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LABELING AND OPPRESSION: WITCHCRAFT IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

LABELING AND OPPRESSION: WITCHCRAFT IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE

Campbell, Mary Ann (Washington University)

Mid-American Review of Sociology, V ol. III, No.2

Abstract

The attempt here is to understand the social conditions and processes through which witches were labeled, hunted and persecuted in Europe during the Middle Ages. An historical analysis, utilizing anthropological accounts; Church doctrines and handbooks from the Inquisition, as well as testimonies, notes and sentences from witch trials, identifies the Church as labeler and the witch as rule-breaker. Throughout Church proclamations and convicting testimonies, there run three strands of indictment against witches: they did not worship the Christian God; they used magical powers to help or harm people; and they threatened or harmed men sexually. It is shown how these witches, many of whom were peasant healers, represented threats to the entrenchment of the Church, the legitimation of medicine as an honorable profession, and the perpetuation of patriarchal authority. It is submitted that the witch-image was created by the Christian Church, with support from secular rulers and to “professional” medical practitioners, to eradicate persistent pagan religions and lay healing practices, including midwifery. This image of woman as evil incarnate, and the accompanying sex oppression, has persisted through the centuries. Modern-day implications o f the witch-image are discussed in light o f the current women’s culture movement.

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