Witch Hunts

This brief article will, I’m sure, be extended as the site grows, since this is a huge topic in the history of herbal medicine, and indeed in the way we perceive nature.

It is not known how many people were murdered across Europe in what I believe can be described as systematic genocide. The perpetrators of this genocide were often lay people, but behind then was the legal system and the church. In England, the majority (estimated at > 90%) of those tried for witchcraft were women.

Do we now really believe there were ‘evil witches’, much characatured even today, intent on dark magic. Or is it more likely there were women within society who did not fit in with the orthodoxy of social norms, or who’s existence was ‘awkward’ within the social system of the time?

We do also know that this systematic genocide (which has at times been called gendercide) destroyed much of Britain’s oral traditions of medicine – a situation which has not happened in India or China, both of which have well integrated traditional and modern medicine. In the British wise-woman tradition, women were often the healers and midwives. This knowledge would have largely been passed on in the oral tradition, and very likely lost between the 15th and 17th centuries when witch hunting was at its peak.

Possibly even worse than the loss of knowledge due to individual deaths is the loss of knowledge due to fear. If you risk being burnt, are you going to train as a midwife?

My suspicion is that this doesn’t just apply to traditional medicinal knowledge, but also to our connection with nature and our feeling for the magic and wonder in nature.

Could it be that the same fear exists today?  I wonder if we can see echoes of it in that many are more comfortable picking up a chamomile tea bag (apart from convenience, the packaging gives a ‘stamp’ of acceptability) to picking chamomile flowers from their garden to drink as tea. Could there be echo’s of it in the ‘fear’ of nature…..’it could be poisonous’….prevalent today? Could it be that hugely destructive mechanised farming is not simply due to the profit motive, but also in part due to the loss of sensitivity to nature that can be found in more traditional farming techniques.

Further reading

Wikipedia has a fairly thorough review of witch hunts.