How many witches were killed in the dark ages?

Well: How many witches do you think were killed?

Technically, of course, the correct answer is “none” — there are no witches. But, in fact 40 to 100 thousand people were killed for being witches. This, remember, is in a Europe decimated by the Black Death (not literally: that would only be 1 in 10, the plague took fully 1 in 3!)

This number is according to Oxford Professor Lyndal Roper (author of the book Witch Craze)

You can catch Professor Roper’s interview with Philip Adams on the ABC Radio National program “Late Night Live” (Pod-cast here)

It was a thought provoking interview. All sorts of questions pop into one’s mind…Why did people start discovering witches? Why don’t we see them now? Or do we… Who got picked to be a witch?

There was a strong sexual element (Women became witches only after being seduced by the devil – and a confession involves reporting this seduction) and 80% of people accused of witch-craft were female.

However, they were often older women, not young, going against the stereotype.

Witches commonly were easy victims – powerless older people with a weak connection to the community. Accusing people of being witches (and killing them) was itself most common in the cities and states which lie in the territory now occupied by modern Germany.

The creation of the mythology surrounding witchcraft is easy enough to explain. The interrogators tortured their victims unless they could tell a convincing story about their seduction into witchcraft. So, they constantly learning new things about the devil (yes, they really were believed to fly on brooms (or backwards, on goats)), and this folk lore grew as the accused women made up new facts over their 6 or more week long period of interrogation/trial, in an effort to be convincing in their confession, which would in turn end the trial. One is of course reminded of the construction of the image of a powerful soviet union by those forced to make up such tales for the McCarthy commission.

So why did people in what is now germany start calling outsider women witches and burning them?

Witches were most common from the beginning of the 14th to the beginning of the 18th centuries (lapping up against the enlightenment!). This is the period following the Black Death (14C). There were lots of worries: beggars, bad weather (cold winters, wet summers which stopped crops ripening) and the stress of a society recovering.

Witches were discovered when bad things happened. When something went wrong with a birth or in the 6-week postnatal period, the midwife (lying-in woman) was accused of being a witch. Likewise when cattle died, when crops failed… witches were found.

I’m left with questions… punishing the midwife makes it sounds like a kind of Malpractice penalty. Punishing the outsider like a scramble to reduce the number of mouths that need feeding when food is scarce… but there must be something more. Maybe a Sagan-esque .

I’m currently listening to: Fire Of Love from the album Wanting


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