Of course, all of those various beliefs and practices were modifications carried over (by culture) from the ancient religion that worshiped nature through the form of a female goddess. Herbal potions for healing were based in empirical science. Often these were enhanced with ancient chants to the goddess or gods to add strength to their healing power. Many other beliefs were based in pure superstition that had been held on to from legends and beliefs passed down through the ages. Astronomy dates back to Sumer, astrology to the Egyptians, and then to classical Greece and Rome. It became the task of Christian theologians, writers, and scholars to turn pagan healing, fortune-telling, and other forms of magic into a representation of an evil force.
“In classical antiquity, the word ‘magic’ applied to the arts of the magi, those Zoroastrian priests of Persia who were known to the Greeks by at least the fifth century B.C.E.” Their magic centered around healing of diseases and fortune telling by reading the stars. Early Christian writers played on the fear of those magical skills; e.g., if Greek and Roman pagans could foretell the future, or heal diseases, that was because they had help from their gods. But the gods of the pagans were no real gods; from a Christian viewpoint, but in fact were demons. Thus Greek and Roman magic quickly translated into being demon magic.
Though Catholic theologians’ writings had, from the beginning, emphasized Satan and inculcated fear and paranoia of an evil spirit that carried over from the Mother Goddess, the movement to promote the belief in demons, and women as witches grew by the eleventh through the fourteenth centuries. It was during the fourteenth century that belief in witchcraft became really widespread. Dominican theologians and secular members of the judiciary – and in turn the populace – believed, or pretended to believe, that a vast number of women were in league with the Devil, to the injury of their neighbors. Many women were tortured until they confessed their guilt, then were publicly burned or hanged. This witch mania lasted until the middle of the eighteenth century, and all through this time there were masses of people who thought that there were women who could change themselves into bats and sprites and cats, fly through the air on broomsticks, enter rooms through keyholes, kill a newborn baby by a word or a glance, and by some remote hocus pocus cause the death of its mother. Since midwives were particularly made scapegoats and targeted, women became afraid, for the first time, to undertake medical work, including midwifery. Custom and convention continued to insist, however, on having women in the position of midwife, not only to the common people but to royalty. But there was much danger, and the witch mania spread by the Church resulted in the torture and death of tens of thousands of women, many of them midwives, and the lying-in maid.
Pagan Devil with Witch
A previous chapter discusses “good magic” and “bad magic” and how everything reminiscent of the Goddess became pagan, and how everything pagan became associated with Satan and was “bad magic.” From the fourth century and the writings of Augustine and others, up to the fifteenth century, there was an accumulative process taking place on demonology and Satan worship: from magic being simple malefici
to how women copulated with the Devil, made a pact with him, and worshipped him collectively at which rites they engaged in sexual orgies and cannibalism of infants. “The belief that witches made pacts with the Devil was a central witch belief among the clergy and the secular elite of early modern Europe. The same individuals who held this belief, also subscribed to another idea that was of equal or greater importance. This was the belief that those witches who made pacts with the Devil also worshipped him collectively and engaged in a number of blasphemous, amoral, and obscene rites (often known and referred to as the witches’ Sabbath). Combined, these beliefs (the pact and Devil worship) served as the essential pre-condition of the witch-hunt. Just as the belief of the pact made it imperative that witches be prosecuted, the belief in the witches’ nocturnal gatherings led European authorities to search for their confederates.”
Here, it is important to point out that it was the beliefs of the elite who governed society—the clergy as well as the secular—that lay at the basis of the witch-hunts. The peasantry was ignorant, illiterate, easily led to go along with the elite’s beliefs, but did not understand the intricacies of the web of detail contrived by the religious theologians, judges, council members, etc. (all men, of course.)
