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A witch or a woman in a dark forest? Witch pricking was used for centuries to falsely prove a woman (or a man) was a witch!

Witch Pricking And The Devil’s Mark

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A witch or not? Guilty or innocent? Witch hunting was all the craze in the late medieval period and onwards in Europe and involved some rather peculiar practices. Witch hunters of all kinds emerged in search of fame and wealth and developed their own methods of determining if a woman (80% of the witches were women!) was a witch in league with the devil. Witch pricking was a common test, and a rather odd one at that. And no matter how crude witch pricking was, certain witch hunters found ways to “use” it and condemn innocent women to their death. And all for their own benefit, since they worked for cash.

Witchcraft History And The Rise Of Witch Pricking

Witchcraft and  witch hunting  were always a sore point in the history of Europe. Emerging in the  medieval period , witch hunting gradually evolved into a well-established and widespread practice. During the periods of Catholic revival and the European Wars of Religion, in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, witch hunting reached its highest point.

Before or after witch pricking was undertaken, the so-called witch would be horribly tortured! ( Public domain )

The reasons for the practice of witch hunting and witch pricking were largely religious and “preyed” on the narrow-minded worldviews of people during this period. Since the practice of sorcery and magic were contrary to  Christian doctrine , anyone suspected of practicing them was immediately ostracized and accused of witchcraft. And the sentences were seldom mild: death was never far off for the accused.

Of course, the boundary conditions that determined what  witchcraft actually was, were loose to say the least. This meant that a village woman that was knowledgeable in herbs and folk medicines could easily be accused of sorcery and witchcraft and burned at the stake for merely trying to help. Such were the constraints of late medieval  Christian Europe .

At the height of these persecutions, between 1580 and 1630, more than 50,000 persons were burned at the stake or otherwise murdered. And, sadly, over 80% of these victims were women. Thus, it is easy to understand that witch hunting was a way for the  Catholic Church  to brutally enforce their views and to ensure the mindless loyalty of their subjects. By directly repressing pursuits in knowledge, medicine, and philosophy in women, the church and its followers ensured a narrow minded and obedient religious society. 

Over time, legends emerged and disappeared, and beliefs pertaining to witches exploded into an endless range of titillating stories and fears. 

The methods used to determine if someone was a witch, or a sorcerer were primitive to say the least and perfectly reflected the “backward” ignorance of the time.  Torture was the most commonly used method of determining if witchcraft was at hand. Methods were varied and extremely cruel.

Experts agree that the vast majority of those executed for witchcraft were completely innocent and in no way involved with “ Devil worship .” Nevertheless, these practices continued for a long time. Methods of determination became increasingly bizarre and unjust, and trials were extremely biased.

The execution of witches, after witch pricking had determined them to be evil, was most commonly achieved by burning them at the stake. ( katafree / Adobe Stock)

No Mercy For The “Wicked”

Executions were the worst. Burning at the stake was the most common method, but the executioners did not stop there. For example, one noted “witch” execution happened in France, when a midwife was accused of witchcraft and subsequently burned to death in a cage filled with 16 black  cats. As you can see, not even cats escaped the Christian persecutions of the  Middle Ages .

Arguably, the most “successful” witch hunter was one  Matthew Hopkins , the son of a Puritan clergyman, who, in just two years, sentenced over 100 “witches” to death at the stake. Proclaiming himself as the celebrated  Witchfinder General , Hopkins and his gang of accusers were active from roughly 1644 to 1647. Roaming all over east England in search for possible witches, Hopkins relied on some tried and tested methods of determining if someone was a witch or a wizard. Many of these methods were described in Hopkins’ own book, the  Discovery of Witches , which he wrote with great inspiration drawn from King James’ book  Daemonologie.

Needless to say, most if not all of Hopkins’ methods were unjust and cruel. Even though torture was banned in England at the time, the Witchfinder General and his goons practiced it without restraint. Like many others, he relied on sleep deprivation during interrogations, and also used the ridiculous “swimming” test.

It was believed that water would “reject” a witch. A woman would be tied to a chair and thrown into a body of water. If she happened to float, she surely was a witch. However, another popular method used by Hopkins brings us to the topic at hand: witch pricking. 

