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Short Introduction to the Witch Hunts

In the realm of literature, witches have often been relegated to the domain of malevolent or marginalized beings, portrayed as extremely ugly women riding brooms in the air, accompanied by a bubbling cauldron, engaged in spectral dances with the devil. This overly simplistic representation is believed to have its origins in the creative works of some Dutch artists from the 16th century, particularly the accomplished Dutch-Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526/30-1569). In her essay Witches (2019), Mona Chollet notes that in 2016, the Saint-Jean Museum in Bruges dedicated an exhibition called "The Witches of Brueghel" in honor of the Flemish master for being the first painter to tackle the popular construction of witches in the art world. Within the museum, a panel was elaborated listing the names of dozens of women burned at the public square due to their alleged witch status.


Saint James in the Cave of the Sorcerer and Saint James and the Fall of the Sorcerer, were two engravings born in 1564 by Bruegel which offered a defined iconography of the concept and idea of the 'witch' for the first time. Renilde Vervoort, the historian and curator of the exhibition, emphasizes that the engravings were not just a manifestation of depicting the reality of the time, but they became a visual code that would be transmitted to the present day. Bruegel, as many other personalities of the time, was in favor of the persecution's wave against witchcraft and their covens, somehow his "merit" was attributed to inventing an effective image that could be understood without needing any explanation. The legacy he left helped to mark a dark part of human history, specifically the story of women resistance.


"Many inhabitants of Bruges still carried these same surnames and were unaware, before visiting the exhibition, that they might have had an ancestor accused of witchcraft [...] As if the fact of having an innocent ancestor massacred due to delirious allegations were a small anecdote to share with friends". This reasoning engenders a tremendous disdain in the author, leading her to pose the following question to the reader: "For what other mass crimes, even ancient ones, is it possible to speak with such an attitude?", specifically… with a smile on their lips" (Chollet, 2019, p. 13).

Figure 1: "Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath" (Teniers II, 1640-1650).

The advent of the printing press marked a significant turning point in the dissemination of ideas, and it's noteworthy that its emergence coincided with the onset of the witch hunts in the mid-15th century. Johannes Gutenberg's invention revolutionized the way information was transmitted, leaving an indelible mark on European society. The witch hunts, characterized by their fervor to uncover and prosecute alleged witches, found a powerful ally in the printing press: texts detailing methods to identify and combat witches proliferated. The collective anxiety about witchcraft escalated, this escalation was spurred by a growing appetite for captivating and sensational literature, a craving that the printing press adeptly satisfied. The marriage of these two factors, swift information dissemination and the demand for gripping narratives, exacerbated the proliferation of myths and fears surrounding witchcraft, which at the same time increased hatred and phobia toward them.


This meant that accusations and testimonies of alleged acts of witchcraft spread beyond local communities, reaching a wider and more diverse audience. Numerous treatises and manuals included specific details of witchcraft, methods of identifying witches, and procedures for conducting trials and executions. Two Dominican inquisitor monks, the Alsatian Heinrich Institoris or Henry Kramer and the Swiss from Basel Jakob Sprenger, published the treatise The Hammer of Witches or Malleus Maleficarum in 1487, which was arguably the most significant treatise ever published in the context of the witch hunts during the Renaissance. Reprinted about fifteen times, thirty thousand copies were distributed throughout Europe during the major persecutions, serving as the primary "legal" material used by judges against witches for approximately 200 years:

The Hammer of Witches sustains a collective hallucination. Its success gives rise to other vocations of demonologists, who fuel a genuine editorial trend. The authors of these works, such as the French philosopher Jean Bodin (1530-1596), who appear in them as furious madmen, are nevertheless scholars and men of great prestige. Bechtel comments: what a contrast with the credulity, the brutality that they all displayed in their demonological writings (Chollet, 2019, p. 15).

Figure 2: "Witches' Sabbath" or "The Great He-Goat" (Goya, 1821-1823).

