18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the 'Burning Times'
18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’

D.G. Hewitt - January 6, 2019

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Learned women, above all midwives, were often believed to dabble in black magic. Bustle.

6. You were a midwife: Wise women used their knowledge of herbal medicine to help others give birth safely – but it left them open to accusations of witchcraft

For hundreds of years, female healers were viewed with suspicion. Above all, midwives were at risk of being seen as witches. They just couldn’t win: if a woman gave birth to a healthy baby and lived, the midwife would be accused of having used magic or making a deal with the devil. Or if the baby or mother died, the midwife might also be blamed and accused of cursing the birth. Fueling this suspicion was midwives’ use of herbs and other natural remedies. The fungus ergot was used to stop bleeding after childbirth, for example, often saving the mother’s life, but putting the midwife at risk of being accused of casting spells.

The Malleus Maleficarum, meaning “Hammer of Witches” was written in 1484 by two reverends, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenge. The hugely influential book called midwife-witches the ultimate evil. They warned people to look out for women who wanted to offer newborn babies up to the devil. However, by the late-17th century, the persecution of innocent midwives had largely stopped. As men started to take over the medical professions, including midwifery, the effectiveness of herbal remedies and natural medicines became increasingly accepted, leading to a significant drop in the number of women being accused of witchcraft simply for helping another woman give birth.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Women suspected of witchcraft would be examined for tell-tale marks. Wikimedia Commons.

5. You had a third nipple: Prosecutors were always on the lookout for tell-tale ‘signs of a witch’, especially on female bodies

For centuries, witch-hunters believed that sorcerers and other practitioners of black magic bore distinctive marks. Tell-tale ‘Devil’s Marks‘ included third nipples, otherwise known as the ‘witch’s teat’ as it was thought that Satan himself would suckle on it. What’s more, birthmarks and large moles would also be taken as signs of the occult. Since witch-finders maintained that the devil would change the shape and color of the marks he made on his followers, almost any physical imperfection or skin blemish could be enough to see someone accused of being a witch.

Unsurprisingly, peasant women would often ask friends, relatives or trusted doctors to remove moles from their bodies. Or, if there was a witch hunt in their area, they might try to do it themselves. Of course, that only meant that the resultant scar would be taken as proof of the devil! And even if there were no marks, an inquisitor would often prick the accused body to find one. A lady called Catherine Boyraionne, the records show, had hot fat applied to almost every part of her body by a priest. She died whilst in prison, most probably from the horrific injuries sustained during her trial.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Just struggling to read a Bible passage could be enough to get you hanged. Pinterest.

4. You were illiterate: Even if you were dyslexic or just hated speaking in public, failure to quote fluently from the Bible might be seen as a sign of being possessed by evil

The Middle Ages was no time to be a dyslexic or to suffer from a stammer. Even a common affliction like struggling to speak in public could see you put on trial for witchcraft. That’s because it was believed that witches were unable to recite prayers or passages from the Bible. In what became known as the ‘Prayer Test’, women or men suspected of practicing black magic would be given a Bible and asked to read a passage aloud from it. Alternatively, they may be put on the spot and asked to recite a well-known prayer.

Failure to read clearly and without hesitation or struggling to remember the words to a common prayer may have been taken as a sign that the devil was inside you. This was certainly the case in England in 1712. In one of the country’s last witch trials, the accused, a lady called Jane Wenham, struggled to recite several passages of the Lord’s Prayer. However, even saying a prayer fluently wasn’t enough to save you – as George Burroughs found out during the Salem Witch Trials. On the gallows about to hang for being a sorcerer, he recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly. Even then, his accusers believed it was a trick of the devil and killed him anyway.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Many believed that witches were able to make milk go bad just by walking by. Wikimedia Commons.

3. You forgot to throw out old dairy products: Believe it or not, curdled milk was offered up as evidence that women were witches

Quite where the idea that witches caused milk to curdle has never been firmly established. However, scholars of the history of witchcraft have found this mentioned in texts dating back to the start of the 16th century. For instance, there was the old English tale of ‘Old Mammy Red or Marblehead’, who could curdle milk as it came out of a cow and could even then magically transform it into blue wool. And like many such superstitions, such a belief was brought across the Atlantic to the Americas by Pilgrim settlers. Before long, America’s witch-hunters were busy looking in people’s pantries, looking out for tell-tale signs of spoiled dairy.

