10 Over the Top Historical Tests for “Proving” Someone Was a Witch

By Natasha sheldon

The concept of the witch is as old as civilization. Whether they were known as shamans, wise folk or cunning folk, every society had their version of the witch; a marginal character, credited with the powers to heal and harm, to cure, and to curse. Witches were feared and respected for their perceived connection to the unseen and unknowable. Despite being outside the religious and social mainstream, people generally tolerated them. However, in situations where the political and religious status quo of society was under threat, witches became suspect- and were often used as scapegoats.

Such was the situation in late medieval and early modern Europe. Since the ninth century AD, the Catholic Church had rejected the notion of witchcraft. However, this attitude altered as challenges to the church’s authority grew. Suddenly, witchcraft was very real- and dangerous. The newly established Inquisition began to root out anything outside the religious mainstream: unorthodox Christian beliefs and witchcraft alike. Persecution for witchcraft escalated during the reformation, with both Catholics and Protestants seeking out and executing witches. The question was, how to tell a harmless healer from an agent of the devil. Here are just ten historical tests of and proofs for witchcraft.

An elderly witch and her familiars. Woodcut image from “A rehearsall both straung and true, of hainous and horrible actes committed by Elizabeth Stile, alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, fower (i.e. four) notorious witches” c. 1579. British Library. Public Domain.

Appearance

Witches were often initially identified, not by the evidence of their craft but by their appearance and circumstances. Most suspected witches followed a standard pattern. They were usually old, female, often poor or infirm or else marked out as different in some other way. Many lived alone, with only pets for company. In the 1640’s the English Puritan cleric and witchcraft skeptic John Gaule, noted disdainfully in his  “ Select Cases of Conscious”, how: “Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr’d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue… a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspected but pronounced for a witch.”

 Some of these traits were initially ‘identified’ in the Malleus Maleficarum, or ‘The Hammer of the Witches,” written in 1486 by two Dominican Inquisitors, Father James Sprenger, and Henry Kramer. By this time, witchcraft had become heresy, and the two Dominicans had been permitted by Pope Innocent VIII to hunt down those guilty of its practice. The Malleus represented the body of their findings of the nature of witchcraft- and the traits of its practitioners. It formed the basis for the witch hunts of Catholics and Protestants alike for the next 200 years.

According to the Malleus, most witches were women- because they lacked self-control and were easily led. Women, explained the book,  “when they are governed by a good spirit they are most excellent in virtue, but when they are governed by an evil spirit, they indulge in the worst possible vices.” For the Malleus, “loose or vagrant” women were most likely to be witches. Socially marginal, by nature of their behavior or their circumstance, they included promiscuous or forward young women or elderly and impoverished females.

This image of the witch reached its zenith in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The rise of printing, in particular of woodcut images, allowed the mass production of cheap broadsheets. There was nothing the public liked more than lurid tales of crime. The popularity of these broadsheets corresponded with the height of, the European Witch Craze and the publications made sure that the populace did not go short of news of witch trials. In Britain one of the earliest witchcraft pamphlets was published in 1579, telling the story of four “notorious witches” Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell and Mother Margaret Fowler.

All of the accused witches were old, widowed or living alone. They also all had pets. This basic information was taken and twisted so that the result was woodcuts depicting the women as hideous crones, feeding blood to demonic familiars. The image of the witches created in this pamphlet become the definitive image of the witch across England, as other broadsheets copied the images. The pictures became a stereotypical image of the witch, embedded into the collective consciousness. It was a stereotype that was also used to pinpoint witches within society. Soon, any outspoken old lady with a cat was in danger of being identified as a witch.

However, appearance was not all. For the definitive proof of witchcraft was hidden about witch’s body.