By Dr Abaigéal Warfield, CHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Adelaide.
As someone researching the history of witchcraft, the above scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of my favourites. With Halloween looming just around the corner, it is a good time to pause and think about the witch stereotype and how it has changed over time. In this post I will reflect a little on our modern (particularly my own) notions of witchcraft, which have arguably been shaped heavily by pop culture, before looking at how the media in early modern Germany also helped to shape ideas about witchcraft.
As a child growing up in Ireland I dressed up as a witch many times for what we termed ‘trick-or-treating.’ My state of the art costume was mostly made up of a black sack (that is a refuse bag) tailored into a dress/cape (depending on how crafty my mother was feeling) and a pointed witch’s hat, also black, of course. It was a simple but effective costume. There was little doubt about what I was supposed to be. In 2015 retailers have cashed in on the costume scene and one can easily nab other witchy accessorises at bargain prices, such as brooms and cauldrons with nifty handles (for storing all your treats).
Witches are imaginary, yet we all know what they should look like. How? Stories, movies and TV series have certainly influenced my idea of witchcraft. Thanks to the Wizard of Oz I knew from a very young age that you could have both good witches and bad witches. Hocus Pocus and Sabrina the Teenage Witch introduced me to the concept of talking black cats (a theme addressed in Charlotte-Rose Millar’s recent blog post ‘More Familiar Than You Might Think: The Black Cat in Popular Culture’). There are simply too many movies about witchcraft to list here, but one thing is for sure the image of witch today is not wholly negative. Witchcraft is rarely portrayed as diabolical; you don’t see Sabrina consolidating a pact with Satan through sexual intercourse for her magical powers. In short, stereotypes have changed and can change.
My research focuses on early modern Germany, where the majority of witches in Europe were executed. Over 25,000 witches are estimated to have been executed in German-speaking lands during the early modern period. This stark figure has led scholars to dub the Holy Roman Empire as the ‘heartland’ of the witch craze. As is generally well-known, the majority of those prosecuted were women, but it is important to remember that men were also accused of witchcraft; about 25 per cent of those prosecuted were men.
I entered into the field of witchcraft history wanting to know how everyday people felt about witches. How were witches and their crimes represented in the news of the era? What made them so scary? Sociologist Frank Furedi has suggested that fear only gains meaning through the mode of interpretation offered by the narrative of culture. What, and who, people are supposed to be afraid of can therefore be framed by the media. Media discourse plays an active role in signalling to audiences what’s important to them as an emotional community, and how they should respond emotionally (and practically).
The stereotype of the witch was formed through both written and oral culture. Demonologists, such as Heinrich Kramer (author of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum), wrote large tracts and treatises on the reality of witchcraft and how one could recognise a witch. Some demonologists, such as Lambert Daneau and Jean Bodin, believed that witches were marked by the Devil and that examiners could search the body of the suspected witch for this mark. If a needle was stuck into the flesh (where the mark was) and no blood came forth, or the accused felt no sensation, it was taken as a sign that the prisoner was a witch. Others claimed that witches could show no emotion, so if they did not cry during ‘questioning’ (that is, torture) this was another sure sign that they were a witch. There were inconsistencies: it was believed, for example, that if someone was innocent God would help them to withstand torture and they would not confess. However, someone who did not confess after being subjected to severe torture could be construed as having withstood their interrogation through witchcraft and with the aid of the devil.
Jurists, preachers and elite scholars read and responded to these learned texts. Some city territories had their own mandates for witch-hunting drawn up, and authors of legal manuals incorporated sections on witchcraft, often referring back to the Malleus as their source. These texts went on to inform the trials of accused witches, and arguably they helped to standardise the stereotype of the witch. This meant that interrogators (from reading such manuals) asked similar questions (often leading questions) of those accused of witchcraft. This led, at times, to correspondingly standardised answers—although, of course, sometimes folk belief and local superstitions could also intermingle and make their way into confessions.
In turn, the witches’ confessions (which were most often given under duress) were read aloud at their places of execution. In this period, executions attracted large audiences from near and far, sometimes numbering in the thousands. In this way, the stereotype continued to be propagated. Those in attendance came to know what terrible crimes witches supposedly committed, and how. Consequently, if they were to find themselves accused and tortured at a later date they would know what they were expected to confess. Stories of witches’ executions also made their way into news reports, thus spreading the news of witches’ crimes further afield.
An examination of media discourse, including demonologies, trial records, and news accounts, suggests that by end of sixteenth century a very elaborate idea of witchcraft had taken hold.
The first and main tenet of this idea was that all witchcraft, whether good or bad, was believed to originate from a pact with the Devil. Witches were said to have renounced God and embraced the Devil, giving him the honour that was due to God. In this way witchcraft was also a spiritual crime: apostasy. Stories about how witches came to meet the Devil became very standardised over time. The Devil, usually in the form of a fine gentleman dressed in black, approached a person in a time of need. He promised them assistance should they agree to do his will. They agreed. From the late sixteenth century many stories also state that witches signed a written pact with the Devil, sometimes with their own blood. In addition, sexual intercourse with the Devil was often an integral part of female narratives about consolidating the pact in early modern Germany.
