Witchcraft

Please note: My research is growing, and the documentation is extensive.  If you are seeking specific information about witchcraft by location, please visit my pages on  Scotland,   Britain, and Aberdeenshire, Scotland for more detailed information.  This page presents an amalgamation of research on the archetype and reality of the Medieval Witch.    


A Discussion of the Witch in the Contexts of Gender, Profession, and Geography. 

For thousands of years the people had one healer and one only: The Sorceress, Emperors and Kings and Popes, and the richest barons, had sundry Doctors of Salerno, or Moorish and Jewish physicians; but the main body of every State, the whole world we may say, consulted no one but the Saga, the Wise Woman.  If her cure failed, they abused her and called her a Witch.  But more generally, through a combination of respect and terror, she was spoken of as the Good Lady, or Beautiful Lady (Bella Donna), the same name as that given to fairies.

-Jules Michelet (1862)

The Beginnings of the Concept of the Sorceress:

Despite concepts of Magic documented as far back as ancient Greece and Rome, the “Sorceress” or “Witch” of persecution refers to one who has made a pact with the Christian concept of Satan, the Devil, or his Demons

Neither the ancient Enchantress nor yet the Celtic and Germanic Seeress, are yet the True Sorceress.  The harmless Sabasia (festivals of Bacchus Sabasius), a miniature rustic “Sabbath” which survives down to Medieval times, are far from identical with the Black Mass of the fourteenth century, that deliberate and deadly defiance of Jesus.   These gloomy conceptions were not passed on down the long thread of tradition; they sprang ready made from the horrors of time.  From when does the Sorceress date? I answer unhesitantly, from the ages of despair.  From the profound despair the World owed to the Church.  I say again unhesitantly, THE SORCERESS IS THE CHURCH’S CRIME.(Pg. xiv Michelet, emphasis his).

Setting the Stage: Disease in the Middle Ages

Predominant diseases of the Middle Ages:

    • Hunger
    • Languor (lethargy, fatigue, could be caused by malnourishment)
    • Poverty of blood (most likely anemia or kidney disease in which the blood is not cleaned properly, does not possess healthy red blood cells, and is not able to carry nutrients to tissues).

Three horrid afflictions in three successive centuries….

    • 1300s Leprosy,
    • 1400s “inward curses” (with convulsions and fits, presented similar to epilepsy)
    • 1500s Syphilis.

Healthcare: What Were Your Options?

With doctors only available to the very rich, the Church was one’s only acceptable option:

With the exception of Arab or Jewish physicians, hired at great cost by the rich, medical treatment was unknown, –the people could only crowd to the church doors for aspersion with holy water… “You have sinned, and God is afflicting you. Thank Him, you will suffer so much the less torment in the life to come. Endure, suffer, die. Has not the Church its prayers for the dead?”  (Michelet Pg. 77-78)

 

When prayers and healing holy water didn’t work….

Leprosy…. The purest and the fairest of womankind were stricken with detestable eruptions that were looked upon as the visible sign of sin or a direct punishment from God… the holy water that had proved so useless, they visited the Witch, the Sorceress.  From force of habit, as well as from fear, they still frequented the churches; but the true church was henceforth her hut, her haunt in heath, in forest, and in desert. Thither it was they now carried their prayers.  (Michelet, pg. 79-80).

 

On “Diseases of Women”: The Witch as OBGYN

   …those women whose help their sisters were used to appeal to, –I mean the Sorceresses who in every country fulfilled the office of midwives.  No woman in those days would ever have consulted a male physician, trusted to him, or told him her secrets.  Sorceresses were the only observers in this field, and, for women in particular, were the sold and only practitioners. (Michelet pg. 81)

 

Curing with Poison, and the Satanic Concept of “Acting by Contraries”

She [The Church] declares, in the fourteenth century, that if a woman dare to cure without having studied, she is a Witch and must die.  But how should she study publicly? (Pg. xiv, Michelet).

