The historian Philip Almond describes 1550-1700 as ‘the golden age of the demoniac’. There are a lot of reasons, one of the biggest being the Reformation. Demoniacs had been important in the days of the early church, when church fathers were trying to build a new religion in an environment of borderline (and sometimes outright) hostility. On the other hand, as D P Walker tells us in his book Unclean Spirits, by the middle ages there were no more pervasive threats to subvert. Christianity was the ruling religion of Europe, and those heretics who did exist could be hunted directly by fire and the sword.
In 1321 a strange hysteria gripped Southern France and parts of Spain. By 1320 a series of attacks called ‘The Cowherd’s Crusade’ (emulating a much more widespread series of attacks dubbed ‘The Shepherds Crusade’) had already targetted Leprosaria all over Southern France. The lieutenant of Sauventerre-de-Guyenne had already recorded in public records that he’d had to forbid the torching of a leprosarium at Sauvanterre, while the chronicle of Raymonde-Bernarde de La Motte, the Bishop of Bazas, stated that some of the pasgoureaux who were hanged had claimed to have found barrels of rotting bread while pillaging the leprosarium of a certain town (perhaps Mas d’Agenais.)
The lepers, it was said, had planned to use the bread in the preparation of some poison that would contaminate the wells. This is an uncommon libel this early in the 14th Century. One factor that might have precipitated the violence was that the Bishop of Dax had all lepers in his diocese arrested in December 1320. The Bishop was trying to preserve his jurisdiction over lepers from encroachments by the sire d’Albret. The latter had burned a leper accused of an unstipulated crime, one in which the lepers were implicated.
As the movie The Exorcist will show you, demons are a problem to this day. Modern clerics in both the Church of England and the Catholic Church still treat people who believe they’re possessed by demons (for the purposes of this blog I should state that I don’t care whether they really are possessed or not, I write about history not the paranormal).
However, demons could be a real problem if you were living in Medieval Europe. In fact, the idea that demons can get you killed is absolutely incontrovertible – in London of 1725 a drunk died of exposure in a well because neighbours ignored his cries for help, believing he was a demon. Not only that, but in 1597 Alice Goodridge, accused of sending a demon to possess Thomas Darling, died in prison awaiting trial for witchcraft.
Interestingly, though, those possessed by demons (demoniacs) occupy a more ambiguous status in the bible. Although John 8.44 describes The Devil as “a liar and the father of lies”, demoniacs in the Gospel were among the first witnesses to Christ, and often showed a clearer understanding of divine truth than the apostles. In fact, Christ himself was accused of being a demon, and of “casting out demons by the prince of demons.”
I freely admit that I’ve never read the Malleus Maleficarum all the way through, simply because it’s the one witch hunting book that really bothers me. Heinrich Kramer (I refuse to call him ‘Institoris’) was, in my opinion, just a vile human being. He wasn’t trying to do the best he could in a bad situation, he was a genuinely insane, hateful, awful human being.
But here’s a story worth telling: apparently he was a vampire hunter.
I don’t have to call Kramer a madman, or impugn his abilities, because the Bishop of Innsbruck already did during his own lifetime. In 1484 Kramer was conducting the trial of an Innsbruck woman when he began departing from legal procedure to question the accused about her sexual history. In some times and at some places this wouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference, but the Bishop of Innsbruck appears to have believed in a crazy thing called ‘the rule of law’.
The defence called for the case to be halted after such a strange and creepy deviation, and the Archduke decided to abandon the prosecution altogether. The Bishop wrote two letters to Kramer’s host in the town, first saying, “tell him that because of quite a few scandals that have arisen on account of his bad procedure, he should not stay in the place lest something worse ensue or happen to him. A few words to the wise: what he did was very inappropriate.” Continue reading “From Witchhunter to Vampire Hunter — Henrich Kramer and the Undead”
How and Why?
What makes a witch? It’s been a long time since you’d find anyone who argued it was the talent for magical power. Of the factors that come together to make someone a witch, alleged magical power was only one of many.
Witch stories have a strange mirror in the very myths made up society and religion for much society until the advent of the Reformation.
Part of this was how history was written. Almost until the Enlightenment, history was seen as an expression of the art of rhetoric. Historical events mines for morally pleasing stories, which could be adapted without troubling the historian’s conscience.
Adding to that, pre-Reformation law in Britain (which continued unmodified during the witch trials in many other places) involved torture as a mainstay of the trial process. Judges could only find a defendant guilty if they were able to secure two witness statements that agreed perfectly, or if the defendant could be persuaded to confess. The regulations for assessing the two statements were surprisingly strict, leaving many Judges little option other than to secure a confession.
Circumstantial evidence was enough to secure the Judge’s suspicion, which was grounds for torture. Suspected witches would be coerced into spinning a narrative that their interrogators could take into court. Motivated by the pain of torture, and the knowledge that their torturers could only stop when they’d reached a mutually agreeable narrative, witches would draw on the stories of their everyday lives.
[Note: the figures are approximate here, but it’s an interesting thought exercise.]
In the late 16th century, a London woman called Elizabeth Sawyer was hanged as a witch after a series of events set in motion by the death of her neighbour’s pig.
I, as much as anyone else, find there’s something quite Monty Python about someone saying that a witch killed their cow. I grew up near an agricultural community where I used to go horse riding working farms. Still, there’s something I can’t quite take seriously, something strangely quaint.
I’m probably not the only one. For modern people, unless you are someone who relies on smallholding to make a living, the value of a cow as an immediate thing is hard for us to grasp.
This is a time when around 70% of the population are grindingly poor: illiterate and relying on waged work which paid only 60-80% of their household bills.
They’d make that up by gleaning (i.e. scavenging) edible plants from the land, growing crops on common land, and raising tiny numbers of animals to get the eggs, milk and cheese they needed to not die for another year.
For this person, the average income is about £8-10 a year, at a time when there are twelve pennies (p) to the shilling, and twenty shillings (s) to the pound.
In the late 16th century cow was worth, according to a trial document from 1594, 40s.
For a waged worker that’s pretty much four months’ wages (bearing in mind that work is irregular, so we’re basing our calculations on a three day working week).
Not only that, but it’s four months wages based on them saving their whole income, which isn’t going to happen. In reality, it could take years for someone pay that off. About the same amount of time we’d take to pay off a £6000 loan (almost $10,000).
Another thing to bear in mind is that a cow is about all they could expect. One magistrate for Sheffield in the 17th century wrote of the poor in his community, “not one of which can keep a team on his own land, and not above ten who have grounds of their own that will keep a cow.”
In proportion to the modern day, we’re talking about the price of a really good laptop, or a low-average used car. How would you feel if your top-of-the-line-gaming-pc blew up because you annoyed the mad women down the road?
Even worse, how would you feel if you lived in a rural area and suddenly had to replace your car?
Even less valuable animals could still be expensive. A pig could cost 8s. That’s two to three weeks’ wages, if you were a labourer.
Again, we’re talking about the equivalent of almost a month’s wages. According to the British average, that would be £600-800 for a single person. In the US we’re talking about around $1500.
And bear in mind, when a witch came to trial she could be accused of much more damage: when Alice Alberte of Felstead died in prison, she was accused of doing £7 16s in damage to the local community. That’s almost a year’s wages for someone in 17th century.
So don’t think of a witch as someone who has killed a pig, think of her as someone who scrapped a car, burned some laptops, and then ransacked a convenience store, doing $30,000 (around £18,000) damage.
That’s a lot of money.
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