The history of the witch hunts is an intriguing tapestry that spans centuries and crosses continents, from Europe to America, passing through Africa and Asia. This dark narrative reveals not only the persecution of those accused of practicing witchcraft but also the fears, prejudices, and cultural complexities that marked each period and society. Entire families were exterminated, and terror was sown. "If they had not occurred, we would likely live in very different societies" (Chollet, 2021, p. 13). During the Middle Ages, the image of the witch was woven around a threatening and subversive perception that challenged the conventional norms of feudal society. In that period, women who sought knowledge and broke the limiting expectations imposed on their gender were seen as a threat to male authority and supremacy, but this wasn't the most hunted period that women suffered, the medieval era is often attributed as the time of emergence due to its reputation for backwardness and obscurantism. However, it was during the Renaissance period that harsh persecutions occurred, starting around 1400 and intensifying mainly from 1560 onwards. Thus, the imagery of a Renaissance full of reason and knowledge is shattered.


For the haters of witches, their crime of witchcraft consisted of harmful magic practices created through devil worship, as well as the use of supernatural powers: harming neighbors, making men infertile, bringing misfortune to the community, droughts, cold waves, heatwaves, etc. Natural catastrophes and extreme climates fell within this category. It can be deduced that the causes of this phenomenon are complex and multifaceted, intertwining with religious, political, and socioeconomic issues, meanwhile before all the hunts started, the healers or enchantresses had as their primary function to heal the wounded and sick, some served as midwives, and their profiles were well-recognized and respected in the community until they became associated with the devil and paganism. The religious authorities promoted the idea that witchcraft was a form of heresy and a pact with the devil, leading to the identification of witches as enemies of the faith. The Protestant Reformation increased religious tensions and led to a struggle for spiritual and political control, resulting in their persecution.


Similarly, the persecutions are often attributed to religious fanaticism embodied by cruel inquisitors. However, the Inquisition, primarily concerned with heretics, pursued witches very little; an overwhelming majority of convictions were handed down by secular courts. In matters of witchcraft, secular judges proved to be more cruel and more zealous than Rome (Chollet, 2019, p. 28).

Figure 3: "Witchcraft under the gallows" (Teniers II, n.d.).

Hysteria and fear played crucial roles in the witch hunts. As it was mentioned above, the spread of rumors and legends about witches performing curses and malevolent rituals fueled paranoia in society. Epidemics, failed harvests, and any misfortune were often attributed to witchcraft, further cementing the belief in the existence of these "malevolent women". The case of Anna Göldin serves as an example. Known as Anna Göldi, she was a servant in the canton of Glarus in Switzerland and the last woman executed for witchcraft on June 18th, 1782, and probably the penultimate one in Europe: two Polish women were executed in 1793 for the same case of witchcraft.


Göldi was accused of bewitching the second daughter of the physician Johann Jacob Tschudi during her time as a servant for the family. Tschudi accused her of placing needles in the bread and milk of his daughters. The younger daughter fell ill with a fever, and the family's version claimed that she was expelling needles from her mouth. After her capture, authorities subjected her to torture for three months until she confessed to "pacting with the devil". It is unimaginable to comprehend that during the trial, judicial protocols were violated, and Anna was sentenced to death by poisoning. In 1782, she was decapitated in Glarus. Journalist Walter Hauser commented, "Anna is a symbol against social discrimination, especially of women", and he believed it was necessary to share Anna's story with the world. In 2017, a museum was opened in honor of Göldi and many other victims of the witch hunts (La Vanguardia, July 2018).


In 2007, Hauser brought a proposal for exoneration to local courts. The initiative became a topic of debate in the regional Parliament of Glarus, which unanimously recognized Anna Göldi's innocence. She went from being the last woman condemned for witchcraft in Europe "to become the world's first 'witch' exonerated by democratic vote", as emphasized by the museum curator (La Vanguardia, July 2018).

Figura 4: Detail of "Preparation of the Witches' Sabbath" (Teniers II, 1645).

On the other hand, not even the few voices raised against the persecutions, like that of Johann Weyer, a Dutch occultist and demonologist, were heard. Weyer was one of the first to write against the persecution of the Maleficae (witches) with his book De Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus ac Venificiis (On the Tricks of Demons and Spells and Poisons), published in 1563. The Protestants, despite presenting themselves as chaste and pure devotees, pursued witches with the same zeal as the Catholics. The return to a literal reading of the Bible preached by the Reformation did not favor leniency; quite the opposite. Calvin's Geneva executed thirty-five "witches", citing two lines from Exodus: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" or "Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 22:18-20).


Numerous men were executed for witchcraft too, but misogyny was at the root of the persecutions. "Witches are of little account", states the Malleus Maleficarum (1487) by the aforementioned Dominicans. Its authors believed that without women's "malice", the world would be spared countless dangers. Women were considered weak in body and spirit, driven by insatiable desires, making them easy prey for the Devil. In legal proceedings, courts rejected the testimony of many women, often denying them full legal standing and treating them as little more than accused masses of witches. Entire female lineages were wiped out. Trier, in Germany, was a crime scene as twenty-two neighboring villages went through a harsh cleansing campaign or witch hunt between 1587 and 1593. Trier witnessed the witch hunt of 368 women accused of witchcraft. The sadism deeply rooted in the sexual charge associated with women and their supposed connection with the Devil led to three out of four witchcraft executions in Europe taking place in Germany. So much so that out of the twenty-two villages, practically only two remained with a woman alive.


Figure 5: "The Witch No. 2" (Walker & Co, 1892).

The murder of thousands of witches was just another excuse for society to synthetically and amorally resolve political problems. Political antagonists of important figures would sometimes denounce their wives or daughters as witches, as it was easier than directly attacking them, however, it was the lower classes that comprised the majority of victims. Other personalities took advantage of the widespread atmosphere of suspicion to rid themselves of their partners or lovers who might tarnish their precious reputation or sought revenge against women who had attempted to seduce them without success. Somehow, women's lives were under the control of entirely male institutions: interrogators, priests or pastors, torturers, guards, judges, and executioners.


In hindsight, the witch hunts emerge as a stark reminder of how fear, ignorance, and oppression can converge to inflict unimaginable suffering. The phenomenon of witch hunts was woven into the fabric of an era where social and religious norms intertwined into a web of gender inequalities and biases. Women who challenged the status quo, whether by asserting their independence or seeking knowledge beyond prescribed limits, found themselves ensnared in a web of suspicion and accusation. From our contemporary perspective, the witch hunts serve as a poignant reminder of the importance of questioning and resisting oppressive power structures. Baseless accusations and the demonization of women who sought independence and knowledge not only claimed lives but also extinguished the potential for a world where diverse thought and gender equality could flourish.


As we look back on this dark chapter in history, it is important to remember that progress is not always linear, and advances in gender equality and human rights must be consistently defended and safeguarded. The witch hunts urge us to challenge imposed narratives and to strive for a society where knowledge, independence, and diversity are celebrated rather than punished. Ultimately, we must learn from history and endeavor to create a world where empowerment and freedom for all prevail over the fear and intolerance of the past. The lessons of the witch hunts echo through time, reminding us of the enduring importance of upholding equality, justice, and the rights of individuals, regardless of gender or circumstance.


Bibliographical References

Chollet, M. (2019). Witches. Penguin Random House.


