Thursday 8 March 2018

'Accused of witchcraft and murder in 1518 and 2018' by Karen Maitland

New Mexico, 1920.
'Melita, the day after she was rescued
from hanging as a witch.'
Photo: James George Wharton
I was horrified, but sadly not surprised, to read of the terrible ordeal of a mother and daughter in Jharkhand State, India who, in February 2018, were dragged from their house by relatives, had their heads shaved and were paraded naked around the village, accused of having caused the death of a family member by witchcraft. Of the many cruelties perpetrated upon these two women, one that stuck out for me was the shaving of their heads. Why do some people fear women’s hair so much that they either demand to cover it up or cut it off?

From ancient times, in many cultures, cunning women and ‘witches’ were thought to be able to double the potency of any spell, curse or cure by unbinding their hair. Witches were believed to be able to whip up a storm that could sink ships simply by shaking their hair lose. To bind or cut a woman’s hair was thought to bind or sever her power, like weakening the mighty Samson by shearing his locks.

At the height of the witchcraft trails in England and Europe, Inquisitors were advised to shave the head and bodies of any women or man accused of witchcraft before integrating them. Jordanes de Bergamo in 1470 refers to this practise, and aside from helping to break their prisoners’ spirits, it was advocated for three reasons –

1) The ‘witch’ might conceal amulets or charms in his or her hair to render them immune to the pain of torture.

2) The devil himself might hide in their hair and instruct the accused how to answer in order to deceive the interrogators. This belief also extended to those deemed to be possessed. Their heads were not shaved, but they were made to wear wigs. When fits or ravings took hold of them, their wig would be snatched off and pushed into a flask in the hope that the demon had been pulled off with the wig and was now sealed in the bottle, rather like catching a wasp or spider in a pinch of paper.
'Examination of a Witch' by Thompkins H. Matteson, 1853
Collection of Peasbody Essex Museum

3) But in England the reason mostly commonly given to justify shaving the head and body was so that the cunningly concealed devil’s marks, such as moles or birthmarks, would be exposed.

Today is not only International Women’s Day, but also the 500-year anniversary of the birth of another woman who also found herself accused of witchcraft, Sidonie of Saxony, Princess of Calenberg-Göttingen, Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who was born 8th March 1518.

In 1545, a marriage was arranged for her to Duke Erich II of Brunswick-Lüneburg (1528–1584), a man ten years younger. Although the couple seemed to get on well at first, perhaps Sidonie should have guessed he was unlikely to remain faithful for long, since he had broken off his engagement to Agnes of Hesse to marry her.
Sidonie, from a painting by Lucas Cranach, 1550

Erich’s mother, the Duchy’s regent, had converted the family to Lutheranism, but when Erich began to rule the Duchy, two years after his marriage, he reconverted to Catholicism. Much to his annoyance, Sidonie maintained her Lutheran faith. The marriage soon began to buckle under the weight of financial pressures and childlessness, and Sidonie started to believe her husband was trying murder her. In 1555, a merchant told her brother Augustus that Erich had ordered poison from him to do away with her.

Erich did not bother to conceal the fact that he had installed a very young mistress at Calenberg Castle where he was now living. Sidonie had previously refused to allow ‘the whore’ into their home and in turn Erich banned the duchess from the castle. But in 1563, the duke barely escaped with his life when a fire broke out under his bed, and he accused his wife of trying to kill him.

From 1564, Sidonie was more or less kept prisoner in her own home. Then in that same year, Erich became extremely ill. His hair and nails fell out and his body swelled. A physician, Dr Cornelius Mertens, swore before witnesses that the duke had been poisoned.
Erich, circa 1573. Artist unknown

As soon as he recovered sufficiently, Erich had four acquaintances of his wife arrested for witchcraft and attempted murder. Under torture, three confessed to planting some kind of explosive device under his bed, and then afterwards, with a fourth woman, Godela Kuckes, they swore they had brewed a harmful substance intended to kill the duke. Godela Kuckes confessed without being tortured, but a few days later, having been kept in solitary confinement, she was found dead by the prison guards with a broken neck. It was rumoured she’d been killed by the devil himself, though whether that devil was Erich or one of his henchmen we will probably never know.

The other three conspirators were burned at the stake as witches. But the deaths did not end there, for Erich had a further 37 people who he claimed to be involved executed, some by burning. On 30th March 1572, Duke Erich assembled nobles and authorities from Hannover and Hameln and publicly accused his wife of witchcraft and of attempting to murder him. Given what had already happened to the 41-other accused, Sidonie was justifiably terrified.

The duchess managed to get away and travelled to Vienna to beg Emperor Maximilian II for help. Maximilian ordered that an investigation should be carried out and the evidence heard at the imperial court. All witnesses recanted their testimony against Sidonie and she was eventually declared innocent of all charges. Elector Augustus gave her the monastery of the Poor Clare’s at Weissenfels and she lived there until she died on 4th January 1575, aged 56. At her request, she was buried in Freiberg Cathedral.

On this International Women’s Day, it is wonderful to celebrate the achievement of women, but perhaps reflect that for some, like those two women in India, attitudes have not changed much in 500 years. World wide we still have a long way to go.


Susan Price said...

Very, very interesting (and depressing.)
There's a fascinating book: 'War, Witches, Cows and Pigs' by Marvin Harris.

In it he examines cultural memes that seem, to outsiders, quite senseless-- such as not eating specific animals or periodically going on witch-hunts-- and looks for the underlying reasons that make such behaviour useful for a given society.

With witch hunts, he concludes that it's one way that the rich and powerful divert attention away from themselves during turbulent, difficult times and dodge the blame for causing that turbulence -- 'It wasn't us, it was those witches!' (Contrast and compare with today.)

Witch hunts of various kinds always rise during times of political and economic instability -- for instance, Europe and Scotland suffered far more and for far longer from witch-hunting than England ever did. Scotland and Europe also suffered far more from wars, religious strife and political uncertainty.

After examining many European witch trials, Harris concludes that the way to stop a witch hunt dead in its tracks is for an arrested witch to insist that they saw many members of the ruling class at a sabbat. As soon as any investigation turned towards the aristocrats, they closed rank and, suddenly, it wasn't important to find those pesky witches after all. The purpose of a witch-hunt was to divide, occupy and confuse the ruled, not harm the rulers.

So interesting to see here that, although the accusations came surprisingly close to Sidonie, she was still able to escape and all accusations were recanted. She does seem to have been unusually threatened, though, for one of her rank.

Given the present political climate, I think we'll see more witch-hunts (or hunts for communists, or Satan-worshipping child murderers or immigrants. Or, maybe, Brexiters or Remoaners. And the ever popular Anti-Semitism is on the rise.

As I said, depressing. But what can you expect from rather stupid apes who consider themselves wise?

Karen Maitland said...

Thank you so much for your comment. I will treat myself to that book by Marvin Harris. It sounds fascinating, and so topical as you say at the moment. Sadly, I think you are right, we can expect more variations on this theme.