When Europe is discussed, the Crusades, World Wars, Shakespeare, Kings and Queens and the massacre of the Jews comes into mind. However, Europe also had the worst history of witchcraft persecution and deaths during the Middle Ages. The early persecution of witches took place against a backdrop of rapid social, economic and religious transformation. The unrest caused by the religious wars and the reformers exaggerated church with the devil in Europe, stirred up a renewed fear of witches among Protestants and Catholics.
Furthermore, belief in witchcraft has existed for many ages, even before the Christian period in Europe. Pagan religion, believing in multiple Gods, also contributed to the start of witchcraft in Europe (Middle Ages 168). European witchcraft was a mix of pagan folklore and ancient sorcery, “Ancient sorcery involved the practice of folk medicine and the belief in spirits” (Middle Ages 168). The term “witch” was used instead of “sorcerer” at the start of the middle ages. A witch was said to have at first performed spells that were used to heal and wipe out warts.
Spells could also be used to make a person less significant; to do this one would recite, May you become as small as a linseed grain, and much smaller than the hipbone of an itch mite and may you become so small that you become nothing (Middle Ages 169). After the Black Plague began, which was said to have caused great devastation to everyone throughout Europe in 1347-1349, and that this appalling disaster was the cause of the forces of evil and its demonic powers (Meltzer 25). Meltzer also mentioned that witches could kill people by magic; they could ruin harvests and crops and cause people to go mad.
In medieval Europe, church leaders condemned witchcraft as devil worship and as a dangerous heresy. Witchcraft is a belief that they considered contrary to church doctrine. That it was a practice of magic without the help of spirits (Middle Ages 168). St. Augustine, however, argued that magic was the work of evil spirits, and this became the accepted view within the church (Middle Ages 169). In 906, the first important European legal text to refer to witchcraft, Canon Eposcopi, was written. It also consisted of a collection of church laws, which includes that witchcraft is heretical (“Religious Timelines”).
The church considered itself at this time the defender of godliness and their mission was to search and destroy witches. ” The church believed that witches were in league with the devil, and it ruthlessly persecuted suspected witches” (Middle Ages 168). A medieval court established to investigate heresy became known as the Inquisition. The Inquisition and other church courts targeted witchcraft by changing the charge from the practice of sorcery to heresy, in order to have a reason to punish and burn the accused at the stake (Middle Ages 169).
After the first execution of heretics at Orleans in 1022, the church’s views on heresy intensified. Pope Gregory IX established the papal Inquisition between 1227 and 1235 (Middle Ages 169). The Inquisition presumed that anyone accused of witchcraft must be guilty, and to make sure that the accused are dealt with Pope John XXII authorized the Inquisition to begin persecuting sorcery and witchcraft in 1320 (“Religious Timelines”), with this, suspects were interrogated and tortured until they confessed.
Torturing the accused was thought to be the easiest way of retrieving a confession, then they were tried on the basis of what they confessed. These confessions were most of the time untrue and done out of fear. There were many trials in which forced confession was the outcome; the trials of Lady Alice and Pierre Vallin are some examples. Lady Alice’s maid, Petronilla, did not confess to the alleged charges that she faced until she was publicly flogged six times (Meltzer 74).
Pierre Vallin was tortured until he confessed; he made up false stories about attending witches’ meetings and was tortured again until he gave the names of the other people there. The famous Joan of Arc was even tortured by the inquisitors to confess to her crime, but she did not bow down to the pressure. Lady Alice Kyteler had everything; she was rich and beautiful; however; in 1324 she was accused of witchcraft. Lady Alice resided in the town of Kilkenny, Ireland, part of England’s domain in the fourteenth century (Meltzer 56).
Her neighbor one night recalled himself seeing Lady Alice sweeping outside just before dawn and muttering ” To the house of William, my son, come all the wealth of Kilkenny town” (Meltzer 57). Soon after, businesses went bankrupt, gold and jewels started to disappear. The bishop of the town would not tolerate it, and he excommunicated Lady Alice, her son, and the maid from the church. Lady Alice was given several chances to admit to her crime, which was the practice of magic and heresy, but she never did, she only smiled (Meltzer 57).
She was sentenced to death and when that day came she was no where to be found, and her trial became the first recorded case of witchcraft on British territory. It was assumed that Lady Alice used magic to escape, however, it is noted that Lady Alice had connections and help in escaping. The deaths of 100,000 to 200,000 people during the Middle Ages were due to the European witch trials. It ranged from a high of 30,000 deaths in Germany to a low of about 4 in Ireland, and of those massacred in Germany about three-quarters of whom were women (Meltzer 15).
Women were accused and prosecuted of witchcraft more likely than men. ” Women are considered to be evil due to their debased history, (The first temptress, Eve, and her imitators)” (Hoyt). The medieval witch-hunts have long been depicted as part of a “war against women” conducted exclusively or overwhelmingly be men, especially those in positions of authority (Salzman). According to the Malleus Maleficarum, women by nature are more evil than men and in order to accept their mental, moral, and physical handicaps, they turn to Satan to satisfy their needs (Mar).
