Syphilis, Misogyny, and Witchcraft in 16th-Century Europe

by Eric B. Ross
Syphilis, Misogyny, and Witchcraft in 16th-Century Europe
Eric B. Ross
Current Anthropology
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Syphilis, Misogyny, and Witchcraft in I6th-Century Europe

Institute of Social Studies, P.O. Box 29776, 2502 LT The Hague, The Netherlands. I VIII 94

While debate continues over the geographical origin of syphilis (Baker and Armelagos 1988, Saul 1989)~ it is gen- erally agreed that it made its appearance in Europe at the end of the 15th century. At that time, Europeans became aware of a new and virulent sexually transmit- ted disease that seems to have spread northward from Mediterranean Europe (Quetel 1990: 10-1 5). Whether it originated in the Americas or in North Africa or even evolved in Europe from a previous form such as yaws, the societal consequences of syphilis would probably have been the same. But what were they? The debate over the origins of syphilis in Europe has tended to ob- scure any systematic consideration of its effects. Yet, it may have been implicated in the inexplicable wave of witchcraft hysteria that swept across much of Europe during the same period. Why most of its victims were women has never been satisfactorily explained, nor has the timing of this widespread explosion of misogyny (Monter 1976:197). Syphilis may provide some clues.

Witchcraft beliefs, though a long-standing part of Eu- ropean folk tradition, are generally agreed to have been qualitatively transformed during the 16th century. As Cohn (1975:224) has observed, "Until the late four- teenth century the educated in general, and the higher clergy in particular, were quite clear that these noctur- nal journeyings of women, whether for benign or for ma- leficent purposes, were purely imaginary happenings. But in the sixteenth and still more in the seventeenth centuries, this was no longer the case." It would be wrong to suggest that witchcraft was not taken seriously before 1500. Russell (1972:25, 279) regards the age of classical witchcraft as having its beginnings in the pre- ceding century, when accusations began to manifest a marked bias against women (see also Monter 1976:24).'

I. O 1995 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological

Volume 36, Number 2, April 1995 / 333

The notorious witch-hunter's handbook Malleus Ma- leficarum ("Hammer of Witchesu)-the work which the medievalist Henry Lea called "the most portentous monument of superstition which the world has pro- duced" (1961:835)-was first published in 1486 and manifests a virulently misogynist spirit which certainly was not without precedent. But its significance is easily exaggerated (Cohn 1975 :226). While there is no reason to doubt that the Malleus reflected more general attitudes toward women than those of its Inquisitorial authors alone, it was not in itself the catalyst for 16th-century witchcraft persecutions. For reasons that still remain ob- scure, those persecutions, with their notoriously misog- ynist character, emerged some decades later, by which time the Malleus was out of print (Estes 1983:277).'

As Larner points out, until the early 14th century witchcraft trials largely tended to revolve around indict- ments for sorcery and only occasionally involved the charges of diabolism which we associate with classical witchcraft. The imputation of diabolism slowly in- creased in incidence during the course of the 15th cen- tury, but by the beginning of the 16th century, although belief in witches was endemic, witch-hunting per se had waned (Larner I984:41-42).~

For reasons that, again, are not entirely clear, the trials returned around the I 5 6os, when many regions across Europe were involved in what Trevor-Roper, referring to the unprecedented intensity of events, called the "witch-craze" (1969, cited by Larner 1984:42-43).~ Larner writes (p. 42):

The prosecutions returned in the I 560s and in-

creased to panic proportions at the end of the cen-

tury. This time, witch-hunting was not confined geo-

graphically principally to France and Germany in the

way it had been in the fifteenth century. There were

mass trials in Brandenburg, Wurthemberg, Baden, Ba-

varia and Mecklenburg. There was also a marked in-

crease in prosecutions in France, but many other re-

Although it had been printed 14 times between 1487 and 1520 (Monter 1976:24), there was apparently no edition of the Malleus Malificarum between 1520 and 1574 (Estes 1983:277).

