Anabaptists and the Plague: A Dangerous Storm in the Low Countries
The era of the witch trials in Europe was characterized by extreme panic and the mass killing of women who are now widely believed to have been innocent. Many scholars of these trials see the witch hunts as a tool of social control, as the rise of Protestantism and Calvinist reform uprooted Catholic dominance and tradition. The Low Countries, specifically in the Netherlands, experienced a surprising rarity of trials during this time – the number of trials and executed witches pale in comparison to those of other countries like France and England.[i] Though the Low Countries did not experience the intense witch trials that were seen in other parts of Europe, they did still have trials and executions, often spurred by negative, upsetting, or threatening occurrences in different communities. In the Netherlands, sickness, death, bad harvests, shipwrecks, and a wide array of other misfortunes were often blamed on witchcraft, which served as a sort of blanket explanation for misfortune that may otherwise have been a mystery during the time.[ii] Though the witch trials were remarkably scarce in the Low Countries, the outbreak of the plague in the 1520s and simultaneous persecution of the Anabaptists fueled the witch-hunts that did occur during the sixteenth century, creating a dangerous atmosphere for women in particular, as societies sought to assign blame for negative events and religious dissent.
In the 1520s, the Low Countries were hit by a severe outbreak of the plague, causing a panic that created an atmosphere ripe for witch-hunts.[iii] Across Europe and in Salem, Massachusetts, this sort of societal threat often created witchcraft panics. In Salem, the lack of a minister and intense familial controversy created the perfect atmosphere for intense witch trials, but in the Low Countries, the plague emerged as one of the two main issues that set the stage. Hans de Waardt writes that “In 1521 the sheriff of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the north of Brabant arrested two men and one woman on the charge that they had been spreading the epidemic by infecting doorposts, thresholds, and wells.”[iv] This arrest depicts the sort of misfortune-blaming that was so common in the Netherlands. Plague-related arrests, however, were not isolated in the Netherlands. Two years later, two more women were arrested and charged with spreading the plague, and these arrests counted towards three deaths in the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. At the time, witchcraft was the perfect tool to explain the horrible sickness that was so rampant in the Low Countries, allowing for an outlet of both comfort and social control. In a society that lacked modern science to explain an issue as intense and deadly as the plague, people could not understand the widespread illness without magic or religion. Instead of having to believe that God was punishing humans for their sins, people could blame the malefice of witches and societal outcasts, taking the blame away from themselves. Today, the plague would be understood as a scientific occurrence, but the people of the sixteenth century saw it as both a threat to social order and a threat to the faith that defined their lives; in order to protect both faith and social order, witchcraft became a common scapegoat for explaining the plague.
The use of witchcraft accusations to explain the plague may have stemmed from a decentralization of authority in some areas of the Low Countries. The Low Countries were not united under one government until 1581, creating a further situation of panic and disorder during the onset of the plague.[v] Some parts of the Low Countries were under partial rule of King Phillip II of Spain, yet their overall lack of cohesion, combined with the significant social panic caused by the plague, created a dangerous setting for accused witches.[vi] In “State-Building and Witch-Hunting,” Levack discusses the effect of decentralized authority on witch panics, claiming that central authorities had very little impact in fueling most trials, and “the dynamic force in most witchcraft prosecutions were local authorities, members of local elites.”[vii] This idea presented by Levack undoubtedly played a large role in the Low Countries as the early decentralization created an atmosphere in which local officials and elites could conduct trials without oversight from a central authority.
The plague presented a dire social threat in the Low Countries, and the lack of leadership among the several small nations created an even more urgent need for some sort of social control. This need for social control was further exacerbated by the existence of Anabaptists. Anabaptists, who rejected infant baptism and transubstantiation, posed a clear threat to mainstream Catholic Christian belief.[viii] Infant baptism is the central sacrament of the mainstream Christian Church, confirming a child as a Christian for life. Anabaptist leader and founder of the Mennonite church, Menno Simmons, regarded baptism as “a ceremony of Antichrist, a public blasphemy, a bewitching sin.”[ix] This was not only a vocal, active rejection of the Catholic Church, but also an accusation of demonic activity. Both Catholics and Anabaptists accused each other of participating in demonic rituals, creating an atmosphere that focused greatly on the demonic from both sides and a plague of its own kind. Records from the 1500s describing Anabaptists articulate the Anabaptist practice of adult baptism as a “renunciation of ones original baptism and hence of the church and Christian society.”[x] This description and clear renunciation of Anabaptism in the Low Countries is very reminiscent of some descriptions of witches, who by making a pact with the devil renounced the church and the Christian religion. The Anabaptists seemed to be regarded as a disease even worse than the plague – they were a group of individuals whom the people of the Netherlands could come together to wholeheartedly reject and blame for the social threats and perils in their society.
