Witches and Witchcraft in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
Witchcraft in the Middle Ages was a controversial crime that was equally punishable to poisoning. If one was accused of witchcraft, the charges could be dropped by a relative’s defense in a trial by combat, or by twelve people swearing an oath of the accused’s innocence.
In the case of a relative defending the accused, the accuser was required to pay a fine. With the rise of Christianity witchcraft became a superstition, and, as such, persecution of witchcraft persisted through the Middle Ages.
In the 5th century AD, Christian theologian St. Augustine of Hippo said that all pagan magic and religion were invented by the devil. He said that the devil’s purpose in inventing magic was to lure humanity away from the truths of Christianity.
Conversely, St. Augustine also said that neither witches nor the devil was capable of having magical powers or producing any real magic. If a pagan believed in magic, it was merely his “error” to believe in “some other divine power than the one God.” Under St. Augustine’s views, the church had no reasons to seek out or persecute any witches because their powers did not exist. This viewpoint was accepted by the Medieval church for several hundred years.
In the 8th century, St. Boniface said that belief in the existence in witches was un-Christian. Later, the highly influential Bishop of Lyon rejected the belief that witches were able to fly and change their shape. Charlemagne, King of the Franks in the 8th and 9th centuries, said that the popular custom of burning those accused of witchcraft at the stake should be an offense punishable by death.
Anti-witchcraft laws began to rise in the 7th to 9th centuries. The Church began to influence civil law to create laws against witchcraft. “Maleficium,” a Latin word which originally meant wrong-doing, came to mean malicious, presumably satanic, and magic. Magic was now viewed as a crime against society as well as God.
Before the 13th century witchcraft was known as a collection of practices and beliefs associated with healing. The healing was practiced through spells, ointments, potions and forecasting the future through clairvoyance. In England, curative magic was practiced by “witch doctors.” Conversely, “toad doctors” were witches who were said to be able to undo evil witchcraft. Although they did not classify themselves as witches, all of the aforementioned were usually considered valuable to society. Some witches were also hired to curse enemies.
Witches and Witchcraft in the Middle Ages began to be considered as “demon-worship” by the beginning of 13th century. A group of heretics known as the Cathars was attacked by Pope Innocent III in 1208. This group believed in a world in which God and Satan had supernatural powers and were at war with each other. The Church tried to create a dislike for the Cathars by saying that they worshipped the devil in person, and embellished the ways in which they worshipped the devil.
During this time St. Thomas Aquinas also argued that the world was full of dangerous demons whose only purpose was to lead people into temptation. This was the beginning of the negative association in Christianity between sex and witchcraft.
The Inquisition, which was a movement by the Roman Catholic Church to seek out and expunge heretics, began in 1230. Many were executed for accusations of witchcraft. However, it was not until the Early Modern Period, the period after the end of the Middle Ages, that witch hunts and witch trials became more prevalent.
Witchcraft in the Middle Ages was feared throughout Europe. Magic was believed to be a creation of the devil and associated with devil worship. Two “types” of magic were said to be practiced during the Middle Ages.
Black Magic was the “bad” type of magic. Black Magic had more of an association with the devil and satanic worship. If someone fell ill of unknown causes, this was often said to be caused by witches who practiced black magic. Other harms caused to society, such as accidents, deaths, or bad luck, were also said to be caused by Black Magic.
The basis of White Magic was in Christian symbolism, and it focused on nature and herbs. It was the “good” type of magic. White Magic was used for good luck, love spells, wealth and spells for good health. Astrology was another major part of White Magic. Alchemy, which is the practice of making potions, was a part of White Magic as well.
Heresy and Punishment
Being accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages meant being labeled as a heretic. If accused of witchcraft, the accused was forced to confess, even if he was innocent, through brutal torture. Then he was hanged or burnt alive for his crimes. Laws against witchcraft were further tightened when they began to be used for personal vendettas against the accused or in order to gain property of the accused.
The accusations were arranged by influential persons in society or the clergy who would bring about the suspicions against those they wanted to target. They then arrested their victims, made them confess, and executed them. Almost 80% of those accused of witchcraft were women.
In some cases, the clergy were genuinely concerned about the souls of those they were executing. As such, they chose to burn the so-called “witches” alive in order to save them.
When we talk about Witches and Witchcraft in the Middle Ages we must know that Witches were often portrayed as old, ugly and bedraggled women. This is because the church wanted them to be targets of dislike and hatred. Of course, those who practiced witchcraft (and those who were falsely accused) had a wide range of appearances.
Witches in the Medieval times used spells, animal parts, and a variety of herbs to make potions, cure various diseases, and heal wounds. Though the potions were regarded as superstitious, they were often quite effective in healing. The potions were brewed in large cauldrons in order to ensure that they were combined properly. The cauldrons were usually made out of wood or stones.