Mental Illness and Eccentricity
Ultimately, accusations of witchcraft were based on fear and prejudice. Any individual who stood out from the crowd or did not conform to the social norm was at risk if being judged a witch. Sadly, this meant many individuals suffering from mental illnesses or who exhibited eccentric behaviors because of age or infirmity were at risk. Such people included those afflicted with epilepsy, Schizophrenia, or age-related dementia. According to the National Institutes of Health, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “a large number of the alleged witches and possessed persons who were burned probably had visible mental disturbances.”
Odd behavior in women was particularly suspected. The Malleus Maleficarum, drawing on the writings of the ancient philosophers constructed an image of women as inherently weak and corrupt- and so especially susceptible to demonic influence. The womb was described as a source of evil, which explained why women were so venomous at menstruation. Women were “more ready to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit.” In doing so they would become a witch and, as a result, their natural erratic tendencies would simply become more exaggerated or perverse.
Talking to yourself was a particularly suspect behavior, especially if the words were inaudible, leading to assumptions that the individual was muttering spells under their breath. This was just one of the traits exhibited by Pendle Witch Anne Whittle alias Chattox which were used as proof of her witchcraft. At the time of her trial in 1612, Chattox was an old lady of around 80 and probably suffering from dementia. However, her eccentric behavior was used against her when the judges were told how Chattox was always “more ready to do mischief to men’s goods, then themselves, her lips ever chattering and walking: but no man knew what”.
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