Here is a story. Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived on the edge of a village. She lived alone, in her own house surrounded by her garden, in which she grew all manner of herbs and other healing plants. Though she was alone, she was never lonely; she had her garden and her animals for company, she took lovers when she wished, and she was always busy. The woman was a healer and midwife; she had practical knowledge taught her by her mother, and mystical knowledge derived from her closeness to nature, or from a half-submerged pagan religion. She helped women give birth, and she had healing hands; she used her knowledge of herbs and her common sense to help the sick. However, her peaceful existence was disrupted. Even though this woman was harmless, she posed a threat to the fearful. Her medical knowledge threatened the doctor. Her simple, true spiritual values threatened the superstitious nonsense of the Catholic church, as did her affirmation of the sensuous body. Her independence and freedom threatened men. So the Inquisition descended on her, and cruelly tortured her into confessing to lies about the devil. She was burned alive by men who hated women, along with millions of other just like her.
Do you believe this story? Thousands of women do. It is still being retold, in full or in part, by women who are academics, but also by poets, novelists, popular historians, theologians, dramatists. It is compelling, even horrifying. However, in all essentials it is not true, or only partly true, as a history of what happened to the women called witches in the early modern period. Thousands of women were executed as witches, and in some parts of Europe torture was used to extract a confession from them; certainly, their gender often had a great deal to do with it; certainly, their accusers and judges were sometimes misogynists; certainly, by our standards they were innocent, in that to a post-Enlightenment society their "crime" does not exist. However, the women who died were not quite like the woman of the story, and they were not killed for quite the same reason. There is no evidence that the majority of those accused were healers and midwives; in England and also in some parts of the Continent, midwives were more likely to be found helping witch-hunters. Most women used herbal medicines as part of their household skills, some of which were quasi-magical, without arousing any anxiety. There is little evidence that convicted witches were invariably unmarried or sexually "liberated" or lesbian; many (though not most) of those accused were married women with young families. Men were not responsible for all accusations: many, perhaps even most, witches were accused by women, and most cases depend at least partly on the evidence given by women witnesses. Persecution was as severe in Protestant as in Catholic areas. The Inquisition, except in a few areas where the local inquisitor was especially zealous, was more lenient about witchcraft cases than the secular courts; in Spain, for example, where the Inquisition was very strong, there were few deaths. Many inquisitors and secular courts disdained the Malleus Malificarum, still the main source for the view that witch-hunting was women-hunting; still others thought it ridiculously paranoid about male sexuality. In some countries, torture was not used at all, and in England, witches were hanged rather than burned.
All this has been known for some time. Yet in the teeth of the evidence, some women continue to find this story believable, continue to circulate it. Some women are still so attached to the story that they resist efforts to disprove it. The myth has become important, not because of its historical truth, but because of its mythic significance. What is that significance? It is a story with clear oppositions. Everyone can tell who is innocent and who guilty, who is good and who bad, who is oppressed and the oppressor. It offers to identify oppression, to make it noticeable. It legitimates identification of oppression with powerful institutions, and above all with Christianity. This is, above all, a narrative of the Fall, of paradise lost. It is a story about how perfect our lives would be -- how perfect we women would be, patient, kind, self-sufficient -- if it were not for patriarchy and its violence. It is often linked with another lapsarian myth, the myth of an originary matriarchy, through the themes of mother-daughter learning and of matriarchal religions as sources of witchcraft. This witch-story explains the origins and nature of good and evil.
The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations
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