Sunday, 28 August 2011

Witch Persecutions, Women, and Social Change: Germany 1560-1660

Burning witches, 1555.


(Read Part One and Part Two.)

Major witch hunting panics arose in the 1560s throughout Europe and were especially severe in the German Southwest. Who were the victims of this mass hysteria? Even though witches were believed to come from all social classes, the trials focused on poor, middle-aged or older women (Merchant 138). Throughout Europe, midwives and healers were particularly suspect. These "wise women" who healed with herbs were held especially suspect, as they were often older women who had astonishing empirical knowlege, which their accusers traced back to the devil (Rauer 121). Many other women were targeted, as well. Outsiders and women on the fringe of society were especially vulnerable. Fifty-five of the seventy-one accused witches executed in Rottenweil, Germany, after 1600 came from outside the community, and their execution reflected both xenophobia and "a hatred of the unusual and rootless" (Midelfort 95-96). The blatant persecution of the poor prompted one accused witch in Wiesenstieg to ask her inquisitor why rich women were never arrested (Ibid. 169). Thus, though the witch panics took different forms at different times and places, they never lost their essential character--that of a campaign of terror against lower class women in search of substinence.

The question we must ask when presented with this information is why poor women and why this period in history? To invoke such massive hunts, trials, and executions, these women must have been perceived as a major threat. Whose interests did their annihalation serve? Here, I must agree with Carolyn Merchant that the control and maintenance of the social order and women's place within it was one major underlying motivation for the witch trials (Merchant 138).

The women most likely to be accused and executed were those most visibly discontent with their socio-economic condition. They were the strident women who complained about their situations and would not conform to the increasingly restrictive sphere of femininity of 16th and 17th century Europe. Sharp-tongued mothers-in-law were accused of witchcraft by their own families. Feisty spinsters or widows who refused to remarry were frequent targets of witchcraft allegations. Midelfort cites an example of a widow accused of witchcraft being released on the condition that she live with her son-in-law and remain under his control (Midelfort 184). Another common trait found among accused witches in Southwest Germany was a melancholic dissatisfaction with marriage and conventional religion (Ibid. 92) Begging and complaining about poverty were behaviors that led very frequently to accusations (Rauer 121). In 1505, Heinrich Deichsler reports in his famous Nuernberger Chronik that Barbara, a woman from Schwabach near Nuremburg, was burned as a witch after she had borrowed money from several neighbors and failed to pay them back (Schneider 18-19). The primary personality traits of witches outlined by Kramer and Sprenger in their witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum were infidelity, ambition, and lust--traits that may not have been so noteworthy a few centuries before (Malleus 47). All in all, witch persecutions appeared to focus specifically on headstrong and insubordinate women.

Once a woman was labeled a witch, almost anyone could do anything to her without fear or punishment. Legally she was damned and without rights. Even before she was arrested and taken to trial, her neighbors were allowed to take justice in their own hands. Indeed, neighbors took the lead in making witchcraft accusations--it was quite common to simply call someone one disliked a witch (Midelfort 115).

Once a witch was brought to trial, she was doomed. In Germany, torture was part of the established trial procedure and could legally last for days on end. German prison guards sometimes admitted to committing rape, extortion, and blackmail on prisoners, as well (Midelfort 107). Suspects were tortured until they confessed their participation in evil magic and sex with the devil, and named the other women they had seen at the supposed witches' sabbat. Many trial officials had lists of questions to elicit responses which would conform to established beliefs about witchcraft. Dr. Carl Ellwangen began his inquisitions by asking the accused to recite the Lord's Prayer. Then he immediately asked them who seduced them into witchcraft, how the seduction occured, why they gave in, what it was like to have sex with the devil, and so on (Ibid. 105). Torture could extract almost any confession from anyone. "When suspects proved stubborn, they were often tortured to death" (Ibid. 149). Another common trial procedure reveals the inquisitors' obsession with sexuality. Women were stripped, shaved, and pricked with bodkins all over their bodies in search of supposed witch marks, or searched for signs of intercourse with the devil. In Germany, it was not uncommon for an accused witch's property to be confiscated, with Church and secular authorities receiving their share (Ibid. 178). Because accused witches were tortured until they gave the names of others they had allegedly seen at the sabbat, the more intensely witchcraft was persecuted, and the more numerous the alleged witches became. Thus, the trials and accusations escalated (Trevor-Roper 97).

On a social level, witch persecutions could not only be used to weed out the most troublesome of the undeserving poor, but they also produced a general atmosphere of paranoia and disunity among the population. Even those who consulted accused witches for healing or other services risked becomong suspect (Larner 9). The accused witch served as an example to other women as to how they would be treated if they did as she did. This, of course, helped enforce new moral and religious codes (Ibid 102). For this reason, witch hunting can be viewed as one of the most public and effective forms of social control to evolve in Early Modern Europe (Ibid 64). Witches made convenient community scapegoats for communal misfortunes such as plagues and famines (Midelfort 121). The peasant population focused their anger and resentment at members of their own peer group rather than the ruling classes who exploited them. Thus, the witch persecutions undermined solidarity and cooperation among peasants and were instrumental in curbing rebellion. In Southwest Germany, the great witch trials began not long after the Peasant Wars.

Why were such extreme measures of social control necessary? What was taking place in society at large that caused poor and elderly women to be viewed as such an enormous threat?

The period of 1560 to 1660 was one of drastic economic, religious, and social change. This period witnessed the dissolution of the last remnants of a feudal agrarian and domestic economy in favor of a capitalist market economy (Hobsbawn 5). But for this new order to succeed, the old feudal tradition, in which peasants controlled production and were guaranteed subsistence, had to die. This transition was particularly hard on women. Formerly, in the domestic economy, the workplace was the home and women were active in cottage industries. However, the transition to working in outside the home made participation in this economy more and more difficult for women. Over this period, women were forced out of the guilds and the professions in which they could maintain economic independence. Increasingly they were forced into a narrowly domestic role. By the 16th century, the only opportunities for women to earn a living were in menial servant and labor occupations (Hoher 17). Often this sort of work was so low paid that women wandered penniless and homeless in search of better conditions (Ibid. 18).

Furthermore, by this time, even such traditionally feminine occupations such as healing and midwifery were being taken over by men. In the Renaissance, the trend among the wealthy was to have a university-educated physician at their disposal. After the advent of Paracelsus, the famous medical doctor, only men were officially allowed to practice medicine. Paracelsus himself explained that God granted the educated physician all the arts and faculties most beneficial to serve others and that the doctor must be a true man and not some ignorant old woman (Rauer 109, paraphrasing "So spricht Paracelsus"). Male medical practitioners went so far as to push women out of midwifery. Eucharius Rosslin, author of the foremost "midwife" book, Der Schwangererfrawen und Hebammen rossgarten complained that midwives' supposed incompetence, laziness, and lack of education resulted in high infant mortality. He even denounces them as murderers:

Ich meyn die Hebammen alle sampt
Die also gar kein Wissen handt.
Dazu durch yr Hynlessigkeit
Kind verderben weit und breit.
Und handt so schlechten Fleiss gethon
Dass sie mit Ampt eyn Mort begon. (Ibid 123)

Women in the Renaissance not only faced an economic crisis. Their sexual and social freedom was being severely restricted, as well. Unlike the Middle Ages, the Early Modern Period offered practically no alternative to the wife-mother role. By the 16th century, the beguinages were gone. Women hermits and vagabonds risked being accused of witchcraft. Due to the Reformation and Counter Reformation, even convents had grown smaller in number and the nuns who lived there experienced increasing restrictions on their mobility and contact to the outside world. At the same time, both Catholic and Protestant Churches were tightening moral strictures to produce a puritanism unheard of in the agrarian society of the medieval period. Church officials on both sides of the faultline of the Reformation wanted to have iron control over the moral behavior of the populace. Traditional seasonal festivals, hedonism, and sexual licentiousness all smacked of ungodliness and were no longer to be tolerated. Control over female sexuality was especially emphasized. Religious offences were now punished in secular courts and in public shaming rituals. For this was a period of great religious insecurity. The cut-throat competition between Catholics and Protestants resulted in sectarian and ideological warfare, with each side trying to terrorize the local population into submitting to their orthodoxies (Reuther 104). The witch trials' obsession with female sexuality reflects this puritanical attempt to control women's lives. Tightening religious strictures and the new economic system complemented each other--they both attempted to bring the rebellious, hedonistic peasant population under control of Church and secular authorities. The witch persecutions were symptomatic of a new totalitarianism (Rauer 123).

The ideal housewife, circa 1525, by Anton Woensam.


Hobsbawn, E.J., "The Crisis in the Seventeenth Century," Crisis in Europe 1560-1660, Trevor Aston, ed., Routledge, London, 1983.

Hoher, Frederike, "Hexe, Maria, und Hausmutter--zur Geschichte der Weiblichkeit im Spaetmittelalter," Frauen in der Geschichte, Vol. III, Kuhn/Rusen, eds, Paedagogischer Verlag Schwann-Bagel, Duesseldorf, 1983.

Institorus, Henricus, Malleus Maleficarum, Benjamin Blom, Inc., New York, 1970.

Larner, Christine, Enemies of God, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1981.

Merchant, Carolyn, The Death of Nature: Women Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, Haeprer & Row, San Francisco, 1979.

Midelfort, Erik, H.C., Witch Hunting in Southwest Germany 1562-1684: The Social Foundations, Stanford, 1972.

Rauer, Brigitte, "Hexenwahn--Frauenverfolgung zu Beginn der Neuzeit," Frauen in der Geschichte, Vol. II, Kuhn/Rusen, eds., Paedagogischer Verlag Schwann-Bagel, 1982.

Schneider, Joachim, Heinrich Deichsler und die Nuernberger Chronik des 15. Jahrhunderts, Wissenliteratur im Mittelalter, Vol. 5, Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden, 1991.

Trevor-Roper, H.R., The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Harper & Row, New York, 1969.

Sunday, 21 August 2011


I fell in love with the period of the English Civil War when my father, who loved reading aloud, read me THE KING’S GENERAL by Daphne du Maurier. In hindsight it probably was not the most suitable book to read to an eight year old but it fired my imagination into what was to become a lifelong passion.

Du Maurier wrote the book during the dark days of World War II when her own husband, as she describes him in the dedication “Also a General but hopefully a more discreet one”, was away from her side. Renovations to her home Menabilly (that was later to also become Manderlay in “Rebecca”) during the nineteenth century had unearthed a secret room hidden in the buttress. In the room the skeleton of a young man, dressed in the clothes of a cavalier was found. With no clue to his identity, Du Maurier wove the story of The King’s General around this bit of local history.

The King’s General of the title is Sir Richard Grenville (grandson of the Elizabethan sailor immortalised in the poem “At Flores in the Azores, Sir Richard Grenville lay...”).

History is not kind to Sir Richard Grenville, his majesty’s general in the West country during the English Civil War. Even before the war had begun, his violent temper had destroyed his marriage to Mary Howard and earned him two spells of imprisonment. Escaping to the continent he filled in his time fighting in the continental wars until the King raised his standard at Nottingham in 1642. Sir Richard returned to England and initially showed his colours for Parliament, but it was an elaborate ploy to obtain men and money and once he had been given both, he joined the King at Oxford.

The years from 1643 to 1646 were marked by his temper, his hot headed responses and his refusal to accept the authority of superior commanders. Added to this were allegations of hanging prisoners without trial, extorting money for his own purse and other atrocities.

In January 1646 he was captured at Launceston and imprisoned on St. Michael’s Mount from where he escaped to the continent where his temper and impetuousness earned him the enmity of Clarendon and banishment from the exiled King’s Court. He died in Ghent in 1658 aged 57.

It is hard to find anything to love about the historical “Skellum” Grenville as contemporary accounts describe him but Du Maurier, who researched him extensively for her book, gave him a hitherto unknown humanity and the love of a good woman, the fictional Honor Harris. It’s not a romance, there is no happy ever after, but it is a love story and a good one too. I am rereading it again and had forgotten what an exceptional writer Du Maurier.was. If you love this period then read THE KING’S GENERAL and find out Du Maurier’s tragic solution to the skeleton in the buttress.

Du Maurier and her family at Menabilly
For a more authoritative and complete review than I have the room for here see AnnWindsor’s write up at
Du Maurier's other seventeenth century book is the pirate tale Frenchman's Creek.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

JAMES HIND – A Highway Man's Highwayman...

Captain James Hind

I no longer have young children so the BBC series of “Horrible Histories” has only just come to my attention (I now record them and watch them in guilty secret over my lunch).  I am therefore ashamed to say that this blog is inspired entirely by a “Horrible History” on the seventeenth century highwayman,  Captain James Hind. 

The writer in me immediately jumped to the conclusion that Captain Hind would make a marvellous character in a story (a sort of precursor to Dick Turpin and the highwaymen of romantic literature) but he was indeed a very real person. The Newgate Chronicles record his life and exploits in detail and indeed the popular press of the day made much of his exploits. 

He began life as an apprentice to a butcher but quickly tired of this life and absconded to London where he fell into bad company, discovering the twin pleasures of the bottle and a mistress. Sadly the lady concerned was apprehended in the act of pick pocketing and she and James were confined to Newgate where he fell into the company of a notorious highwayman, Thomas Allen. On their release, Allen took Hind on as his “apprentice in crime”.  

According to the chronicle “Their first adventure was at Shooters Hill, where they met with a gentleman and his servant. Hind being perfectly raw and inexperienced, his companion was willing to have a proof of his courage, and therefore stayed at some distance while the captain rode up and, singly, took from them fifteen pounds; but returned the gentleman twenty shillings, to bear his expenses on the road, with such a pleasant air that the gentleman protested he would never hurt a hair of his head if it should at any time be in his power. Allen was prodigiously pleased both with the bravery and generosity of his new comrade, and they mutually swore to stand by one another to the utmost of their power.”

It is not clear from the chronicle how Hind (and his companion) came to their political beliefs. One is left to assume, like most young men of the period, they had fought in the first Civil War for the King’s side. However following the execution of Charles I in 1649 Hind and Allen became zealots for the royalist cause, vowing “never to spare any regicides who came their way”.

As incredible as it sounds, one such regicide (the first of several!) did come their way shortly thereafter – Oliver Cromwell.  Unfortunately for our heroes, Oliver had a train of 7 men with him and Allen was overpowered and subsequently executed. Hind made good his escape, 

killing his horse in his haste to get away. 

Hind’s reputation began to grow and among the stories told of him we find the following anecdotes:
Several wonderful stories about how he procured a new horse!
An encounter with the puritan Hugh Peters in which he bested him at quoting the scriptures (and stole 30 gold coins and Peters’ coat).
He held up the man who had presided over the trial of Charles I, Bradshaw, sparing his life and saying "I fear neither you nor any king-killing son of a whore alive. I have now as much power over you as you lately had over the King, and I should do God and my country good service if I made the same use of it; but live, villain, to suffer the pangs of thine own conscience; till Justice shall lay her iron hand upon thee, and require an answer for thy crimes in a way more proper for such a monster, who art unworthy to die by any hands but those of the common hangman, and at any other place than Tyburn. Nevertheless, though I spare thy life as a regicide, be assured that, unless thou deliverest thy money immediately, thou shalt die for thy obstinacy."
After holding up another regicide, Colonel Harrison, and relieving him of his purse, he very nearly got caught and unfortunately his pursuer died at his hand.

My favourite story is that of his encounter with a coach of young ladies. 
“He went up to them in a genteel manner, told them that he was a patron of the fair sex, and that it was purely to win the favour of a hard-hearted mistress that he travelled the country. "But, ladies," added he, "I am at this time reduced to the necessity of asking relief, having nothing to carry me on in my intended prosecution of adventures." The young ladies, who had most of them read a pretty many romances, could not help conceiting they had met with some Quixote or Amadis de Gaul, who was saluting them in the strain of knight-errantry. "Sir Knight," said one of the pleasantest among them, "we heartily commiserate your condition, and are very much troubled that we cannot contribute towards your support; but we have nothing about us but a sacred depositum, which the laws of your order will not suffer you to violate." Hind was pleased to think he had met with such agreeable gentlewomen, and for the sake of the jest could freely have let them pass unmolested if his necessities at this time had not been very pressing. "May I, bright ladies, be favoured with the knowledge of what this sacred depositum, which you speak of, is, that so I may employ my utmost abilities in its defence, as the laws of knight-errantry require?" The lady who spoke before, and who suspected the least of any one in the company, told him that the depositum she had spoken of was three thousand pounds, the portion of one of the company, who was going to bestow it upon the knight who had won her good will by his many past services. "My humble duty be presented to the knight," said he, "and be pleased to tell him that my name is Captain Hind; that out of mere necessity I have made bold to borrow part of what, for his sake, I wish were twice as much; and that I promise to expend the sum in defence of injured lovers and the support of gentlemen who profess knight-errantry." At the name of Captain Hind they were sufficiently startled, there being nobody then living in England who had not heard of him. Hind, however, bid them not be affrighted, for he would not do them the least hurt, and desired no more than one thousand pounds out of the three. This the ladies very thankfully gave in an instant (for the money was tied up in separate bags), and the captain wished them all a good journey, and much joy to the bride.”

Sadly for our hero his days were numbered. He joined Charles II’s abortive attempt to regain the throne which ended at the battle of Worcester on September 21 1651and although he escaped the battle, he was captured in London and tried in Worcester, not for the murder of the man 

at Knole, but for high treason. He went to the gallows professing that he had only ever targeted parliamentary supporters and shown unerring generosity to those of the royalist adherence.

He was hung drawn and quartered at Worcester on September 24, 1652 aged 34.

And now you know the facts enjoy the Horrible Histories take on our hero. 

Further Reading:  Executed Today and Outlaws and Highwaymen