Witch Hunt Essay

European Witch Hunts Essay

European Witch Hunts

Witch hunts blazed across Europe over the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries not just killing innumerable innocent people, but stripping women of much of the power they had once held, and changing society's perceptions of women all together. The economic hardships, religious rivalries, and troubled politics of the time made accusing your neighbors of witchcraft convenient. Where there was war and poverty, or merely bad luck, peasants would assume witchcraft and rush to blame an old, defenseless woman in trials which involved unbelievable cruelty and horrible sadism. As religion and the Catholic Church began to complement and perpetuate the increasing hysteria, European society as a whole could do nothing but watch as the face of Europe and the role of women were altered permanently.
Although the belief in witches predates Christianity, and myths were prevalent throughout Europe, not until the fifteenth century, did witch hunts become endemic, and nearly epidemic. Once religion became involved, the fear of witches increased dramatically and the extreme notions of the devil's powers merely furthered the witch hunts. With the Church authorizing the Inquisition to investigate witchcraft, the popular concept of witches as evil sorcerers expanded to include allegiances with the Devil, and a distinctly evil, as opposed to mystical, character. It has been speculated that this religiously inspired genocide beginning in the fifteenth century was motivated from the Church's desire to attain a complete religious monopoly, and create scapegoats for spoiled crops, dead livestock, and death in general which could not be explained as part of God's plan. If a witch were to blame, peasants had a means of fighting back and combating evil, whereas if God were to blame for their misfortunes, peasants would either have to blame themselves or the Church would have to find some answer.
Throughout the witch hunts, women were the primary target; most victims being midwives, native healers, single women who lived alone, people against whom neighbors had a grudge or practitioners of ancient pagan rituals. Although not all were women, 75 to 90% of accused witches were in fact women (Levack,. p. 124), forcing one to question the affects of the harsh portrayal of women being placed on women.
Prior to the fifteenth century, rural European women were highly revered and respected pillars of rural community life; not only considered mothers and wives, but seen...

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On January 20, 1692, in Salem Village, the Reverend Samuel Parris' nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and his eleven-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, began exhibiting odd behavior, including shouting blasphemies and entering into trances. Parris eventually called in the local physician, William Griggs, who found the girls experiencing convulsions and scurrying around the room and barking like dogs. The doctor was puzzled and unable to offer a medical explanation, but suggested that it might be the work of evil forces. Parris consulted with local ministers, who recommended he wait to see what happened. But word of the unexplained fits had already spread around Salem Village, and soon several other girls, including three from the home of Thomas Putnam, Jr., were exhibiting similar behavior. Pressured to explain what or who had caused their behavior, the girls named three Village women as witches. One named was Tituba, the Rev. Parris' slave, who had enthralled many local girls with fortune-telling in her master's kitchen. Another named as a witch was Sarah Good, an unpopular woman who had reportedly muttered threats against her neighbors; the third was Sarah Osborne, who had allowed a man to live with her for some months before they were married. Warrants for the three were issued on February 29. The next day Salem Town magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin examined the women in the Village meeting house. Good and Osborne declared that they were innocent and knew nothing of witchcraft, but Tituba exuberantly confessed, claiming that witchcraft was practiced by many in the area. Her confession excited the villagers. On March 21 Martha Corey became the fourth woman of Salem Village to be arrested. While she was examined in the meeting house in front of hundreds of people, the afflicted girls cried out in what appeared to be extreme agony. More individuals were accused and jailed as the weeks passed, but no trials could legally take place because, for the first three months of the witchcraft uproar, Massachusetts was without a legally-established government. On May 14, 1692, Governor William Phips arrived with a new charter and soon created a special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to determine). The chief justice for the Court of Oyer and Terminer was William Stoughton, and the others serving included John Hathorne and Samuel Sewall. The court's first session, held on June 2, resulted in a death sentence for the accused witch Bridget Bishop; she was hanged on June 10. (She was not the first accused to die, however; Sarah Osborne died of natural causes in a jail in Boston on May 10.) Cotton Mather of Boston's First Church wrote privately to the court expressing reservations on questions of evidence. On June 15 a group of ministers including Cotton Mather, wrote Governor Phips urging that special caution be taken in the use of evidence in the trials, but the ministers said no more publicly in July, August, or September. The court next met on June 29 and heard the cases of five accused women. When the jury tried to acquit one of them, Rebecca Nurse, Stoughton sent the jury back to deliberate some more. When they returned they had changed their verdict to guilty. The women were hanged on July 19. By this time the witchcraft hysteria had spread not only to Salem Town but to Andover. August and September brought more convictions and hangings. The last eight accused witches were hanged on September 22, in what would turn out to be the final executions. On October 3, Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather, delivered a sermon at a gathering of ministers in Cambridge. The sermon was soon published as Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men (1692). The elder Mather insisted that proper evidence should be used in witchcraft cases just as in any other capital cases. He strongly opposed spectral evidence, or evidence based on ghost sightings. As accusations mounted against people of higher and more respectable positions, skepticism grew in the public as to the appropriateness of witchcraft charges. Thomas Brattle wrote an insightful letter to Governor Phips highly criticising the trials. On October 12, Phips, whose own wife had been accused of witchcraft, forbade any further imprisonments for witchcraft, and on the 29th dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. When a new special court convened in early 1693, with several of the same members and William Stoughton once more as chief justice, forty-nine accused persons were acquitted. The difference was in no small part due to the governor not permitting spectral evidence to be heard. When three prisoners were convicted, Phips immediately granted reprieves. Three months later Phips freed all the remaining prisoners and issued a general pardon. Soon many jurors and judges apologized, and Judge Sewall attempted to take full responsibility for the trials and hangings.

A central problem in the trials themselves was the use of spectral evidence. Because the actual crime involved an agreement made between the accused witch and the devil, in which the devil was given the right to assume the witch's human form, and because, by its very nature, this compact would not have witnesses, finding acceptable evidence was difficult. Spectral evidence included testimony by the afflicted that they could see the specters of the witches tormenting their victims; the evil deeds were not perpetrated by the accused themselves, but by the evil spirits who assumed their shapes. One problem with spectral evidence was that apparitions of demons were invisible to other people in the same room; only the afflicted girls could see the shapes. Another concern was the possibility that Satan could appear in the shape of an innocent person. To overcome these obstacles, confessions were vigorously sought. The Salem cases are unusual in that the defendants who confessed were generally not executed, while those who were hanged adamantly maintained their innocence. Considered trustworthy was testimony to some supernatural attribute of the accused. George Burroughs was accused by six persons of performing superhuman feats of strength. One witness claimed Burroughs could read his thoughts. Another test made on the accused was for any "supernatural weaknesses" such as the inability to recite prayers correctly. Yet another criterion was the presence of a "witch's tit"—any small, unusual physical appendage, ordinarily quite small, through which the witch would give suck to the devil when he appeared in the form of some small animal or creature. Anger followed by mischief also indicated a person was a witch, especially when a curse uttered against a neighbor or his property came immediately before the misdeed occurred.

Many factors must be considered in examining the causes of the witchcraft hysteria. Fundamental is the recognition that among the settlers of New England, belief in witchcraft was prevalent. Additionally, Salem was beset with political problems and internal strife. Land disputes and personal feuds were common. Some scholars maintain that the Puritan villagers felt they had failed God and deserved to be punished for their sins. The role of the clergy has also been much debated; some historians see them as largely responsible for stirring up the people and making them expect retribution. Others credit the clergy with ending the trials. The afflicted girls have been variously described as outright liars and frauds, children looking for excitement, victims of disease, and sincere believers in the idea that they were victims of witchcraft.

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