Witches Preparing to Devour Infants
That the contrived and exaggerated cumulative beliefs about witches and their rituals “which included naked dancing, cannibalistic infanticide, and intercourse with the Devil and promiscuous heterosexual and homosexual activity among the witches” lies rooted in the abhorrence of sex of the medieval and early modern Church, cannot be ignored. It was their universal nightmare. The descriptions of the witches’ Sabbath also reflected Christian horror at the mockery of its most sacred ceremony, the Eucharist. The anti-Christian confessions of witches (forced out of them through torture and leading questions of the inquisitors) had its origins mainly in the rhetorical invective that monks developed with respect to heretics in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the resulting Inquisitions. Threatened with the frightening spread of heresies like Waldensianism and Catharism, these Catholic monks deliberately constructed a picture of an anti-human heretical society in order to prevent the growth of such movements and to encourage their suppression. Interestingly, they took the very image that the early Romans had of Christians, and turning it on its head, applied it to the heretics. That image was that Christians were members of a secret organization who practiced cannibalistic infanticide and incest—an image that had gained currency among the early Romans, both because Christians did in fact meet secretly, and because the central rite of Christianity, the Eucharist, could easily be misinterpreted as cannibalism. The monks of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, drawing on this Roman image of Christians, constructed a stereotype of the heretic as a secret, cannibalistic infanticide practicing, nocturnal, sexually promiscuous Devil-worshipper. This image, which in many respects acquired a life of its own, was then applied to any heretic or deviant from the Orthodox Church and, as such, is how it also came to be applied to magicians and simple malefic, and to witches.
The three most distinguishing features of the history of witchcraft were its use for the enrichment of the Church; for the advancement of political schemes; and for the gratification of private malice. Among these, the most influential was the gain of property and wealth to the Church. Although the inquisitors and the clergy were initially the principal prosecutors, the system gave opportunity for the gratification of private malice; persons imbued with secret enmity toward others or who coveted their property, found ready occasion for the indulgence of that malice and covetousness. While the Church always claimed one-half, it often divided the remainder of the accused’s possessions between the judge and prosecutor.
Though more will be forthcoming on how transferring witch prosecutions to a secular judiciary system made the large-scale witch-hunts and mass prosecutions possible, it is important to note there were no legal defenders for the accused. Under these circumstances accusation leading to conviction became a foregone conclusion. The pretense under which the Church confiscated property of the accused was to declare that the taint of witchcraft hung over all that had belonged to the condemned and that others would not be safe in owning it. The Church went on to assert that the very fact that one member of a family having fallen into the practice of this sin was virtual proof that all other family members were likewise tainted. Under this allegation, a protest against such robbery was held as proof of witchcraft in the person protesting.
Until the Reformation, the Catholic Church was the powerful ruling force over all of Europe; as such they had a great deal of control over daily life. The fear that the Catholics designed and escalated during this period (in addition to the fear of one’s immortality and burning in hell after death without salvation via the Church) was the fear of an evil force – this force was the devil named Satan. Satan’s earthly representatives were to become witches, and those would be women – many of them women with knowledge and skills in medicine and midwifery. The real concern about midwives was undoubtedly the notion that they could help women control their own fate; they could help them learn the secrets of sex and birth control or how to procure abortions. Procreation, under Christianity, was now under the domain of male authority; as such, midwives were forbidden from helping women prevent pregnancy, perform abortions or relieve pain in childbirth. That particular pain was decreed by the Church to be woman’s just punishment for “original sin.”
Even though Christianity had a strong grip on Europe, the need to continue to stamp out the Old Religion was apparently perceived to be still necessary. The clinging to rites and practices of the pagans prompted and inspired many Catholic theological writings. And since the pagan religion centered on the Goddess – whom Christians had long-since turned into Satan, or Satan’s representative – these writings often focused on women as heretics. It was during this period that theologians and artists depicted the serpent in the Garden of Eden with a snake’s body and torso and head of a woman; that woman had been described in Genesis and the Kabbalah by the ancient Hebrew, and her name was Lilith. Keeping in mind that the population of medieval and early modern Europe was generally illiterate, it was pictography and the priest’s sermons that were the primary mediums for spreading of fear and hysteria. And though it took a little longer than our instant communication channels of today, it was extremely effective.
In addition to St. Augustine’s writings (already discussed) there were many more such writings inciting fear of demons and witches; an example being from a diocesan statute issued by Gerbald, bishop of Liege, around the turn of the ninth century at the urging of Charlemagne:
Those who perform sortilegium (Latin for divination by drawing lots; sorcery, magic) should be inquired about, as should aruspices (soothsayers) and those who observe months and seasons, who interpret dreams and wear certain phylacteries around their necks, with strange words written on them. Women should be inquired about who give out potions to other women in order to kill a fetus and who perform other divinations so that their husbands may have more love for them. All malefic who are denounced for any of these things are to be brought before us so that their cases may be discussed before us.
These numerous and similar statutes and treatises denouncing heretics frequently appeared between Augustine’s time in the fourth century up through the fourteenth century. But perhaps the catalyst that motivated the Church to arms to be followed by the Inquisition to prosecute and purge the land of any non-believers was the Cathars – a religious group that emerged in what is now southeastern France in the eleventh century. They called themselves good Christians. Cathars believed in reincarnation and heaven, but not hell. They were strict about biblical injunctions—notably those about living in poverty, not telling lies, not killing and not swearing oaths. They largely regarded men and women as equals, and had no doctrinal objection to contraception; they were very possibly a reemergence of the Gnostics whom the Orthodox Catholics had driven underground in the first and second centuries A.D.
In many respects the Cathar and Catholic Church were polar opposites. For example the Cathar taught that non-procreative sex was better than any procreative sex. The Catholic Church taught—and still teaches—exactly the opposite. Both positions produced interesting results. Following their tenet, Catholics concluded that masturbation was a far greater sin than rape, as medieval penitentials confirm.
The Cathar view was that their theology was older than that of the Roman Church and that the Roman Church had corrupted its own scripture, invented new doctrine and abandoned the beliefs and practices taught by Christ. The Catholic view, of course, was exactly the opposite. The Cathar religion took root and by the early thirteenth century Catharism was probably the majority religion in the area (southeastern France), and as such had become more than an annoyance (to the Catholic Church). Perhaps their greatest sin was their refusal to tithe to the Catholics, Cathars characterizing it as the "Church of Wolves". The Catholics accused Cathars of heresy and apostasy and said they belonged to the “Synagogue of Satan.” In addition to accusing the Cathars of faulty theology, they imagined a range of abominable practices which they converted into propaganda, and appointed a holy army to lead a Crusade against them, slaughtering them by countless thousands.
Thus, in spite of their great political and military ascendancy to power, the Catholic theologians had begun to fear that the victory of Christianity (at least, their version of it) had not, after all, been absolute. What emerged during this time was the belief that Satan had gained a strong foothold. And in their imaginations, an evil, new and dreadful force in the history of Christendom had appeared. This began the Inquisitions where any expression of belief that did not agree with the Catholic dogma was heresy and heresy was punishable by torture, imprisonment and death – and, of course, confiscation of the accused property to shore up the wealth of the Church was a greatly added incentive for their heresy prosecutions. The Church coffers were a little lean after the three centuries of Crusades.
Torture of Woman as Witch
By the 15th century in Europe, it was a world where reality was turned on its head. The loathing of sex, already the dominant force of the Catholic Church, reached new and hysterical heights. Satan and his demon spirits lurked behind every tree; they slept under your bed . . . or with your wife or daughter impregnating them with filthy semen, thus populating more demons. Every crop failure, tempest storm, loss of a valued milk cow, a still-born child, or a male member becoming impotent was the result of bewitchment. Satan was the Little Master but he was challenging the all powerful Catholic Christian God—big time. Dominican inquisitors spread incredulous superstitions of the doings of demons, raising fear and hysteria among the people. Witches, those whom Satan used to do his work, were everywhere. And nine out of ten of them were women.
With this witch hysteria growing, witch prosecutions and executions took place prior to the late fifteenth century. But historians do not typically include them in the period known for the witch-hunts because the cumulative concept of witchcraft was still in the process of formation.
Richard Kieckhefer divided the pre-cumulative witchcraft belief period into three components: 1300 to 1330 mainly trials for heresy and political sorcery; from 1330 to 1375 politically related cases virtually ceased, but there were substantial sorcery cases. Most noteworthy is absence of diabolism—devil worship. Between 1375 and 1435 prosecutions increased and as well, charges of diabolism became more common. This development was facilitated by the adoption of the inquisitorial procedure of using torture to extract confessions in local courts. Beginning in 1435 European witchcraft prosecutions entered a new and radically different phase. Not only did trials for sorcery increase in number, but charges of diabolism were more and more grafted onto them, and witch-hunting began. The period from 1435 to 1500 is when a large number of treatises appeared to develop and stimulate the increase in prosecutions—the Malleus Maleficarum one of primary importance.
Then, interestingly, there was a reduction in prosecutions and in witch-hunting during the first half of the 1500’s due to an interruption in the publication of witchcraft treatises and manuals. The Malleus Maleficarum while enormously popular from 1486 to 1520 and again between 1580 and 1650 was not reprinted at all between 1521 and 1576. Therefore, there were actually two separate hunts: the latter part of the fifteenth century, and a much more intense and widespread witch hunt in the late sixteenth and all through the seventeenth century. The lull during the early sixteenth century was caused in part by the combined effects of learned skepticism by a few influential scholars and the initial shock of the Reformation—a period that witnessed the spread of Renaissance humanism throughout Europe. While the humanists failed to undermine the cumulative concept of witchcraft, they did attack parts of it as well as the elite scholastic mentality that proved to be receptive to it. Their writings insisted that magic could be performed naturally, without the aid of demons, and that witches were harmless creatures victimized by delusions. At the same time there developed in Germany, especially in the work of preacher Martin Plantsch of Tubingen, a belief that God was directly responsible for the many natural disasters like hailstorms that had been attributed to witchcraft.
Numerous historians have chronicled how the witch-hunts were not a uniform occurrence in intensity or in locale, and how the initial phase of the Reformation and of war created periods when early modern Europe’s focus was on those more immediate interruptions of daily life. But to assume that the Protestant Refomationists were theologically opposed to witch-hunts and witch prosecutions would be an error. For while this interruption of Catholic theological power of Europe did initially interrupt the witch-hunts, the Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation would then result in an increase in intensity of witch-hunts a half-century later. For, while the Protestants opposed almost all Catholic dogma and doctrine, on the subject of witches, they were in complete agreement.
“During the age of the Reformation, Europeans increased their awareness of the Devil’s presence in the world and became more determined to wage war against him. One of the main sources of this heightened consciousness of, and militance against, diabolical power was the thinking of the great Protestant reformers, Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. These men did not introduce a new and original conception of the Devil; their beliefs in who the Devil was and what powers he possessed were essentially the same as those of late medieval Catholic demonologists. This agreement with the Catholics is in itself somewhat perplexing. Since the reformers challenged so many aspects of medieval Catholicism, and since they were so critical of scholastic theology, one assumes that they would have developed a distinctly Protestant demonology. Instead they merely adopted the traditional, late medieval view, modifying it only in some respects and placing it on a firmer scriptural foundation. They actually emphasized the presence of the Devil in the world and exhibited a more profound fear of him.”
Now that we know where the seeds of beliefs about witches sprouted and grew, we move on to other developments that contributed to making the witch-hunts possible on the scale of which later evolved: The enhanced patriarchy of the Reformation; shifting the prosecution from the inquisitional ecclesiastical courts to the secular courts, and the corresponding growth of the judicial systems; the economic and political upheaval of the time; a further explanation of the interruption caused by the Reformation, but then the increase caused by the Reformation and the Catholic counter-reformation; and a mapping of the hunts and the intensity of the hunts and why country/regional differences occurred.
 Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1989) p 2.
 Ibid., p 10
 Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, The History of Women in Medicine, p. 313
 Brian Levack, The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe (Longman Group UK Limited, Essex, England, 1987) p 35
 Ibid., p 37-38
 Matilda Roslyn Gage, Woman, Church and State, pp 254-255
 Ibid, pp 254-255.
 Ibid. pp. 54-55, quoted from Carlo De Clercq, La legislation religieuse franque, 2 vols. (Louvain-Paris, Antwerp, 1936, 1958), 1:360. Trans. E.P. Note: Text placed in quotations added for definition and clarity.
 Brian Levack, Ibid., p 170
 Richard Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture—1300-1500 (London, 1976) pp 10-26
 Brian Levack, Ibid., p 172
 Ibid., p 96