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“The Burning Times”: Witches are Women Too

 

 

What were witches if not feared women? Witches were the scapegoats of society in the Early Modern Period of 1450-1750; even the most insignificant of problems were blamed on them. In just Europe alone, around 60, 000 people, the majority women, were executed for allegedly practicing witchcraft. According to Witchcraft: Legal and Popular Discourses, “witchcraft was the revelation of the Devil at work” (Marie H. Loughlin, 2013). Although women were convicted for small crimes (for example, in the Salem Witch Trials, a dozen innocents were executed for making young children suffer seizures), larger crimes such as heresy against Roman Catholicism and the monarchy were synonymous with greater fear and thus greater punishment. These could range “from imprisonment and pillorying to hanging and burning at the stake” (Marie H. Loughlin, 2013). 

There were many reasons why people in this time targeted women. Here are some of the more misogynistic reasons for why women were accused of witchcraft:

 If you were a woman.

Three-quarters of people put to death for being witches were female. The basis of sexism nowadays is exemplified in the radical blame-game of the 16th-18th centuries. Women were most likely to be accused of practicing black magic and were not given a fair trial as compared to men. Returning to the example of Salem, Massachusetts, the vast majority of the 200 people accused were female, and of the 19 executed, 14 were women.

If your appearance coincided with that of a witch.

Witch-hunters favoured a simple capture, so they began generalizing by the mid-17th century. If you looked a specific way, you were considered a witch. The defining features can be found in the modern Halloween witch costume: a visible wart, crooked nose, hunched back, a third nipple, or a limp. These were considered “Devil’s Marks.” Essentially, if you did not fit societal standards of beauty or had a disability, you were blamed for doing the Devil’s work. In the 1640s, Reverend John Gaule claimed that “every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr’d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch” (D.G. Hewitt, 2019). 

If you were childless.

It was commonly assumed that women would curse children or mothers out of jealousy or spite, so when a child fell ill or passed away, a childless woman would be suspected as the perpetrator.

If you were sexually progressive.

Always bringing sex into it, men also accused women who had affairs of being witches. This was just the Church’s way of ensuring women did not have sex outside of marriage: threaten them with death. The basis behind this claim was that women were innate temptresses whose sole purpose was to lead men astray. Instead of giving responsibility to the mutual participation of the man, women were solely blamed. 

If you dressed against societal norms.

The simple act of wearing black or tattered clothing was enough to get you dragged to court. Merely going against the strict dress code was enough evidence that you were a witch. 

If you were independent.

Men were and always have been wary of a woman who did not need them. By showing that you were independent, especially in financial areas, you were accused of black magic. Around 9 out of 10 women executed for witchcraft between 1620-1725 were financially independent. Some men simply couldn’t fathom a woman who didn’t require their support. If a woman was educated, could read or write, could swim, or do any ‘manly’ activities, she was immediately seen as up to no good. In addition, if a woman voiced an opinion, they were considered a witch. An assertive and independent woman was untrustworthy because they had no man to ‘control’ them.

If you were a healer.

If a woman had knowledge of herbal medicines they were accused of casting a spell. In fact, any woman who spent more time in nature than in the Church was applicable to witchcraft. Simply knowing more than a man was a precursor for witchcraft.

 

 

 

Each of these reasons is derived from one misogynistic thought: that women are inferior to men. In the second book of James VI’s Daemonology, the cause for there being twenty women involved in witchcraft as opposed to one man is as follows: “The reason is easy, for as that sex is frailer than man is, so is it easier to be entrapped in the gross snares of the Devil, as was over-well proved to be true by the serpent’s deceiving of Eve at the beginning, which makes him the homlier with that sex sensyne” ((Marie H. Loughlin, 2013). It all goes back to the first mistake a woman has ever made in a metaphorical story. It is why women are deemed inferior to men. Men are the ones who run society and the Church, and thus, led the witch hunt in the 16th-18th centuries. 

 Today in the modern world, such activity still happens. A woman walking alone is seen as easy prey for a man to follow, harrass, rape, or murder. A woman who is wearing a short skirt or a transparent top is seen as distracting to men, prompting dress codes for the man’s benefit, even if it means restricting someone else’s decisions for their own body. It is also the reason why women are judged because of the way they look; they should only exist to please men, and by failing to do so, have sinned like Eve or have dappled in sorcery like the witches of the past. Don’t you see? Those witches were women, and those women are us. This is our history and it is still our present, simply in a different font. No, we are not being executed, but we are being kidnapped and murdered. No, we are not being put on trial for witchcraft, but we are being put on display for the pleasure of men. 

We are not inferior to men, just as men are not superior to women. We are all equal, we were all made in the Creator’s image and likeness, we all have the same colour of blood flowing through our veins, we are all humans. 

 

And I for one am proud to be a witch. 

 

Sources

Hewitt, D.G. “18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times.’” History Collection, January 6, 2019, https://historycollection.com/18-reasons-one-is-executed-for-witchcraft-during-the-burning-time.

Witchcraft: Legal and popular Discourses.The Broadview Anthology of Sixteenth-Century Poetry and Prose. 10th ed. Eds. Loughlin et al. Broadview Press, 2013, pp. 571.

James VI. “The Second Book, Chapter V,” from Daemonology.The Broadview Anthology of Sixteenth-Century Poetry and Prose. 10th ed. Eds. Loughlin et al. Broadview Press, 2013, pp. 581.

My name is Serafina Piasentin and I'm enrolled in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. Writing has long since been a passion of mine, and I specialize in fiction and poetry. I have won and been published in numerous short story and poetry contests and have completed a fantasy trilogy. I aspire to be an author and this opportunity with Her Campus allows me to take a step closer to that dream! A bit about me outside of my writing career: I am a lifeguard and I play the piano. I consider myself an ambivert and I love adventures and meeting new people! Feel free to contact me on instagram: @serafinaarose or email me @serafinapiasentin@gmail.com <3 I also have a blog where I post my poems, stories, essays, literary reviews and more! You can find me here: https://serafinaarose.wixsite.com/wordalchemy
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