Many innocent women happily welcomed death by confessing to witchcraft in order to end their excruciating torture during the witch hunt craze between 1450 and 1750. Since many records were lost, destroyed or never kept, the best estimation of the total deaths is several million (4). The main cause of the witch hunts was the Church inflicting fear upon the common and educated man by lying to them about what witches do and who they are. The Church also directly and indirectly increased the pain that accused women would go through during their torture.
The Church made it clear, to all those who would listen, that all women were evil and capable of witchcraft. “The Bible’s Apocrypha states, ‘Of woman came the beginning of sin / And thanks to her, we all must die.’(Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus 25:13-26.)” (2). Vicious comments like this caused even women themselves to fear what other women may do. This fear only lead to the distrust of woman. A book written by two German men, titled Malleus Maleficarum, “The Hammer of Witches”, only furthered peoples fear of women’s evil. It states that women are more likely to become witches:
“‘Because the female sex is more concerned with things of the flesh
then men; because being formed from a man’s rib, they are only
‘imperfect animals’ and ‘crooked’ where as man belongs to a
privileged sex from whose midst Christ emerged.’(Malleus Maleficarum, 1486)”(2).
The men that wrote Malleus Maleficarum refer to the bible for reasons to why they consider women evil, so if the Church had never incorporated such things into the bible such things may have never been thought.
Many ancient myths portrayed goddess’s as evil. Consequently those images of evil were kept and later attached to witches who kept goddess worship alive centuries later (4). Even devotion to the Virgin Mary (who is the biological mother of Jesus) was considered an indication of evil (2). One women, named Aldonca de Vargas, was even reported just for smiling at the mention of the Virgin Mary (Henry Kamen, Inquisition and Society in Spain) (2).
Once a women was accused of witchcraft she would first have to confess in order to be executed. The torturing of accused women was so unbelievably horrid and sadistic that you would think a man of low standing would be the one to carry it out, but sadly it was the men of educated positions such as bishops, judges, professors and others. By doing the torture themselves it set them in a position of fear throughout the community and it is even said that “after the execution of a wealthy witch, officials [would treat] themselves to a banquet at the expense of the victim’s estate. (Barbara Walker)”(2). All of the victim’s estate became the property of the government as soon as they were accused. The torture was done in such a businesslike fashion that the relatives were charged for the victims torture and death (4). They were charged for such things as the “ropes that bound them and the wood that burned them. (Barbara Walker).”(2).
Some methods of torturing the accused witches into confessing were thumbscrews, whips, red-hot tongs, and the rack, this lead to there bones being crushed, limbs severed and flesh seared. After being locked up and tortured for days on end, most women would confess in order to die and some would also accuse neighbors and friends hoping to end their own pain (4). Another method of determining the guilt of the accused was to stab needles into her eyes and if an insensitive spot was found then she was considered guilty. A Spanish church even went as far as to conform a statue of the Virgin Mary into a device of torture. They did this by covering the front side of the statue with sharp knives and nails, then they used levers to make the arms of the statue crush the accused against the knives and nails (Jean Plaidy, The Spanish Inquisition) (2). Men would also brutally attack the breasts and genitals of accused witches if they became sexually aroused around her, because it was thought that the ‘witch’ caused them to be. They attacked the breasts and genitals with pincers, red-hot irons and pliers (2). The Churches not only condoned all method’s of witch torture but some church members would even perform the torture themselves. A bishop of Wurtzburg was proud to claim the lives of 1900 witchcraft accused people in five years (2).
“Churchmen portrayed the healing woman as the most evil of all witches. William Perkins declared, ‘The most horrible and detestable monster…is the good witch.’” (2). The Church declared this because they believe that God should be the only one to heal and consequently anyone who was found with herbal oils or ointments could be charged with witchcraft. Midwifes were most often thought to be witches because of their knowledge of herbs to relieve labor pains. The Church thought it was a sin to help ease a women’s labor pains because of God’s sentence upon Eve in which she and all women following her shall be plagued with labor pains (2). Even influential people such as Martin Luther stated his believe about childbirth when he wrote, “If [women] become tired or even did, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth that is why they are there.” (2). When chloroform was introduced to help decrease labor pains the Church strongly opposed it. A New England minister even went as far as to call chloroform “a decoy of Satan.” (2)
The Church made it incredibly easy to accuse people of witchcraft. At first only ugly or deformed old women were suspected of witchcraft but soon anyone who looked or acted different was a prime suspect. One Scottish woman was even convicted of witchcraft after washing an unhealthy child because of its rarity (2). Eventually all women were a target for accusations. If someone felt guilty after turning away a person in need then they could accuse that person of witchcraft because of the belief that they caused them to feel guilty (2). It was so easy to get a witch executed that in 1586 every female except two were executed from two different villages (2).
The Churches mentally sick and demented ways of viewing witched and women didn’t stop with the end of the witch hunting craze in the 17 hundreds it continues still today. In 1976 Elizabeth Hahn, a poor spinster who lived in a small German village, was accused of witchcraft and was suspected to keep devil’s agents in the form of dogs. Her neighbors threatened to beat her to death with rocks but instead they burnt down her house in which she was badly burnt and her animals were killed. And in 1981 a Mexican mob stoned a women to death after suspecting her of the witchcraft, that they believed caused the attack upon Pope John Paul II. (2).
I feel that it is because men ran churches that witch hunting got so out of hand. I love Helen Ellerbe’s following statement:
“It is hardly surprising that women who not only possessed
medicinal knowledge but who used that knowledge to comfort
and care for other women would become prime suspects of witchcraft.” (Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History)(2).
In one complete sentence Helen was able to sum up women’s early medical knowledge and their ability to care for one another. What the Church did to women, witches or not, sickens me as it should sicken every conscious living soul. They used their power and also their fear of losing that power to execute millions of innocent women. Not only did they execute them but they tortured them in unthinkable ways. The Church and men alike should be forever sorry for their part in the witch hunting craze.
1, Australi, Stella. “Witchcraft Craze”,
2, Ellerbe, Helen. “The Witch Hunts: The End of Magic and Miracles”,
3, Hoyt, Olga. Witches. U.S.A., Fourth Impression, 1973.
4, Kallen, Stuart. Witches, Magic & Spells. Minnesota, Abdo & Daughters,1991.
5, “Salem” -http://www.nationalgeographic.com/features/97/salem
6, Shafer, Mike. “The Salem Witch Trials”,
7, Woodhurst Earl, Social Studies Teacher and expert footnoter