery had been invented by Roman Catholics to stigmatize those beliefs and practices that opposed their church” (Burns, 2003). One of the most famous documented sorcery and witchcraft case was the Affair of the Poisons in France.
Witches were women who the society or the church suspected as having made agreements with the devil to possess special powers in return with human life. The society therefore blamed the witches when some people mysteriously disappear or died. According to Toivo, (2005) most of those suspected of witchcraft were women. The trial of Salem represent the most documented source of witchcraft hunting that was started by the church to counter spread use of magic related science in the western world (Toivo, 2005). Statistics claim that over 9 million witches were supposedly burnt because of being associated with witchcraft. Toive explains that most of the victims were women as identified as being too old, sick, or poor women within their societies. Suspicion mostly because of the deviant looks because of ageing and seclusion was stereotypically associated with witchcraft such that harmless victims were forced to face the horrid and cruel death by the Dark Ages gender discrimination. However, over time as the illusions and reality sublime because of lack of direct experience or empirical knowledge to the actual number of trials it to account for the diminishing numbers to 100,000 trials, while some indicate 40,000 – 50,000 executions between 1450 and 1700. Stereotypical characteristics such as secludes old women that were used to identify witches have lost significance over time (Toivo, 2005).
It was obvious that the proportion of suspected female witchcraft practitioners (witches) executed was far greater than that of male practitioners (wizards). Toivo (2005) asserts that the exact number of wizards was generally greater than that of witches, yet historically, the society over-rated number of witches. In Europe, the number of woman-hunt persisted unto the elimination of popular feminisms whom monarchies and church hunted from France and other nations in a bid to decrease women empowerment (Toivo, 2005). The intriguing question was why there were a large number of female witches and perhaps it would be appropriate to investigate a famous case to try to unravel the role of women in witchcraft.
In the aforementioned case, Affair of the Poisons in France, an investigation by the lieutenant of police of Paris, Nicholas-Gabriel de la Reynie in 1677 led to the uncovering of a group of poison and potion makers who had connections with the high court nobility. The police arrested there women – Marie Bosse, La Vigoreaux, and Catherine Deshayes. The women were well-known fortunetellers and Catherine in particular, was a midwife who conducted secret abortions. The police tortured the women into confession during the interrogation and in the end; the women were convicted and burned in 1679 (Burns, 2003). Other people connected to the trio were investigated and many more were arrested on consequences of association either with feminine cults or on pretense terms that were dependent on the word of the witnesses. The range of substances the women used were actual poisons like arsenic and ritualistic objects like human body parts. The charges intertwined form poisoning to witchcraft when more investigations revealed that the group conducted suspiciously devilish rituals that included dancing on the body of a naked woman and infanticide. One of the accused, Montespan, had participated in the rituals to make the king fall in love with her while making the supposed queen sterile for the King to cast her out as unproductive (Burns, 2003).
Montespan, in collaboration with some nobility has made a portion for the king’s death that included satanic pacts. The king ordered more investigations in which 367 persons were arrested, 23 people banished, and 36 others sentenced to death. The rest, including Montespan, were imprisoned until death. Of the arrested, those from the lower social classes were the ones punished and tortured for poisoning and witchcraft. The king issued a decree against witchcraft to end the old use of charms particularly intended to cause harm (Burns, 2003). This documented case most obviously indicates the start of witch-hunts outside the church context.
During the 11th to 18th century, male supremacy was a crucial system in maintaining male dominance in the society. There were unequal power relations between men and women and this reflected in social relations. Men were the perpetrators of most violent acts against women. Though most aspects of male-dominated social order do not persist over time, actual expressions of such aspects are historically certain and subject to change.
Early witch-hunts are an apparent phenomenon that men used to show their domination over women. Witch-hunt entailed the arrest, prosecution, torturing, and execution of thousands of suspected witchcraft women, feminists labeled as witches and other socially incorrect women. Most of those accused were women, and they tended to be a certain category of women in terms of age, marital status, economic, socio-political status and sexual preferences among others factors (Hester, 2002). One of the target groups for witch-hunts were women with particular knowledge or skills in healing, especially midwifery (Toivo, 2005). By reference, this kind of attack was an attack on women with knowledge on things that men could not do. Childbirth was a medical specialty in the male-dominated field of medicine, particularly doctors. Only the rich could afford the services of doctors and most of the poor people (read women) could only manage to go to midwives who charged less than doctors did. This context of witch-hunt serves to show a sign of social control over women at a time of great social change and when men were actively pursuing the more lucrative and influential positions within the emerging capitalistic economy. The social and financial positions of male doctors was under threat from the growing numbers of midwifery knowledgeable among supposedly unqualified women, the best way to eradicate such was to create a public aversion of their nature and the name of witchcraft suit the group of women. This kind of witch-hunt was an attack on women’s reproductive rights and it was an important part of male domination in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century (Hester, 2002).