The Herbs:

  • Pot Herbs:The first to be named are simply pot-herbs, good to heat, and nothing more (Michelet pg. 82)  These refer to cooking, stewing, and seasoning herbs.
  • Bittersweet:Next in the scale you will find a plant already open to suspicion–one that many believed a poison; a herb honey-sweet at first, afterwards bitter, that seems to say in the words of Jonathan, “I have tested a little honey, and behold! For this I die?” Yet this death is useful– it is the deadening of pain.  The bitter-sweet, that is its name, was bound to be the first essay of a bold homeopathy which by slower degrees aspired to the most dangerous poisons.  The slight irritation, the pricking sensations it produces, sufficed to point it out as a remedy for the predominant maladies of the period, viz. diseases of the skin {leprosy} (Michelet Pg. 82)
  • Bane Herbs:After the bitter-sweet, too feeble a medicament for such a case, came the black mulleins, possessing a somewhat greater activity.  This would afford relief for a day or two.  But at the end of that time the poor woman would be back again with tears and supplications. “Well, well! You must return once more this evening. I will find you something. You decide to have it; but ’tis a deadly poison.” (Michelet Pg. 83)
    • This is the henbane (hyscyamus), a cruel and deadly poison, but at the same time an excellent emollient, a soothing sedative plaster, that relaxes and softens the tissues, relieves the pain, and often cures the patient. (Michelet Pg. 84)
    • Another of these poisons, the belladona, doubtless so named out of gratitude, was sovran for calming the convulsions that sometimes occur in childbirth, superadding peril to peril and terror to terror at this supreme crisis (Michelet Pg. 84)
    • The belladonna cures the convulsive dancing of the limbs by setting up another dance, –a venturesome homeopathy that could not but be terrifying at the first blush.  In fact, it was Medicine spelt backwards, as a rule the exact opposite of that which the Christians knew and thought the only efficacious kind, the medicine of the Jews and Arabs. (Michelet Pg. 84)  *for The Concept of “Acting by Contraries” see below

 

Taking Risks: 

The Sorceress was running a terrible risk.  Nobody at that time had a suspicion that, applied externally or taken in very small doses, poisons are remedies.  All the plants which were confounded together under the name of Witch’s Herbs were supposed ministers of death.  Found in a woman’s hands, they would have led to her being adjudged a poisoner or fabricator of accursed spells.(Michelet Pg. 83)

Not stopping to bargain with the Witch who promised a cure, and between whose hands she was ready at once to place the poor, painful, swollen organ…. She makes the venture for all that, and starts in search of the fearsome herb, slipping out late at night or early in the morning, when she is less afraid of being observed. (Michelet Pg. 82-83)

Her fate resembled that which still often befalls her favourite herb, the belladonna, and other beneficent poisons she made use of, and which were antidotes of the great scourges of the Middle Ages.  Children and ignorant passers-by cursed these sombre flowers, without understanding their virtues, scared by their suspicious colour.  They shudder and fly the spot; yet these are the Comforting plants (Solanaceae), which, wisely administered, have worked so many cures and soothed so many human agony.  They are found growing in the most sinister localities, in lonely, ill-reputed spots, amid ruins and rubbish heaps,–yet another resemblance with the Sorceress who utilizes them.  Where, indeed, could she have taken up her habitation, except on savage heaths, this child of calamity, so fiercely persecuted, so bitterly cursed and proscribed?  She gathered poisons to heal and save; she was the Devil’s bride, the mistress of the Incarnate Evil One, yet how much good she effected, if we are to credit the great physician of the Renaissance! (Pg.x-xi Michelet)

The most certain fact we know as to their methods is that they made great use, for the most various purposes, as calamants and as stimulants, of a wide family of herbs, of doubtful repute and perilous properties, which proved of the most decided advantage to their patients.  These are appropriately known as the Solanaceae (herbs of consolation).  A profuse and familiar family of plants, the majority of whose species are to be found in extreme abundance, under our feet, in the hedgerows, in every field.  So numerous a family, that a single one of its genera embraces eight hundred species.  Nothing in the world easier to detect, nothing commoner.  Yet these herbs are for the most part very risky to employ.  Audacity was required to determine the doses, it may well be the audacity of genius. (Michelet Pg. 82)

 

Acting by Contraries:

No doubt by simple application of the great satanic principle that everything should be done backwards, precisely in the reverse way to that employed by the world of religion.  The Church had a holy horror of all poisons; Satan utilizes them as curative agents. The Priest thinks by spiritual means (Sacraments, prayers) to act even upon the body. Satan, acting by contraries, employs material means for acting even on the soul; he gives potions to secure forgetfulness, love, reverie, any and every state of mind.(Michelet Pg. 84)

The Devil only, woman’s ally of old and her confidant in the Garden (referring to Eve), and the Witch, the perverse creature who does everything backwards and upside down, in direct contradiction to the world of religion, ever thought of unhappy womanhood, ever dared to tread custom underfoot and care for her health in spite of her own prejudices… Submit to treatment! She would sooner die, she said. But the barbarous Witch knew better, and saved her life. (Michelet Pg. 88)

 