The most notable case of curdled milk being cited as evidence of black magic was at the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Here, the grand jury heard that several of the accused had spoiled milk in their houses, while neighbors also attested that some of them caused milk to curdle just by walking past it. It must be remembered that this was a time when many families relied on their cows to survive. Should a cow stop producing milk, or should the milk be of poor quality, it could leave a person or family on the brink of destitution and starvation. It would also leave them angry and looking for someone to blame – and often, a ‘strange’ female neighbor was the easiest target.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Strong-willed women were not trusted, and sometimes accused of being witches. Pinterest.

2. You had a reputation for being argumentative: Nobody liked or trusted an assertive woman back in the 16th and 17th centuries

If being an independent woman was enough to set tongues wagging at the height of ‘witch hysteria’ in the 16th and 17th centuries, then being assertive and argumentative was almost guaranteed to get you labeled a witch. While men might have been able to get away with arguing with their neighbors, women could not – especially those who lived alone, without a man to ‘control’ them. Being drunk and disorderly was no excuse, nor was being in an abusive relationship – as Rachel Clinton found out to her cost in Salem in 1692.

Clinton, who was in her 60s when she was accused of being a witch – more specifically, she had been blamed for making a child’s elbow blame, and even for making a man’s beer go bad – was destitute and somewhat eccentric. The prosecutors at the Salem Witch Trial directly linked her argumentative nature with the practice of black magic. They told the grand jury: “Did she not show the character of an embittered, meddlesome, demanding woman—perhaps in short, the character of a witch? Did she not scold, rail, threaten and fight?” In the end, Clinton was released after several months in jail. She died soon afterward, alone and with her reputation in ruins.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Petty squabbles could lead to unfounded accusations of witchcraft being made. New England History.

1. You had made enemies: In many cases, people were accused of being witches by neighbors bearing grudges and seeking revenge

Sometimes – quite often, in fact – men or women did nothing to give the impression they might be witches. However, at the height of the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, just an anonymous accusation might be enough to get someone hauled in front of a grand jury and tried for witchcraft. Indeed, there are plenty of examples where unfounded accusations were made against neighbors, former friends or even family members. Sometimes they were made in order to deflect attention away from someone else. Or sometimes an argument got out of hand or a love affair turned sour – and a woman would end up being labeled as a witch.

The last person to be executed for witchcraft in Switzerland, for instance, did nothing worse than bring a love affair to an end. Anna Goldi had embarked on an affair with a rich politician whilst employed as the family nanny. When she brought the affair to an end, the powerful man denounced her as a witch. He even claimed that she had used black magic to make his daughter suffer from convulsions. She was also accused of talking with the devil. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Goldi ‘confessed’ to all charges – though only after she had been strung up by just her thumbs – and she was executed soon after.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“History of Witches”. History Channel.

“The Mysterious Enslaved Woman Who Sparked Salem’s Witch Hunt”. History.

“17 Signs That You’d Qualify as a Witch in 1692”. Mental Floss.

“Midwives and Witches.” Bronwyn Backstrom (Vanderbilt University) Wonders & Marvels.

“Italian village calls for retrial of 18th century ‘witch’ accused of throwing child into vat of boiling cheese.” The Telegraph, October 2015.

“Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials.” Marc Aronson.

“A Brief History of Witch Hunts, Real and Imagined.” Mother Jones, November 2017.

“A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials.” Smithsonian.

ThoughtCo – Sarah Good Biography.

“The history of witch hunts in America and Europe.” The Washington Post, October 2017.

“Five myths about the Salem witch trials”. The Washington Post.

“How the Germans went crazy for witch hunts.” The Local Germany, May 2014.

“What Caused the Salem Witch Trials?” History of Massachusetts Blog.

“The Salem Witch Trials.” National Geographic Kids.

“Last Person Executed as a Witch in Europe Gets a Museum”. Smithsonian Magazine.

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