Not so long ago, I came across an information about a monument in Norway, dedicated to women, who were executed as witches. This is a novel idea and a historic game changer for understanding witch-hunts and trials as a massive pogrom of women.
Some sources say that there were more than five (!) millions women sentenced to death by hanging, burning at stakes or drowning.
Why these numbers are vague and why there hasn’t been a worldwide rehabilitation of women killed, the answer is obvious – it is the gender of victims. Witch-hunts and trails were gender-related and gender-based, but most important is the fact that it was a case of an intentional gendered violence against women, accused by fabricated allegations of being ”witches” and prosecuted as such.
Accusations were centred around the female sexuality or female work (midwifery, household chores), but most of them were unsubstantial figments of imagination and ignorance. Midwives, for example, were accused of witchcraft because of their nature of work (i.e. sexuality, female bodies, reproduction) and for possessing experiential knowledge about the birth regulation, which was by clerical authorities of the Catholic Church (CC) understood as interfering with their ‘natural’ demographics. Other factors for witch-hunt mass hysteria can be found in (1) religious wars, which left many women single with no paternal or marital protection and economically helpless, (2) women’s economic dependence and vulnerability,(3) the emerge of natural sciences, (4) medieval catastrophes (e.g. plague, syphilis, wars) and (5) CC’s attempts to preserve their religious and legislative power. Those were social amplifiers that created the climate of damnation, something an average person could not comprehend. Yet the CC had abused those cross-fertilizing events to reinforce their own doctrines of hell, sin, devil and heretics (witches included).
Witches had become an omnipresent evil that needed to be gone but their soon-to-be-doomed existence also served a CC’s campaign to destroy any religious competition: alternative readings of Bible, paganism or even Judaism. The CC’s contempt for Judaism is evident discursively; the naming of witch gatherings is called ”sabbat”, ”synagogue” was the place of such get-togethers. Their message was clear: do not mess with CC.
Not to forget the political and economic aspects of witch hunts which were used as a disciplinary method to consolidate the power of church and feuds and as a profitable business for every party involved: judges, executioners, innkeepers, professional witch hunters.
For a successful prosecution of witches, a manual for an inquisition (or investigators) and jurists (or judges) was written, now known as Malleus Maleficarum (1486). This manual consolidated witchcraft as woman’s civil crime, so the myth of a woman as ‘maleficia’ (i.e. witch) became a ‘scientific’ fact and no one did disbelieve the (new) authority of science.
Witch-hunts and trials were misogynistic feasts; women were accused by men, trials were held by male juries, searched by male prickers, sentenced by male judges, tortured by male jailers and burned to death by male executioners. Witch-hunts were the first documented victim blaming strategies of the male ruling class (i.e. theology, wealth, elite), a strategy that justifies the violence against its victims as something that a victim has ‘attracted’.
Women, accused of being witches, were Othered as a group and for the first time in history, they had been collectively prosecuted. Any woman could have been accused of being a witch for just being a woman. From the beginnings of the witch-hunt epidemics, old/er women were the main culprits of the witchcraft, but later the age structure had changed, so the paradigm of witchcraft also included young girls, due to their allure and beauty, and catholic nuns for belonging to the ‘wrong’ gender. Unlike other systematic eliminations in history (Holocaust for Jewish people or Porajmos for Romani people), victims of witch-hunts do not have group history or group identity, because those acts were undetected as a strategy to exterminate women and unfortunately, that led to the depoliticization of witch-hunts.
Among other victims – apart from women – were also other socially and morally Othered persons: disabled people, petty criminals, sex workers, animal lovers, beggars, vagabonds, thieves, drunks, homosexuals. Albeit their identities were associated with magic or sorcery, Roma people or Jewish people were never accused for crimes of the witchcraft.
Opening the monument, which is dedicated to women, that were burned, hanged and drowned, sends a clear message of an acknowledgement of historical injustice that had been made upon those women, and what witch trials were – a gynocide; but more essentially, it means rehabilitation of their image. The reason for not massively rehabilitating them must lie in the gender of victims. Apparently, misogyny doesn’t age.
P.S. One of the first witch trials in my country took place in my hometown in 1546. More than ten women were accused of poisoning meals, copulating with the devil, riding brooms, influencing the weather, having cats and dogs as their helpers … All of them were burnt at the stake.
Brian P. Levack: New perspectives on witchcraft, magic and demonology, New York: Routledge, 2001.
Marjeta Tratnik Volasko, Matevž Košir: Čarovnice: Predstave, procesi, pregoni v evropskih in slovenskih deželah, Ljubljana: Znanstveno in publicistično središče, 1995.<<< Back