By Skylar McDonald
“I was a healer
I was gifted as a girl
I laid hands upon the world
Someone saw me sleeping naked in the noon sun
I heard “witchcraft” in the whispers and I knew my time had come
The bastards hung me at the Salem gallows hill
But I am living still”
-Highwomen, by the Highwomen
You say witch like it is a bad thing. When did witch become an insult? Why disparage our healers and elders? In the song “Highwomen,” the songwriters make a point to remember the ones in history that suffered greatly in life and forgotten in death. But in their time, these women often wielded considerable powers and demonstrated resolute bravery. The song references many historical themes but always from the perspective of a woman: a freedom rider shot in ’61, a refugee murdered escaping Honduras, a preacher who perished for her religious passion, and a woman accused of witchcraft and executed in Salem. In both popular culture and in careful scholarship by historians, these stories are being told again in honor of people who dared to use their talents and make a better world. One of the song’s main narrators recounts how a gift for healing left her vulnerable to the accusation of witchcraft, and cost her life. The verses are short, but the pain is still there, a young woman lost her life when an accusation was placed, her family lost a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother. The healer paid the price for her gifts, but how many more suffered under her loss? Those who relied on her remedies, the innocent and the weak, those who without her would also suffer her fate of death. The women accused of witchcraft were people, they had lives and people who cared for them, yet their accusers never considered how the loss of one life can affect the whole community.
Witchcraft is not a new phenomenon; the term had been around for centuries before gaining an association as a peculiarly feminine form of dark magic during the 16th and 17th centuries. Across Europe and European colonies, significantly more women than men stood trial for witchcraft. Age, region, poverty, and ethnicity also played essential roles in the politics of witchcraft. Generations of scholars have revealed how fears about early modern European witchcraft intersected with religious reform, changing gender roles, and colonial expansion. We can observe women’s prominence in traditional healing practices across early modern Europe, although specific practices varied by regions and customs. The following articles invite us to investigate the varied meanings of witchcraft across early modern Europe and provide the accused another chance to tell their stories.
In a recent research article just published this year, Anna Bennett describes the prominence given to magical objects in the investigation of stregheria, the Italian word for witchcraft, during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in Venice. Bennett examines two cases from the Holy Office records, one focused on Perina Marigi in 1583 and one detailing the suspect activities of the Buranelle sisters, Dionara and Vicenza, in 1608. Bennett introduces actual testimony from these trials to discuss how prosecutorial strategies documented witchcraft in both practices and objects. Perina Margi, an accused, used everyday household items in unconventional ways, such as using extra wax to make human figurines by the fire. The accusations against the Buranelle sisters started due to their collection of holy objects they used in healing magic. Bennett states that “Just as distinctly religious objects like images of the Madonna lent sacred meaning to the domestic sphere, I argue that a wide variety of ordinary objects acquired spiritual significance through their use in Stregheria rituals, and this spiritual potency extended to the spaces in which magic acts occurred.” (p. 117) In both of these cases, women used household or everyday spirituality objects to create Stregamenti. These women did not see their rituals as witchcraft but as spiritual healing that could save their community members’ lives. In Venice, witches were not like other witches in the tales of witchcraft trials commonly spoken about in a modern culture that fit the theme that witches were “seducing the devil” for their plans. The cases of the stregheria and the women who used them caused an altercation for the Holy Office authorities because the women thought they were doing nothing wrong using sacred objects in their forms of spirituality. The Holy Office had to then create a line on what situations and objects counted as stregherias and which ones were just misused material objects of no significance. The Stregheria used the powers they had at their fingertips to develop their spiritual potential. In the journal, Bennetts’s detailed research showcases how accounts of witchcraft are taken by modern historians and crafted in such a way they have never been before.
In 1995, Elspeth Whitney examined the current historiography of witch hunts and found that most historians refused to acknowledge most of those accused were women, therefore erasing a central element of this history. Whitney lamented that “there has been relatively little attention paid as yet to exploring the relationship between witch-hunts and issues relating to gender, in particular, the question of why witches were women.” (p. 77) Previous historians had chalked up the witch hunts as incidents of mass hysteria, economic stress, and gender-neutral issues in a community; however, Whitney observed that most witch hunts accused women and revealed intense misogyny at the time. Whitney argued that “although discussions of this topic have recently (since the late 1980s) become more common, this area of inquiry and others related to gender and the hunts remain surprisingly undeveloped.” (p. 77) The history of witches and witch hunts intertwines with women’s history; it shows an extreme example of how patriarchal societies in the past commanded women’s lives deemed deviant. The emphasis on witches being women should not be something historians shy away from because most accusations are against the wives, mothers, and daughters from their communities.
