Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Brief History of Witch-Hunting

The Ordeal of Iron
The Ordeal of Iron
As early as the 12th-Century, division was made between magic used for good and maleficia, as practiced by witches and sorcerers. Even under Alfonso the Wise (ca. 1275), any person could accuse another of sorcery before a judge and if that party be found guilty, the sentence was death. It was not for a few more centuries that this would erupt into a national fervor, attributed largely to influential clergymen who insisted the guilty be burned in fiery rhetoric and widely-distributed texts such as the Malleus Maleficarum.

Maleficia refers specifically to the Dark Arts - the diabolical and malignant. While the popular modern notion associates witchcraft with spellcasting, amulets, potions, and poisons were witches' stock-in-trade. The mythology that emerged surrounding witches included the ability to fly, enter homes, shapeshift, and kidnap children. This stereotype may have been holdovers of the Grecian Strigae and other mythical figures.

While there were prior Inquisitions, none were as wide-reaching as the Spanish Inquisition of the late Middle Ages. While it is true that many died during this turbulent period, mostly innocents, reliable sources are sparse - there is a reason it is known as the Dark Ages. The accused were predominantly women attributed abilities such as causing disease, interfering in married couples' relationships, and damaging crops or livestock. Many sources suggest a conspiracy amongst the medical community of the time to uproot midwifery but while this may be generally true, it is hardly the whole story. The average layperson believed in magic being used for both beneficial and maleficient purposes; it was amongst the Ecclesiastical elite that all sorcery was considered diabolical and it was they who called for the deaths of those found guilty of such crimes.

Trials by Ordeal were severe and involved some form of torture, such as The Ordeal of Iron, during which the accused was forced to hold red-hot irons while onlookers assessed the severity of the wounds.The most common in America was the Trial by Water, in which the accused was bound and dunked in a body of water. Important to note that, in many places, if a person was found guilty, her possessions were divided amongst her lord and her accuser - so there is no doubt that some of these accusations were financially-motivated.

Witches came to be thought of as a sect - an organized community directly opposing Christianity which gathered by night to worship the Devil. Pope [antipope] Alexander V condemned them as a secret organization which "perverted Christendom" in his 1409 Papal Bull. There had been at least one trial of a witch in the late 14th-Century but the craze really took off in the 15th-Century.

© The Weirding, 2015

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