The "witch legend", common in the countries where witches were most persecuted, was that only a baptised Christian
could be a witch
. Witches began their careers as pious, faithful churchgoers, who one day were waylaid by a stranger, usually described as being of compelling, foreign, aspect. He would promise to help them in some way, and in doing so, would give them a mysterious white powder
, which he would tell the woman to introduce into someone's food, and sometimes a book
. The powder would turn out to be poison
, and from then on, the witch's life would be a living hell.
First, she would be forced to kill her husband, and sometimes, her children. Alone now, she would be shut out of church life: the sight of religious articles, especially the Sacraments, would inexplicably cause her incredible guilt and torment. Village life would be denied her, as a woman with no family, and she would be forced into petty crime and/or extortion to eat. Periodically, she would be summoned to the gathering, where she would be forced to wait at table and often, be gang-raped. Sometimes, the Devil or another person in charge would tempt her along by promising an end to her trials, but would end up cheating her instead. Her health would fail. And so on.... This legend was originally a parable against religious heresy: don't listen to people you don't know with strange ideas and unknown nostrums. (Con artists are everywhen...) What the Church Fathers found was that people stopped listening to the beginning of the tale, and made their own conclusions as to who the lady in the story might be.
Some people say that the witch hunts were a war on women. Certainly, it was true to a point: it hardly speaks well that the suffering housewife of the early form of the legend was recast as a bloodthirsty harridan. And yet, there were other reasons for it. Women past menopause had always been problematical in agrarian societies. Infertile, unattractive, and often frail, they seemed to have all the disadvantages of men's old age with few of the advantages. Even the words used to denote them are perjorative: hag, which meant "evil spirit," in Anglo-Saxon, "crone," meaning carrion, or corpse -- most telling of all is Latin, whose word meaning "granny" is Anus! Widows, especially, were often at a loss, becoming isolated from society and family while deprived of the money and experience an older man might enjoy, money that was also necessary to join a convent, hire farm hands, or learn a craft or trade. (Being kept at home with the kids also hindered her: the craft of housewifery is both too simple and too common to rate much with any culture.) Since people tended to die young and often en masse, it would often be the case that an older woman could well find herself alone, perhaps cast into the position of having to beg, steal, or extort money or food. She might also resort to cosmetics to hide her aging features, and become a cheap prostitute, or grow and peddle quack remedies. This is not to say that all people persecuted as witches were guilty of criminal activity; but it does mean that there was a large stock of convenient scapegoats for almost anything going wrong.
If the cow failed to give milk, it was because the witch came in at night and stole it. If anything was missing or damaged, it was because the witch got to it first. If people experienced sudden illness, it was the witch's doing; they'd poisoned the well, or sent in venomous serpents to bite them, hoping to rob the house while they lay helpless to resist. If a child was missing or died, it was because the witch had eaten them, was using the corpse in spells, or was simply jealous of the mother's being able to bear and had taken the child as a servant or to be sold into slavery. Accidents happened because witches cursed things: as time went on, even being looked upon by a witch was risky -- their evil eyes would surely cause misfortune. And so on.
It was beyond a normal, fallible Padre (with his winy breath and roving eye during sermons) to deal with such a figure of consummate evil. Only someone who approached near-saintly status could rid the village of this menace, and with that, the witch hunter was born, who was often a defrocked priest or monk, a self-taught religious fanatic, or a simple charlatan with a good line of patter. A witch hunt ranks among the lowest and sleaziest forms of human behavior.
Coming into town, a witch hunter would be met with a delegation from the nearby church, who would be accompanied by a procession of children singing hymns, the pealing of church bells, and often a crowd of the laity, who would cheer on the great man, who, after being installed (for free) at the local inn or rectory, would tell hair-raising stories of witches and heretics, and the heroic means he'd employed to catch them. Certainly such a man would be able to deal with such a person as Old Kyte, out by the swamplands. I don't know, he might chuckle, these hags are tricky. Which reminds me of the story...
Would this person lie? Are you kidding??
At dawn, Kyte's house would be laid under siege. Being as it was that she'd been alone and destitute for years, she'd gotten into the habit of stashing away almost anything that looked as if it might someday be useful: most late-medieval houses had just such a store of bricabrac. But this time it was different: upon opening the door, the witch hunter would be on the lookout for anything suspicious. Perhaps it was an old school book, which Kyte had found rummaging in the ruins of the monastery that had burned a few years back, and was keeping to try and sell: she couldn't read it herself. Clearly, it must be her Book of Black Art, and would be seized as evidence. Any animals on the premises were probably demons (or bewitched humans) in animal form, even to the wild cat found rummaging in her trash. Anything, a broom, a knife, a cooking pot, had probably been used in spellcasting: further evidence. Going quietly meant that she recognized her guilt; resisting meant that she was fighting the authorities. And then, the trial began.