Cabot, L., Mills, J. (2013). The Witch in Every Woman: Reawakening the Magical Nature of the Feminine to Heal, Protect, Create, and Empower. Reino Unido: Random House Publishing Group. Retrieved August 20th, 2023 from https://www.google.it/books/edition/The_Witch_in_Every_Woman/2c8KAgAAQBAJ?hl=es&gbpv=1&dq=Renilde+Vervoort.+The+Witch+in+Every+Woman:+Reawakening+the+Magical+Nature+of+the+Feminine+to+Heal,+Protect,+Create,+and+Empower+Exhibition.&printsec=frontcover


Durán, G. I., (June 25th, 2019). "The Witch Hunt: Europe, America, and Religious Fanaticism". Descubrir la historia. Retrieved August 24th, 2023 from https://descubrirlahistoria.es/2019/06/la-caza-de-brujas-europa-america-y-el-fanatismo-religioso/


Felitti, K. A. (2021). Brujas feministas: Construcciones de un símbolo cultural en la Argentina de la Marea Verde (Feminist Witches: Constructions of a Cultural Symbol in the Argentina of the Green Tide). In R. de la Torre, P. Semán (Eds.) Religiones y espacios públicos en América Latina. (pp. 543-568). CALAS. Retrieved August 22th, 2023 from https://ri.conicet.gov.ar/bitstream/handle/11336/159170/CONICET_Digital_Nro.7e4b881d-c196-4ebf-8587-aa6dfea90a51_A.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y


Fernández, F. R. (1989). Brujas e identidad femenina, saber, poder y sexualidad (Witches and female identity, knowledge, power, and sexuality). In O. de Oliveira (Ed.), Trabajo, poder y sexualidad (1st ed., pp. 331–358). El Colegio de Mexico. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv26d9qb.24


Hoak, D. (1983). The Great European Witch-Hunts: A Historical Perspective. American Journal of Sociology, 88(6), 1270–1274. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2778975


Philips, A. (May 25th, 2021). "Witch Hunt, the Dark Face of the Renaissance". La Vanguardia. Retrieved August 23rd, 2023 from https://www.lavanguardia.com/historiayvida/edad-moderna/20210529/7483072/caza-brujas-cara-oscura-renacimiento.html

Quelart, R. (July 12th, 2018). "The Fascinating Anna Göldi, 'the Last Witch' of Europe". La Vanguardia. Retrieved August 23rd from https://www.lavanguardia.com/cultura/20180712/45837290956/anna-goldi-ultima-bruja-europa.html

Sollee, K. J. (2023). Witch Hunt: A Traveler's Journey Into the Power and Persecution of the Witch. U. S. A.: Red Wheel Weiser. Retrieved August 19th, 2023 from https://www.google.it/books/edition/Witch_Hunt/H2-4EAAAQBAJ?hl=es&gbpv=1&dq=Witch+Hunt:+A+Traveler%27s+Guide+to+the+Power+and+Persecution+of+the+Witch+pdf&printsec=frontcover



Visual Sources

Cover Image: Goya, F. (1797–1798). The coven. Retrieved August 26th, 2023 from https://www.nationalgeographic.es/historia/historias-brujas-buenas-malas-buenas-otra-vez


Figure 1: Teniers II, D. (1640-1650). Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath. Retrieved August 26th, 2023 from https://www.descubrirelarte.es/2016/06/05/brueghel-el-inventor-de-la-iconografia-de-las-brujas.html


Figure 2: Goya, F. (1821-1823). Witches' Sabbath or The Great He-Goat. Retrieved August 26th, 2023 from https://letraslibres.com/cultura/una-pintura-de-brujas-entre-el-miedo-y-la-risa/


Figure 3: Teniers II, D. (n.d.). Witchcraft under the gallows. Retrieved August 26th, 2023 from https://www.descubrirelarte.es/2016/06/05/brueghel-el-inventor-de-la-iconografia-de-las-brujas.html


Figure 4: Teniers II, D. (1645). Detail of Preparation of the Witches' Sabbath. Retrieved August 26th, 2023 from https://www.lavanguardia.com/historiayvida/edad-moderna/20210529/7483072/caza-brujas-cara-oscura-renacimiento.html#foto-2


Figure 5: Walker & Co. (1892). The Witch No.2, via the Library of Congress. Retrieved August 26th, 2023 from https://www.thecollector.com/early-modern-witch-hunts/



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Arianna Rodriguez

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