So, if The Witch is generally a misunderstood outcast or a strong, independent healer or ‘wise woman’, where did the bad wrap come from? There has always been and will always be outcasts and misfits and those that seem to live in their own reality and by their own rules. Yet, none seem to have caused as much mayhem and been so persecuted as those labeled “Witch.”
Who managed to create such an uproar as to cast a shadow across all those who were different, who thought different, who lived differently, who by their mere existence challenged the status quo?
The simple and ready answer would be; The Church.
But, that is not the complete answer, nor does it hold all the accountability required to justify the mass murder and torture of those whom their peers deemed as different and a threat.
Most of the people of the world through out recorded history have been uneducated villagers that have never traveled more than a days walk from their place of birth. For those of you that do not know, a days walk would be between 10 and 20 miles. In today’s world, it is truly hard to imagine anyone living their whole life and never venturing more than 20 miles from home. Most of us travel more than 20 miles one way for work each day. During the Dark Ages, life was about surviving and education and literacy were not valued as resources for surviving. During this time The Church gained an enormous amount of power and influence. The Church was supposed to “save the people” from all the bad things going on in the world at the time. In fact, even The Church was too ignorant to understand what was truly going on in the world during that time.
The Roman Empire came to an end not just due to the political corruption and turmoil within its Grand Cities, but also due to the Roman Warm Period (BC 250 to AD 450) coming to an end and the Dark Ages Cold Period (AD 450 – 950) replacing it. During this time, the climate varied greatly from year to year. You did not know from one season to the next if you would have enough food to last. This of course decreased the health of people and livestock and thus increased the outbreak of diseases, all of which reeked havoc in the daily lives of most Europeans. Add in the decline in personal hygiene and health of the individual and thus the society was precarious at best. During Roman times, even the least members of society had access to Bath Houses, whether it be the smallest ones in the city or use of the only ones in the city on specific days or during specific times, everyone had access to bathing. As we know, today, bathing on a regular basis greatly improves one’s health and decreases the spread and duration of disease.
During this time, The Church managed, maybe with good intention or maybe not, to gain huge influence in the daily lives of the masses who were looking for answers and saving from what they could only see as displeasure of the Gods or God, be ye pagan or christian. Then things improved with the Medieval Warming Period, and as is typical of most people, they did not need The Church so much when things were like they were supposed to be. Thus, The Church’s power started to lessen. But as luck would have it, the 15th century ushered in the Little Ice Age (AD 1400 – 1850), however, here is what most do not know or understand about Ice Ages, they are not merely these periods of just ‘very cold weather’, in reality they are actually times of much greater weather extremes, so while some years winters seem to drop colder than ever and last longer than ever, so can the next summer be the hottest remembered with land so parched that nothing grows and in addition you can have furious storms on a grand scale that cause extra damage to people and their homes and livestock.
Once again people turned to The Church, to save them, for once again, the scared and ignorant believed that it must be the work of some angered divine or that great Christian creation, The Devil, causing all the havoc. And The Church needed to deliver some scapegoat to keep the benches and coffers filled and insure their continued existence. Also, during this time The Church saw itself as its own nation, on par with Kings and Queens of real nations and had gained the privilege of granting Kings and Queens divine blessing, thus actually placing themselves above the monarchs of the day. This gave them higher authority with the masses, which would be devastating for those later to be named as “Witch.”
One of the very common practises of The Church, almost from its inception was its complete intolerance to anything or anyone that was different. The Church attacked everyone and everything that was different from their very narrow view of what God deemed worthy of life or sacred. A person could be deemed a heretic or possessed or evil for anything from asking a question about contradictions in The Bible, to having red hair, to being left-handed. In addition, The Church had completely misrepresented the man now known as Jesus Christ’s revolutionary ideas, which included at its root, equality for all people here on Earth, not just some promise of a better after-life in Heaven, and passed judgment based on a divine authority that it did not have. In their rush to keep people in fear and needing The Church to save them, they committed the greatest blasphemy of all, by forgetting and denying that God, as the divine creator, had created all creatures great and small, and insisted that their bogeyman, The Devil, was just as powerful as God, creating demons and demon spawn and possessing people and animals and causing disasters that The Church should have dutifully claimed were acts of God.
The Devil, being an invented creation of The Church of course has no true historic evidence and neither is “he” a living, breathing man that can be dealt with face-to-face. This becomes an issue when small minded people need to be able to point the finger at and torture, abuse, and even murder someone out of fear, anger, despair and ignorance.
During this same period The Church was also dealing with the Reformation, which had divided the masses and split The Church. If The Church could be split, then logic dictated that The Church and her “men of God” were not as divinely blessed as they said they were, so what other lies had they been telling. In its defense The Church dug in its heels as it was losing its status and standing. Maybe out of desperation or blind loyalty or just plain sheer malice The Church started smearing the image of those, mostly women, that were variously referred to as witch, wise woman, or cunning folk as being pawns and in league with The Devil. This campaign against witches was fueled by the publication of Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of Witches, basically giving Papal sanction for the hunting, torturing, and murdering of witches.
Why, witches, you ask. Most witches had several things going against them in The Church’s eyes. First, most of them were women, most of whom were as fate would have it, single, whether it was cause they were not yet of marrying age with a beau, or they were widowed, or poor, or worst of all, they chose to live outside the norms for women of the time, not being dependent on the whims of male relatives or husbands. The Church was very much against women as equal persons and thus they were not to be independent, nor strong willed or strong minded, all things that benefited healers, midwives and wise women. The Church that owed its beginnings to strong, wealthy, independent women had turned their backs on them almost as soon as they received official religious sanction. Then proceeded to straight out attacking them, first under Pope Gregory I, who erroneously lumps 3 women together, identifying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, then Eve was judged as being evil and committing the first sin, with that judgment all women were attached to sin and evil. Unfortunately, as The Church grew so did it disdain and literal hate for women.
In this light it is very easy to see how The Church, or at least some of her men of God would target and attack the real women in their villages and towns that had the strength, wisdom and knowledge to not fear men, men of God, or The Church, nor to bow down to them or cower in fear of their hate.