By, Srilagna Majumdar
In America, the month of October is the month of witches – the evil, the cruel, and the ugly. The Museum of Motherhood has hundreds of books in its collection, intended to educate, elucidate, and empower. How have women been targeted as witches throughout history, since the middle ages and what can we learn? Let’s look at how Barbara Ehrenreich sheds light upon this subject in her book “Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A history of women healers “ :
The age of witch-hunting spanned more than four centuries in its sweep from Germany to England. Witches represented a political, religious, and sexual threat to the Churches, as well as to the State. In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there were thousands of executions- usually burnings at the stake- in Germany, Italy, and other countries- an average of 600 a year for certain German cities. The witch hunts represented a deep-seated social phenomenon that goes far beyond the history of medicine. The most virulent witch hunts were associated with periods of great social upheaval shaking feudalism at its roots- mass peasant uprisings and conspiracies, the beginning of capitalism, and the rise of Protestantism. In some areas, witchcraft represented a female lead peasant rebellion. Unfortunately, the witch herself- poor and illiterate- did not leave us her story. It was recorded, like all history, by the educated elite so that today we know the which only through the eyes of her persecutors.
While one theory suggests that witch-craze was an epidemic of mass hatred and panic, another interpretation holds that witches themselves were insane. But, in fact, the witch-crazes were neither a lynching party nor a mass suicide by hysterical women. The witch-hunts were well-organized campaigns, initiated, financed and executed by Church and State. Anyone failing to report a witch faced both communication and a long list of temporal punishments.
Who were the witches, then, and what were their “crimes” that arouse such vicious upper-class suppression? First, witches are accused of every conceivable sexual crime against men. Second, they are accused of being organized. Third, they are accused of having magical powers affecting health- of harming, but also of healing. Witch-healers were often the only general medical practitioners for people who had no doctors and no hospitals and who were bitterly affected by poverty and disease. But witch-hunters Kramer and Sprenger had to write, “ No one does more harm to a Church than midwives”. Male upper-class healing under the auspices of the Church was acceptable, female healing as a part of a peasant subculture was not (Pages 7,8,10,14).
The witch healers methods posed a great threat to the Church, since the witch relied on her senses, and on trial and error, cause and effect. She didn’t need any faith or doctrine- this hit the dogma of the Church very hard. This scared the orthodox authoritative Church and compelled them to curb the potential of these women. So, now you know why some regressive and mean minds refer to intelligent, brave, and proud women as “witches” every now and then, even today!