Student research—Taylor Phillips

Double, double toil and trouble…

Man Visiting a Witch

An estimated 55,000 trials for witchcraft were conducted in Europe between 1450-1750, and approximately 30,000 of those resulted in execution. (1)

This week’s image is an etching by Jacob Cats (1741-1799) from the NYPL Digital Gallery. Cats was born in Altona, Germany where he later trained as a bookbinder and engraver. “Cats was also a skilled amateur draughtsman, specializing in topographical views and landscapes, such as Two Shepherds Conversing before a Large Tree (Hamburg, Kunsthalle). Cats’s drawings are usually signed and dated and often inscribed and numbered on the verso.” (2)

His subject in the etching above is a witch in a cave. The response to witchcraft in early eighteenth-century Europe was characterized by of sporadic bursts of hysteria, in which people accused one another of being in a ‘covenant with the devil’. This covenant was supposed to allow witches to gain supernatural powers to manipulate their surroundings, including the minds of others. Witches were mostly assumed to be women, due to their ‘fragility’ and lack of strength to counter evil. Those accused of this ‘heresy’ were subjected to examination before the town, often times cruel:  

In the absence of legal means of trying witches, people continued to resort to the trial by water, otherwise known as witch-swimming. The suspected witches would have their thumbs tied to their toes, and a rope bound to their waists. They were then thrown into a pond or river to see whether they would sink or float. If the water rejected them and they floated, this was deemed a divine sign that they were guilty. If, however, they sank, God had embraced them, thereby proving their innocence. (3)

Images such as this further strengthened the ideal of the ‘typical’ witch, as well as became the epitome of people’s fears.

(1) Witch Trials in Continental Europe. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. Eds. William Monter, Bengst Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. Philadelphia, 2002.
Levack, Brian P. The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. London and New York: Longman, 2006.

(2) Sphinx Fine Art

(3) Currie, Elliott P. “Crimes without Criminals: Witchcraft and Its Control in Renaissance Europe.” Law & Society Review 3.1.

Thanks to Jessica Koch.