From wise woman to witch

Hildegard of Bingen was lucky to have lived in the 12th century. Had she practiced herbalism from 1300 to 1650, she probably would have been burned as a witch.


It’s not clear what led to Europe’s 350 years of witch hunts. Feminists link the practice to the rise of secular medicine as a male-dominated profession. Others blame the hysteria on bubonic plague (the Black Death), which swept Europe in waves and killed half of its population.


A more recent theory holds that European rulers and the Catholic Church became alarmed by a decline in population, which they blamed on the contraceptive herbalism of the wise women. The leading medieval contraceptive herbs were all abortifacients, or “morning-after” plants, in modern parlance. The most popular were pennyroyal, Artemesia, and rue. Modern research shows that all three stimulate uterine contractions and abortion.


Whatever the cause of the witch hunts, after 1300 the image of the folk herbalist changed from a helpful wise woman to evil witch. Witch hunts started in Germany and eventually reached all of Europe. Accusations of “sexual intercourse with the Devil” were typically accompanied by testimony that the alleged witch practiced herbal medicine and made healing mixtures, cosmetics, love potions, aphrodisiacs, abortifacients, and poisons.


Accusations of poisoning were particularly damning. It’s quite possible that some women herbalists continued the Roman tradition of herbal assassination, but this was before the discovery of the dose-response relationship: the idea that the greater the dose, the greater the effect. Many so-called witches’ plants, poisonous in large amounts, caused no harm in therapeutic or cosmetic amounts. Nonetheless, the witch hunters considered them poisons.


One plant associated with witchcraft was called devil’s herb. Large amounts are lethal when taken internally. When placed in the eyes, the juice causes the pupils to dilate, and medieval women used devil’s herb cosmetically. Eventually, the plant was renamed belladonna, or “beautiful woman.”


Then there were witch’s bells. Large amounts are poisonous, but small amounts stimulate the heart. After the witch-hunt era, the plant’s name was changed to foxglove, the source of the heart drug digitalis.


Conviction of witchcraft meant death. At the height of the witch hunts, as many as 600 women a year- about two a day – were executed in parts of Germany. At Toulouse, France, 400 were put to death in a single day.

North America did not escape the hysteria. The Salem witch trials in Massachusetts (1692) resulted in 20 women being executed. Records suggest that they, too, were wise women herbalists.


After the witch hunts, the saintly Hildegard was forgotten, replaced by the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who threw mandrake, belladonna, and other evil herbs into their bubbling cauldron. Witches were also vilified in the stories that have become today’s fairy tales. In “Snow White,” for example, the evil queen-witch concocts an herbal poison, coats an apple with it, and slips it to Snow White, who falls into a coma, thus following a tradition of herbal poisoning dating back to the Romans.


The witch hunts failed to eradicate women’s herbalism, but they succeeded in driving it underground. More than a century after the last witch hunts, the “old woman” who helped popularize foxglove said that it was a “secret family recipe.” Her forebears had good reason to keep their use of witch’s bells a secret.


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