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Why was it possible for child testimony and child witches to seem credible?
The European witch-hunts of the, largely, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries presented an attack on a prevailing stereotype, the 'archetypal witch-figure: the bad mother'1. The hunts persecuted a majority of women across most of Europe: mostly older, perhaps widowed, isolated or quarrelsome, they were targets for the supernatural fears of the societies around them. As a consequence, children, mostly babies, often became the victims of such supernatural attacks; a subversion of the maternal role in which witches would 'devour the souls of babies in their cribs'2, or use their flesh for food at sabbaths and their bones for magical salves. This victimisation of children in cases of witchcraft certainly preserved their innocence, but this did not mean children could not play an active role, particularly in mainland Europe. Children, allowed to stand as witnesses, such as Jennet Device in the Pendle WitchTrials, could attest to their family and neighbours' supernatural activities which could condemn them all to death. Opposingly, children could take on the role of the witch themselves, an act of particularly interesting focus due to the nuances and motivations which may lead to this. Child witches may have been subject to external adult pressure, using the child as a conduit through which they could denounce their own personal opponents. Contrastingly, it could be that child witches used witchcraft to gain their own personal power over adults, or perhaps to manifest sexual fantasies and childhood development in a symbolic way: a reaction against a state increasingly concerned with moral behaviour. Whatever the cause, the phenomenon of child-witches was very real, and gained significant traction in some areas of
Europe, and thus must be considered as a vital component of the witch-craze.
Children and their role in witch-trials often did not come about independently to the role of adults,
and the belief in adult witches may have granted child-witches credibility as an extension of this already accepted phenomenon. Pierre de Lancre's 1612 demonological tract, On the Inconstancy of Witches,
attested to the idea that children made pacts with the Devil before the age of puberty3, and many witches at trial supported this by claiming they had been 'seduced by the Devil'4 as a child. This was often constituted by links to a relative or another suspected witch in the neighbourhood, linking children to witchcraft through an already active adult, who they themselves may have also been 'seduced' in childhood. Such cases include the 1587 trial of six-year-old Hans Gackstatt of Rothenberg, who implicated his mother, Magdalena, in stories of 'nocturnal flight to a witches' dance'5, the case in the same town of thirteen-year-old Margaretha Hörber in 1627, who blamed Ursula, an old midwife 6, and
Rowlands, Alison, Witchcraft Narratives in Germany: Rothenburg, 1561-1652 (pg. 81), Manchester
University Press (2003)
Bever, Edward, Popular Witch Beliefs and Magical Practices (pg. 54), in Levack, Brian P. (Ed.) The Oxford
Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, Oxford University Press (2013)
3 Lancre, Pierre de, On the Inconstancy of Witches (pg. 195), in Williams, Gerhild Scholz (Ed.), Medieval and
Renaissance Texts and Studies Volume 307, Arizona State University and Brepols Publishers (2006)
Roper, Lyndal, 'Evil Imaginings and Fantasies': Child-Witches and the End of the Witch-Craze (pg. 107),
in Past & Present No. 167 (May, 2000), pp. 107-139, Oxford University Press
4 5 6
Rowlands, Witchcraft Narratives... (pg. 81)
Ibid. (pg. 107)
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