Introducing…Witches and Witchcraft in the Renaissance!

witches

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.

Secondary Sources (Other Sources of Interest)

I explored the following sources thoroughly, and any of them would be very helpful in furthering one’s knowledge beyond what is explained in my blog.

Kingsbury, J. B. “The Last Witch of England.” Folklore 61.3 (1950): 134-45. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://0-www.jstor.org.wncln.wncln.org/stable/pdfplus/1257743.pdf&gt;.

  • The author details the circumstances surrounding the execution of the last woman accused of being a witch in England.  He also explains how the Enlightenment caused witchcraft accusations to vanish in the 1700s.

Matossian, Mary K. “Bewitched or Intoxicated? The Etiology of Witch Persecution in Early Modern England.” Medizinhistorisches Journal (1983): 33-42. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://0-www.jstor.org.wncln.wncln.org/stable/pdfplus/25803730.pdf&gt;.

  • The author describes the differences between English witch beliefs and those of other European countries.  She also explores the origins of witchcraft in England.

Paxson, James J. “Theorizing the Mysteries’ End in England, the Artificial Demonic, and the Sixteenth-Century Witch-Craze.” Criticism 39.4 (1997): 481-502. Print.

  • The author talks about the widespread obsession with witches in England in the sixteenth century.  He also explains some of the superstitions about demons that were present in England during that time as well.

Wilby, Emma. “The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland.” Folklore 111.2 (2000): 283-305. Print.

  • The author explores the folklore of witches’ familiars, and of fairies, documenting superstitions concerning each.

“Witchcraft In Elizabethan England.” Witchcraft In Elizabethan England. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://www.cyberwitchcraft.com/witchcraft-in-elizabethan-england.html&gt;.

  • This page describes many facets of witch lore from the English Renaissance, including superstitions, the origin of witchcraft, and the demise of witchcraft.

Primary Sources

 Image

I chose to include the above woodcut, titled Witches by Hans Baldung Grien (1510), as one of my primary sources because it includes a few of the superstitions I talked about in my introduction.  This is one of the earlier depictions of witches during the Renaissance.  The four people in the picture are old women who are far from attractive, which is congruent with the common idea of a witch to most Europeans during the time.  One of the witches is flying on a broomstick, which is yet another superstition.  All of the women are naked, which suggests they are sexually deviant creatures, which is a common belief about witches as well.  This would be a good source for anyone studying how art in Renaissance England was influenced by society and culture of the era.

Hoak, Dale. “The European Witchcraze Revisited: 2. WITCH-HUNTING.” History Today (1981): 22-26. Print.

Image

This painting is called Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat by Albrect Durer.  I found the painting in an article that reviewed various witch paintings of the Renaissance and offered interpretations of them.  We studied this engraving in my Art History class this semester, and talked about some of the superstitions that are present in the work.  For example, the cowering children below the witch could represent infanticide in the Renaissance, which witches were heavily blamed for.  Goats are commonly presented as familiars and demons in witch-themed art.  Goya’s Witches Sabbath is another example of a depiction of a goat devil, although it was completed in the 1800s.  The witch appears to be conjuring a storm, because it was believed that witches could change the weather by way of back magic.  Art analysis is a great way to think differently about literary works and cultural ideals.

Sullivan, Margaret A. “The Witches of Durer and Hans Baldung Grien.” Renaissance Quarterly 53.2 (2000): 333-401. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://http://0-www.jstor.org.wncln.wncln.org/stable/pdfplus/2901872.pdf&gt;.

Image

The title and artist of this painting are unknown.  However, it is known that this image originated in the 17th century, and it is a representation of a male witch and his familiar, a black cat.  Black cats were very popular as familiars, and that is why black cats are viewed as bad luck in our culture today.  However, male witches were very uncommon in the Renaissance.  The male witch in this painting has a very smug look on his face, which suggests that he is very pleased with the power that he holds over others.  He is still depicted as a somewhat old and unattractive figure, but he is fully clothed, which suggests that he is not considered to be sexually deviant.  The woman who wrote about this piece of artwork claimed that male witches were every bit as common as female witches, but every other source I consulted was adamant that witches were almost always old women.  Someone who is interested in the idea of male witches and their prevalence in Renaissance culture would enjoy studying this piece of art and reading what the author of the art review has to say, and then comparing their findings to the previous sources I posted.

Murray, M. A. “A Male Witch and His Familiar.” Folklore 63.4 (1952): 227. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://http://0-www.jstor.org.wncln.wncln.org/stable/pdfplus/1257110.pdf&gt;.

Bibliography

witchandfamiliars

Hoak, Dale. “The European Witchcraze Revisited: 2. WITCH-HUNTING.” History Today (1981): 22-26. Print.

Kingsbury, J. B. “The Last Witch of England.” Folklore 61.3 (1950): 134-45. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://0-www.jstor.org.wncln.wncln.org/stable/pdfplus/1257743.pdf&gt;.

Matossian, Mary K. “Bewitched or Intoxicated? The Etiology of Witch Persecution in Early Modern England.” Medizinhistorisches Journal (1983): 33-42. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://0-www.jstor.org.wncln.wncln.org/stable/pdfplus/25803730.pdf&gt;.

Murray, M. A. “A Male Witch and His Familiar.” Folklore 63.4 (1952): 227. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://http://0-www.jstor.org.wncln.wncln.org/stable/pdfplus/1257110.pdf&gt;.

Paxson, James J. “Theorizing the Mysteries’ End in England, the Artificial Demonic, and the Sixteenth-Century Witch-Craze.” Criticism 39.4 (1997): 481-502. Print.

Sullivan, Margaret A. “The Witches of Durer and Hans Baldung Grien.” Renaissance Quarterly 53.2 (2000): 333-401. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://http://0-www.jstor.org.wncln.wncln.org/stable/pdfplus/2901872.pdf&gt;.

Wilby, Emma. “The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland.” Folklore 111.2 (2000): 283-305. Print.

“Witchcraft In Elizabethan England.” Witchcraft In Elizabethan England. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://www.cyberwitchcraft.com/witchcraft-in-elizabethan-england.html&gt;.