This semester, I have learned a lot about the fascinating culture of the English Renaissance, including a vast array of odd beliefs in bizarre superstitions and supernatural beings. I have compiled reports and papers on everything from monsters and astrology to devils and sexuality in the Renaissance during the past few months. Now that I have the chance to write about another topic, I have chosen to research how witches became such a large part of the Renaissance culture.
Before the Renaissance, peasants (usually women) would often use incantations and folk remedies to make predictions and settle arguments. These witches were known to be either good or bad, depending on their specific uses of magic. At the dawn of the fourteenth century in Europe, however, the idea of a “good witch” became obsolete. People began to think that witches were acting on Satan’s behalf, wreaking havoc on the entire population by way of evil spells and bubbling cauldrons. This religion-centered stance on witchcraft was present mainly in Eastern and Central Europe. The witch hunts and executions in France, Germany, and Scotland were far more deadly than in England, and they occurred after the onset of the Black Plague in the fourteenth century. In England, on the other hand, the witch craze grew out of a changing social structure. Unlike devils, monsters, and dragons, witches are much more humanlike, which made people realize that they could use certain members of the population as scapegoats to cover up their wrongdoings. The typical person that was accused of witchcraft in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was an old, isolated, poverty-stricken woman. These women were targets first and foremost because of their vulnerability. They had no friends or family to take their side, so when others ganged up on them, there was really nothing they could do.
Citizens of all classes in England found a common ground in which they could agree on: witches deserve to be prosecuted for their actions, whether proof of their wrongdoings existed or not. Farmers accused witches of withering their crops or killing their animals, noblemen accused witches of making their wives go insane or causing them to engage in an affair, and criminals accused witches of committing murders and other crimes so they could avoid punishment for their actions. The list goes on, because in the English Renaissance, witches were accused of just about anything. A few modern books and movies poke fun at the ridiculousness of the witch craze in England and the rest of Europe, including the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I have included a clip of the movie where a woman is accused of being a witch by a mob of angry men who cannot vocalize what she did wrong.
Several nonsensical superstitions involving witches also emerged during this period. Many of these superstitions arose in order to explain how witches committed the crimes they were accused of. In order to account for a witch committing the many crimes they were accused of in a short period of time, witches were said to be able to fly on a broomstick. Many widowed old women were lonely, so they had pets to keep them company. This spiraled into the superstition that witches have animal-like creatures called familiars that they send out to do their bidding for them. This is presented in The Witch of Edmonton, when Elizabeth Sawyer sells her soul to Satan in order to have the Devil Dog (named Tom) do her bidding for her. Sawyer lets Tom suckle at her third teat, which introduces yet another superstition: a witch that made a pact with the Devil would often have a third nipple that her familiar(s) could suck on, keeping them alive and well. Another common witch superstition claims that if someone burns hay on a witch’s house, she will immediately appear to stop her house from burning down. As referenced by the Monty Python clip, it was a common belief that a witch would float if thrown in the water, while everyone else would sink. Water was seen as being absolutely pure, so anyone who floated on top of the water was said to be the opposite of purity and innocence, and therefore evil. Many more superstitions exist, but these are some of the most common.
The rise, spread, and decline of the witch craze in Elizabethan England spanned from about 1500 to 1700. After 1700, the dawn of the Enlightenment and more scientific ways of thinking gave way to more rational and logical explanations for phenomena such as crop failure and curdled milk. The last woman to be executed for being a witch was Jane Wenham, who was executed in 1712. From then on, the idea of a witch slowly morphed into a character that children want to dress up as on Halloween, rather than a vulnerable human being who was wrongly accused of some array of crimes.