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Renaissance Witchcraft and the Evildoing of the Phenomenon

Renaissance Witchcraft and the Evildoing of the Phenomenon
© Photograph by Andrii Afanasiev

Renaissance witchcraft and the general archetypal “witch” stereotype definitely threatened social harmony through inversion. As the woman next door, she disrupted the domestic sphere, interfering with food supplies and the health of infants and mothers. As a sexual temptress, she emasculated, castrated and escaped patriarchal control. As a sabbath-goer, she mocked Mass and cavorted with the Devil. As an old crone, she embodied contemporary fallacies of the post-menopausal body and relinquished her duties of fertility.

A number of sources contribute to this shambolic impression of what the witch represented, yet modern historians still disagree as to factors contributing to the witch craze and contemporary beliefs as to what witchcraft entailed. The ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ (‘Hammer of Witches’) is a notable authority, encoding a set of deeply misogynistic values that acted as an encyclopaedia of witchcraft, an inquisitor’s handbook and an attempt to place witches within legal and theological institutions. It drew upon theories of demonology, witches’ interactions with the Devil, and maleficium, more day-to-day evildoing.

The belief in an abhorrence of witchcraft took place at a time of heightened anxieties over religion, in which Catholic institutions were preoccupied with heretics and pagans adopting syncretic forms of belief, in addition to Protestantism. Using torture to extract confessions, the Dominican inquisitors who disseminated witchcraft stereotypes may have been seeking to squelch doctrinal and social nonconformity among lower classes and rural folk. Marginalised groups such as those accused of witchcraft tended to be scapegoated to relieve social anxieties generated by the Reformation.

Theories also abound as to why women were the common targets. Sources such as the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ discuss women’s feeble and unstable minds, vengefulness, violent sexual desires, partialness to superstition, gullibility, inconstancy and therefore vulnerability to being swayed by the Devil’s advances. In attempting to arrive at a comprehensive explanation of this phenomenon it is logical to firstly assess case studies and secondly analyse artworks. Cases seem to reveal, from a sociological perspective, an interesting combination of lay and elite observations, shedding light on some defendants’ real-life traits.

Art, on the other hand, causes separate problems of interpretation: not only is most visual evidence from before the great European influx of witch-hunts and trials and restricted to Germany, but it is also unclear to what extent the works reflect merely humorous, poetic and erotic subject matter for an intimate learned audience rather than representations of popular beliefs. Ultimately we are left with vague notions of social, legal and theological values that underpinned widespread paranoia, but while interesting, this explanation of the witchcraft phenomenon is far from comprehensive.

Firstly, case studies suggest that witches’ threats to the domestic and familial equilibrium, in destroying food supplies and causing ill health to infants and mothers lying-in, were a central element of paranoia. Diane Purkiss in analysing the “Agnes Heard” case (St. Osyth, Essex, 1582), observes that men were not the only accusers of such maleficium. Bennett Lane, a woman in Agnes Heard’s village, testified to loaning a dish and borrowing money from Agnes Heard, after which Bennet had trouble with her spindle and milk supply. The case reveals popular methods of countermagic, which normally consisted of heating the bewitched matter.

Indeed, applying a scalding horseshoe to her milk and heating her broken spindle reversed the effects of the alleged witchcraft. Diane Purkiss argues that Keith Vivian Thomas and Alan Donald James Macfarlane’s hypothesis of neighbours refusing charity to suspect witches and projecting their guilt onto them in the form of accusations, may not be accurate. Rather, cases such as Agnes Heard’s often consist of exchanges between women attempting to convenience and collaborate with one another. Bewitchment occurs after goods are exchanged, in the sphere of female responsibilities, with no observed acts of maleficium (such as a spell).

Bennett Lane responds with domestic forms of countermagic (involving cooking and acculturation) after attempting to reassure domestic control with more pragmatic solutions. The fact that many recorded scenarios take place after discussions of and exchanges or failed exchanges of food may reflect a lot of rural poor in the late sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-centuries, particularly in England.

Furthermore, religious doctrine from both Protestant and Catholic spheres celebrated childbirth and breastfeeding, within a culture preoccupied with controlling marriage and fertility. Lyndal Roper assesses the trend of “lying-in cases,” in which a maid or elderly woman connected with the care of infants and new mothers was accused of retaliating in occult ways. For example, the case of Margaretha Knorz (Nordlingen, 1593) records that Margaretha Knorz visited Madalena uninvited while she was in childbed, bringing milk, wine and apples (a fruit often associated with maleficium). After having a disagreement about money, Margaretha Knorz left with threatening words. The child subsequently sickened, becoming crippled in feet and hands.

