The history behind the witch-hunt in Europe is one of the most intriguing yet understudied and misunderstood subjects to this day. While some scholars characterize this era as a veritable gendercide, others refuse its deeper roots and implications. It is still taboo for most people to characterize the execution of thousands of women in the so-called witch-craze era as genocide. Many scientists refuse to consider it a crime against women, citing the few cases of men accused of being wizards. And even though many feminist scholars and organizations recognize it as gendercide, there are still many misconceptions. Let’s examine seven myths and truths about the witches and the witch-hunt in Europe.
1. Witch-hunts Took Place in the Middle Ages by Uneducated People
Many people believe this is a myth due to common assumptions and misunderstandings regarding certain historical periods; the Middle Ages is often associated with barbarism and seen as a dark era of humanity. While it is true that a few people already believed in witchcraft and black witches in the Middle Ages (5th – 15th century), the witch-hunt was not yet widespread nor systematic.
Some witch executions did take place in Europe in 14th and 15th centuries. However, they were mainly the result of political interests rather than superstition and gender discrimination. Agnes Bernauer, for example, was executed as a witch in 1435 because the Duke of Augsburg couldn’t accept her as his son’s wife. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 as she threatened the English political and military interests.
The witch-hunt took place from the Renaissance and Early modern history up to the 18th century; the last known execution took place in 1782, and the victim was a Swiss woman named Anna Goldi. It all started in 1486, with the publication of Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) by Heinrich Kramer, a Catholic inquisitor. In his book, like all the other witch-hunt books existing in this period, he writes why women are far more prominent in witchcraft than men. The fact that books were published on this subject during the witch-hunt era proves that privileged and educated people also took part and had an interest in this phenomenon. Even though the witch-hunt era accusers were mainly uneducated, low-class women and men, the witch hunters who executed thousands of women and promoted gender-based hatred were more often than not wealthy, educated, and powerful men. Peasantry could only denounce witches, while those who had the power to influence the people’s consciousness and decide whether someone would live or not were in the highest scales of hierarchy.
2. Witches Were Burned at the Stake
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Not all of them. There were many execution methods, and they varied from region to region. Death at the stake is the most popular thanks to famous movies such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Name of the Rose. The burning of Joan of Arc, one of the most famous “witches,” is also why many people believe in this stereotype. Even though burning was considered the most successful method of killing a witch, hanging, strangling, beheading, and lynching were popular methods too.
England was the only country to use hanging as execution. France, Germany, and Scotland mostly used the strangling method to kill the witches to burn them afterward. In Italy and Spain, the executioners would burn them alive. Many witches would also die during the horrific tortures they endured while the inquisitors interrogated them.
3. Witches Were Beautiful Young Women With Red Hair
Some viral articles and posts on social media claim that many young women were accused of being witches because of their red hair color. Perhaps there were negative stereotypes about people with ginger hair. However, it wasn’t the reason behind the witch-hunt. No court transcript or witch-hunting book accuses a woman of being a witch because of her red hair. For example, Anne de Chantraine was a young red-haired French girl executed for witchcraft, but her hair color was not the reason for her accusation and murder.
Many of the executed witches were elder, middle-aged, disabled, or outcast women. Witches in the peoples’ imagination were mainly ugly; old women bitter about their lost youth. Since female ugliness was associated with female malice, it was not uncommon for villagers, townspeople, the church, and the governors to accuse women who were considered old, unattractive, crazy, and marginalized of being witches.
On the other hand, there was a common belief that young and beautiful women could also be Satan’s tool to lure and destroy the soul of man. The reasons for someone to accuse a woman (and sometimes a man) of being a witch could be plenty. Jealousy, hostility, scapegoating, as well as financial and property interests were just some of these reasons. The reason behind a witch’s execution could also have been a sexual rejection.
Franz Buirmann was one of the most ruthless witch judges known for the persecutions of hundreds as well as the torture, rape, and execution of a young woman whose sister had sexually rejected him. Another even stranger example is Wursburg’s city witch-hunt. Hundreds of women, men, and children with exceptional beauty were murdered because of the clergy’s jealousy. However, no mention of hair color was made in the court transcripts.
4. Witches Were Clever Women With Extraordinary Knowledge of Medicine
Most of the women accused as witches in the witch-hunt era were uneducated, poor peasants in vulnerable life situations. They were neither wealthy nor powerful. Some were single young girls who had simply provoked the jealousy of their fellow villagers. Others were widows living a humble life trying to take care of themselves in a rough patriarchal society. They were maids or midwives, fortune-tellers, “cunning’’ women, prostitutes, and single mothers.
