FUNNY WOMEN: Medieval Witch Confession or Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory?


1. A woman real estate tycoon gave birth to a wolf-headed demon who roams the countryside eating babies.

Answer: Confession. Allegedly given by Angela de la Barthe, a woman who owned her own property in thirteenth-century Toulouse.

2. A midwife defied the will of God and man by giving her patients medicines that kill unborn babies.

Answer: Confession. After subjected to brutal torture, Walpurga Hausmannin confessed to killing forty-one unborn or newly born babies, plus nine cows—including the governor’s wife’s cow—and one horse. As a midwife, she was trained to deliver babies, provide pain relief during childbirth, and offer birth control and fertility aids. She was one of many midwives and healers executed for the witchcraft of trying to ease women’s suffering, or, as it is known today, “being a bossy try-hard.”

3. A servant of the devil puts marks on bodies.

Answer: Right-wing conspiracy theory. Although this sounds like Christian Shaw in 1697 accusing servant girl Catherine Campbell of witchcraft by falling to the floor in fits and claiming he was vomiting up feathers and needles, this is a current right-wing conspiracy theory about how vaccines carry the mark of the beast, will sterilize women, and also contain microchips.

4. Intelligent alien beings, demonic supernatural forces, and liberals thrive on the blood of defenseless children.

Answer: Right-wing conspiracy. QAnon believes Democrat leaders and the Hollywood elite harvest children’s blood for its power to induce hallucinations and give immortal life. This idea comes from the myth of “Blood libel,” a hateful lie that fueled anti-Semitism for centuries and continues to be a superspreader of white supremacy, kind of like a Trump rally.

5. The sufferings of the working class under the brutal conditions of extraction-based economies is the result of a single woman who put a hex on them.

Answer: Confession-ish. Agnes Naismith “placed” a dying woman’s curse on the mill town of Paisley, and even today some claim this is why the town hasn’t prospered since. The impoverished, elderly woman was hanged alongside six others, which 2021’s Capitol insurrectionists tried and failed to emulate with Nancy Pelosi, Mike Pence, et al.

6. A demon disguised as a butterfly sucks blood from necks in exchange for all the pleasures of the world.

Answer: Confession. After being chained for many days to a pole in a dungeon, Elizabeth Styles confessed to consorting with such a blood-sucking demon-in-butterfly-form. Were her claims real or fabricated? We may never know for certain, but we do know her torturers asked, “Was there a demon?” “Was it in disguise?” “Did it suck blood?” “From your neck?” “Witchsayswhat?” (In the transcripts of the witch trials, it becomes clear that the inquisitors were terrified that witchcraft wasn’t real. Their questions seemed to emerge from fear that their faith and government were built on lies. And, they pressed the accused witches for elaborate stories to downplay the fact that the inquisitors themselves had committed deplorable, irredeemable acts in exchange for some money and some power. You might recognize this rhetorical move in Mitch McConnell’s speeches.)

7. Witches are real.

Answer: Right-wing conspiracy theory. While ecofeminist paganisms were practiced in the medieval period, few of the women on trial for witchcraft understood themselves to be witches. Some may have understood they were powerful radicals engaged in acts of political resistance, while others were unfortunate scapegoats targeted because they were Jewish or gay or Roma or trans or BIPOC or immigrants or overweight or poor people or part of the teacher’s union.

8. Witches are—right this minute—having orgies, orgies, and more orgies.

Answer: Confession, from King James I. Stay with me here: King James I wrote Daemonologie—a philosophical dissertation on demons, werewolves, vampires, and witches—to justify the many witch trials in his kingdoms; and in it he claimed to know all about the elaborate orgies that witches conducted, which he described in a surprising number of salacious details. A few years later he commissioned and authorized a new translation of what we now know as the King James Bible. His is a confession, to be sure, the kind of confession in which conspiracy theorists who love a tyrant will tell on themselves.


Rumpus original art by Kaili Doud.


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Kathryn Nuernberger's latest book is The Witch of Eye, an essay collection about witches and witch trials. She is also the author of the poetry collection, RUE, poems about plants historically used for birth control. Her awards include the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets, an NEA fellowship, and notable essays in the Best American series. She teaches poetry and nonfiction for the MFA program at University of Minnesota. More from this author →