In Beate Popkin’s book review article “Wives, Mothers, and Witches: The Learned Discourse about Women in Early Modern Europe” she observed how straying from the nurturer’s path put women in danger of witchcraft accusations. Reviewing four recent monographs dedicated to early modern treatises on women’s roles, Popkin noted that many scholars had noted the “misogyny inherent in this discourse; the books under review here explore the broader intellectual and cultural context of men’s thoughts about women and allow us to see the implications of gender in the transformations of the period.” (p. 193) The fear of witches started as a peasant culture phenomenon; women would step out of line or do something abnormal, and therefore they were in league with supernatural powers. However, when a woman was causing problems, and accusations came from the mouths of those around her, she was then not a simple witch but was straight from Lucifer himself sent to cause heresy and extreme chaos and pain. Understanding a patriarchal society’s social hierarchies is quite a diligent task because the power men had throughout history can reference many different social traditions. However, one of the male-based principles of this type of society was their power to take away women’s potential; they reduced them to a wife and mother, and anytime she did something they thought was wrong, they could punish her by a complicated claim of witchcraft to reassert their power over what their notion of the weaker sex. The personal lives of the woman who suffered from the end of a pointed finger did not follow the specific unspoken societal guidelines, and for that, they lost their lives or reputation.
Jonas Roelen’s original research article about the 1618 trial of Mayken and Magdaleene in Bruges, Belgium follows the two women’s stories and how due to their mysterious relationship, they suffered torture and forced into confessing they were a same-sex couple and witches. “The questions and doubts raised by both bystanders and authorities demonstrate the omnipresence of a phallocentric sexual discourse and the difficulties early modern society had in perceiving sex between women without resorting to images of monstrous bodies and demonic witchcraft” (p. 12). During their long trial, they did confess to intimate relations with each other. However, after hours of torment, they always denied using witchcraft or working with the devil. They accused Madgaleene of being a Hermaphrodite blessed by the devil and carrying out dark deeds like seducing many in town’s wives and forcing Mayken into a relationship; even Mayken’s husband accused the women by saying there was something suspicious about their relationship. At the end of their trial, Mayken was forced to pray for forgiveness and then banished from her city for ten years for engaging in same-sex acts, while Magdaleene was sentenced to jail for two years and then banished from the county for her acts of leaving her husband, seducing the town’s women, and being a hermaphrodite and witch. Their court case introduces sexuality as yet another arena that could become a part of the shockingly broad category of witchcraft.
“But I am living still” (The Highwomen). We can still access the stories of those who were lost to witchcraft’s whispers. In these essays, we recover the voices of a few of those women as they retell their pain and loss. The importance of examining despairing histories is for the victims involved, telling their stories when they deserve the justice their communities failed to give them. Historians like Roelen, Whitney, Popkin, and Bennett investigate the situations and trials that resulted from accusations of witchcraft. They examine the historiography and the evidence of trial testimony, to recount the lives of those who stood at the end of a pointed finger. These scholars dig into our shadows and bring them to the light. The reservation of the term witch is a feminine bias; however, accusations of witchcraft are given to anyone with a high spirituality or usual way of life. You say witch like its a bad thing, for, in the historical sense, many lost their lives and freedom from that word. In today’s modern culture however, it is being used again in a lighter manner; women and some men are taking back power from nature and spiritual forces and are reminding the world of the dead who are living still.
Bennett, Anna. “Bagatelle or Stregamenti: The Spiritual Potential of Material Objects and Spaces in Late Rinascimento Venice, 1580–1630.” Journal of Women’s History 32, no. 3 (2020): 115-138
Popkin, Beate. “Wives, Mothers, and Witches: The Learned Discourse about Women in Early Modern Europe.” Journal of Women’s History 9, no. 3 (1997): 193-202.
Roelens, Jonas. “A Woman Like Any Other: Female Sodomy, Hermaphroditism, and Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Bruges.” Journal of Women’s History 29, no. 4 (2017): 11-34.
Whitney, Elspeth. “The Witch “She”/The Historian “He”: Gender and the Historiography of the European Witch-Hunts.” Journal of Women’s History 7, no. 3 (1995): 77-101.