Walpurga Hausmanin was a typical example of a poor, uneducated witch. She was an elder midwife who got accused of witchcraft and the murder of some babies, mothers, and cows. After she endured horrid tortures, she confessed that she did all these because of her sexual lust for demons. She had nobody to protect her, no education, and no social status to defend herself.
Nevertheless, there are also many wealthy and well-known educated women accused of being witches. Rebecca Lemp was a pious, educated wife of a wealthy merchant. Her grievous letters to her family during her stay in prison before her execution are precious historical pieces. They reveal the absurdity of the witch-hunt era through the eyes of a well-educated woman as she describes her experiences as a victim.
Besides their educational and societal background, all these women had one thing in common: they were outcasts, unmarried, elder, unprotected, or “strange’’ women. Their lives could mean nothing from one moment to the next for their fellow villagers, the state, and the puritanical governors.
5. All Accused Witches Were Sentenced to Death
The possibility of being sentenced to death as an accused witch was very high. Most witches were tortured until they confessed to their evil deeds. It was difficult and sometimes even impossible to escape death if the judges were determined to execute the accused. Yet, the survival rate did depend on the region, the governors’ and judges’ strictness, and the neighbors’ resentments or sympathies. Many witches managed to escape or prove their innocence. It is estimated that half of the accused escaped death.
Veronica Franco, a famous female author and courtesan, was one of the lucky survivors in Renaissance Italy. Her son’s tutor accused her of being a witch because he couldn’t stand that he, an educated man, was less popular than a woman who was an independent courtesan and poet. Fortunately, she survived the Venetian Inquisition thanks to her power, influence, and male allies. After a long-running trial, the judges found her not guilty and released her. However, Franco never managed to recover her status after her accusation. She died poor and with a bad reputation.
6. Men Were Accused of Being Wizards With Almost the Same Frequency
This is a claim made by many historians and scholars. They use it as an argument to disprove the gender-rooted nature of the witch-hunt and prove that it was only a religious matter. However, a quick search through history books and original records proves that women were the primary victims of witchcraft accusations. Witch-hunting books such as Malleus Maleficarum state that women are inherently evil creatures who can sell their souls to Satan, then bewitch and seduce honest men in order to destroy their souls. This clearly shows that the primary targets of witch-hunters were women, and it was not unintentional.
Another famous example of the disagreement over modern feminist research is that many of the witch accusers were females themselves. Indeed, many women were the accusers. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the witch-hunt’s main victims were women. There is logic to this paradox if we think about how many women grew up at this time hating and fearing their own gender. They themselves were victims of ignorance and antifeminist patriarchal values.
Original court records of the time are full of outrageous descriptions of imaginary sexual intercourse between witches and Satan. These can today be seen as woman-hatred male sexual fantasies that were imposed as the constitutional truth about the sinful nature of women. Men accused as wizards were usually the husbands of witches or financially beneficial to the witch-hunters.
Thus, it was primarily women who were killed due to this systemic cleansing. However, it is interesting to note that more men were executed for witchcraft than women in Iceland and Finland. Additionally, about half of the executed witches in France were actually men. However, these cases were the exception. The total amount of witch-hunt victims in these countries was also far fewer. Women who were executed as witches accounted for 80% of the whole of Europe.
7. A Witch-hunt Was Not an Act of Gendercide
This is the most dangerous witch-hunt misconception. Since the witch-hunt is not officially considered neither a genocide against women nor a gendercide yet, many people and even scholars do not characterize it as such. Definitions like “witch-craze,” “witch epidemic,” and “witch panic” remove all of the responsibilities from the perpetrators and the system that committed this blatant crime against the early modern European women (and some men). These definitions blame the victims and describe this crime as a disease and a mass mental health issue.
Witch-hunts in Europe were a way of systemically cleansing the female gender. Most of the victims were women who were considered outcasts, unsuitable members of patriarchal society. They were seen as a danger as long as they did not meet the patriarchal criteria. And even though the possibilities of becoming a witch-hunt victim were low, the accusation was an existing threat for the vulnerable and the unprotected. This dark side of history should be studied as the extreme consequence of the systematic oppression, dehumanization, and violence against women dating back to the beginning of human history. Studying it exclusively as a crime of religious fanaticism against humanity doesn’t help in recording women’s history, the root of women’s issues today.