Justice for witches was a mirage since there was no fairness in the recorded witch trials during the court proceedings since the trials remained biased by prior conclusion particularly when the court sat within the locality (Goodare, 2002). Usually, the charges against women, including witches, were for disobeying the patriarchal rules. Toivo (2005) claims that when the landlord system was acquiring land or the church was in need of land, women who owned land through inheritance were vulnerable to charges of witchcraft. Others who were vulnerable to witchcraft were those who claiming their rights publicly and aggressively, such as Daly’s Hags (Toivo 2005).
Aggression was a male-oriented behavior and women who displayed open aggressive habits to the extent of owning property and land were eliminated out of fear that feminine women would imitate such masculine habits and cause downfall of the obedient woman. Political aware women were thus labeled as cult leaders for articulating women rights in a male-dominated society. Hester asserts that patriarchy ideology regulated men’s attitude and perceptions towards respecting soft women while resenting wild and violent women who were stereotyped to challenge the male hierarchal ordered society (2002). Powerful aristocratic womenduring the 16th, 17th and 18th century who were perceived as a threat to male ruling class were executed. For example in Austria, Elizabeth Bathory was tried between 1609 and 1611 for hiring lower-class women to poison and cast spells for her (Burns, 2003). The claims remained baseless, but the trials employed pathological fear of witchery related paraphernalia evidence to force an execution. The society could not accommodate a special class of women who asserted for sovereignty from men as that created a disorder. Therefore, in some case wealthy women and widows whop owned property were persecuted for the possession of their wealth.
Witch-hunting started in the British Isles in 1400 when England passed decree affecting Ireland and Wales. Scotland did not see any case of witch-hunt until 1603 when their King James VI become the England King James I the unification that resulted in adoption of the witch-hunt code. Irish witches are synonymous with the witch trial of Lady Kyteler and later the case of 1660s when Florence Newton was accused by a servant of being possessed with fits that made her vomit pins, feathers and buttons that caused a sort of a poltergeist activity (Burns, 2003).
Political imposition of Habsburg rule in Hungary accelerated the rate of witch hunting in the European region. During the period marked from 1679 to1686 saw the Hungary prince Michael Apafi accused a group of twenty led by a political rival’s wife for bewitching his wife Anne Bornemisza. Expulsion of the Turkish by the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent imposition of leadership increased witch-hunting among political rivers. Revolts against the new power encouraged the adoption of the code “Practica Rerum Criminalium” which was based on English legal framework developed by jurist Benedict Carpzov to act as a guideline to accuse witches (Burns, 2003, p. 135). Between 1710 and 1730, more than 200 women were accused of witchcraft and about 60 burned to death in each year. The peak of the Hungary witch-hunt occurred in 1728 and 1729 when 14 people were arrested and executed including a former chief judge to the city during the infamous Szeged trials in Europe (Burns, 2003, p. 135). Empress Maria Theresa abolished witch-hunting in Hungary in 1768 after removing the power of trial from small court to the court of appeal only in which the framework of the law had the burden of proving a witch beyond superstitions and delusion level of suspicion.
Sectional secular and religious parties that included landowners and nobility usually carried out witch-hunts. Save for selected areas such as Austria where the number of male witches was unusually high, most of other places had mostly female witches as the accused. The witch-hunts were sometimes very large parties that were notorious for torture. It was until later when government institutions took control over witch-hunts. (Burns, 2003). Between 1627 and 1632, Germany experienced one of the worst witch-hunting period. In particular was the Baden-Baden witch-hunt in the Baden territory, an area that transformed from Protestant to Catholic. A councilor, Dr. Martin Eschbach led a severe witch-hunt that, like most German witch-hunting campaigns targeted and went beyond old women who were the stereotypical witches to include men and government officials. Though there was a considerable number of men in accused and captured in this witch-hunt compared to other German witch hunts, about two-thirds were women. About 97 percent of those on trial from the Eschbach campaign were convicted, which makes it one of the highest conviction rates in Europe, foreshadowing the Salem ad Mora witch-hunts (Burns, 2003). Another of the target groups for witch-hunts were women with particular knowledge or skills in healing, especially midwifery. (Toivo, 2005). An example is the authorities of Ayrshire, Scotland sorcery accused a woman called Elizabeth Dunlop of sorcery. Elizabeth was a midwife who also advised people on use of herbs for treatment and ways of tracking down stolen items. She confessed, amid torture, of a ghost of Thom Reid, that helped her in devising ways of mixing spices and concussions, and taught her how to find objects. The authorities connected the ghost of Reid to Satanism so they convicted and burned her on Castle Hill, Edinburgh. (Pavlac, 2009).
