From the end of the middle ages to the beginning of the Renaissance, women were suppressed and considered to be the root of all evil. During this time period, thousands of innocent women were accused of being witches, tormented and executed, mostly at the hands of the church. Virtually every woman was suspect.
Origins of Witches
Hundreds of years ago, midwives were called hexes. They lived in small communities in the forests of Europe and passed on their knowledge of herbs, plants, nature and animals to cure and help others. Hexes were eventually driven away by the monks of abbeys and monasteries, who pushed female knowledge, intuition and imagination aside in favor of books and the studies of “learned” men.
Women and Witchcraft
In the year 1484, pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull calling on people to unite in a crusade against devil worshipers, or “lovers of the devil”. This papal bull marked the beginning of a reign of terror against women in particular, who were often suspected of abandoning themselves to the devil.
Signs of active witchcraft in a woman included ugliness, extraordinary beauty, a bodily defect such as a birthmark or wart, mental deficiency, extraordinary piety etc. Women who were not interested in men were considered to be “looking for copulation with the devil”.
Testing for Witches – Innocent or Guilty?
How was it possible to check whether a suspect was a witch or not? Executioners used torture in order to extract a confession, looked for signs such as scars, birthmarks, insensitivity to pain, interest in herbs and herbal remedies.
Inquisitors used the infamous “water test” to confirm a woman’s guilt. The infamous dunking chair was a punishment reserved for women. Supposed witches were immersed, or dunked, into a body of water repeatedly until they either drowned or confessed. If they confessed they would be executed or burned at the stake.
A variation of the dunking chair was to fasten a woman’s thumbs to her toes and immerse her with a rope into water on her back. If she stayed afloat, this was considered to be irrefutable proof that she was a witch.
Tests were often tampered with in order to prove a woman guilty. In order to escape the terrible suffering and torture, many women admitted to flying on broomsticks, making witches’ ointments and having sexual intercourse with the devil.
The Last Witch Hunt in England
England’s last witch hunt and execution took place in 1682. Temperance Lloyd, a woman from Bideford who was senile, became the last witch to be actually executed, although persecution and suspicion against witches remained for a long time.