This week’s blog was inspired by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. Terry has an excellent series entitled Medieval Lives. I’ve mentioned it before in my blog. It couples historical fact with a touch of humour, who can resist that. At the end of the episode entitled The Damsel Mr. Jones states that women weren’t persecuted as witches in the medieval period. Witch-hunting was a product of the Renaissance. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but you get the drift. I was shocked. Was he really saying that one of the darkest times in European history was a product of the Age of Enlightenment? This was something I had to investigate. You might be surprised to discover that Terry Jones is correct. There were no significant witch-hunts in the middle ages.
Why was this? People have believed in witches for millennia, and I’ve no doubt that they believed in witches in the medieval period, which lasted from 5th century until the 15th century. So why weren’t they openly persecuted in a society that was riddled with superstitious beliefs? Because nearly a thousand years of the Roman Catholic teachings had told them that there was no authority higher than God. It seems that St. Augustine of Hippo argued in the 5th century that God alone could control the universe, and it was a mistaken belief by the pagans to think that the devil or witches could control events like the weather or the harvest. It wasn’t until 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII signed a papal bull recognising the spiritual and secular crime of witchcraft that the hysteria regarding witches really took hold.
There are scholars that say the witch-hunts were a backlash against women’s growing independence at the end of the middle ages, and that the authorities at the time equated feminine power with feminine evil, but I think there’s more to it than that. It’s estimated that 75 – 80 % of those executed were women. That means 20 – 25 % were men. If it was a case of gendercide then why were so many men killed. There are also scholars who state that it happened because of the mini ice age that occurred between 1550 and 1850. And others state that say it was the upheaval caused by the reformation where religious beliefs were altered and tested that caused the chaos. Perhaps it was a combination of all these factors.
For the purposes of this post I’ve tried to gather facts about the witch-hunts for three countries, England, Scotland, and Ireland. I did find statistics for witch trails. They are as follows:-
England – recorded trails – 228
Scotland – recorded trails – 559
Ireland – recorded trails – 4
Please keep in mind I’ve been unable to substantiate these figures, but it does give us an idea of the amount of hysteria generated.
So, why was the number for Scotland was so high compared to its neighbours? Personally, I blame James VI of Scotland who later became James I of England. He was a fervent believer in the power of witches and even wrote a book ‘Daemonologie' in which he made his case for the existence and threat of witches and witchcraft. Also keep in mind that Scotland underwent a significant upheaval at this time, it amalgamated with England, there was the reformation, the destruction of the Clan system and the Highland Clearances
In England there were witch-hunters such as Mathew Hopkins. Not a great deal is known about him except that he was a bad lawyer who supplemented his salary by hunting witches. He tortured his victims using starvation, and sleep deprivation. And because a blade couldn’t damage a witch’s skin, he would stab them with a retractable blade to prove his accusations. One of his favorite devises was the swimming test where the victim’s hands were bound and she was thrown into the local pond. If she drowned she was innocent and if she floated she was guilty. Hopkins got his due when a crowd turned against him and subjected him to his own swimming test. I wonder if an evil man like him floated?
Lastly, I have to wonder why the number was so low for Ireland. Although there was a massive witch trial in Islandmagee, Northern Ireland in 1710 in which eight women people were killed the rest of the country remained relatively unscathed. Why is that? Perhaps because there was not as much religious upheaval for the general population or maybe they were too busy with fighting the English. There are those who state that the Irish people didn’t need to blame witches for their misfortunes, they already had fairies, those mysterious little people, for that.
My grandmother who lived in County Kildare, Ireland was treated by a witch. In a time before modern antibiotics she developed leg sores. She went to the local doctor who told her that the infection would grow until her it reached her bones at which time her legs would have to be amputated and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. So, my grandfather sent for the local witch. Apparently, she was an old, wise woman who dressed all in black and made butter to sell in the village. The witch came, looked at my grandmother’s legs, and then went to the garden and picked some plants, my father described them as weeds, she then wrapped them in a poultice and tied them to my grandmother’s legs. The witch came back to the house and repeated this every day for a week, by which time my grandmother was healed. Now should my grandmother’s witch be condemned or cherished? Personally, I would cherish her and hope her knowledge has not been lost and forgotten.
One of the few Irish witch trails took place in 1324 when Alice Kyteler was accused of witchcraft, she escaped to England. Unfortunately, her servant, Petronella de Meath, was flogged and burned as a witch. This event is the inspiration for one of the characters in the wonderful book ‘Sin Eater’ by Dee Van Dyk, due to be released 1st April