For almost four hundred years, beginning around 1400, tens of thousands of people in Europe and North America were executed for witchcraft. Those who died were overwhelmingly female.
For many, it is the Salem witch trials that immediately spring to mind when thinking about the topic. But such well-known stories mask myriad of regional and chronological difference.
Dr Wanda Wyporska is the author of “Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 1500–1800“; she’ll be speaking about her work next month at HistFest, a new history festival taking place in London and around the UK. I spoke to her about what people might find surprising about early modern witchcraft.
Wyporska: Whenever I give talks, the one myth I’m really keen to dispel is the archetype of the witch as female, healer, midwife or herbalist.
In fact, between 20-25 per cent of those we know to have been executed for the crime of witchcraft were men. In what is now Ukraine, Russia and Finland, up to 80 per cent of those accused were men. As Christina Larner said, witchcraft accusations were sex-related, not sex specific.
As charges of witchcraft evolved from 14th century to the 18th century, the “crime” of witchcraft changed in many areas from accusations of healing and herbal use that challenged the power of the church, to accusations of diabolical witchcraft, involving Sabbath gatherings, interaction with the Devil or devils and malefice – that is evil deeds.
Rideal: With shows such as The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, things seem to be shifting in the way witches are presented in popular culture, but the archetypal “witch” as an elderly woman in a pointy hat, still persists. What was the reality was for those accused of witchcraft during the early modern period? How, when, and why did this archetype emerge?
Wyporska: The reality for those who were accused of witchcraft was truly terrifying for the most part. Often, they were accused face to face by their peers, neighbours and sometimes family members and then could face torture up to three times or more as well as other indignities at the hands of the court or the executioner.
And we have to remember the power of reputation in early modern communities: once you had lost your good name, it was difficult to function as a full member of the community. If you had been touched by the executioner, who carried out torture, then you were despised.
In my collection of trials from Poland, the majority of women accused were servants, in a precarious situation, living in someone else’s house and subject to the power dynamics that brings. It’s not always easy to discover the age of the accused, but a wide range of women and men were accused, from varying social backgrounds, of various ages and different family situations.
Rideal: As historians, we are not supposed to pass judgment on earlier societies. But it is difficult, for me at least, to read the stories of these men and women without feeling deep sadness for their plight. We obviously know that the accusations were scientifically unsound, but we shouldn’t let this undermine the fact that some people really did believe in what they were accusing. Indeed, many of those accused confessed – often under duress. Is any evidence to suggest the accused believed that they had magical powers?
Wyporska: Although I’ve found very little evidence that those accused believed they had what we might deem to be “magical” powers, we have to look at this through an Early Modern gaze, and accept that the society was far more determined and ruled by religious belief which was often a true belief in the supernatural as an explanation system and in the Devil. After all, the Roman Catholic Church asks us in baptismal ceremonies if we renounce the Devil and all his works. Many believed in the semi-religious phrases they used to protect animals and households,that were regarded as witchcraft in the earlier period of the persecutions.
Rideal: Have you noticed, during your research, any themes or patterns in the progression of individual witch persecutions?
Wyporska: Witchcraft accusations and trials were about power dynamics. Accusations could not be proven and relied upon witness testimony, hearsay, social relations and jury decisions. Therefore, someone could be accused of harming a neighbour’s child through witchcraft and because confessio regina probationum est – confession is the queen of proof, a confession was key, no matter how it was obtained.
Although many have tried to claim an overarching reason for the witchcraft persecution, from ergotism to the Little Ice Age, from misogyny to a persecution of midwives, as more research emerges, in a rich tapestry of regional studies, it’s clear that a monocausal explanation is impossible.
Rideal: The next episode of Doctor Who looks at witch trials in Lancashire during the time of James VI and I. I have written about the evolution of the popular culture witch before, but I am interested in your thoughts as to why the figure of the witch has become such a huge part of popular culture?
Wyporska: The figure of the witch has always been a part of folk and learned history. However, in my book Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland 1500-1800, I compared the judicial trials with early modern literature in the form of calendars, plays, poetry, quasi-scientific works and religious writings and found very varied representations of witches. Often, they were cast as figures of fun or were admired for their supposed skills. In one work the Devil was scared of women and of witches. In fact, there is a popular Polish saying, where the Devil fears to tread, send a woman!
The figure of the witch has varied manifestations, as a seductress, evil crone, wielding supernatural power or interestingly, as the obverse of a saint. Saints and witches could be seen as two sides of the same coin, they both interacted with the supernatural (whether God or the Devil), paid a physical price for this power (stigmata or torture) and were both accorded the status by a gathering of powerful men (a jury or council of the Church).
Rideal: It is always the human stories that draw me into history. Is there a particular case or figure from this period that stands out to you?
Wyporska: “One of the saddest cases for me was that in Gniezno in 1689, of Dorota, aged 11, tried with her mother Zofia, in a particularly cruel but common case of trying both mothers and daughters, since being a witch was supposed to be hereditary. Dorota described her mother in the following way, after having consistently described her as her stepmother: ‘She gave birth to me, but I don’t regard her as my mother, because she never taught me the Our Father, and I pity a dog more than her.’
A precocious case of teenage angst that was to have fatal consequences. Even under the extreme stress of the trial, her mother Zofia denied that she was a witch, until she was tortured and then she confessed:
“We danced, the devils took us home where we danced and had sex, just as with our husbands, three times and he was cold. Not every day, just on Thursdays and we had sex at home, my husband felt nothing and knew nothing although it was at home, because the devil lay on the left side and my husband lay on the right.”
In fact, Zofia was her real mother and her father had died. The family had moved many times, making them obvious objects of suspicion in the local community, and probably poorer than their neighbours. These were merely some of the factors that made them more likely to be accused of witchcraft.
[See also: The top children’s TV show conspiracy theories]