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Witch History: Jews and the Witchcraze

Note: this article focuses solely on the role of antisemitism during the witchcraze and the subsequent impact on Jews. This is in no way to say that antisemitism was the only factor contributing to the persecution of witches. Anti-Romani racism, misogyny, xenophobia, racism, class, ableism, and more were all factors.


When I dipped my toes into the online witch community, I was horrified, but not altogether surprised, by the amount of antisemitism that festered beneath the surface of the pretty spell jars and love and light facade.


Witches flew into a rage at any mention of the witch-craze of Europe but would turn around and perpetuate antisemitic tropes and stereotypes that have been used to commit genocide against Jews for centuries.


What struck me was the complete irony of white witches screaming about oppression while having a complete lack of education on the history of antisemitism and witchcraft.


What many modern witches fail to realize is how much of the history they so frequently reference was intertwined with antisemitism and hatred of Jews, particularly Jewish women. The things used to identify witches were commonly associated with the Jewish community, leading scholars to understand that the "Renaissance constructions of witchcraft owed much to the fifteenth-century typological construction of Jewish “heresy” and the nature of its persecution". (1).


Indeed, Yvonne Owens, the author of The Saturnine History of Jews and Witches goes as far as to theorize that "the prosecution of witches [was] stylistically rooted in earlier persecutions of Jews".


"For the most part, witches and Jews were persecuted interchangeably. Both witches and Jews were perceived traitors to Christian society who must be eradicated".


This quote comes from former history professor, Dr. Anne Llewellyn Barstow, from her book, "Witchcraze".


The witch-craze of Europe spanned from "the 14th century until 1650, [during which] continental Europeans executed between 200,000 and 500,000 witches, 85% or more of whom were women" (2). This number is debated, with estimates as low as 12,000. Scholar N. Ben Yehuda claims the above number, while others like Dr. Anne Llewellyn Barstow estimate around 100 thousand deaths by execution. Before this period, "witchcraft was regarded as a routine, day-to-day (almost personal) technology [and] until the 14th century, witches were classified as good or bad, depending on the objective of their magic" (2). It is important to make clear that these distinctions were commonly theoretical---a good witch in a story, an evil witch as a plot device. People did not often self-identify with the label witch as they do today.


This radical change in belief was aided, in no small way, by the association with witches and Judaism.


"Women as a gender group suffered a special liability in that they had begun to be identified with Jews. Both groups suffered from being associated with magical practices: making potions and poisons, wearing amulets, possessing the evil eye, sticking pins in dolls, having abnormal knowledge about dreams, fortune-telling, or the magic properties of gems". Dr. Anne L. Barstow, Witchcraze


Germany was the worst offender in regards to the murder of witches, with other continental European states trailing behind them in death tolls.


Antisemitism was by no means a new concept. What allowed these killings was centuries of dehumanization against Jews through the association of Jews with the Devil and/or Satan.


“The Christian notion of a relationship between the Jews and the Devil and of a perpetual curse afflicting Jews and distinguishing them from Gentiles has its origins firm in the New Testament, mainly Matthew 27:24-25 (“his blood is on us and on our children”) and John 8:44 (you belong to your father, the devil”). The medieval period witnessed what Joshua Trachtenberg accurately described in 1943 as a normalization of the representation of the Jew as a "alien, evil, antisocial, and anti-human creature, essentially subhuman, "a demonic Jew who "was born of a combination of cultural and historical factors peculiar to Eastern Europe in the later middle ages. " (7)


Collectively, the Jews became a physically repulsive and disgust-inducing “other”. Much of this iconography would go on to become the very same imagery we associate with witches..


As a whole, Jews became a "physically repulsive and disgust-inducing “other” (7). Much of the iconography created to demonize and dehumanize Jews would go on to become the very same imagery modern culture associates with witches.


Elongated, crooked, broken or hooked noses, warts, unruly black hair, dark eyes, and sallow or olive-toned skin were all associated with Jews, though now common in depictions of witches.

However, it is noted that there is a small lull in the creation of these images after the medieval period because according to Thomas A Brady Jr, “the need for caricatured noses was presumably less if Jews could be visibly distinguished in paintings and illuminations by means of symbols (such as yellow circles) worn on their clothing or distinctive headgear like the “Jewish hat”, that many were compelled to wear in parts of Europe, especially in the Holy Roman Empire (described as the Judenhut in German or the pileus cornets in Latin). (7).


Jews were often forced to identify themselves by clothing. Armbands, hats, belts, hats--even at times regulating the colors of clothing that Jews were allowed to wear.