Another example is the 1588 case where a court charged Alison Pearson with witchcraft and associated her with fairies. She had learnt “magical” healing arts from her cousin who had brought them Egypt. She proposed a healing medicine to the ailing bishop of a local church, which made her suspect of witchcraft. Her sentence was to strangling and then be burnt. (Pavlac, 2009). By reference, this kind of attack was an attack on women with knowledge on things that men could not do. Childbirth was a medical specialty in the male-dominated field of medicine, particularly doctors. Only the rich could afford the services of doctors and most of the poor people (read women) could only manage to go to midwives who charged less than doctors did.
This context of witch-hunt serves to show a sign of social control over women at a time of great social change and when men were actively pursuing the more lucrative and influential positions within the emerging capitalistic economy. The social and financial positions of male doctors were under threat from the growing numbers of knowledgeable women and one of the ways to eradicate them was use of a public enemy in the name of witchcraft. This kind of witch-hunt was an attack on women’s reproductive rights and it was an important part of male domination in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century. (Hester, 2002).
The society nowadays has come to accept that witchcraft is a practice present to both men and women. Women are more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft since they are psychologically more expressive and tend to state their emotions and feelings verbally, while men hardly show emotions and only express them physically. Laws and legal structures that are centered on state powers have altered the way witch-hunts are done. Crimes receive a fair and just hearing before prosecution. This has made the society come to terms with the fact that it is unlawful to execute witches on grounds of accusations instead of facts. Fair hearings have made the society nowadays realize witchcraft is not as widespread among women as previously held as truth.
The Catholic Church, which was a central part in propagation of witch-hunts, came under scrutiny during the rise of the Protestant move. Many people started to question some arguments by the church concerning opposing the Clergy. More people started having independent views and interpretations of some church decisions, which led to formulation of reformations. The reformations caused a change of heart towards women in the society. Previously, the Clergy taught the people that women according to the Bible were the “weaker sex.” The reformations changed this fact and women began being involved in many society-related roles than they previously enjoyed. This changed the perception of knowledgeable and skilled women taking over men’s jobs to rather women participating in their own economic activities. (Toivo, 2005).
The Christian movement in the 18th and 19th century brought to the front some critical issues. Some people even started questioning the existence of witchcraft. Nowadays, people have become more religious than they were before the 19th century and hold independent opinions on witchcraft and its role in the society. Cultural and mental attitudes have evolved over the years and nowadays, the influence of theology has made people rely more on spirituality and give less attention to witchcraft. Female witches therefore receive little attention compared to previous centuries and the whole idea of witchcraft has come under criticism as simply a psychological fantasy meant to control people by the church and the nobility or upper classes in the society. (Toivo, 2005).
Attitudes regarding witches have changed from the satanic female figure that invokes supernatural fear and feasts on human parts to a comic figure of irrationality and superstition. A classic modern example of this is the “Halloween witch” who is filth old woman with a black dress, flying a broomstick with a pointed black hat and a cat to match. (Burns, 2003). The current focus on women identity and the imagery of female witches has faced reconstruction due to rapid changes in global politics, social and cultural life, and religious priorities. (Toivo, 2005). Although witches had come in correlation with mutinous, aggressive, and recluse women since before the early nineteenth century, the late 1960s saw the rise of the feminist movement and with it a radical change in opinions about female witches. The vibrant and forceful interaction of the movement and the availability of historical evidence regarding witchcraft led to the rise of a radical group called Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell in New York, USA. The feminist group described witch-hunting as a male crusade against women, an intense case of male carnage that many feminists saw as the dogma of patriarchy. It was purely coincidental that the study of witches and the rise of feminism during the late 1960s and early 1970s were supported by the shift in attitudes about equality in the public domain. Feminist intellectuals and scholars portrayed early witches as wise natural healers, herbalists, and midwives who derived wisdom from experience and connection to the environment, and were victims of male dominance.
In conclusion, comparing the past and the present, there have been some changes in attitudes about witchcraft and the role of female witches. History has already created a mirror for women to refer to when in need of ascertaining their work and feminine empowerment aimed at creating new feminine identity in the new society. The ever-expanding numbers of women’s movements and rights groups need justify women exposure to truer information for clarification.