Author: Sitwat Mirza
Institution: King’s College London

The word ‘witch’ in modern day language is used to describe an old lady who practices magic or sorcery. Today, witches are portrayed as fictional characters that have little resemblance to reality, hence, it becomes difficult for us to comprehend how this concept of witchcraft became such a reality in the minds of early modern contemporaries. To understand witch hunts and trials, we need to do a psychoanalysis of the accuser and the victim in the early modern period.

So, where did this concept of witches first come from? Witchcraft became part of popular culture in the early modern world, from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. At the beginning of the early modern period, witchcraft was associated with maleficia: magical forces used to cause the death of mankind, cause the destruction of crops or mass killings of animals. Christian theologians gave witchcraft a demonic feature and it came to be associated with a pact with the devil, attending witch sabbaths and causing harm to young infants. It is important to remember that the more popular form of witchery was the one associated with maleficia. The witch was given a‘demonic’ form by elite structures who were able to study Christian biblical scriptures. This article studies the psychology behind accusations that were made by local villagers and will investigate how this contrasted with the role that elites played in these accusations.

Historian Lyndal Roper argues that ‘confessions and accusations are mental productions’. She uses the example of Augsburg, Germany, to give an insight in to how mothering practices created a power hierarchy between lying-in-maids and mothers. During the early modern period, people did not consider themselves citizens of a particular nation; their lives were confined to their village neighbourhoods. Amongst the many social networks that typically formed village life, an important social group was that of village women.

Women in the same parish or village frequently met to discuss gossip and to catch up on local news. At the time of birth, many women would gather to shares their own experiences of motherhood. Mis happenings such as the death of young infants or unexpected illnesses usually gave neighbours an opportunity to spread rumours about those women whom they envied or held deep rivalries with. Roper highlights how powerful mothers were in such social settings; their position of physical and emotional weakness meant they could use these gatherings to voice their anxieties. The most common victim of such accusations was the lying-in- maid. Lying- in- maids were typically over the age of forty, post-menopausal, infertile, and were commonly widows with poor financial means and hence, a very low status in society.

Mothers experiencing post-natal depression often accused maids of reversing the flow of maternal fluids in their babies, causing them to die, or trying to prey on their husbands in their absence. In her article, Witchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany (1991), Roper argues that ‘envy was the motor of witchcraft in the seventeenth century’. From Roper’s psychoanalysis, we can make the following conclusion. The social setting of mothering practices in early modern German villages, allowed mothers to project their emotions of anxiety and uncertainty on older women in society. The low social and economic status of such women, as well as their image in society as old, barren and cold-hearted beings, made them common targets for accusations.

Court magistrates also played a central role in accusations. Once local village women had made their accusations, it was the job of the interrogator to continuously inflict pain on the victim through the use of physical torture, in an attempt to get them to confess that they were witches. Roper highlights that ‘in a society where nakedness was rare, he [the torturer] knew her [the victim’s] body better than anyone else’. The idea that witches could not feel pain and that it was important to strip a person of their bodily form to understand the psychological truth behind their confessions, were both ideas that were very popular during this time. These concepts were linked back to the idea that witches could not display motherly or affectionate characteristics. Witchcraft accusations were processes through which women lost their dignity and respect to the hands of powerful men.

What is difficult for modern day historians to make sense of is why, despite being the educated and rational part of society, elite institutions continued to support and encourage the accusations that local village women were making in the name of ‘witchcraft’. In many cases, the villagers themselves only used witchcraft as a means of voicing their anxieties and deep rivalries with other villagers. Many of them were uneducated in religious matters and perhaps did not even know what the word ‘witch’ meant. One cannot help but question whether the elites themselves believed in witches or if they were influenced by the hysteria that the common villagers were creating.

Historian Robin Briggs argues that the real power lay with village neighbours. In his article Witches and Neigbours (1996), he argues that accusations grew out of the gossip groups that responded in hysteria to local crises like illnesses or natural disasters. He furthers this argument by suggesting that many authority figures like court magistrates were only involved in witchcraft trials to enhance their status and prestige in society. Conversely, Mary Daly’s, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1987) reveals: ‘The witch-hunters sought to purify their society…[from] women whose physical, intellectual, economic, moral, and spiritual independence…threatened the male monopoly in every sphere’. The question of whether power really did lay in the hands of authority figures or it lay in the hands of villagers is still open to debate amongst historians.

Having analysed the psychology behind the accusations themselves, it is essential to turn one’s attention to the mind of the accused; the victim. Lying-in-maids tended to present themselves as outsiders who had been exiled from their communities. Older women had several internal insecurities that allowed other village women and men to exploit them. Those that had been widowed felt as if they had been deserted by God because of the loss of a male protector. Their feeling of isolation, loss of honour and protection was usually evident in their confessions. It is interesting to note that diabolical elements were usually brought up in confessions by the maids themselves. This was perhaps a combination of the constant questioning of the interrogators who injected ideas of the devil and hellish imagery in the mind of the accused, and the mental creations of the accused themselves. In a society where honour was of such high importance, women who were subject to witch trials often saw interrogation and public humiliation as a disgrace to their reputation. This, combined with the familial problems they had experienced throughout their lifetimes, continued to shape the nature of their involvement in confessions.

Robin Briggs highlights that witchcraft accusations were not just based on the fact that women were feeble and vulnerable at the hands of powerful male elites. Other key factors that determined if one was accused was one’s age, their marital status and familial tensions. This argument is worth considering because as it has been established through the analysis of this article, women often had more power than men in accusing other, less socially and economically privileged women than themselves. It is true that men played a key role in witch trials, however, a lot of the responsibility lay with younger, single and married women who could exercise their power to spread rumours and create hysteria. They were essentially the driving force of witchcraft accusations in the early modern period.

Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, 1987Secondary sources
L. Roper, ‘Witchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany’, History Workshop 32 (1991) [OUP Journals] [also published as ch. 9 of her Oedipus and the Devil (1994)] R. Briggs, Witches and Neigbours (1996)

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