(image: German Jews of the twelfth century. From Herrad von Landsperg, Hortus deliciarum)



In fact, in Hungary, when a person was found guilty of witchcraft as a first offense, they were required to stand all day in public dressed in the clothes of a Jew. To be seen as a Jew, in public, was the punishment for witchcraft (8).


Despite Judaism's requirements for ritual washing and bathing, the “notion that Jews, both male and female, possessed a repulsive smell, the supposedly distinctively “Jewish stench” (foetor iudaicus)” was extremely common (7).

In fact, “Franciscan preacher Berthold of Regensburg (1220-1272) scolded his Christian listeners for their poor religious observance by noting that “now you see very well that a stinking goatish Jew whose odor is offensive to all, honors his holy day better than you. Bah! As a Christian, you should be ashamed of yourself that you do not trust in G-d as much as the stinking Jew”. (7)


As comical as such an idea is, the xenophobic idea of stinking held a far more sinister note. The stench was associated with the goat and the pig. The associations of the horned goat became associated with the devil as early as 447, where the Church council of Toledo Spain “described the devil as a creature with animal attributes including horns, cloven feet, and sulfurous smell.” Jews were also frequently portrayed with these animals. There is even a term for certain portrayals called the Judensau (the Jews sow) which features Jews riding female pigs, suckling from their udders, kissing the animals anus, or eating their feces. From the 14th century on, they were extremely popular. There are even carvings at the Church of Wiggenberg and the choir stalls of the Cologne Cathedral (7).


St. Augustine, a Catholic saint that lived in 400 AD, asserted that Saturn was the God of the Jews, which is backed by a "tenth-century treatise by Alcabitius, “which claims for Saturn ‘the faith of Judaism.’ (1)

When the witchcraze began, "[t]he association of melancholic, disaffected women with cannibalistic Saturn (the planetary deity to whom the “affliction” of melancholic humor was attributed in elite discourses), may have intensified official persecutions of witches, and the same baleful planetary affliction was associated with Jewishness through a number of tropes, including humoral theories and theological depictions of Jews’ mordant or “putrid” blood. To the late medieval perspective, the Jews’ cannibalistic tendencies arose from a craving for the salvic benefits to be gained through consuming Christian blood. Indeed, only Jews and witches were considered capable of the atrocities of cannibalistic infanticide, and the only planetary deity who would condone it was Saturn."(1).


But there was another aspect of Saturn that linked Jews as a whole with witchcraft. I make the distinction here that the authors are writing about cisgender men and women. The articles written on the topic that will be quoted did not make a distinction, nor was the distinction mentioned at the time.


Jewish “male menstruation” or that Jewish cis men suffered from periods and bloody outbreaks of hemorrhoids. Caesarius of Heisterback (1180-12;40), offered that Jews suffered from a “bloody flux’ on Good Friday as punishment for the crucifixion of Christ…. Thomas of Cantimpre (1201-1272) believed that this was a fulfillment of the chapter of Matthew mentioned earlier (7).


“Both Jewish women and men, like witches, were associated with menstruation, and the benighted, “melancholic” influences of Saturn implied both spiritual pollution and the witting commission of maleficium. Jewish men were supposedly inherently guilty of witchcraft due to their purported contamination by the “pollution” of “passive” feminine reproductive physiology, and were popularly feminized by association with “dark,” “melancholic blood” and menstruation. In De secretis mulierum, the commentator reminds the reader that the term “menses” is understood to refer to: natural menses, such as the menstrual periods of cisgender women; supernatural menses, such as the Jews experience; and the way that is “against nature,” (1).


This was so common that Christians used it as a means of getting out of debt to Jews. “Nuremberg had been a center of anti-Semitic activity since the local merchants sought the expulsion of Jewish moneylenders, to whom they were in debt, in 1499. Treatises detailing the evils of the Jewish character, physiological nature, “womanlike” laziness, vagrancy, and “menstrual pollution” found supportive foundations in Nuremberg's publishing industry” (1)


It was also believed that the '“miracle of God” whereby Jewish men are stricken with the “Curse of Eve.” Jews' “natural” timidity is again rehearsed in this text, as a “contingent property” of melancholics. The “black and putrid” blood of Jews also served as a comparison to the typically “venomous” blood of normatively concupiscent, “disobedient” females in blood discourses."' (1)


Menstruation was associated with women and thereby any association of men with the experiences of womanhood made that man lesser, evil, or even demonic. To quote, “In a Christian society and warlike culture that placed a premium on military prowess and valor, the idea of periodic bleeding by Jewish men making to women menstruation evidently feminized the Jew, rendering him even more ignoble and worthy of contempt” (7). This added layer of misogyny being applied to Jewish men meant that while women suffered an especially heinous fate during the witch trials, Jewish men were included in it at times.


