Week 3: From Magic to Witchcraft

    Michelle Raspanti
    By Michelle Raspanti

    Unit three is a discussion about the sudden explosion of new accusations in late Medieval Europe. The videos analyze the ‘witch’ stereotype in depth. A witch was a person (woman) who practiced maleficent magic, or magic that caused harm to people. By this time in the medieval period, the distinction between natural (good) magic and demonic magic was gone. So, even if a woman was a healer and used herbs as medicine, it could be said that she was a witch, which means evil. This can be attributed to the work of Mendicant preachers. As a result of societal grooming , the people understood witches to be those who gather at night in order to carry out dark rituals. These sects of witches were capable of provoking illness or death by sorcery. The first trials of witches always included accusations related to: the ability to fly, to enter closed homes, to change shape, and a lust for the blood of newborns (infanticide).

    The abilities and tendencies of a witch come from ancient mythological creatures; the Strige, the Lamiae, and the Nightmare. The Strige was a birdwoman who transformed herself using potions and entered houses by night to suck the blood of children. The Lamiae was said to abduct children in order to dismember them and eat them. The Nightmare was believed to enter houses at night to suffocate sleepers and possibly kill them. Similar to fairies, spirits, or leprechauns, these three figures from ancient Greek and Roman mythology were nothing but superstitious beliefs. How then, did real people suffer under the guise of witchcraft?

    According to this course, the reason so many people were condemned and killed as witches is because Ecclesiastical authorities began to worry about the power of the devil and his ability to act in the real world. This fear caused mere superstition to become reality. So, people of the church were starting to believe in the presence of real dark magic, and those who already believed in these mythical figures (those who continued to practice ancient rituals) were seen as responsible for the misdeeds of those mythological figures. So, for example, the superstition goes that if one wants to protect themselves from the Strige, one needs to set their table with food and wine at night. This, plus mirrors, would distract the Strige from her original purpose. Distracting the evil spirit would keep the infant safe. But, if a person took measures to protect their house from the Strige and neighbors reported it to the authorities, the person could be tried as a witch for continuing to entertain the Strige. I am paraphrasing a bit, but I think I got the meaning correct.

    What is interesting about witchcraft cases is that the Inquisitors didn’t have much to do with witch trials. Some witch trials fell under the jurisdiction of the Inquisitors, if they were labeled as heresy cases. But, if a witch trial entailed details about magical harm, the public could choose to initiate court proceedings in secular court; either the Royal court, or an autonomous court. Most witch trials were brought about at the request of the population. Someone would write a claim to the government about witchcraft. Popular reasons behind accusations of witchcraft included spread of illness, crop failures, or death of children or cattle. They were every day natural societal problems, and yet now there was someone to blame.

    The trials were conducted as follows:

    1. The court decided to initiate a trial (based off of a claim from the town)
    2. The court began an inquiry among neighbors, which would yield a list of suspects
    3. The suspects, mostly women, were arrested and questioned. At this point, many women maintained their innocence.
    4. Judicial procedures would ensue. First, they did what is called the Examination of Marks. The mark of the devil was found on the shoulders or back for some reason. If no marks were found, sometimes those in charge would poke the skin with needles or use hot water on the skin to basically create marks. However, a mark alone was not enough to convict a witch.
    5. Next, the suspects would return to trial for what was called Interlocutory Sentence of Torment, in which those in charge would question the suspect (victim) again, but this time under extreme duress. While they were being tortured. Women would confess to every behavior they were accused of; they basically regurgitated the patterns of the interrogators, probably because they wanted to tell the interrogators what they thought they wanted to hear to make the torture stop.
    6. After a confession, a death sentence was issued, usually in the form of a public execution.

    All of these happenings really reinforced the image of witches as a real public threat. As people saw confession after confession, the ‘reality’ of witches became more cemented in society. It was a vicious cycle, because women were being blamed for blights of the earth that would happen any time in any place. They were powerless to stop what was happening. The rise of suspicion increased, and a wide array of harmless behaviors became synonymous with devil worship. Horrible stuff.

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