Systematic witch hunt in Europe led to more than 70,000 deaths in the early modern period. Of these, 70 to 80 percent were innocent women.
Were they seen as easy victims or was it a misogyny campaign by organized churches?
Belief in sorcery or witchcraft has been widespread in Europe since earlier history. In the Roman Empire (recorded, for example, in the early 6th century legal text Lex Salica), damaging magic was a punishable offense. However, this belief did not lead to waves of persecution at the time. The Church laid the basis for a systematic persecution of witchcraft particularly under the leadership of Innocent VII in the 15th century. In the early days of Christianity in the 4th century, scholars like Augustine of Hippo doubted that the sorcery of other religions worked. They denied their effectiveness in order to distinguish themselves from paganism.
In the Middle Ages, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas developed a church-shaping image of witchcraft in his works: it focused on women who cause harm and are in league with the devil. His teachings influenced the thinking of many coming priests and preachers. With the rise of currents heretical from the Church’s perspective, witches (women who resisted Church dominance) became an important issue. One must not overlook the fact that these women demanded money for their methods – money that did not end up in the church coffers.
The Dominican and inquisitor Heinrich Kramer laid the theoretical foundation for the witch hunts with his malleus maleficarum or witch’s hammer. Published in 1487, it described crimes committed by witches and how to try them. The germ for “justified” witch hunts was planted and came from supposedly holy hands. For a complete picture, note that many church scholars opposed the “witch hammer” and the prosecution or burning of witches.
The Church as a Firestarter for witch hunt
Much of the witch trials were conducted by secular courts led by believers. The more inflammatory sermons and the image of women in league with the devil came from those who abused the faith for their own ends.
In their works, Thomas Aquinas or Heinrich Kramer regarded women as subordinate to men according to the biblical Genesis. They were considered weaker and more susceptible to the devil’s insinuations (like eating apples, there was no ice cream or fries back then). Their thinking corresponded to the image of the church: independent, educated or even contradictory women were suspected of not following the church’s dogma. For example, midwives and healers with seemingly supernatural knowledge were in competition with church teachings and the local “doctors”. They usually didn’t pay any taxes, so the rulers are happy to support the church.
In Protestantism, Luther’s and his wife Katharina von Bora’s belief in witches added another misogynist aspect. Even if he was no longer alive at the height of the witch hunts in Germany, his sermons and teachings had an impact. He had often called for witches not to be allowed to live. These utterances planted a seed to associate women rather than men with witchcraft.
Women as enemies?
Why it mainly affected women has not only to do with the image of women that was widespread at the time. It was because they were economically weaker and more vulnerable. For example, it can be established that men had a better chance of surviving in witch trials. They found it easier to draw on money or relationships.
Financially well-off women were at greater risk of prosecution than men, as this allowed rulers and the Church to appropriate their property. Denunciation was the defining element of many witch trials: anyone who behaved outside the norm had to fear meeting an unfavorable neighbor or relative.
Hatred of women, both male and female, was a component of the witch hunts, but not the dominant one. The regional highlights of witch trials can be traced back to catastrophes such as the Thirty Years’ War, storms or crop failures.
The same applies to homosexuals, but these were not particularly visible. Not long ago, in the early 1980s, I witnessed the believers taking advantage of a pandemic.
In Germany, the trials and persecutions were concentrated in cities. In other countries like Poland, witch hunts took place mainly in rural areas regions instead. The fact that so many lawsuits were taking place in German cities shows that hatred of women alone is not an explanation. Rather, economic interests were in the foreground like Mac
Struggles between the elites or the generous nobility. The more stable the political situation became, the fewer witch trials there were.
Witch Hunt not only in the Middle Ages
Individual groups deal with various questions of commemoration and compensation for the victims. How should the victims be commemorated and what can be learned from these persecutions?
Pope Francis only apologized in 2016 for the church’s involvement in the witch hunts.
But when it comes to rehabilitation and commemoration, it looks meager. There are few memorials in Germany. The topic of witch hunts has more of a morbid entertainment value in public. I am concerned with the question of how to avoid profiting from the suffering of these people. Witch tourism continues to be a source of income even for the church itself.
For example, there is a teasing ghost story about the last documented victim in Munich, Therese Kaiser, but no memorial. According to tradition, her admirer, whom she had rejected, denounced her. Her innocence seems beyond question. Where is her memorial or rehabilitation? After all, she died by being executed as the last witch in Munich in September 1701 at the time of the “Blue Elector” Maximilian II Emmanuel. Follow me in the residence and let’s talk about this.
The topic is not closed because there are still witch hunts in countries like Ghana or Malawi. The United Nations published a resolution condemning witch hunts as a violation of human rights. Even today, the reasons for persecuting, torturing or killing alleged witches are hardship, greed and a lack of education. It mostly affects poor people who deviate from the supposed norm because of their disabilities, appearance or behavior (drag queens in Florida are one of them). It is all the more important to stand up against misogyny and superstition and for human rights and education.