On a more magical note, menstrual blood was also suspected in cases of manipulative “love magic”. the Church believed it was practiced by Jews and “straying gentile women”, indicating that it was Jews who started and carried the practice, with only a few “wandering Christians” taking up the practice (1).


The association of Jews with blood was only worsened by blood libel. Shortly defined, blood libel is the "accusation that Jewish people used the blood of Christians in religious rituals", particularly that of Christian children. Not only did Jews supposedly use it to make matzoh, but it was also believed it have healing properties for magical remedies. 1494, the blood of a Christian was purportedly deemed an effective remedy for male or female Jews suffering from menstruation". Essentially, they believed Christian blood could cure Jews of their demonic menstruation..In Endingen in 1470 the Jew, Mercklin, “confessed” (under torture) that Jews needed Christian blood because of its great healing power (1).


“The Jews were not normal human beings but monstrous, bloodthirsty creatures, working secretly in tirelessly in league with their Lord the devil and his other minions. Despite their small numbers, these pitiless Jews threatened not only the church but also the life of every single Christian man woman and child. These fantasies stripped Jews of any individual identity and the Jews became a malignant satanic collective residing within Christian society, consumed by hatred of Christians, enacting iconoclastic sacrilege and sometimes ritual murder." (7)


Literature did not often record the murders of Jews as a result of witchcraft because to be a Jew was crime enough in their eyes... though we should not disregard that while Jewish men were often accused, and killed, because of their association with witchcraft, women were doubly in danger--not only were they women, they were Jews.


Thomas A. Brady, JR defined witches as ‘practitioners of a counter-Christian religion of devil-worship”, but also acknowledges that this was a largely fabricated concept, just like the witch cult... In reality, witches were perceived as antithetical to the church through the practice of black magic and devil worship. The importance is in perception.


It was in the Jewish woman’s nature, while the Christian woman had turned away from the church to witchcraft. This is, in part, why you see a distinction between Jews and witches in the literature... The added label of witch didn’t need to be given to Jews because Judaism was enough of a crime in and of itself.


So what of the actual witches?


There is very little, if any, evidence that those Christians killed as witches were actually practicing anything but Christianity.


In towns where Jews had already been killed off or driven out, the societal rage that previously went into the persecution of Jews had to be turned inward. With the most popular scapegoat already gone, women were next in line.

Dr. Anne Llewelyn Barstow, the author of Witchcraze, said it best:

The witches, unlike the Jews, saw themselves as Christians, as insiders in the Christian realm. In order to prosecute for witchcraft, European Society had to turn against its own.

So what did Jews, and these people branded as witches, have in common?


According to Barstow, "For the most part, witches and Jews were persecuted interchangeably. Both witches and Jews were perceived traitors to Christian society who must be eradicated".


And,


"Rumours circulated about their bodies that Jewish men menstruated (because they were circumcised), that Witches bore the devil's Mark, that both can turn themselves into animals, that Jewish women practice bestiality and produced animal babies and that Witches had sex the Devil and gave birth to Demons. Both were widely believed to cause storms and plagues. An especially damaging belief held against Jews was that they celebrated a travesty of the Christian mass in which they worship the devil, requiring for communion either the bodies of Christians or their own sperm. These allegations against Jews became the Sabbath of the witches, often referred to as a witch's synagogue but made even worse by the claim that which has had sex with Satan. And the Jewish synagogue, in turn, was referred to as a brothel.” (8)


The Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv "Jews being burned at the stake, Miniature from manuscript, Belgium, 14th century"


The Witches' Sabbaths, in particular, remained within the public perception, including within modern witches circles.


Witches Sabbaths, which were thought to include: "host desecration, diabolical orgies, infanticide, and cannibalism....[W]ere derived from preexisting myths and stereotypes associated with religious groups outside of Christianity such as Jews and heretics." (3)


"The same charges that were levied against heretics and witches were also raised against the Jewish community. These charges involved: but were not exclusive to, a pact with Satan, secret late night-rides to nocturnal meetings that later, through anti-Jewish and anti-heretical polemic, became the witches‘ Sabbath. Diabolical traditions practiced at the "Sabbath" or "Sabbat" such as orgies, host desecration, infanticide and cannibalism were allegedly witch, heretic, and Jewish "traditions" (1).

The Jewish Shabbat was antithetical to Christianity and was therefore demonized. It was a well-known thought that "[c]ontrary to the day when Christians meet to pray- Sunday morning- the devil and his legions prefer the night between Friday and Saturday. " (1). It was claimed in multiple texts that while Christians took the body of Christ on their Sabbath, on Shabbat, Jews ate the bodies of Christian infants.


The Hebrew "Shabbat" became "