Fertile Ground: A Witch's History Lesson

a black and white illustration of witches flying on broomsTo me, witches are the quintessential ecofeminists.

"Witch" is a word that was sullied by various groups of long ago, but it's been reclaimed by herbalists like me. Witches and the word "witch" have many meanings in many cultures, but for the purposes of this post, I will touch on just one context, one dark moment of history: The suppression of witches—or healers who were mainly women—in medieval Europe that went on for centuries, and the themes behind those witch hunts that still appear in society today.

My mind began to swim with this idea of witch-as-ecofeminist while working at a medicinal herb farm as a farmhand long ago. I had been seeding herbs in the greenhouse alongside another worker, who was semi-complaining about the job, but then finally shrugged. "This one is way better than my last job at an herb farm," she said. "That one was way too feminist for me."

Feeling a twinge of disappointment, I pressed her; "You don't consider yourself a feminist?"

"No, I wouldn't say so," she sighed. "I guess I just see myself as more…neutral."

Cue heart sinking. At the time, Bush was in office, his so-called "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was going full force, and this didn't seem like any kind of time to be "neutral" about anything. It was surprising to me—most all of the farm workers were women, and we were working at an organic medicinal herb farm, for pete's sake. Herbal medicine, I felt, was a fairly radical subject to be learning amidst our right-wing, pharmaceutical-obsessed backdrop. If it weren't for feminism, I figured, we could be a lot less busy making plant tinctures and a lot busier getting burned at stakes for practicing magic and witchcraft.

The European witch hunts took place from the 14th century to the 17th century, from Germany to England. It is estimated that the numbers of women healers getting tortured and killed for being "witches" reached the millions. No matter where in Europe these burnings occurred, the basic theme was always the same: the ruling upperclass aimed their reign of terror towards the poor peasant women in the villages. It was largely rationalized at the time, and for some time after, as the female peasant population going mad, getting in touch with the devil, and needing to be stopped. In truth, it was a much more calculated ordeal, however, and was initiated and funded by the church and state.

As for these women's crimes? The first was female sexuality. The medieval Catholic Church saw women and sex as tied together in the worst way. Lust in either the man or the woman was always blamed on the woman, and lust and sex were both considered sins. The second crime was that these women were organized. It was thought by the church that they had secret societies where they held powerful meetings, talking in dark rooms in hushed voices about sorcery and magic. The third crime was for harnessing power, or magic, from nature—i.e., knowing how to use plants for different ailments. Witches had a powerful connection to the local flora and fauna, and how to use it to heal, which was seen as a threat to those in power.

What's amazing and disturbing about history is that it tends to repeat itself. For something that happened centuries ago, some prevalent attitudes in today's society sure have a lot in common with those from witch-burning Europe.

Historians who study the European witch hunts now think what the Church called "secret societies" were actually gatherings of these women healers, in public during festivals or in the privacy of their homes, to swap information, herbs, ideas, and support. Nothing displeased the upper-class, male-centric medieval society more than women, largely poorer women, coming together and being powerful in their own right. We can see this displeasure reflected in pop culture today. We delight in the hair-pulling nature of women-pitted-against-women reality shows (The Bachelor, Flavor of Love, America's Next Top Model). Magazines beg us to hate/condemn women in the celebrity spotlight.
an illustration of a green dandelion plant

When women combine forces and decide they aren't going to take it anymore, it is threatening to patriarchal society. In medieval Europe, something needed to be done about these uppity lower-class herbal healers to knock them down to the dirt they walked on—literally, by burning their bodies to ash. That sentiment isn't restricted to the history books, either. Women's reproductive rights are diminishing at the discretion of politicians' personal, religious, and fundamentalist views. Planned Parenthoods that have lost their funding will no longer be able to provide cancer prevention services to low-income women. Verdicts everywhere tell women that rape is their fault. Feeling like a witch on trial yet?

The European witches were accused of harnessing power from nature. Witches of yesteryear—and herbalists today, from western herbalists to Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners to Ayruvedic doctors—know the power of plant parts, from leaves to stems to roots. Plants are powerful, and they will speak volumes if you listen. They appear out of nowhere, and are everywhere. Dandelions spring up in our fields, uninvited among the packed salad greens; thistle will appear from underneath the stoop of your apartment building. We have a lot to learn from them; they are unsinkable. They don't give up. They cluster and grow in numbers, together. And that should make all of our little witchy hearts soar.

Yesterday I harvested stinging nettles from our farm, a small patch I had planted a few years ago. It is a wild, unruly plant, very old, and very nutritious and healing. At a nearby school garden, I harvested some of another of my favorite wild weeds, plantain. Both were for my son: nettles for his allergies and building of immune function, plantain for his general digestion. As I harvest these plants I think of women who died for their healing of others. They did so as women, knowledgeable women, organized women. I think how now we have a legacy and mission to fulfill for them. I think about how when things look so bleak, so dreary, and so hopeless, we have to look at each other, and think what really matters, how to be strong standing with one another, what wildness can teach us. We have to keep going, become unsinkable, not give up.

Do I believe in magic? Hell yeah I do.

Previously: Farming for Feminism, Gendering Outdoor Play

Comments

17 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Love this! Thanks for posting

Love this! Thanks for posting it. :)

I really enjoyed your article

I really enjoyed your article and I love your passion for the development of organizations of strong, knowledgeable women but I would like to make a comment about one thing I disagreed with (though I apologize if you feel I'm being nit-picky because this wasn't the focus of your article).
I think you provided a misinterpretation of the witch-hunts that is important to take note of. These were not always (or even in the majority of cases) events propagated by the elite and forced upon the lower class in a top-down manner. In fact it was often people of the lower socioeconomic class, the neighbours, friends and families of the "witches" who would stir up frenzy and report these women, often to serve personal vendettas and pacify superstitious fears. The early modern period is often described as a time of anxiety and I think it's important that we recognize the impact of a bottom-up effect on things such as the witch-hunts. I'm not saying that the church and government weren't influential players, but just like today, we shouldn't discount the power of the multitudes to influence the upper echelons of society. As easy as it is to blame the media, government etc. for our distorted perceptions, I think both bottom and top have always effected each other interchangeably, whether it was during the early modern period or today and I don't think that relationship should be discounted and blamed entirely on one group of people.

Problematic

As a historian of the early modern period, this article made me cringe for its misrepresentation of these issues. For one thing, most scholars do not estimate that millions of people were tortured and tried as witches. Even 300,000 is a higher end estimate for the number of people tried. While midwives and healers may have been popular targets in literature, local studies show that there were comparatively few who were tried as witches. Religious tensions (both Catholic and Protestant) played a significant role in the height of the witch craze c. 1550-1650, and most initial accusations came from friends, neighbors, and relatives rather than from some royal official or bishop, as another commenter mentioned. In some places men actually outnumbered women among those accused of witchcraft during the late medieval and early modern period.

Because there are many

Because there are many contradictory accounts of the witch hunts of this time period, it is hard to get an exact grasp of what really happened. Depending on who they were associated with, many historians of the time were likely very biased, and women healers of the time were often poor and illiterate, so we need others to tell her story. Many accounts I have read estimates the numbers to be in the millions. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English give a great explanation of why they estimate millions in their wonderful pamphlet, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses. There were indeed men who were killed also as witches, but according to my research, the vast majority of those killed were not; 85 to 90 percent were estimated to be women.

There's actually a lot of

There's actually a lot of historical evidence that goes against what you're saying - not just that it wasn't a top-down type of hysteria, but also the fact that midwives/healers were not actually victims very often. I can't remember the exact statistics off the top of my head, but it was a small number. In fact, they often held positions of respect within their villages, and so were actually less likely to be accused: they were important members of their communities, not suspicious ones. Following from that, the ability to connect with/harness nature was not exactly as novel for the time period as it is to us now. Everyone believed in the type of natural magic that healers would use, and so it was not something that would stand out to the average person. And as the above anonymous historian pointed out, it was the village people who were accusing people. What they accused them of was black magic - maleficium - not the type of healing you're attributing to these women.

There's actually a lot of

There's actually a lot of historical evidence that goes against what you're saying - not just that it wasn't a top-down type of hysteria, but also the fact that midwives/healers were not actually victims very often. I can't remember the exact statistics off the top of my head, but it was a small number. In fact, they often held positions of respect within their villages, and so were actually less likely to be accused: they were important members of their communities, not suspicious ones. Following from that, the ability to connect with/harness nature was not exactly as novel for the time period as it is to us now. Everyone believed in the type of natural magic that healers would use, and so it was not something that would stand out to the average person. And as the above anonymous historian pointed out, it was the village people who were accusing people. What they accused them of was black magic - maleficium - not the type of healing you're attributing to these women.

Wonderful Post!

Thanks for sharing this. I'm writing a novel inspired by the Burning Times, so your timing couldn't have been better. it's still very relevant to today. My favorite book on the topic is Witchcraze, by Anne Llewellyn Barstow. I also recommend:

Whaley, Leigh. Women and the Practice of Medical Care in Early Modern Europe. Palgrave MacMillian, NY: 2011.

Great article! Keep on

Great article! Keep on Witchin'. :)

Thank you for this. You've

Thank you for this. You've successfully "planted a seed in my mind." I will try my best to spread this message and remind everyone to think of the "witches" who died for the healing of others. Just as many hands make light work in large gardens, the concept can certainly be utilized in spreading this important message and banning our sisters together.

Yay!

This was really interesting and heartwarming to read. Much thanks from one witch to another!