The Consequences: Enter the Burning Times 

An Overview of Some Relevant Primary Sources:

Evidence provided in a trial of a witch by Inquisitor, July 3, 1245, a woman from the south of France offers magical cures for money

Alisson, a female diviner, said that on several occasions she told sick people to send her a belt, an item of underwear, a veil or shoes, and when she had these belts, items of underwear or shoes, she would cast a spell on a crystal and afterwards say, ‘Make such and such a plaster from herbs.’ She used to say all this in order to get small sums of money.  She said that on many occasions she cast lead for the sick in return for money…She said she had never seen a heretic unless he was under arrest, and that she did not believe in or listen to the sermons, or give them anything. (Pg. 141, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, emphasis mine)

 

Arnald of Villanova (c.1240-1311) from Acts of Harmful Magic (De Maleficiis) ca. 1300 on the magically induced impotence and herbal/magical remedies, mostly performed by women. The following excerpts are relevant.  (Pg.51, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart)

…Because these are devilish and practiced especially by women, some people are cured with divine and others with human help… magical solutions are offered for magical problems, such as “Wormwood (that is, chamomile) placed over or under the threshold of a house ensures that no harmful magic can harm that house,” “If you keep St. John’s wort in the house, evil spirits are put to flight, and therefore many people call it ‘Demons’ Bane’,” “Let him or her drink a herb which has grown through a hole in the middle of a stone,” and “If someone carries a root of sea holly, neither he nor she will ever suffer the treacherous attack of any evil spirit.”

-This writing provides examples of sanctioned, or clerical, magic versus the lowly magic of the common people.  It is only the latter that was ever persecuted, despite courts and noble families continuing to employ magicians, astronomers, alchemists, diviners, and the like throughout period.

 

Giordano da Bergamo, a Dominican and Master of Theology was writing in the 1460s-70s.  In his treatise-“Quaestio de strigis” or “A Question about Witches,” he writes on the striga or strigones (men or women who utilize the powers of demons, according to Bergamo, or who we might now call simply magicians or cunning folk)

A definition of a strigas: …Men or women who run around houses or range over long distances at night by means of the power of a demon.  They are also said to cast the evil eye on small children…Women of this kind are usually called ‘evil doing women’, from the evil things they do, while others call them ‘plant women’, from the similar outcomes they produce. (Pg. 115, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart)

 

The Malleus Maleficarum by Kramer and Sprenger (1486) 

The primary (and only) witch hunting/inquisition manual in period.  Likely written by Heinrich Kramer, with little to no contributions by James Sprenger.  Kramer and Sprenger were German inquisitors who wrote this famous treatise on witches.  The text was deemed rubbish by both the Catholic Church and the University of Cologne, and was included on a banned book list of the time.  Despite this, Kramer published fraudulent endorsements from both the University of Cologne and Pope Innocent VIII, leading to its becoming one of the leading texts among practitioners for discovering, questioning, torturing, and executing witches. The direct translation of the title is not the popular “Hammer of the Witches” but “Hammer of the Evil Women.”  In the text, as the name would suggest, we see the emergence of the concept that witches are overwhelmingly women.  This is predominately due to their lusty nature.  Women were considered weaker and less virtuous, and so were made vessels of temptation by the devil. Midwives and Archers were especially targeted in Malleus.

 

Pope Innocent VIII: The Papal Bull of 1484

The famously (and fraudulently) quoted Papal Bull in the introduction to the Malleus Maleficarum, giving Kramer and Sprenger authorization as Inquisitors, but names Kramer and Sprenger specifically to counter their assumed authority, explaining that they have no jurisdiction in the areas of Germany where they are hunting, questioning, and condemning witches.  However, the Bull goes on to provide “full and unrestricted power [and  authority]” to these and other inquisitors in an “ends justify the means” argument in favor of torture and imprisonment.  (Pg. 38 P.G. Maxwell-Stuart).

 

Jean Vincent, Prior of Les Moustiers en Lai in La Vendee, wrote A Book Against the Magical Arts and Those Who Say These Arts are Ineffective ca.1475(At the time, there was much waffling in theological circles and by the Catholic Church as to whether or not magic was real.  At times, it was heresy to claim that witchcraft and magic existed. At others, it was a heresy to deny it.)

