How Witches Shifted from Daily Healers to Heretics and Dangerous Women Under Christian Rule
Marion Gibson on Why Public Perceptions of Witchcraft Changed in the 15th Century
What is a witch? To answer that question, we have to start with another: What is magic, the force witches use? That answer depends on time and place.
In early history, magic was considered to be a power innate in healers, shamans, and religious leaders across multiple cultures. It allowed them to go beyond natural abilities, to change the world in inexplicable ways. Communities would have several such magical workers, combining medical and priestly roles.
There was no clear line between their magical healing and harming, since good and bad magic were two aspects of the same force. On Monday a user of magic might bless you, on Thursday they might curse you—that was just how things were. If you felt a magically gifted person was using that force to do harm, you might vilify them as a “witch”—a user of evil magic—and you might hold a local trial and mandate repentance. You might banish or kill the witch if their crimes were unacceptable.
But witchcraft accusations would not spread widely, and, on the whole, you would not begin to believe all magic was evil. Some societies were concerned about this possibility—the ancient Greeks and Romans feared magic was inherently ungodly—but most retained a blurry notion that magic could be a force for good.
This changed in Europe during the medieval period, when a new theological science was established: the study of devils or demons, appropriately called “demonology.” By the 1400s, the Christian clergymen who developed demonology had convincingly claimed a unique insight into the workings of the cosmos and God’s will. Now, demonologists argued, witchcraft was not just good magic gone bad; it was envisioned as a career committed to wickedness, setting itself against the church.
The imaginative world of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries was crammed with curses and blessings, angels, devils, ghosts, spirits that could invade bodies, fairies, elves, and, ruling over it all, a benevolent God. Demonologists did not perceive the Christian God’s supernatural ability as part of that wider magical universe, however. Their deity’s powers, and the miracle-working of his priests, were not classed as magic.
Instead they were thought of as springing from religious truth, a special class of power reserved for Christian clergymen. Therefore, all the other supernatural powers swirling about in the world must be lesser, and they came to be seen as evil witchcraft.
The either/or thinking that shaped demonology developed partly because the Christian Church was splitting internally. What began as a series of arguments over church doctrine soon escalated into violence, part of a culture war called, with bland understatement, the “Reformation.” The Reformation’s disagreements forced people to choose between Catholic (traditional) and Protestant (reformed) sects.
This religious conflict began with good intentions when pious Catholics challenged their church’s leaders to be better Christians. The pope, cardinals, and bishops were no longer humble preachers, reformers argued, but palace- dwelling oligarchs condoning the sins of rich donors.
Mystics like St. Catherine of Siena, scholars like Jan Hus, and translators like John Wycliffe began to claim alternative sources of Christian wisdom: visions from God, reinterpretations of ancient texts. Some reformers were embraced by the church, but others were cast out. In the sixteenth century hundreds of thousands left the main body of the church to form their own sect, Protestantism.
As hatred between the two sides grew, it became permissible to kill fellow Christians, now branded as demonic opponents; something that Christians had been inflicting upon Jews and Muslims for many centuries but had now turned on each other.1 Catholics and Protestants came to regard each other as heretics: misbelievers, haters of the true church, and therefore, in binary thinking, Satan’s people. The punishment for heresy was to be burned alive.
In such a violently divided culture, suspicion bred suspicion; leaders of both sects soon began to investigate whether Satan had other agents within their congregations. Before the fifteenth century, most churchmen regarded the healers and diviners in their communities as ineffective fantasists—mild sinners trafficking in charms and curses who couldn’t do much harm.
But as Reformation either/or logic sank in, the fear grew that these magical practitioners had an evil source of power: Satan. If the force they used wasn’t obviously Christian, it must be evil. That would make them witches, and it was a short step from burning heretics to burning witches; although not identical, both were enemies of God. The magic deployed by the career witch was simply a maximally dangerous type of heresy.
Who were the people accused of witchcraft? Most witches were thought to be female. Although healers and shamans could be of either sex, as magic became associated with evil, so it also moved toward association with women; Christian priests were all male. While many churchmen were good Christians, true to their gospel of love, others were obsessed with the regulation of women: their sexuality, conduct, and thought.
There were female saints in Catholic theology and Christ’s mother, Mary, was a venerated figure—such female role models were deemed acceptable—but clergymen brooded over Eve, the first woman. Eve had lived peaceably with her husband Adam until she succumbed to Satan’s temptation to eat a fruit symbolizing knowledge. She fell into sin, persuaded Adam to join her, and condemned their descendants to damnation unless they led repentant lives.
Churchmen educated on the Eve myth—often celibate as part of their religious commitment—therefore tended to distrust women as dangerous rebels, rather like heretics. Women’s minds were clearly easily confused by demonic lies, and what was worse, their tongues then talked men into sin, these churchmen wrote. If a demonologist was looking for Satan’s people, it was logical he would start with women.Churchmen educated on the Eve myth—often celibate as part of their religious commitment—therefore tended to distrust women as dangerous rebels, rather like heretics.
Just as Eve had been corrupted by Satan, so 15th-century women were also seen as open to his suggestions. These were not just mental temptations but were imagined as physical appearances by the devil offering practical help. By the 1480s, demonologists thought if a woman was poor, Satan could appear offering money or goods and actually enrich her. If she resented obeying men, he could free her. If she wanted companionship, the devil could visit as a lover or a pet. If she wanted revenge, he could crush her enemies.
