We think of the European middle ages as a time of superstition, ignorance, and filth. That is partly true. There was a great deal of superstition, but probably not more than there is today. We still know of many people who trust in their horoscope, who fear witchcraft, who believe in little green men from outer space kidnapping farmers from Iowa, and we frequently speak of luck. There were also many ignorant people from that time, but it is doubtful if we are very much further, especially if we look at the whole body of knowledge in the universe. We are all children together. Dirty, yes, but they had frequent, constant war, and tyrannous governments to contend with. We have had much more peace and stability to foster our development.
As for the witches, certainly there have been women and men in the past who have steeped themselves in evil, even believed they made pacts with the devil. But witches of the Middle Ages, and especially the late sixteenth century, fit a different demographic than the truly evil. To be accused as a witch you had to have one or several of these qualities:
- Be a woman
- Be a destitute beggar
- Be old
- Be a widow
- Be crippled or deformed, even a prominent birthmark
- Have lots of money and property as a single woman
- Be well educated and accomplished as a woman
- Have power of some sort as a woman
- Be a midwife or healer for women
- Have a cantankerous or non-conformist personality
Sometimes men were accused of witchcraft as well, but it was rare. The original meaning of the word witch, mean wise woman, not evil sorceress who has made a pact with the devil. Witches such as exist in modern popular culture never existed in real life. If a person were accused and condemned of witchcraft, almost a foregone conclusion unless they had powerful or wealthy friends, then their property would be seized by the church or the king and sold or given to the “victims” and the witch was killed, by drowning or burning usually.
People differ as to their interpretation of why women were targeted and why there was such a mania of witchcraft in the first place. Your conclusions are probably as good as anyone else’s. Today we have “witch hunts” still. Any time a particular group is hounded and abused we call it a witch hunt. Sometimes it becomes a national epidemic and sometimes it is quieter.
Write on index cards each of the above qualities of potential witches. Have the kids draw these qualities out of a bag, so each person gets one. (Younger kids will enjoy hunting all over the room for the witch cards. After they have draw ask them which people they think might have been targeted as witches in the middle ages. The answer is of course, all of them. Discuss some of the superstitions and roles of women and attitudes about women in the middle ages. Now you are ready for a good discussion. (These questions are best for middle grades and above. Young kids won’t get it yet, but you can teach them about what a witch of the middle ages really was.)
- Discuss each of the qualities above and why this would make them a target of accusation.
- Notice that none of the qualities above included actually flying on brooms or brewing potions, but many women were accused of such things. Why were their accusers believed?
- What kinds of people are targeted today?
- How can you tell if people today (or their behaviors) really deserve to be marginalized or not? Should they ever be?
- Are so called “witch hunts” always a bad thing? Does the opposition sometimes call legitimate concerns a “witch hunt” to discredit a movement?
- The people of the middle ages were truly afraid of witch craft. What does fear do to our judgement?
Watch this documentary by the History Channel to learn more about the Salem Witch Trials. It’s a little over 40 minutes long, but really worthwhile and enlightening.
- Make a list of modern superstitions that you know of. Design an experiment to determine if there is any truth behind one of them.
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain are packed full of fascinating American superstitions. Read one of them.
- Research about some modern day witch hunts and see if you can find the truth. Do your best to be sure you read several accounts from different points of view. Some ideas: McCarthy trials of the 1950’s, treatment of AIDS victims in the 1990’s, Nazi exterminations programs of the 1940’s, or treatment of gays today. Some people think the government seizes property and kills non-conformist individuals such as in the Waco, Texas case or the Ruby Ridge incident, plus many more.
- There are several places in the world where witches are still executed with the medieval perceptions of witches. Where and why?
- The X-men comics and movies are a futuristic imagining of a witch hunt.