This quiescent period coincides with the demise of many of the radical Protestant sects, such as the Waldensians, who had been a major target of heresy charges and "whose name became almost a synonym for witchcraft" by the 15th century (Russell 197x243). A case could probably be made that, after the decline of such heretical sects, the Inquisition required new outlets for its persecutorial ef-

Research. All rights reserved 0011-3~04/~~/36o~-ooo~$1.00 .forts in order to justify its organizational survival. This was pro- It is

difficult to say precisely what "classical witchcraft" means. Monter considers the "fusion between heresy and sorcery" to be "the hallmark of European witchcraft" (1976:22). While Russell, too, emphasizes this point (1972:19), he somewhat arbitrarily de- fmes "the fifteenth-century scholastic and Inquisitorial definition of the witch as classical" (p. 23). As a result, he ends his notable survey with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1486-87, "by which time the classical picture of witchcraft was complete" (p. 251, thus excluding the behaviorally most interesting period. I have taken the view that the most notable features of classical witchcraft were the diabolic dimension and the tendency for witches to be regarded primarily as women, both of which came to the fore in the most dramatic way in the middle of the 16th century.

vided by the apparent threat of satanic witchcraft. The impedi- ments presented by the scepticism of the Canon Episcopi were gradually overcome by the efforts of the inquisitors (Lea 1961: 806-81, who strenuously argued that the witches of their day were an entirely new phenomenon to which earlier theological judg- ments were inapplicable. Despite this, however, witches seem not to have been very numerous for another half-century at least. It is noteworthy that, in the heartland of the Inquisition-Spain and much of Italy-where heresy remained'the focus of attention, the pursuit of sorcery and the execution of witches were rare (Monter


4. The build-up to the witch-craze varied across Europe. The first English statute against witchcraft, for example, was in 1542 (Saw- yer 1989:462).


gions began prosecuting either for the first time or

for the first time in large numbers. Trials increased

in England and in Switzerland, although they

amounted to only a few cases each year rather than

mass outbreaks.

What is especially notable and intriguing is that percep- tions of witchcraft and the pattern of persecutions changed dramatically between 1450 and 1550. The view expressed in the 10th-century Canon Episcopi, that witches' sabbaths were illusory, gave way to that en- shrined in the Malleus, that such meetings were real5 In earlier years, moreover, witchcraft had tended to be associated closely with heresy rather than with super- natural wrongdoing, or maleficia, and, interestingly, the accused were as likely to be men as women (Monter 1976:24). It was as the satanic aspect of witchcraft was increasingly emphasized that witchcraft persecutions took on a particularly misogynist aspect and women be- came the principal target. Thus, the Malleus maintained that diabolic witches were primarily women (Monter 197625). Most important, when witchcraft trials resumed on an unprecedented scale in the middle of the 16th century their victims were overwhelmingly women-up to 80% according to many estimates (Larner 1984:87; Monter 1976:120; 1977: 132; Midelfort 1972; Sawyer 1989:465). At least one leading historian has characterized the scale of witch executions as a "blood-bath" (Russell 1972: 3 3 5).

As Sawyer has observed, while "misogyny is not com- pletely inappropriate as an explanation of why nearly all people suspected of witchcraft were women. . . it is only a bare beginning for understanding the complex problem of gender and its relationship to supernatural threat" (1989:465; cf. Monter 1977:133] By itself, it certainly does not provide a sufficient explanation for the new wave of witch trials, if only because we do not know why there was such an intensification of misogyny at that time. It is in this regard that we are tempted to speculate on the possible role of syphilis. After all, one of the most distinctive features of the witchcraft com- plex during the course of the 16th century-one which descended from earlier beliefs but now took on an en- tirely new and dramatic intensity-was the belief that witches had had sexual relations with the devil and that this was the source of many of the evils attributed to their sorcery (in particular, their power to cause infertil- ity). At the same time, according to Sawyer, "the great majority of witchcraft accusations were the response of alleged victims to threats on their health," especially when illness was inexplicable in terms of past experi- ence (I989:466). Both of these general tendencies might be explained in terms of a new disease with the particu- lar features of syphilis.

5. This change can be seen in the transformation of Martin Luther's thinking between 15 16, when he still disbelieved in witches, to the 154os, when he believed in them-and approved of their execution (Monter 1976:30-31). What had also changed during this period was his attitude toward the insurrectionary tendencies of German peasants. It is tempting to see in this a suggestion of the role of witch-hunting in a general system of terror and social control.