Beautiful weaving of subject matters

I love this post. What a beautiful weaving of subject matters: withcraft, ecofeminism, and herbalism. I took a class on medieval witch hunts in grad school and really loved it. We discussed the things you touched upon, women's "errant" sexuality in particular. I wouldn't have made the connections to ecofeminism that you pointed out, but I think you make a great case here for how history repeats itself and for how important it is to carry the (eco)feminist movement forward.

S.

beautiful and thought-provoking

Not only is ths article beautifully and poetically crafted, it reminds me that women have for thousands of years been on the cutting edge of things like medicine and healing and also on the lowest rung of the ladder of every social hierarchy. The magic in evidence when they produced human beings from ther bodies certainly caused consternation--and even outright fear--among less-gifted men (who couldn't create life but only destroy it.) So healers were deemed witches, and the men who felt threatened (let's say, for argument's sake, all of them) resorted to the only mechanism by which to control these inconveniently powerful creatures who literally created life and also discovered and disseminated to the afflicted treatments for ills and injuries. Some of the readers making comments about this provocative piece seem intent on rewriting history, either by denying the murders of untold numbers of female healers-witches, or by insisting that phantom hordes of like-minded men met with equal mistreatment and death. I hope Ms. Parker continues to share with all of us, the open-minded and the not-so-much, her wit, her knowledge, and her observations about the human condition as seen through the unique prism of a woman's eye. Those for whom the truth hurts ... well, be glad you live here and now. And that you have writers as gifted as Ms. Parker to learn from..

witches are women who had men

witches are women who had men lust over them or had their own opinions we call them bitches today. women weren't allowed to be opinionated no mater what the situation was. women got blamed for men lusting over them or if the flirted with them. women was told to be magical beings that's where they got the term witches. Because women used natural herbs to heal people it was callled magic because men didnt understand women wasn't suppose to be smart.

Eco and Feminist, but not both

Ecofeminism is a distinct environmental philosophy rooted in feminism. This has nothing to do with that.

There are several outdated

There are several outdated misconceptions in this article. Witch-hunting manifested in various different ways, all across Europe-- not just the western areas. Secondly, the death toll was, most liberally, no more than a hundred thousand. This leaves more than enough room for error, since historians have counted less than 20,000 recorded witch trial deaths on whole.

Also, there was also a high percentage of men persecuted as well-- not just women... there were even areas of Europe like Norway where the majority of persecuted witches were men.

And even though the infamous Malleus Maleficarum was penned by a Catholic, its ideas were widely rejected even by the Inquisition, since church theologians believed that witches actually had no power, and to claim so was heretical. The Inquisition was, in fact, the most lenient when it came to witchcraft charges-- the accused were most often forgiven with confession, and did not commonly resort to torture and execution in such sentences. The worst incidences came from unstable border regions, and, ironically, in many instances when witches were accused by other cunning-folk and magical practitioners themselves, often out of jealousy or superstition.

Also, it is highly unlikely that witches were actually organized or formed secret societies, since the majority of them were poor, illiterate, and spent almost all of their time at the home and hearth. The idea of some "secret witch conspiracy" comes mostly from paranoid witch-hunters who tortured their victims to implicate as many people as possible. Healers and folk magicians certainly did share some traditions, but this was common folklore and mythology found all over Europe. So-called "secret societies" were usually well-off and educated Christian men exchanging letters and manuscripts on esoteric topics like Alchemy and Rosicrucianism.

Granted, folk healing and cunning-craft was a very real phenomenon that helped give the underclass (especially women) an active role in a vibrant spiritual heritage that the Church denied them. But most of this article's ideas come from sources that are unreliable and outdated, written by those who were passionate about the subject but did not consult any first-hand historical documents themselves, merely handing down the same "Burning Time" myth that becomes more lurid and sensational with each retelling.

Scholars have made a lot of ground since then. Those interested in the subject should consult exhaustive contemporary studies on the subject, such as "The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe", "Man As Witch: Male Witches in Central Europe", and "Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic ".

This article, written by a female neopagan scholar, is also a good level-headed take on the matter:
http://www.tangledmoon.org/witchhunt.htm

It's truely amazing how there

It's truely amazing how there are people who believe and those who don't. those who do not believe will figure it out as they get older. Magic is real and histories are not all true. Many people may look into witchcraft and all that but they will never find the real awnser unless they speak to a real witch. Anymore there are not a whole lot. Yes a lot of people clame to be, but doesn't mean they are telling the truth. I know all there is to know about witchcraft and the history behind it, the real truth. No I am not saying i am smarter than anyone. But humans believe what they want to believe. There were millions of women accused of witchcraft but not all died, yes torcher in many different ways but not a lot were still alive afterwards. the reason you don't find it in a lot of places is because the people who wrote it does not want look like they failed. it's a tall tale from them. Anyways very interesting your article was and I'm glad to see a believer. Keep writing about what you do and believe in anything you can.

Can you send me my letter for

Can you send me my letter for Hogwarts?