The following is a very brief summation of the transition from our dependence on healers in our communities to the forced removal of these individuals through religious and legal means. Often seen as the beginning of the war on women and clear rise of patriarchal society, the history of healers and witches has been studied deeply. I am not a research expert and am learning along with you in what I discover. I hope you are inspired to dive into the past!
Anyone that has ever picked up a history book will know that our technology and understanding of the world around us has been evolving since the dawn of man. Anthropologists have documented countless cultures and communities that navigate the world around them with varying levels of technology and medicines. Our society is shaped by the technology and medicines available to them. Before the means to pursue modern medicines were available, the only thing we could turn to for health concerns were the herbs and plants that grew around us.
Those that possessed knowledge of natural medicine were honored and influential. Some cultures considered the abilities of folk healers to be a gift from the gods. Which is unsurprising considering, at this time, many attributed knowledge and abilities, natural cycles and disasters, etc. as gifts or caused by the wishes of deities or spirits. These beliefs and practices eventually became known as folk religion as Christianity began to spread across Europe.
Converting mass populations is not an easy feat. Especially when these communities have such rich history and tradition from their older religious practices. Larger town centers where most of the population do not necessarily work on the land that supports them were much easier to transition. The populous had already begun to experience a disconnection from older practices.
Interestingly, the name “pagan” or “heathen” were appropriately applied to non-Christians at the time. Raymond Buckland, a highly influential professor on Wicca and pagan practice, claims that Pagan is a derivative of “pagani”, which means people who live in the country and heathen literally translates to one who dwells on the heath. A heath is open, undeveloped land. For the sake of due-diligence, I consulted that magickal book no one seems to remember – the dictionary. While they claim the original Latin is paganus, they support the claim that the religious association with the words developed during the time of mass Christian conversion.
Recognizing the influence of healers in these communities, the Church’s conversion campaign began to focus on the skills offered by these individuals. By tying these healers to Satanic or evil, people began to fear association with them. Anyone that began to fall outside Christian norms found themselves under scrutiny for witchcraft or Satanic worship.
This only grew worse as Pope Innocent VII produced the Papal Bull of 1484. In it, he vocalizes his support of witch hunting. Two years later, Europe would begin a reign of persecution and hysteria for three centuries with the production of the Malleus Maleficarum. Those that had previously cared for and been considered leaders of their communities feared their neighbors and even their own family.
The Witchcraft Act of 1542 was the first legal document that made witchcraft a crime punishable by death. Conversion was no longer strictly a spiritual practice. To be non-christian effectively ensured your death if you were reported. This act even removed the prior protection afforded to convicted clergy members.
This act was amended over time to delineate the potential impact of witchcraft. Practices that could be proven to have done harm faced the death penalty. However, lesser practices were met with a term of imprisonment. It wasn’t until the act of 1604 that this was broadened even further. While the Malleus Maleficarum indicated that the only proper way to kill a witch was through burning, the Act of 1604 indicated that burning would only be used in cases in which petty treason was also charged. Most witches faced hanging, which is a common misconception that those accused of witchcraft were always burned.
It would not be until the Witchcraft Act of 1735 that the death penalty for practicing witchcraft would be removed. The maximum penalty for an offense was a year’s imprisonment. I found the transition of this act interesting. Clearly, as knowledge and cultural expectations changed, the belief in witchcraft began to shift. It became less of a fear and with the majority of the population having been converted to Christianity – either directly or through generational conversion. The last person executed in Great Britain was Janet Horn, in 1727.
There is a huge jump in the history to the mid 1900s from the 1700s. The last people, unsurprisingly women, jailed for practicing witchcraft in Great Britain were Helen Duncan and Jane Rebecca Yorke in 1944. In 1951, the last laws against practicing witchcraft were finally repealed.
Witch Fact: The Witchcraft Act of 1735 is still in effect in Israel. Israeli Penal Code par 417 indicates that anyone that “pretends to perform witchcraft with the intent to obtain anything” shall face two years imprisonment.