On March 1, 1692 the Salem witch trials began but the panic that ravaged many towns and villages have gone on for three centuries. Though the events are generally familiar to the world, many people do not know the conspiracy behind the witch-hunt that first grabbed hold of the population across Europe.
Around 1347-1349 during the time of the bubonic plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, Catholics were being targeted. Many groups wanted to bring down the Catholic church using poisons and magic. Rumors swept across the lands of “plague-spreaders” and witches and the cases of witchcraft grew steadily from the 14th – 15th century. It exploded at the dawn of the 16th century with mass hysteria and trials and reached its peak in 1550. Both Catholics and Protestants alike were in fear of being accused especially where the Catholic church did not have a strong foot hold. So countries like France, Germany and Switzerland were highly affected. Countries like Italy, Portugal and Spain where the Catholic church was strong, had almost no cases of witchery.
To think that the mass hysteria and deaths caused by the witch scare was solely the fault of religion would be wrong. One needs to just look at the accused to start seeing a deeper, more vile reason for judgement. Women were the vast majority of the accused and executed causing many to classify the mass murders as gendercide. Of course men were also accused and tried but those statistics do not even come close to numbers of massacred women.
In the medieval era, Jews and women were shadowed with having copious amounts of secret and malicious “power”. Men had a growing fear of the wiles of women and how the female gender could manipulate and coerce dominant Catholic men for their own bidding. This caused much anxiety in the male-dominated Christian society as women were always compared to the biblical likes of Eve, Jezebel and Lilith. Though Jews during this time were looked upon as Devil incarnates, women were regarded as embodying the negative powers of Satan, often being classed as the Jews “first cousins”.
In 1485 the Malleus Maleficarum was published, otherwise known as The Hammer of Witches. The Catholic inquisition authorities published the book which quickly became the most influential authority on witchcraft. “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.” the book states. Clearly the deranged text is singling out women as the root of all evil. The conspiracy behind the witch-hunts go even further than the religious views of the time. Of course many women were also targeted because of age and property. Many of the “witches” accused were that of women over 50. These women who have never had any children and were past the age of childbearing, put strain on the medieval communities that were centered and focused around the family unit. Also, women who have survived husbands were a burden on neighbors and were resented as such. The idea is that dependent women could not return any of the help that these women would ask for. As in the case of the Salem witch trials, single women were accused in order for the State to inherit the woman’s property as, in most cases, these women had no dependents. A conspiracy surrounds the first women hanged in the Salem witch trials, Bridget Bishop, concerning Bishop’s property holdings. Historians speculate that Bishop was accused of being a witch by Bishops children from the woman’s second marriage. The children simply wanted the land holdings which Bishop held due to an inheritance from Bishop’s second marriage. In Salem where the community placed harmony and obedience to authority in high regard, women who went against the norm, joined in the wrong crowds or even by dressing against the puritan norm were at risk of being accused.
Another reason women were targeted in Europe had to do with something entirely different from being “a necessary evil, a natural temptation…an evil nature, painted with fair colors.” as The Hammer of Witches states. Though this may come as a surprise to some, another reason women were targeted had to do with medicine. Though this is still a debate, many believe that women were targeted for being midwives or herbal healers. The medical profession was solely dominated by men and thus feared the powers of healing women possessed. Using herbs and natural remedies, women would travel to homes and across villages to aid the sick, help with giving birth as well as abortions. Women were banned from medical lectures and books but for centuries have been unlicensed doctors that passed the secrets of cultivating herbs down from generation to generation. Though the medical, male authorities looked upon such women as charlatans and witches, townsfolk regarded the female healers as “wise-women”.
A surprising fact is that witch-hunts are carried out to this day. Countries still, especially in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, kill thousands each year due to witch-hunts. In the late 90’s, South Africa had a “national scourge” according to the Commission of Gender Equality, where witch-burning occurrences were on the rise. Most of the murdered, again, were women though reasons of poverty, jealousy and socio-economic pressures are said to be the main causes.
Throughout Europe approximately 75-80% of the accused were women and up to 200,000 were killed. In Salem thirteen out of the nineteen executed were women and four women died in prison. The conspiracy behind the witch-hunt is still a hot topic of debate but the results are clear and the historical documents do not lie. These atrocious acts targeted women, the weak and the nontraditional.
By Derik L. Bradshaw