Satan might appear in human or animal form as a “familiar,” a supposedly friendly spirit. But if he offered you his services, his fee would be your soul, your link to God, and your hope of a place in heaven. Once you accepted this pact—donating your soul in exchange for assistance—Satan would mark you with a blemish or growth, showing you belonged to him. And then he would lend you the power you’d wanted, and you would become a witch.
A witch could make her enemy’s wife sick, steal his cows’ milk, harm his goods, crops, or health, or kill him, demonologists explained. And once the deal was done, the witch was damned. She would join Satan’s church, an evil- twin opposite of Christianity. Its congregations would perform obscene rites at meetings called “Sabbaths,” a word echoing the name given to the Christian holy day. At these meetings—to which they were sometimes thought to fly on animals or broomsticks—witches worshipped the devil and sought new recruits to give their souls to Satan.
The devil, demonologists decided, was not just a tempter and facilitator of evil; their new science concluded he had become the witches’ god, a worker of wonders served with murder and mayhem. Their either/or inverted thinking—God/devil, devout/heretical, Christian/witch—prompted mass witch trials.
After all, if witches were totally evil, enemies of God and humanity, the only possible response was to put them on trial, convict, and kill them. Hundreds of witches were tried by churches and states—executed, imprisoned, or exiled as enemies of God and humanity.
Of course, that was demonological theory, rather than reality. It was impossible to prove that magic actually caused illness and death; no physical evidence of Satanic Sabbaths was found and verbal accounts of them varied widely. So if we don’t believe that the people accused of witchcraft really did kill their enemies with curses or worship at a Satanic church, then how do we explain their accusation?
Misogyny plays a crucial part here, underlying the accusers’ fear, hatred, and discrimination. Most accused witches were poorer women, some with unusual beliefs about religion or an assertive manner that worried their neighbors. Some were comparatively wealthy, but still attracted their community’s dislike. Some were older women, widows living alone.
But many were younger women: with or without children, some married, others not, some working, others begging. They were often women who their communities perceived had been hurt, bullied, jilted, refused charity or a job. Their neighbors sometimes heard them spitting out sharp words.
Then something happened to a person who had offended the suspected witch: their cow died, their child had visions, their ship sank. People began to think a witch had caused the harm. Perhaps in reality the accused had attempted magic. They were often individuals without much power in their societies, and the idea that a disempowered person could use magic did offer hope—which was in actuality limited by gender, economic status, or differences of belief and opportunity. But sometimes there was no compelling evidence that suspects had done anything magical at all.
Either way, when the accused people were arrested and dragged to the minister or magistrate, it would not be unusual for them to confess to witchcraft, or at least admit to a belief in magic. An accused witch would have her own folk beliefs about witches and magic, often differing from her interrogators’ fears.
Left to herself, she was more likely to imagine performing healing charms than curses, say she had interacted with ill-defined spirits rather than devils, and invent folkloric stories about bargains with fairies or ghosts instead of formal Satanic worship. But under pressure, her story would likely come to align with her accusers’ to the extent that conviction was plausible.
In some jurisdictions, suspects were tortured—torture using specially designed apparatus was legal across much of Europe. A tortured person might confess anything: mass witch- meetings, devil-worship, orgies, grave-robbing, baby-killing, flying, cannibalism. The interrogators’ own anxieties regarding what was evil, forbidden, or taboo would influence what they asked suspects and, therefore, what was confessed.
And even in jurisdictions where torture was banned, a witchcraft suspect would be intimidated by the officials who questioned her—churchmen and magistrates, lords and kings. Normally these men paid little attention to women like her, so she told them what they wanted to hear. She might be bullied, lied to, threatened. In some places sleep deprivation—not understood to be torture—was permitted. Under this assault she might dredge from her memory some charms she had used—angry thoughts she’d had about trader Peter; spiteful words she’d spat at farmer Anna.Increasingly, as demonology moved west to America, a witch trial might be prompted by ordinary people, low-level officials, or amateur investigators.
Even if she had done nothing wrong and confessed nothing under interrogation, the accused person would be sent to the court that judged suspected witches in her locality. Medieval and Reformation Europe was full of jurisdictional confusion. Where Catholicism was the official faith (broadly, across middle, southern, and eastern Europe), church officials known as inquisitors often led witch trials, although bishops, parliaments, secular rulers, and local magistrates also had their own jurisdictions. In Protestant areas (largely the north and west), state authorities replaced religious courts.
Increasingly, as demonology moved west to America, a witch trial might be prompted by ordinary people, low-level officials, or amateur investigators. In state courts, there was no inquisitor. Instead, multiple accusers would give evidence to a panel of judges or jury of citizens, who would decide the verdict.
At the trial, the suspected witch might be exonerated and freed. But she might be sentenced to penance, imprisonment, exile, or death by hanging or burning. It depended on the laws of her church or state whether she was shamed, banished, or killed as an enemy of her people. Because that, by the late fifteenth century, was the answer to the question: “What is a witch?” Witches were the representation of everything evil. They were the enemy.
Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials by Marion Gibson is available via Scribner.