But I have no doubt that there are remarkable powers in herbs, stones, and waters which demons can take in order to produce unusual effects upon human beings.  They also hand over powders or drinks made from these [substances] to workers of harmful magic who have a pact with them.  But because workers of harmful magic take pride in suspending, postponing, or accelerating at will the effects of their drinks and powders, it is clear that, as far as these things are concerned, it is the pact with the demon more than the active power rooted in the natural substances which makes things happen. (Pg. 125, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, emphasis mine)

 

A letter (1501) from Alexander VI to Brother Angelo of Verona, Inquisitor in Lombardy, granting “full and continuous power of every kind” against those who practice “dreadful crimes with their acts of poisonous magic and superstitious magic…” (Pg. 41, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart)

Paracelsus, when in 1527, at Bale, he burned the whole pharmacopoeia of his day, declared he had learned from the Sorceresses all he knew.  Had they not earned some reward?  YES! And reward they had.  Their recompense was torture and the stake.  New punishments were devised for their especial benefit, new torments invented.  They were brought to trial en masse, condemned on the slightest pretext.  Never was such lavish waste of human life.  To say nothing of Spain, the classic land of the auto-da-fe, where Moor and Jew were always associated with Witches, seven thousand were burned at Treves, and I know not how many at Toulouse; at Geneva five hundred in three months (1513); eight hundred at Wurzburg, in one batch almost, and fifteen hundred at Bamberg,–both of these quite small bishoprics!  Etc. etc.  (Pg. X-Xi Michelet)

The Witchcraft Acts

The Witchcraft Act of 1542 by Henry VIII (Tudor England) first made witchcraft a felony – punishable by death and the loss of personal goods and chattle, which at the time would have conveniently been turned over to the ruling government. (Gibson, 2006)

 

(1514) The Witches, German, by Hand Baldung Grien (b.1484, d.1545 Strasbourg)
The Witches, German, by Hans Baldung Grien (b.1484, d.1545 Strasbourg)

 

It was forbidden to:

… use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to pvoke [provoke] any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose … or for dispite of Cryste, or for lucre of money, dygge up or pull downe any Crosse or Crosses or by such Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries or any of them take upon them to tell or declare where goodes stollen or lost shall become ..

The Witchcraft Act of 1563, or, “An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments, and Witchcrafts”  by Elizabeth I (Tudor England) requires the death penalty ONLY where harm was incurred, whereas lesser accusations could be sentenced to prison terms.  The act defined witches as those who …use, practice, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed. (i.e. “harm”) was sentenced to death without benefit of clergy* (Gibson, 2006)

 

280px-Champion_des_dames_Vaudoises
Manuscript, French, “des vaudoise” in “Le champion des dames,” 1451 Marin Le France

The Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 made not just the practice of witchcraft, but consulting with witches, a crime.  This act was active until it was repealed and replaced by the Witchcraft Act of 1735 (House of Lords, post- 1707 Acts of Union, making Scotland and England part of the Kingdom of England)

 

The Witchcraft Act of 1604, or, “The Act Against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits,” under King James expanded the sentencing of death without clergy to anyone found guilty of invoking evil spirits or communing with familiar spirits.  This act changed the existing law by making all association with witchcraft a felony and moving the jurisdiction from the ecclesiastical (church) courts to common law courts.  This would have been an improvement for the accused, as it allowed them a criminal procedure (the bias nature of this procedure not withstanding); burning at the stake would have been eliminated (Yay, personal growth!  Way  to be progressive, England!) except where the accusation of witchcraft also included treason.  If a witch was accused and found guilty twice (the first offence being small enough to result in one year imprisonment rather than death), then upon the second offence, the witch would be executed.  (sort of a twisted version of California’s three-strikes-your-out law).  This was the act that gave power to Matthew Hopkins, the famous “Witch Finder General.  People associated with this act include: Earl of Northumberland, Bishop of Lincoln, Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, Attorney General for England and Wales, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench.  (Gibson, 2006)

baldung_hexen_ca1514
Three Witches, German, by Hans Baldung Grien (b. 1484, d. 1545 Strasbourg)

The Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1649 by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Commission of the Kirk (this is the Covenanter regime in Scotland, y’all… look it up.  It’s pretty fascinating).  The Covenanters passed morality laws enforcing “godliness” that made blasphemy, worshiping false gods, and beating and cursing one’s parents felonies.  (Making Scotland Great Again, huh?) Included in these new acts was the Witchcraft Act, expanding on the previous Witchcraft Act of 1563, ratifying the previous act and expanding it to include those who “deal with” and/or “consult with” “Devils and Familiar Spirits.”  These things were now punishable by death.   (Young, 2006)

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 : the paradigm shift.  Doing a complete 180, this new Witchcraft Act defined witches as those who claimed to communicate with spirits, had powers of divination and fortune telling, spell casting, and dousing (including for objects), and put them in the same class of criminals as vagrants and con artists.  The sentencing shifted from death to fines and possible jail time.  This act, being post- union, applied to all of the British Isles and repealed the previous Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 and the (English) Witchcraft Act of 1604.  The longevity of this act is impressive- it stayed on the books until it was repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.  (1951!!!)