Throughout the witch hunting period, it was commonly believed that a witch would not bleed when the skin was pierced. Matthew Hopkins found a way to cheat this method, using a blunt knife. Drawing it on the skin could never cause bleeding, so he was quick to find “witches” in his trials. In combination with this, Hopkins also sought the so-called “Devil’s Mark” on all his victims. This was an alleged mark borne by all wizards, witches, and sorcerers that were in league with the Devil. Such a mark was supposedly a part that was devoid of feeling and nerves, and thus would not bleed when pricked.

But what happened when a person had no such visible mark? Well, witch finders were not dissuaded by that: they would rely on the pricking method to find such spots, considering them invisible.

The tools of witch pricking looked like these and most of them were “trick” tools that looked real but were used for fraudulent outcomes. ( Public domain )

The Tools And The Tricks Of Witch Pricking

Witch prickers, as they were called, would poke the suspected victim with all sorts of sharp tools, hoping to convince those gathered that a witch was truly before them. The suspect would first be shaved of  all bodily hair, and the pricking would begin. Witch finders claimed that every witch had its own “familiar” or animal form. The most common familiar was thought to be a black cat, and this animal was supposed to suck the blood from the “Devil’s Mark,” as if suckling from a teat.

Various tools were used in the witch pricking process. Most were tools connected to tailoring, bodkins, needles, and pins, which were usually used to punch holes in fabric, and to draw ribbons through hems. 

Over the years, witch pricking was a common “testing” method in witch trials, and a form of primary evidence in sentencing. But, like all other methods, this one was also extremely unjust. The reason behind this was simple: professional witch finders became a “popular” occupation or trade.

People of varied backgrounds recognized the potential and the money to be had in this business and were willing to sentence innocent people to make a living. However, it was no use if a suspected “witch” was innocent. And, as we all understand, if you poke someone with a needle, they are  certain to bleed. So, how did witch finders go about this? Well, they cheated.

How do you poke a person and ensure they will  not bleed? Witch finders, like Matthew Hopkins, utilized specially made witch pricking tools with hollow handles and retractable and blunted points. When one would press such a tool to the victim’s skin, it seemed as if it had fully penetrated the skin, but the needle simply retracted into the handle. Of course, no blood would be drawn, and no mark left on the skin, and the person was promptly accused of witchcraft. Needless to say, the gathered masses of simpletons would yelp in awe and disgust, and the fate of the innocent accused was promptly sealed.

All witches, it was believed, had familiars or devil animals in their possession and black cats were the most obvious proof of this. ( VictoriaBat / Adobe Stock)

Grizzel Greedigutt, Vinegar Tom & Other Impish Witch Allies

These were not the only tools in the arsenal of witch prickers. At the time, they were veritable magicians and tricksters in their own right. When they would discover a supposed Devil’s Mark (most commonly a birthmark or a large mole), the prickers would use a special needle. This one had both a sharp  and a blunt end. With quick movements and sleight of hand, an experienced witch pricker could poke “normal” skin with the sharp one, drawing blood, and, with lighting fast movements, shift to the blunt end to “poke” the Devil’s Mark. When no blood was drawn from the latter, the process was complete: a witch was before them.

Needless to say, these methods were cruel, unjust, and outright fraud and trickery. But at the time, it can be safely said that empathy was not a widespread capacity: a witch finder was quick to sentence an innocent person to a gruesome death, even if only it guaranteed a meager amount of money would be earned.

But don’t think that the crazy practices by witch prickers and witch finders stopped there! Such flat-out frauds were just the tip of the iceberg in the craze that was witch hunting. As we look back on this thinking in these modern times, some of the facts pertaining to witch hunting can seem simply hilarious. 

But when we consider that many innocent lives were claimed in a most brutal manner, all hilarity quickly dissipates. To understand this, one needs only to observe the pages in the book  Discovery of Witches , written by Witchfinder General Hopkins, in which he describes his methods and encounters with supposed witches.

In one such description, he writes about meeting a witch surrounded by her “familiars” (most likely just household pets), that bear names that “ no mortal could invent.”  Hopkins wrote down these “demonic” and “frightening” names, in all their hilarious glory:  Grizzel Greedigutt, Vinegar Tom, Pyewackett, Pecke in the Crowne, Illemauzar, Newes,  andSack & Sugar.