Once the pact was consolidated, contemporaries believed that witches could practice maleficium or harmful magic. They were thought to do so by using special items such as salves given to them by the Devil, or sometimes by burying items under the ground. News reports gave terrifying accounts of how witches killed and lamed people, young and old, as well as animals. They reportedly destroyed crops, especially grain and wine, through terrible weather magic. While demonological works spent a lot of time discussing how this was possible, suggesting that really it was the Devil who was the one responsible because humans could not do such things, and that even the Devil could only do so with the permission of God, the news reports more often presented witches as frightful beings with real power to cause harm.
What is more, witches were increasingly believed to be acting together. Rather than one witch bewitching a person or a cow, groups of witches were believed to be coming together under the leadership of the Devil to destroy Christianity. By the second half of the sixteenth century witches were frequently reported to be coming together at special nightly gatherings. Today we refer to these gatherings as sabbaths, but this term was very rarely used in the sixteenth century German sources; rather the gathering was referred to as a Versamlung (a gathering), or a Hexentanz ( a witches’ dance). Authors claimed that witches travelled to such meetings through the air on oven forks, or simply on sticks, or on animals such as goats and calves (notice that the broom is not part of the stereotype yet!). They were even said to gather at special times and dates at particular locations. Most notably, they were believed to meet on Walpurgis Night, the night of 30 April. Halloween was not associated with witches at this point in time. The witches’ sabbath went on to become an inspirational theme for many artists and authors in the seventeenth century.
The belief that witches gathered together was dangerous. Why? If a witch was accused they could also be asked who they had seen as such gatherings. Under torture people gave up the names of others, who were then taken into custody. A letter written by a man, Johannes Junius, who was convicted of witchcraft in Bamberg in 1628 illustrates just this. Shortly before his execution Johannes, who had been the mayor of Bamberg, wrote a letter to his daughter Veronica. The letter never reached her, however. It was intercepted by the authorities and placed with the other materials in his trial record (which is how it has come down to us today). The letter offers a unique opportunity to hear from someone who had been accused and tortured. Here is what he had to say about the forced denunciation of others:
Then I had to tell what people I had seen [at the witch-sabbath]. I said that I had not recognized them. “You old rascal, I must set the executioner at you. Say–was not the Chancellor there?” So I said yes. “Who besides?” I had not recognized anybody. So he said: “Take one street after another; begin at the market, go out on one street and back on the next.” I had to name several persons there. Then came the long street. I knew nobody. Had to name eight persons there. Then the Zinkenwert–one person more. Then over the upper bridge to the Georgthor, on both sides. Knew nobody again. Did I know nobody in the castle–whoever it might be, I should speak without fear. And thus continuously they asked me on all the streets, though I could not and would not say more. So they gave me to the executioner, told him to strip me, shave me all over, and put me to the torture. “The rascal knows one on the market-place, is with him daily, and yet won’t name him.” By that they meant Dietmeyer: so I had to name him too.
The Full letter can be seen on the Hanover Historical Texts Project here.
So, should you decide to dress up as witch this Halloween, remember that what makes the figure of the witch so terrifying is that ultimately those who were executed as witches were ordinary people, like me and you.
Stereotypes can be dangerous. We are in danger of thinking that we are much more rational and just than people in the past. But we are all human. When we feel threatened or afraid, even today, we make monsters out of humans. We ‘other’, and we scapegoat. Our imagination is a powerful force that can make enemies where there are none. News media can too.
Abaigéal Warfield is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the ‘Change’ program of the Centre, led by Professor David Lemmings. She is working on a project exploring how fear was constructed in early modern news pamphlets and broadsides, specifically fear of God, the Devil and witches. More on her research here.
Wolfgang Behringer, ‘Witchcraft and the Media’, in Majorie E. Plummer and Robin Barnes (eds), Ideas and Cultural Margins in Early Modern Germany (Surrey, 2009), pp 217-39.
Brian Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford, 2013).
Richard van Dülmen, Theatre of Horror: Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Germany, translated by Elisabeth Neu (Cambridge, 1990).
Charles Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth Century Europe (Oxon, 2007).
Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear Revisited: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation (4th ed., London, 2006).
Abaigéal Warfield, ‘Witchcraft and the Early Modern Media’, in Johannes Dillinger (ed.), The Routledge History of Witchcraft (forthcoming 2016).
Erik Midelfort, ‘Heartland of the Witchcraze: Central and Northern Europe’, in History Today 21, no. 2 (1981), pp 27-31.
Rita Voltmer, ‘“Hört an neu schrecklich abentheuer / von den unholden ungeheuer”—Zur multimedialen Vermittlung des Fahnungsbildes ‘Hexerei’ im Kontext konfessioneller Polemik’, in Karl Härter et al (eds), Repräsentation von Kriminalität und öffentlicher Sicherheit: Bilder, Vorstellungen und Diskurse vom 16. bis zum