Witch Hunts: Women and the “Malleus Maleficarum”

The Malleus Maleficarum was used to determine who was guilty of witchcraft. Its guidelines of what constitutes a witch are so diverse that it provides reasoning for practically anyone to be accused of witchcraft.

The Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts, America are the most well known of the witch-hunts over the centuries. The most common reason for witch-hunts came from social hardships, such as epidemics that were yet to be explained. When leaders were unable or unwilling to give cause for the problems, superstition became an excellent scapegoat. At the time, there was no separation between church and state; therefore, mainstream religion’s position on the subject was easily used and accepted as fact.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Malleus Maleficarum

The court believed so deeply in accusations of witchcraft that, eventually, anyone could accuse anyone of sorcery and win their case. Most of the strength from the plaintiff came from the most famous witch-hunt manual called the Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches. This manual provided evidence against any type of person. Regardless of gender, race, religion or class, that person could be thrown in prison and/or 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, Christopher S. The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.

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 that 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 Christians thought of antiquity and the medieval period adopted a similar attitude” (p.26).

Single women accused were said to have had unsuccessful relationships with men. These women used their sex appeal to convince the man to stay, but were abandoned in the end for someone more appropriate. During these witch crazes, the belief that women are focused on sex and controlled by the devil to act on it was the most common way to explain away 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. It was believed that the devil manipulates virgins to control men:

“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).

Wives were targeted because they were assumed to no longer be chaste. They had presumably had sex with their husbands; 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. 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).

Midwives or any women educated in medicine were admired and respected, until the witch hunts began. After that, when babies didn’t survive delivery, their deaths were blamed on the midwives. It was a way for fathers to avoid responsibility for the deaths of their children. Witches were categorized as unusually knowledgeable for their gender; therefore, they were assumed to be experienced in sorcery. This was a quick solution for previously unexplainable deaths.

“…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).

 Russell, Jeffrey Burton., and Brooks Alexander. A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics & Pagans: With 105 Illustrations. 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007. Print.

If married women were no longer seen as innocent, widows were seen as worse. Widows were certainly not chaste; therefore, they could easily be involved with Satan. In fact, the widow may be responsible for her own husband’s death. It was common for widows to be accused of consorting with the devil before 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).

Today’s witches within the Pagan community have nothing to do with the descriptions in the Malleus Maleficarum. To fully comprehend Paganism 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 follow ancient types of spirituality and/or religion. Most do not recognize a devil or demons of any kind; therefore, the claims thrown at us about consorting with a devil or Satan is impossible; however, the Church recognizes anything that disagrees with their religion to be evil; including, not believing in the devil in the first place. 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; especially, someone who makes the Church feel inferior.

Discrimination of Pagans and Wiccans still exist because of misconceptions by society, strengthened by what is written in the Malleus. Some still think that 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 that she has a family connection to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693. The episode shows Parker’s fear of her ancestor’s fate: Was she accused or was she an accuser?

Own Pentacle by Social Thoughts

Modern-day awareness of any of the witch hunts is important. It warns us about 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 were 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 an example of a similar happening. Hitler blamed the Jewish people and continued to come up with additional groups to blame for their hard times. Universal awareness of how to recognize when society is vulnerable to emotional explanations not based in facts is the only solution to prevent innocent people from being targeted in the future.

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