Research for a novel about women in 16th century Western Europe would be incomplete without some content about witchcraft and witch trials. Likewise, in preparing for my first Author Talk, it was a topic I couldn’t avoid. It’s not that my narrative goes THERE as such, although some of the practices the female characters engage in would have been of great interest to any witch finder. Unwilling as I was, I knew I had to consider this, simply because it would have formed the cultural background in which women lived.
The witch finder is as good a place as any to start in trying to understand something about this topic, because it was he who was largely responsible for escalating individual investigations into witch hunts and mass hysteria. In 1486, a German monk named Heinrich Kramer wrote a book called the Malleus Maleficarum, (The Hammer of Witches) in which he reported the practices his investigations had uncovered. Under torture, women confessed to meeting with other women for the purpose of enacting dark rituals such as killing babies and eating them. These torture victims would be encouraged to name names. The named individuals would be interrogated, and the situation would snowball into full-blown panic.
It’s important to note that witch hunts were very episodic. Hysteria would flair up in specific times and places, and some parts of Western Europe never had witch trials. Nevertheless, it’s estimated that over 100000 people were killed as the result of prosecution for witchcraft, and 75% of those were women.
If I asked you to define the word witch, you’d probably have to think for a bit, and your answer would likely be a run-on sentence with lots of clauses. The prosecutors of witches, who included both Catholics and Protestants, had a very specific definition. A witch was someone who had entered into a pact with the devil, and used the powers gained by the relationship to bring harm to others. The Malleus Maleficarum, which was the second most popular book in Europe after the Bible, makes it clear that witches are most likely to be women because women, while not necessarily inherently evil, are irrational, weak, and more subject than men to carnal desires. These qualities made them particularly vulnerable to seduction by the devil, with whom they had a sexual relationship. Scratching your head yet? Me too.
In 16th century England and Scotland, a woman was subject to accusations of being a scold. One punishment for this crime, which basically involved talking in a way that was inconvenient to others, was to be compelled to wear the scold’s bridle. This was like a horse’s bridle, consisting of a bit that went into the woman’s mouth to depress her tongue and prevent speech, and was locked into place, and a chain or rope by which she could be led through the streets as a method of public shaming. Both times I tried to read about this I cried.
I tried to read about trials, but I had to stop. What I should say is that I was fortunate enough to be able to choose to stop. I made it all the way through the National Film Board of Canada’s documentary The Burning Time, but I wouldn’t watch it again. I admire people who can study this and keep the knowledge alive and available, but I can’t. I feel like I want to apologize if you’ve read this far, for even so tiny an elucidation of such a terrible subject, but I believe we need to remember, need to know what people are capable of, and to value living in a society which, at least nominally, believes in equality.
In this blog, I’ve sometimes written a little flippantly about certain aspects of women’s experience in previous times. This stuff is so awful that there’s no way to lighten it. I learned as much as I can tolerate because I think it’s extremely important to understand how rare and precious our freedom is as 21st century women, at least here. There are still clear inequities, but during the 300 years or so that witch trials occurred, the irrationality, weakness, impurity and inferiority of women were taught and believed at the highest levels of scholarship, and this is why witchcraft is an issue I couldn’t ignore, as much as I wish I could. I’ve tried gamely to imagine my life without birth control, without literacy or education, without social choices, but I think the hardest task of all as a historical fiction writer is to imagine my society overtly teaching these things about my nature, and the nature of all other women. Frankly, I don’t think I succeeded at that, and when all’s said and done, I think I’m grateful for that.