In the case of Lady Alice, her son William was not persecuted for witchcraft even though he was accused of it, He denied any knowledge of his mother’s wicked deeds, condemned her for them, and promised compensation to all who claimed she had harmed them… the judge ordered the charges against William to be dropped (Meltzer 74). However, when Lady Alice’s maid denied any knowledge of her witchcraft and had seen her do strange things though, she was still executed.
Women were slaughtered for all kinds of futile reasons, from having freckles, a birthmark, living longer than some expected, or paying tribute to Mother Earth and the goddess of religions. At this time it was rare to see a woman living over the age of forty, and so when one did, she was automatically suspicious, ” Wasn’t she clinging to life only to do the Devil’s work” (Meltzer 74). These many accusations against women appear often in the reports of witchcraft trials. A young poor country girl, Joan, was persecuted for both heresy and witchcraft.
The fate of Joan of Arc, who lived from 1412-1431, is one of the best known early example of deadly persecution (Meltzer 74). She was the daughter of a farmer which made her seem ignorant, though she knew about the political and military situations in France better than most people. She had a vivid imagination, which lead her to see saints and hear voices. These voices urged her to help the Dauphin, Charles VII, and help France defeat the English (Meltzer 78). Joan of Arc became the leader of a French army and helped win back valuable land, which lead her to be accused of having help from the Devil.
Many thought Joan was being helped by evil because there were times when she was wounded, but was fighting another battle soon after. Because of her great achievements, Joan was captured and accused of heretical acts- wearing men’s clothing, cutting her hair, and insisting she was answerable directly to God and not to the Church for her words and deeds (Meltzer 79). Her own Dauphin with the help of the English had set her up. At the age of 19 Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Johanne Wider wrote one of the earliest books, which throws light on the many tools of persecution of a witch.
The book consists of stories about different people who were accused of witchcraft. It is mostly a dialogue between a theologian and a doubter of witchcraft on a variety of topics (“Religious Timelines”). Another papal on witchcraft that was produced during the Middle Ages was the Papal Bull Summis desiderates, it was issued by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 (“Religious Timelines”). It was issued in order to authorize Johann Sprenger, the Dean of Cologne University, and Heinrich Kraemer, an inquisitor for Southern Germany, to systematize and categorize the persecution of witches (“Religious Timelines”).
The book the two later wrote was titled Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches. ) It became one of the most widely read books of the time (Middle Ages). This handbook is “… an exposition of witchcraft and a code of procedure for detection and punishment of witches” (Medieval Sourcebook), it gave methods of torture, how one can manipulate an accused to confess, the questions which needed to be asked, and how to detect if the clothing which the accused wore had witchcraft sewn into it. The document asserted that witchcraft existed, and denounced any other view as heretical.
It condoned the use of torture in gaining confessions and accepted evidence from unreliable sources. For the next two centuries the Malleus Maleficarum helped spread the witch-burning craze throughout Europe, which resulted in the killing of untold hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women. Although it was created by educated men in the service of the Christian church, the Malleus Maleficarum ushered in one of the most frightening eras of European history. Spurred by the Malleus Malefcarum, Germany had the worst history of witchcraft persecutions.
In addition, the thousands of individuals accused of witchcraft were innocent. False claims and jealousy caused these people to be accused and later executed. Anyone at this time could accuse an individual of being a witch and get away with it. Take Lady Alice, she was accused of witchcraft because her neighbor heard her murmur words of evil, and people soon followed in his footsteps. She had no true, solid evidence against her. Lady Alice as mentioned earlier was a rich and wealthy widow, “…
Lady Alice got into trouble because of the great rivalry between herself and the bishop. Her wealth and power gave her influence that he resented” (Meltzer 65). Neighbors of hers could have also resented her do to her wealth, in addition to the fact that she was a woman. A search of the records suggests that the step-children of her past husbands’ started her persecution; her husbands had brought their own children into the marriage and when they died, his children did not get any of their father’s property or money (Meltzer 65).
The same can be said about Joan of Arc. It was not until she crowned the Charles VII and defeated many of the English armies that she was considered a witch and heretic. Joan was feared because of her military and political powers that raised the cry of “witch” (Meltzer 75). In addition to that, the priests, clergy men, and other members of the church also feared Joan because she was the one hearing voices from saints and God, and they were not.
They could have started to believe that she would be able to take over their positions in society and the only way to secure their positions was to get rid of her. In summation, witchcraft was an offense to society during the Middle Ages. Being accused of witchcraft would ultimately lead to ones demise. A witch can be identified as the visible agent of evil on earth, and someone who goes against the church and the sayings of the Bible. Many of the accusations against people were due to the church reforms and religious wars, and society itself.