The mark of the Devil: medical proof in witchcraft trials
By Sarah Dunn
MA Thesis, University of Louisville, 2017
Introduction: An intense and widespread fear of witchcraft permeated society in the late medieval and early modern periods in Europe. From around 1300 to 1650, citizens in England, France, Italy, and Germany were continually on guard against the danger witches posed in their communities.
Throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, men and women were accused, tried, and punished for the crime of witchcraft. The accused were put on trial, in various contexts, and expected to prove their innocence. Throughout the centuries, the evidence required to prove innocence became more and more difficult to obtain, while the evidence required to prove guilt became as easy as a body search.
Eventually, witch trials would take the very physical appearance of the accused into account. Not only was the outward appearance of an accused witch judged, but so was the entirety of their body. Accused witches would be stripped and searched for any sign of abnormality on their skin, which became known as witches’ marks, witches’ teats, devil marks, and suck spots. If one of these marks was found on the accused, the proof of demonic influence was evident, and they were convicted of the crime of witchcraft. To modern readers, this may seem like some sort of pseudo-science, but during the early modern period, the existence of a witch’s mark was considered medical and scientific proof in a trial.
In this thesis, the study of the body and the study of witch trials will be incorporated together in order to evaluate the importance given to physical evidence in the late medieval and early modern period during witch trials and holy autopsies. In witch trials, this medical evidence became indisputable physical proof of the diabolic activity. This physical proof was a way to prove logically that witchcraft, and by extension, the supernatural, was a real and present danger in the community.
Top Image: The North Berwick Witches meet the Devil in the local kirkyard, from a contemporary pamphlet, Newes From Scotland