The object was, through leading questions, threats, promises, and torture to make the defendant confess to an already predetermined tale outlined above, with enough variation to sound plausible. Most accounts nowadays make witch trials into star chamber events, with a KGB-like Church snatching people in the night to demoralize organized groups of peaceful Old Believers. However, most witch trials were held out in the open, with the full participation of the laity, who all wanted to be involved as assistants to the witch-hunter, as witnesses, or to simply see the old bitch squirm and give out with steamy tales of wrongdoing. Consequently, there would be no end of accusations: the least connection between her and any kind of disaster would be admissible. Had there been a crop failure one year? Had she had anything to do with the sowing or harvesting? How had her husband died? Had she any children, and if not, then why not? Had she had dealings with anyone in town, and how had they fared? Were these people collaborators with her, if they'd done so well? Could she name others? What exactly had she done at the Sabbat? With how many and could she give names?
Could she explain what is written in this book? Why not? What about this odd-shaped piece of metal, or this root? Yes, and what about this knife? Why would she need a knife when she had no animals to slaughter, or this scrap of mirror, when she clearly did not care what she looked like? These playing cards....very nice, and far too expensive for someone like her to afford. Did she do anything with them? So why keep them around? You dare to lie to a priest, woman? For shame!
The capstone was the confession and execution, a festive occasion where the whole village would take part. Spurred on by the priest and the witch hunter, the witch would recapitulate all the charges brought against her, and would sometimes implicate others, which may or may not have had repercussions. Dressed in a single ragged garment, made to wear a ridiculous hat and made comical in other ways, she'd have to walk the gauntlet of the rest of the village, who would poke her with sticks and pelt her with mud and stones. At last, through burning or hanging, she would go to her death, without dignity, unmourned, while children mimicked her death throes for laughs.
The witch-hunter, on the other hand, would be lavished with gifts and roundly toasted. Bravo to the brave witch-hunter, who had rid the village of this horror. He would perhaps make a flattering speech that this was the most pious and God-fearing village he had ever seen -- a veritable model of virtue. His fee, ah that was too much to ask... but since they insisted....
Witch hunts went on for about four hundred years. Although they're thought of as a phenomenon of English-speaking nations, the vast majority of them took place in France and Germany, which was gripped in a grim struggle between Protestantism and the Papacy. They were a convenient way to persecute almost any rebel religious minority, or even random troublemakers: some realms in Germany burned witches in honor of visiting dignitaries, and in some places whole villages were put to the flame as the inhabitants turned on each other in an orgy of accusations, killing men, women and children indiscriminately.
Those who were not so lucky as to see a witch hunt with their own eyes had a wealth of printed material with which to regale themselves, and in larger towns these were sold as souvenirs after a successful hunt, or advertising (of a sort) for hunters. Beginning with woodcut chapbooks, witches were a staple of early printed material, ranging from simple accounts of confessions, to examiner's manuals, to alleged reprints of the grimoires themselves. Self-righteous semi-pornography was circulated to document the real witch's sabbaths, and strange books of spells cobbled together from Jewish and Greek sources circulated among the well-read. Indeed, worshipping the Devil became a chic activity: the first recorded Black Mass was staged in the Palace of Versailles (at the behest of the King's Favorite) in 1664.
Most of the intelligensia found witch hunts repellant and superstitious -- as the Age of Enlightenment dawned, the idea that a little old lady could raise such havok by merely skulking around staring at people and muttering fragments of Latin-sounding nonsense seemed more than a little silly. At the same time, there was a certain interest in someone who could work miracles, whether one believed in them or not, and the growing secularization of life meant that supernatural claims were met with more amusement than horror. The first books of fairy tales were written at about this time, drawing from sources as disparate as local folklore, The Arabian Nights, the Bible, and medieval chronicles. In them, the figure of the witch was developed as a fallible, all-purpose villain who existed to be comically or heroically trounced by the hero. As actual witches became less and less visible, their powers grew and became less realistic, until we come to the strange demigoddesses of the Wizard of Oz and later.
Witch hunts fell off sharply by 1720, and the last few recorded witch trials tended to be little more than cases of fraud, that couldn't be prosecuted otherwise. The very last, in England, was in 1850, but little is known about it.