While the plague outbreak happened in the early sixteenth century, allowing for its own set of witch trials in s-Hertogenbosch in 1521, the more intense witchcraft accusations occurred in the latter part of the sixteenth century as a direct result of Anabaptist threat. Unlike Anabaptism, the plague was somewhat separated from the intense witch trials, yet it created a social panic that lasted through the century and encouraged accusations that may otherwise never have arisen. de Waardt argues that the Plague created a widespread “fear that individuals were conspiring to destroy society.”[xi] This is the exact sentiment that later exacerbated the panic associated with the Anabaptists and allowed for a few intense outbreaks in a society that was otherwise characterized by a relative tolerance and lack of trials.[xii] In her examination of witchcraft in the Netherlands, Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra says, “the Northern Netherlands… present a striking but little known exception within the whole of witchcraft in Europe” in their lack of frequency and “very early cessation of the death penalty for injurious witchcraft.”[xiii] This claim, however, does not mean that panicked outbreaks and harsh killings of accused witches never occurred. The relatively low number of witch trials is somewhat unique to the Low Countries, yet the trials that did occur must be explained by a combination of factors. Without the outbreak of the plague and the daunting threat of the Anabaptists, who rejected some of the most integral Catholic rituals, witchcraft accusations, trials, and executions may never have occurred in the Low Countries.
Anabaptism arguably played a greater role than the Plague in fueling the witch trials, as the crime of Anabaptism eventually rose to the same criminal level as witchcraft. In the Low Countries, both witchcraft and Anabaptism were considered lese majestatis, and treated as “exceptional crimes… of treason against both divine and human authority.”[xiv] Crimes of lese majestatis were to be treated differently than crimes like thievery or assault; they were punishable by death and called for different legal procedures. Authorities, due to “concern over heresy” and fear of “secret and dangerous conspiracy” were instructed to report suspicious activities of citizens – anything from subtly abnormal actions to absence at mass or confession.[xv] By grouping Anabaptism in the same criminal category as witchcraft, the two crimes were likened to each other, and fed off of one another to create a treacherous atmosphere that feared and focused on demonic ideas.
Women were at a significant danger for accusations of both witchcraft and Anabaptism because of longstanding beliefs about female nature and the appropriate female sphere. Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum, a widely read and published witchcraft treatise, outlines many of the beliefs about women that fed into the female-witch stereotype.[xvi] Kramer writes, “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil… women are naturally more impressionable, and more ready to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit.”[xvii] Kramer’s writings ventured into even more extreme territory as he described his beliefs about female nature, and he had seemingly extreme ideas about women and the devil. His overall ideas however, accurately depict the overarching themes of female weakness and sinfulness during the witch trials. Because women were considered so weak and susceptible to the devil, they were much more likely to be accused of any type of witchcraft. Anabaptism only exacerbated this, as people of the Netherlands held an ever-present fear of the diabolical. Both groups (Catholic and Anabaptist) were wary of the other’s supposed involvement with spells and the devil, constantly suspecting one another and creating an environment ripe for witchcraft accusations.
