For thousands of years, civilizations worshipped the Earth Mother. Every culture, whether Minoan, Greek, Roman or Germanic, gave its own special name to this Goddess; however, she was always responsible for the wonders of the world: food, clothing, children and peacefulness.
Some sculptors portrayed every one of her virtues in images no bigger than the size of a human hand. Others showed her as a giant. Her hair, face and body instantly recognizable as humanly inspired, but her massive stature evoking awe rather than familiarity. Poets sang her praises with lyrics making Earth Mother forever maternal, majestic and miraculous.
Turning the situation around completely, the Middle Ages reduced women from being associated to the Earth Mother (worthy of respect and awe) to being associated with the negative qualities of witch (to be frightened and repressed). The process was a slow one, taking at least a thousand years, from around 500 to 1500 A.D. As generalizations go, there were many times when equality between the sexes seemed at hand or just beyond the next turn of events.
Thus in the centuries before 1000 A.D., the visible Earth-dwelling Mother Abbess came to replace the mythical, unseen, Earth Mother. As Christianity began making deep inroads on Paganism, double monasteries of nuns and monks sprang up all over Western Europe, each ruled with a firm hand by a Lady Abbess. Reflecting this development, the English monk and historian known as Venerable Bede immortalized a woman named Hilda of Whitby:
“The Abbess Hilda was called Mother by all her acquaintances”, he wrote. “So great was her prudence that not only ordinary folk, but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties, and take it”. Five men trained under her direction later became bishops – “all of them men of outstanding merit and holiness.”
Contemporaries wrote of many other women in France, Germany and England, who similarly exercised strong control over double monasteries. And beyond doubt, the authority relegated to the Lady Abbess tinged women with divine perfection.
Sometime around 1000 A.D., the institution of the Lady Abbess disappeared. The idea that women could successfully wield great power remained very much alive; however, as Europe moved to organize itself into nations rather than tribes, queens as well as kings covered themselves with glory in the political arena. By the 1300s things began visibly going downhill for women. Slowly but surely, the stereotype of the evil-breathing old witch overwhelmed the image of women as benign Earth Mother, or lady Abbess or effective Queen.
As society moved from open field to clustered community, men and women ceased working side-by-side. Organization, authority and power gradually slithered into the domain of man alone, reinforced finally by hundreds of thousands of executions for witchcraft.
A witch was the Devil’s agent and death’s handmaiden, who could kill and destroy by supernatural means. She rode through the air at night on a broomstick over hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles, to meet with her cronies and get further instructions from her employer, the Devil. This conclave, or Sabbath, brewed destruction that rained down on society. No community could ever escape wholesale death by famine, plague or war; no man could protect his crops from ruination, his livestock from dying; no sailor at sea could hope to avoid death-laden storms; and no woman could be assured a safe childbirth.
Ordinary law was no match for the supernatural powers of a witch, even when she was trapped and imprisoned. She could, after all, bewitch her captives or judges to set her free. The only solution was to ignore the law and establish special rules substituting wild accusation for sober proof. All the ancient philosophers and the Bible itself gave strong support to such procedure. Especially in times of crises, when the Devil threatened to end the world, the only way to purge society of evil was to execute witches. Burning them to death was preferable, to get rid of every last trace of wickedness in their bones and bodies. But old and New England continually insisted on mere hanging.
Once the idea of witchcraft was accepted, singling out a witch was easy, even if she was never actually caught in the act of her evil activities, never seen riding on that broomstick or conferring with her co-workers. First of all, at least half the populations was suspect; as wise King James of Scotland would write at the turn of the 17th century, for every 21 witches, 20 were women. This was not surprising. There was something other-worldly about women, who had the ability to produce a live human being from within their own bodies, something no man, not even a king could do.
Secondly, the Bible made the West’s first woman, Eve, synonymous with lust and temptation and advised, “Thou shalt no suffer a witch to live”.
Thirdly, a witch’s appearance exposed her. At a time when most women died before the age of 40, she was still going strong well into her 50s, 60s and even 70s. She was too old to bear more children and so was no longer any use to society. And if she was nearsighted, or deaf, or bedridden; or if she limped, or stuttered or was stoop-shouldered, she was especially to be feared instead of protected. Why then share scarce food or fuel with such a frightening-looking old hag who was hanging on only to do the Devil’s bidding?
Midwives made up another whole group of witches. If a midwife could bring both mother and child safely through the throes of childbirth, she doubtlessly was calling on the supernatural. On the other hand, if either mother or child died, the midwife-witch was demonstrating her unearthly power for evil.
As for women who dared to assert themselves, they certainly deserved execution for witchcraft. After all, they were behaving contrary to (subjective) history, the Bible and the generally accepted inferiority of females to males in mental capacity and physical strength.
In the absence of science and scientific knowledge, superstition reigned supreme. Men acted on what they believed, what they had been told and taught over the centuries, not on what they could prove.
The age of witch-hunting was prominent for more than four centuries, from the 14th century to the 17th century, in its sweep from Germany to England. It was born in Feudalism and lasted, gaining in virulence, well into the age of Reason. The witchcraft craze too different forms at different times and places, but it never lost its essential character: that of a ruling class campaign of terror directed against the female peasant population. Witches represented a political, religious and sexual threat to the Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as to the state.
The extent of the witch craze is completely astonishing. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, there were thousands upon thousands of executions, usually live burnings at the stake, in Germany, Italy and other countries. In the mid-16th century, the terror spread to France and finally to England.