The Witch Trials of Scotland

Bessie Aiken, 19 May 1597, Edinburgh |  Accusations: Folk Healing 

Bessie Aiken was arrested on May 19th, 1597 and tried for witchcraft on November 11, 1597 in Edinburgh.  She was accused of folk healing and unorthodox religious practices after she was implicated by another witch.  The trial notes state that she was a member of a group of four women who appear to have been recognized folk healers who met, taught each other, cured for each other, and did general workings as (medical) professionals.  Janet Steward was named as Bessie’s teacher in such practices.    The Devil is not mentioned, however, it is notable that Bessie was implicated by another witch, that there were mentions of witch’s meetings, ritual objects, verbal formulae, and sympathetic magick.  Bessie is said to have utilized witch’s circles, use of red nettles to cure a pain in the loins, use of fresh butter as a salve, use of salt for curing, washing people, and reports that she roasted four or five kittens and used the drippings to rub a sick patient.  The ritual objects were listed as: butter, cat, garland, plant, salt, water, wood; unorthodox religious motifs were listed as: prayer, saints, and “three.” “Green wood” is also mentioned, and the implication may indicate fairie lore.

Bessie was found guilty, and sentenced to execution.  She would await her execution in the Tolbooth, Edinburgh.  She petitioned on 15 Aug 1598 to have her sentence of execution reduced to banishment, which was granted.  She had delivered a baby in prison and it is reported that she had greatly suffered as a result.

Sources:   Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database, University of Edinburgh; Books of Adjournal, JC2/3 fo. 224-229; Pitcairn v ii. p. 25-29; Pitcarin v ii. p. 52; South Leith Kirk session records CH2/716/1


The Witch Trials of Scotland: Demographics

The graphs below show trends in the trial documentation of accused witches in Scotland, via the University of Edinburgh.

Midwifery

witch persecutions for midwiferie in all of scotland

Folk Healing

witch persecutions for folk magic in all of scotland

Accused witches sorted by gender

witch persecutions by gender in scotland

 

 


The Burning Times in Aberdeenshire

This page examines the documentation for the criminal persecution of alleged witches within Aberdeenshire, Scotland in chronological order.  The first accusing “witch” is in bold typeface, while the associated trials of those named are immediately following.  Trends in persecution are also explored. To go to this page, click here.

Reader, please note: The documentation for witch trials in Aberdeenshire is extensive, and this document is still growing.  Thank you in advance for your patience while this page is under construction.

 


Sources:

 

Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database, University of Edinburgh

Spalding Club Miscellany 

Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database, University of Edinburgh and cited documents for specific trail and execution narratives.

P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, Witch Beliefs and Witch Trials in the Middle Ages: Documents and Readings (2011)

Michelet, Jules; Satanism and Witchcraft: The Classic Study of Medieval Superstition (1862)

Arnald of Villanova (c.1240-1311); Acts of Harmful Magic (De Maleficiis) ca. 1300

Giordano da Bergamo, “Quaestio de strigis” or “A Question about Witches”; ca. 1460-1470

The Malleus Maleficarum by Kramer and Sprenger (1486)

Pope Innocent VIII: The Papal Bull of 1484

Jean Vincent, Prior of Les Moustiers en Lai in La Vendee,  A Book Against the Magical Arts and Those Who Say These Arts are Ineffective ca.1475

Correspondence; (1501) from Alexander VI to Brother Angelo of Verona, Inquisitor in Lombardy

Gibson, Marion (2006) “Witchcraft in the Courts” in Gibson, Marion, Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550-1750, Continuum International Publishing Group, isbn: 978-0-8264-8300-3

Larner, Christine (1981), Enemies of God, isbn: 0-7011-2424-5

Goodare, J. (2005) Anentis Witchcraftis, “The Scottish Witchcraft Act” Church History, vol. 74.1, pp. 39-67, PDF available here;

J.R. Young, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006) “The Covenanters and the Scottish Parliament, 1639-51: The Rule of the Godly and the Second Scottish Reformation,” E. Boran and C. Gribben, eds.,Enforcing Reformation in Ireland and scotland, 1550-1700; isbn: 0-754-6822-34

 

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