Specifically, women’s societal role as midwives created great suspicion amid the Anabaptist threat. In the Low Countries, the law mandated infant baptism, which was undoubtedly problematic for Anabaptists.[xviii] Because they held such strong beliefs about the demonic nature of infant baptism, Anabaptists went to great lengths to avoid it, and often successfully hid infants from the authorities.[xix] According to Waite, midwives were often thought to be in collusion with Anabaptists as a form of witchcraft, and “a rumor appeared during the height of Anabaptist activity in Amsterdam, in 1534, suggesting midwives were smuggling newborn infants out of the country.”[xx] This rumor was never verified as a fact, yet it presents an important theme that remained though out the duration of both witch trials and heresy trials in the Low Countries. Secretly avoiding baptism, whether midwives were often involved or not, created a large suspicion around midwifery and women as a whole. The fear of midwives and Anabaptist conspiracy eventually became so intense that in 1569, midwives in the Netherlands were required by law to be “examined by the States General” to confirm their Catholic faith.[xxi] This connection between midwives, Anabaptists, and witchcraft created a very dangerous environment for women in the Low Countries and contributed to the uneven distribution of female and male witch executions.
Suspicion of women and the subsequent accusations that resulted played out in many different witch trials in the Netherlands. In Dordrecht in 1545, a married couple was accused of eating meat on Ash Wednesday.[xxii] This religious accusation and fear of action against the church signifies the Anabaptist influence, yet the subsequent events also illustrate the great difference in the ways that men and women were treated regarding witchcraft. Jacob Leonis Smidt admitted under torture to having “known his wife in a way that was very abominable to counter nature,” and to manipulating cloverleaves for magical purposes.[xxiii] His wife, Neelken Aerts admitted, also under torture, to having a pact with the devil and to bewitching several people.[xxiv] Though both admitted to magical acts and were ultimately sentenced to death for their crimes, only the wife was convicted of witchcraft. “This conforms to the pattern in the western provinces in which only women were accused of witchcraft,” claims de Waardt. Though her husband had clearly confessed to magical acts, only Neelken was condemned as a witch, representing the widespread cultural tendency towards exclusively accusing women of witchcraft.
Peelland, a province in the southern Netherlands, experienced some of the most intense witch trials in the history of the Low Countries in 1595. Peelland encompassed the towns of Mierlo, Lierop, and Asten, and stands as another example of the great tendency to accuse and convict women for witchcraft instead of men. Mierlo, Lierop, and Asten experienced a wave of accusations, trials, and convictions; nineteen witches were reportedly burned at the stake, and all were women.[xxv] There may have been even more that were not recorded, and these trials were the deadliest of the sixteenth century.[xxvi] The trials began in September of 1595, and it was this period that saw the most intense wave of prosecutions – 12 women were executed in the towns of Mierlo and Lierop in less than a month.[xxvii] The two towns, which sit next to each other, understandably shared many common themes. Each accused witch admitted to having at least one meeting with the devil, and to copulating with the devil in order to receive “the means to harm fellow beings by witchcraft.”[xxviii] Across all three villages, women described the devil as a handsome young man named Lucifer, who cam dressed in black or red. Most importantly, each of the accused described their renunciation of Christianity, in which the devil would scratch the Chrism from their forehead.[xxix] The trials in Peelland seem to pull together both the themes of gender and religious strife, as the women were accused of and admitted to copulation with the devil and renunciation of their baptism. The enormous Catholic fear of militant Anabaptist takeover undoubtedly fed into this theme of Christian renunciation. Where Jacob Leonis Smidt and Neelken Aerts admitted only to petty witchcraft and magic in 1545, the women of Peelland admitted to much more scandalous and terrifying acts, signifying the growing fear and influence of Anabaptism and the diabolic. However, on October 24, 1595, the Council of Brabant in Brussels ordered that no witch should be arrested without sufficient evidence, and torture would no longer be allowed. This order was a rare interference from a central authority, and according to a letter written in 1596 by a priest in the area, “if the prosecutions had not been halted no woman in this region would have been left alive.”[xxx]
Though the witch trials in the Netherlands may have paled in comparison to those of countries like Scotland and Germany, they were intense and complex in their own right. The plague, which struck just as Europe began to experience an era of more widespread witch trials, brought ideas about malificium and witchcraft into the Low Countries. In a region that may otherwise have not experienced significant witch trials, the plague brought enough social strife to fuel accusations. Because there was no modern science to understand the plague, people turned to religion or supernatural sources. In terms of religion, the plague had to be seen as a punishment from God, subsequently indicating that people had sinned and been bad Christians. Witchcraft, however, stood as the perfect object of blame for the disease that swept through Europe; if an evil witch were to blame, the accusers could be cleared of any moral or religious responsibility for their suffering. This atmosphere was only exacerbated by the Anabaptist presence in the Netherlands. Both Catholics and Anabaptists believed in the presence of demons and the Devil, and feared each other greatly. Because Anabaptists were often militant and unrelenting in their beliefs, the Catholic society of the Low Countries found itself in a threatened and unstable position, allowing for suspicion and fear to run rampant. The existing female stereotypes and beliefs about womanhood, specifically relating to midwifery, created an especially dangerous environment for women, as Anabaptists became the greatest threat to societal and religious normalcy in the sixteenth century.