One writer has estimated the number of executions at an average of 600 a year for certain German cities or an average of two a day, excluding Sundays. 900 witches were destroyed in a single year in the Wertzberg area, and 1000 in and around Como. At Toulouse, 400 witches were put to death in a single day. In the Bishopric of Trier, in 1585, two villages were left with only one female inhabitant each.
Many writers have estimated the total number killed to have been in the millions. Women made up some 85% of those executed, old women, young women and children alike. This information alone suggests that the witch hunts may have represented a deep-seated social phenomenon which goes far beyond the history of medicine.
In locale and timing the most virulent witch hunts were associated with periods of great social upheaval, shaking Feudalism at its roots, mass peasant uprisings and conspiracies, the beginning of Capitalism and the rise of Protestantism. There is fragmentary evidence suggesting that in some areas witchcraft presented a female-led peasant rebellion.
One of the most fantastic accusations of all was that the witch was accused not only of murdering and poisoning, sex crimes and conspiracies, but also of helping and healing. As a leading English witch hunter put it:
“For this must always be remembered, as a conclusion, that by witches we understand not only those which kill and torment, but all Diviners, Charmers, Jugglers, all Wizards, commonly called wise men and wise women… and in the same number we reckon all good Witches, which do no hurt but good, which do not spoil and destroy, but save and deliver….It were a thousand times better for the land if all Witches, but especially the blessing witch, might suffer death”.
Witch healers were often the only general medical practitioners for a people who had no doctors and no hospitals and who were bitterly afflicted with poverty and disease. In particular, the association between witch and the midwife was strong: “No one does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives”, wrote witch hunters Kramer and Sprenger.
The Church itself had little to offer to the suffering peasantry. When faced with the misery of the poor, the church turned to the dogma that experience in this world is fleeting and unimportant. But there was a double-standard at work, for the church was not against medical care for the upper class. Kings and nobles had their court physicians who were men, sometimes even priests. The real issue was control. Male upper-class healing under the auspices of the Church was acceptable, female healing as a part of a peasant subculture was not.
The Church saw its attach on peasant healers as an attack on magic, not medicine. There was no problem distinguishing between God’s cures and the devil’s, for obviously the Lord would work through priest and doctors rather than through peasant women.
The wise woman or witch, had a host of remedies which had been tested in years of use, may of the herbal remedies developed by witches still have their place in modern pharmacology. They had painkillers, digestive aids and anti-inflammatory agents. They used ergot for the pain of labor at a time when the Church held that pain during childbirth was the Lords just punishment for Eve’s original sin. Ergot derivatives are the principal drugs used today to hasten labor and aid in recovery from childbirth. Belladonna, still used today as an anti-spasmodic, was used by the witch-healers to inhibit uterine contractions when miscarriage threatened. Digitalis, still and important drug in treating heart ailments, is said to have been discovered by an English witch.
The witch-healers were as great a threat to the Church as were her results, for the witch was an empiricist; she relied on her senses rather than on faith or doctrine, she believed in trial and error, cause and effect. Her attitude was no religiously passive, but actively inquiring. She trusted her ability to find ways to deal with disease, pregnancy and childbirth, whether through medications or charms. In short, her magic was the science of the time.
The partnership between Church, state and medical profession reached full bloom in the witch trials. The doctor was help up as the medical “expert”, giving an aura of science to the whole proceeding. He was asked to make judgments about whether certain women were witches and whether certain afflictions had been caused by witchcraft. In the witch hunts, the Church explicitly legitimized the doctor’s professionalism, denouncing non professional healing as equivalent to heresy: “If a woman dare to cure without having studied, she is a witch and must die”. Of course, there wasn’t any way for a woman to study.
Finally, the witch craze provided a handy excuse for the doctor’s failings in every day practice, because anything he couldn’t cure was obviously the result of sorcery.
The distinction between “female” superstition and “male” medicine was made final by the very roles of the doctor and the witch at the trial. The trial in one stroke established the male physician on a moral and intellectual plane vastly above the female healer he was called to judge. It placed him on the side of God and law and as a professional on par with lawyers and theologians, while it placed her on the side of darkness, evil and magic. He owed his new status not to medical and scientific achievements of his own, but to the church and state he served so well.
Witches were attacked for being pragmatic, empirical and immoral. But in the 19th century, the rhetoric reversed, women became too unscientifically delicate and sentimental. The stereotypes change to suit male convenience, women don’t; and there is nothing in their “innate feminine nature” to justify female subservience.
Men had maintained their power in the health system through their monopoly of scientific knowledge. Women were stereotypically mystified by science, taught to believe it was hopelessly beyond their group. In frustration, women were sometimes tempted to reject science, rather than to challenge the men who hoard it. The oppression of women as health care workers (for decades) is inextricably linked to the oppression of women in general in a male dominated society. However, things have begun to change drastically in recent times.
1. Aylesworth, Thomas G., Astrology and Foretelling the Future, New York/London, Franklin Watts, Inc. 1973
2. Baldwin, Gordon C., Schemers, Dreamers and Medicine Men, New York, Four Winds Press, 1970
3. Ehrenreich, Barbara, and English, Deidre, Witches, Midwives and Nurses, Brooklyn, N.Y., The Feminist Press, 1973, pp. 3 – 19
4. Lewis, Arthur H., Hex, New York, Trident Press, 1969
5. McHargue, Georgees, Facts, Frauds and Phantasms, Garden City, New York, Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1972
6. Williams, Pamela J., and Williams, Selma R., Riding the Nightmare, New York, Halliday Lithography Corporation, 1978, pp. 7 – 24