Issues of the Witchcraft Phenomenon in the Renaissance

Adelaide Dunn
Adelaide Dunn

The archetypal Renaissance “witch” 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’ (‘The 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 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 assess case studies firstly 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.

Bennet Lane, a woman in Agnes’ village, testified to loaning a dish and borrowing money from Agnes, 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. Purkiss argues that Keith Thomas and Alan 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’ 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).

Bennet responds with domestic forms of countermagic (involving cooking and cultivation) 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 the 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 women connected with care of infants and new mothers was accused with retaliating in occult ways.

For example, the case of Margretha Knorz (Nordlingen, 12 1593) records that Margretha 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, Margretha 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.

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