[i] Gijswijt-Hofstra, Marijke, and Willem Frijhoff. Witchcraft in the Netherlands: From the Fourteenth to the Twentieth Century. Rotterdam: Universitaire Pers, 1991. 4-5.
[ii] Ibid, 3.
[iii] de Waardt, Hans. “Witchcraft and Wealth: The Case of the Netherlands.” Oxford Handbooks Online. 19 Nov. 2014. 5.
[vii] Levack, Brian P. “State-Building and Witch-Hunting.” In The Witchcraft Reader, edited by Darren Oldridge, 185-97. London: Routledge, 2002. 187.
[viii] Waite, Gary K. “Anabaptists and Magical Beliefs in the Netherlands.” In Radical Reformation Studies: Essays Presented to James M. Stayer, by James M. Stayer, Werner O. Packull, and Geoffrey Dipple, 126. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 1999. 123.
[xi] Hans de Waardt. “Witchcraft and Wealth: The Case of the Netherlands.” 5.
[xii] Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Willem Frijhoff. Witchcraft in the Netherlands: From the Fourteenth to the Twentieth Century. 4-5.
[xiv] Gary K. Waite, “Anabaptists and Magical Beliefs in the Netherlands.” 128.
[xvi] Levack, Brian P. “Heinrich Kramer: The Malleus Maleficarum, 1486.” In The Witchcraft Sourcebook, 57-70. New York: Routledge, 2004.
[xvii] Ibid, 62.
[xviii] Gary K. Waite, “Anabaptists and Magical Beliefs in the Netherlands.” 126.
[xix] Ibid, 127.
[xxi] Ibid, 127.
[xxii] Hans de Waardt. “Witchcraft and Wealth: The Case of the Netherlands.” 5.
[xxv] Caspers, Charles M.A. “Witchcraft Trials Peelland, 1595.” Edited by Willem Frijhoff. In Witchcraft in the Netherlands: From the Fourteenth to the Twentieth Century, edited by Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra. Rotterdam: Universitaire Pers, 1991. 91-102. (Entire paragraph comes from this source.)
[xxvi] Ibid, 91.
[xxviii] Ibid, 98.
[xxx] Ibid, 96-100.
Caspers, Charles M.A. “Witchcraft Trials Peelland, 1595.” Edited by Willem Frijhoff. In Witchcraft in the Netherlands: From the Fourteenth to the Twentieth Century, edited by Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra. Rotterdam: Universitaire Pers, 1991.
de Waardt, Hans. “At Bottom a Family Affair.” Edited by Willem Frijhoff. In Witchcraft in the Netherlands: From the Fourteenth to the Twentieth Century, edited by Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra, 132-48. Rotterdam: Universitaire Pers, 1991.
Gijswijt-Hofstra, Marijke, and Willem Frijhoff. Witchcraft in the Netherlands: From the Fourteenth to the Twentieth Century. Rotterdam: Universitaire Pers, 1991.
Levack, Brian P. “Heinrich Kramer: The Malleus Maleficarum, 1486.” In The Witchcraft Sourcebook, 57-70. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Levack, Brian P. “State-Building and Witch-Hunting.” In The Witchcraft Reader, edited by Darren Oldridge, 185-97. London: Routledge, 2002.
Waite, Gary K. “Anabaptists and Magical Beliefs in the Netherlands.” In Radical Reformation Studies: Essays Presented to James M. Stayer, by James M. Stayer, Werner O. Packull, and Geoffrey Dipple, 120-40. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 1999.