Truly frightening names to send chills down your spine, would you not agree? These hilarious names sound like the goofy nicknames one would give to pets, or like some fantastical characters from “Harry Potter.” Nevertheless, in 1647 these were considered as solid proof of utter blasphemy and Devil worship, and the person connected with this ridiculous claim was sadly executed in a manner most brutal. 

The belief in these “familiars” is directly associated with the belief in the Devil’s or Witches’ Mark. It was a common connection drawn by witch prickers. They believed that every witch owned a familiar, which could either be an animal (usually a black cat), or supernatural creatures of various forms, such as imps, demons, spirits, and ghosts. Witch prickers believed that these familiars aided witches with their magic rituals, and in return the witch nourished them with her own blood, which they suckled from the so-called Devil’s Mark. They also claimed that the Devil himself suckled from such a mark, as he bedded the witches in the night.

Examining a witch at a trial in the United States in the mid-19th century AD. (Peabody Essex Museum /  Public domain )

Witch Hunts: An Ugly Period In European History

Of course, the search for the Devil’s Mark by witch prickers was totally unfair as they had a huge range of possible marks to focus on. They claimed that a Devil’s Mark could be a mole, a skin tag (acrochordon), a birthmark, an extra nipple, and other various marks on the skin that are a natural occurrence in most people. This meant that they could find any simple mark on the skin and proclaim it as a sign of witchcraft. When the accused would protest that such a mark was common and natural, their protest would be completely ignored.

Sadly, the practice of witch hunting was slow to end in Europe. The last witchcraft executions took place in the 18th century, and the practice generally stopped after this.

Alas, in the less developed countries of the world today, there is still a widespread belief in witches and sorcerers. In certain rural parts of Africa, even the slightest suspicion can quickly lead to the public lynching of an alleged witch. Likewise, in some Islamic countries, mostly in regions controlled by the likes of ISIS, not much is needed to warrant the brutal death of an individual. Worth noting are the publicized cases where learned men who practiced mathematical and physics equations were publicly beheaded for being “sorcerers”. In the 2010’s! That’s right, just a few years ago.

Luckily, there are no longer such beliefs in Europe or North America. Nevertheless, witch pricking, the Devil’s Mark, and witch finders are all very ugly stains on the reputations of many European nations, and a cruel heritage of the Catholic Church. It is one of the main reasons that slowed down or even stopped cultural and scientific growth in Europe, and directly led to the tragic demise of tens of thousands of innocent persons. 

Top image: A witch or a woman in a dark forest? Witch pricking was used for centuries to falsely prove a woman (or a man) was a witch!             Source:  kharchenkoirina / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References:

Gibbons, J.  The Stages of a Witch Trial.  Summerlands. [Online] Available at:
http://www.summerlands.com/crossroads/remembrance/_remembrance/stages_witch_trial.htm

Hannam, J. 2003.  The Decline and End of Witch Trials in Europe.  Bede’s Library. [Online] Available at:
http://www.bede.org.uk/decline.htm

Neill, W. N. 1922.  The Professional Pricker and His Test For Witchcraft.  Edinburgh University Press.

Comments

Ok, the ‘Hay-Day’ of these Wich-Finders was supposedly from the late 16th to the mid-to-late(?) 17th centuries which was the Baroque era an extention of the earlier Renaissance era. Definitely after the Medieval period. This “Hay-Day” fell within the era where Catholics & Protestants were at eachother’s throats literately. There were other politcal & economic conflicts & changes going during this time that the mostly illiterate common folk couldn’t grasp so they were open to find a convenient ‘scape-goat’; a great oppotunity for witch-finder con-artist. And these ‘witch-finders’ weren’t the only unscrupulous ones; think of the people who hired them. Accusing, “proving” & executing someone for being a witch was a great way to be rid someone, an unwanted wife, a woman of some property or other wealth that the accuser wanted. I bet it wasn't always some poor old-hag. Thinking about it I wouldn’t be surprised if these “witch-finders” weren't in a way murder-for-hire assasins. And don’t forget the Salem witch-trials which was really using superstition as a weapon in a political struggle between Salem village & Salem town proper.  

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