Who Was Believed to Be a Witch in the 1500s & the 1600s?
Being accused of witchcraft is problematic at the best of times, but in the 1500s and 1600s -- at the height of the witch hysteria, it was downright deadly. The worst of it was that you didn't even have to be a witch to be accused, tortured and executed as one. Church leaders coveting rich property, neighbors with a grudge, hysterical children or even torture victims themselves -- seeking release from their own torment -- could, and did, make accusations. Evidence required for conviction was slim to nonexistent and often farcical, and mere accusations nearly always led to death.
1 Heretical, and Conveniently Wealthy, Landowners
The Church, ever desirous of power and the expansion of its holdings, used the excuse of eradicating witches to further its goals. Many victims of the Inquisition were wealthy landowners -- conveniently for the church, whose rights extended to the power of confiscating the properties of convicted witches and heretics. So transparent were their efforts in accusing and killing wealthy individuals for the purpose of obtaining their holdings that the Inquisitor Eymeric, in the 14th century complains of the scarcity of wealthy heretics and laments the fate of the church without this ready source of income. That did not change during the 16th and 17th centuries. From 1581 to 1593 in the diocese of Trier, Germany, for example, the coffers of church and private individuals alike benefited from the massacre of almost 400 "witches," one-third of which were wealthy nobility, whose properties were duly confiscated.
2 Women, 20 to 1
Despite the undeniable fact that at least half the world's population is, and always has been, female, orthodox Christianity has long sought to denigrate that half as less than human and less entitled to either man's or God's mercy. Though, arguably, it began with St. Paul, the vilification of womankind through official church doctrine was still quite well and thriving throughout the 1500 and 1600s. Centuries of female revilement by the male-dominated Catholic Church resulted in the Malleus Maleficarum or “Hammer of Witches” used by the Holy Inquisition to torture and exterminate thousands of innocent female victims, and Protestants, not to be outdone, continued the persecution of women in Europe and America under the Reformation. One Lutheran prelate, Benedict Carpzov, proudly boasted of having put 20,000 witches to death.
3 Non-Christians, Of Course
Official church doctrine proclaimed the existence of witches. Not believing in witches or witchcraft was a brand of heresy, and anyone choosing to believe something outside that official doctrine was a heretic, and oft-times automatically, also a witch. Jews and others following religious beliefs outside Christian dogma were heretics. Scientists were also heretics because they expounded upon things outside the scope of church doctrine, and because they refused to accept as “magic” those things for which they found natural explanation. Not all heretics were witches, but it generally amounted to the same thing in the end -- death at the burning stake. Depending upon the source, anywhere from 600,000 to 9,000,000 people died at the hands of the Holy Inquisitors during their almost three-century reign of holy terror. In the American colonies, the infamous Salem witch trials resulted in 20 deaths, though as many as 200 people stood trial for witchcraft before the hysteria subsided.
4 Healers and Herbalists
While thousands were burned, hanged and tortured to death over no more evidence of evil influence than that they understood the medicinal use of herbs, or served as a midwife, many people escaped persecution in a time when medicine was almost exclusively a matter of applying home remedies. Some historical scholars consider the persecution of village “wise-women” -- those women most often sought out for help with illnesses and childbirth -- a deliberate attempt on the part of a misogynistic clergy, jealous of their rights as dispensers of medical knowledge, to eradicate women from the traditional roles of healers, nurturers and givers of comfort. Both Catholics and Protestants oppressed these elderly women, whom they saw as the pagan "crones." Martin Luther callously waved away sympathy for women suffering in childbirth without the comfort previously administered by those knowledgeable midwives, saying... "If [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth -- that is why they are there."
- 1 Internet Archive: The Holy Inquisition
- 2 Positive Atheism: The Witch Hunts:The End of Magic and Miracles 1450-1750 C.E.
- 3 Internet Archive: Malleus Maleficarum
- 4 Witchcraft and Witches: The Witch Trials - Trier Witch Trials (Germany, 1581 - 1593)
- 5 Smithsonian: A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials