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Medieval Witchcraft

Medieval life and Times

Medieval Witchcraft - White Witches, Wise Women and Cunning Folk
During the early and middle Medieval era, up to the Renaissance period, the wisdom of the 'Wise women' or 'Cunning Folk' - the White Witches - were seen as helpful, if not invaluable, members of their communities. Their knowledge of the healing properties of various plants and herbs were often passed down through the generations. Their role was to provide help for people in need.

Medieval Witchcraft - Black Witches
The White witches were clearly distinguished from the 'Black' witches. The 'Black' witches were seen as those who practised the secret arts of Medieval witchcraft in order to do physical or practical harm to others. This distinction between 'White' and 'Black' witches was lost during the hysteria of the era of the Renaissance witch hunts.

Medieval Witchcraft - the Hammer of Witches
What led to the hysteria surrounding Medieval witchcraft? The bad press given to Medieval Witchcraft can be attributed to just one book. In 1486 Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) was published by two Dominican inquisitors vividly describing the satanic and sexual abominations of witches and witchcraft. The medieval period had witnesses terrible wars, famine and disease. People were looking for a reason. People wanted scapegoats - someone to blame. In 1521  Pope Leo X issued a Bull ensuring that the Religious Courts of the Inquisition would execute all those convicted of Witchcraft. The persecution of witches and the abomination of anything to do with Medieval witchcraft had been given the blessing of the Christian church.

Medieval Witchcraft - the Hammer of Witches
During the Medieval times people blamed unexplainable events as the work of witchcraft and witches. There were frequent outbreaks of the deadly Black Death for which there was no cure. The fear and anger about this terrible disease had to be directed at someone - Medieval witchcraft and witches were the obvious target. Witchcraft was blamed when people died from terrible diseases, when animals died, when there was a bad harvest, when houses were burnt down in fires even when foods curdled - whenever inexplicable events occurred.

Medieval Witchcraft - Reasons for the Persecution of Witches
During the Medieval era men were all-powerful. Women had few rights and were expected to obey men. Medieval women totally relied on the male members of the family. Society and the culture of England was changing. The convents had been closed. The number of poor was increasing and people were far less charitable. Old, poor, unprotected women needed to be supported - and this was resented by other Medieval people.

Medieval Witchcraft - the Persecution of Witches
Who were the people accused of practising Medieval Witchcraft and being Witches? Women were those most often accused of being witches. Those accused of Medieval witchcraft were generally Old, Poor, Unprotected and Single women or widows. Many of these poor women accused of witchcraft kept pets for company - their 'familiars'.

Medieval Witchcraft - the Effect of the Persecution
During the Medieval era there was limited medical knowledge or facilities and there was no form of insurance. Such events as the Black Death were devastating and there was no means of minimising their terrible effects on the lives of Medieval people. Access to doctors and medicines was minimal. Women were expected to produce cures for most ailments as part of their house keeping. 'Wise women' also used herbs for this purpose. The use of herbs and plants such as mandrake, datura, monkshood, cannabis, belladonna, henbane and hemlock were common ingredients in brews and ointments for medical purposes. As the fear of witches and Medieval witchcraft increased in Europe the Catholic Church included in its definition of witchcraft anyone with knowledge of herbs as 'those who used herbs for cures did so only through a pact with the Devil, either explicit or implicit.' Possession of such herbs, many of which did have psychedelic effects, was deemed as practising witchcraft and resulted in execution by burning in Europe. The abhoration of Medieval witchcraft and the persecution of witches led to the loss of medical understanding and the treatment of all sorts of diseases much of the medical knowledge of the times was subsequently lost.   

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