Such domestic cases are noteworthy as they arguably do not focus on wider public issues of religion, patriarchy, legitimacy and rule which preoccupied the elite male demonologists and sceptics. More notably, they illustrate witchcraft as a threat to the domestic, feminine realm. The disruption of this sphere by witchcraft threatens the housewife and new mother’s authority and competence, symbolising inversion in that the witch is a kind of anti-mother, separate from being the Church’s “other” or Man’s “other.” However, these deep antagonisms between women may not lead to a fully comprehensive explanation of the witchcraft phenomenon. Firstly, it is not clear to what extent accusations by women were motivated by social and economic matters or manipulated by male authorities. Furthermore, allegations of male witchcraft, though few, cannot be ignored. For example, a letter from imprisoned Bamberg burgomeister Johannes Junius to his daughter, discussed by Linda Hults, forms a rare occasion of hearing a victim’s literate account of false accusations, despite some illegibility from thumbscrews. Such victims often had property confiscated by religious officials, a powerful motivation for accusing other males. However misogyny lurks in the background, male victims often seen as contaminated by contact with female witches and having witchcraft appended to other charges to enhance the villainy of their crimes.

Analysing visual evidence of the Renaissance witch craze leads to quite separate, male-illustrated connotations of witchcraft. This further complicates an explanation of the phenomenon. Interestingly, the works of Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien were produced before the witch craze gained full momentum, testifying to different sensibilities and lacking foresight of the subsequent upsurge of witch-hunts and trials. However, they are still worthy of analysis as they seemingly endorse some of the misogynistic values of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, portray witches engaging in specific acts of demonic evildoing and exploit a new genre of erotic imagery.

In any case, one must be circumspect in adding artistic evidence to the investigatory pool of primary sources. Firstly because it is not clear to what degree these works are mere sexual and scatological jokes. Secondly, as Margaret Sullivan argues, they may indicate a humanist interest in classical satire and poetry for a small, learned audience, motivated by artistic goals, rather than a concern with witch manuals and the felonious crime of witchcraft.

Margaret Sullivan’s argument can be ascribed to Albrecht Dürer’s ‘The Four Witches’, which eludes interpretation but is almost certainly classical in conception. The central figure wears a myrtle wreath (associated with Venus) and takes on an inverted venus pudica pose, recalling the ‘Aphrodite of Knidos’. Seen from the back, the pose does not operate as its usual erotic tease. Rather, her sexuality is completely inaccessible. This concealment of her pubic area, accentuated by the arms of the other voluptuous nudes, may echo early modern classification of female genitalia as secret and mysterious. Indeed, the atmosphere is conspiratorial, such that the exclusion of the (presumably male) viewer inverts social stereotypes and posits them as the “other.”

The completion of the circular arrangement may echo ‘The Three Graces’ or the three competing goddesses in the Judgment of Paris with Discord behind. As such, ‘The Four Witches’ may operate as a poetic fantasy reflecting the ancient world, but Linda Hults argues that this visual language of witchcraft takes place in an era where the character of the witch was swiftly entering the cultural imagination and policy of Europe. The allusion to Venus may reflect fifteenth-century folk beliefs about a pagan goddess’ female acolytes, which gradually shifted into the concept of witchcraft, under pressure from inquisitors and judges. In any case, the nudes deny male spectators the privilege of voyeurism and seem to introduce the threatening lasciviousness of witches into contemporary art, emphasising a patriarchal need to control female sexuality.

By comparison, Hans Baldung Grien’s bolder nudes confront and challenge the male viewer, sometimes implicating them in detailed and gruesome rites. The standing nude in ‘Weather Witches’ may incorporate Albrecht Dürer’s central figure in ‘The Four Witches’, illustrating a similar fascination with humanism.

Identified as bringing chaos to nature, the ‘Weather Witches’ hairs fan out in skewed directions, reflected by sulphurous, portentous clouds. Wild hair is a common signifier of female unbridled lust, accentuated by the standing figure’s crossed legs, which may have connoted immorality. Hair was also interpreted as a source of magical power, such that inquisitors shaved defendants’ heads before they were placed on trial.

Weather magic apparently took many forms, normally incorporating excrement, urine and herbs, possibly alluded to in the murky yellows, reds and browns of the palette. Hailstorms caused entrenched economic anxiety in early modern Europe through the devastation of crops, such that the panel may indicate a degree of paranoia surrounding meteorological witchcraft. Demonological concerns also enter the canvas, through the captive demon in a flask stopped with an apple, the fruit of original sin. Behind, a putti-like infant climbs a he-goat, a popular familiar or accomplice of the Devil. Sexuality and the Devil, therefore, appear to be the source of the witches’ powers. Their assertive stances and erotic nudity convey Hans Baldung Grien’s conception of witchcraft as sexual and seductive. The challenge to the male spectator through the standing figure’s eye contact seems to be to resist seduction, emasculation and the collapse of virtue and reason, accentuated by the reference to the ‘Fall of Man’. Indeed, the Malleus warns inquisitors of the hypnotic power of a witch’s stare.

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