Even so, why did the witchcraft craze seem to develop only after midcentury? By then, the feudal order was in complete disarray. From 1520 onward, rebellions, revolts, and uprisings, both rural and urban, were erupting across Europe (Lis and Soly 1979:85; Zagorin 1982; Mar- tin 1983). ~ehind much of the discontent were the land enclosures and consolidations that created what Row- botham [1974:23) has called "wandering poverty," as ar- mies of landless poor, desperate for a living, migrated across the landscape of Europe (Lis and Soly 1979: 5 6-5 7, 62-74). While most open, large-scale rebellion was bru- tally suppressed before the midcentury, the underlying economic and social conditions did not improve, and localized insurrections continued for many years (Vogler 1984:178). As long as the dispossessed were not brought under control-which only began to occur in the later decades of the century with the introduction of "poor laws," designed as much to constrain the poor as to re- lieve their poverty ( Jordan 1959:77-86)-fear of societal disintegration continued to possess the ruling class. Be- fore the "poor laws" and the absorption of a significant proportion of the poor into nascent capitalist enterprise (Morton 1979 [1938]: 165-71), the terror generated by witchcraft persecutions must have provided a useful means of asserting "law and order." But, most impor- tant, the general deterioration of society, the dislocation of so many people, and the movements of warring ar- mies were all especially conducive to the spread of dis- ease, including, of course, syphilis. And, more than any other disease, syphilis would have directed many of the social tensions and anxieties endemic in this period into the otherwise inexplicable forms that they took and that became a part of the process of witch persecution.

Syphilis had probably spread quite widely by the mid- dle of the 16th century. Braudel suggests that it "had probably attacked every level of society at the end of the sixteenth century, from beggars (male and female) to nobles and princes" (1967:46). We cannot expect to gauge its true demographic impact, but, we must ques- tion some of the standard generalizations about the buoyant demographic character of the I 6th century. Al- though the century is typically characterized as a time of population growth (Mols 1974)~ there was, in fact, a "catastrophic surge of mortality in the late ISSO'S" (Wrigley and Schofield 1981:176; cf. Fisher 1965)~ at about the time that the witch-craze arose. Although this cannot be directly attributed to syphilis-influenza has been identified as a major contributing factor (Fisher 1965)-it underscores that the timing of the witchcraft persecutions is unlikely to have been fortuitous and that epidemiological events may have played a significant role.

If syphilis played a part in the resurgence of witch- craft, it is likely to have done so after it had evolved beyond its early acute phase and become an endemic feature of European life. During the earliest period, syph- ilis tended to be a highly conspicuous affliction. Ini- tially, as McNeill (1977:193) observes, its "symptoms were often peculiarly horrible so that the disease at- tracted a great deal of attention wherever it appeared."

Within several decades, however, its features seem to have changed dramatically. Its virulence "clearly became less pronounced from the beginning of the six- teenth century onwards" (Quetel 1990:50; cf. Dennie 1962:63), giving the impression of a general decline when in fact it had merelv become less visible. While this was in part because of the emerging accommodation between parasite and host, it was also because for those who had survived the initial phase of the disease there was a period of latency (often of many years' duration) when they were asymptomatic but-crucially-still infectious (Csonka 1983:5.281). By the middle of the 16th century it had probably become increasingly difficult to recognize who was infected with syphilis. As this hap- pened, a disproportionate amount of suspicion seems to have been directed at women, who were regarded as es- pecially likely to be carrying unsuspected infection. As Ulrich von Hutton (cited in Quetel 1990:28), himself a victim of syphilis, wrote in I 5 19:

There persists, within the private parts of women, le- sions which remain remarkably virulent for a long time; they are particularly dangerous because they are less evident to the eye of the man who wishes to cohabit with women in complete safety. And it is for this reason that the condition is so pernicious, for these lesions make it impossible to avoid the sickness, because the bodies of women of this sort are sometimes so badly infected.

Such observations readily suggest how syphilis could have fueled any undercurrent of misogyny.

The threat for women had another special dimension. Where a pregnant woman was infected, even if she showed no obvious outward signs of disease, the risk of her offspring's contracting it was fairly high. Chase (1982:462) describes congenital syphilis as the "cruelest of all forms of the disease":

When this venereal infection occurs early in the preg- nancy, it usually causes death to the fetus and spon- taneous abortion. This occurs in at least 30 percent of cases. When fetuses are well along their geneti- cally programmed development from microscopic zy- gotes to fully formed infants, and are born with con- genital syphilis, many are very lucky: They are born dead or die within a few hours of birth. Children with congenital syphilis enter the postnatal world suffering from a constellation of skin, central ner- vous system, bone, liver, lung, kidney, and other or- ganic disorders that range from blindness and deaf- ness to brain and severe neurological damages. Few survive the first months of life. . . .

Dennie (1962:82-83) reporting on the high mortality in- flicted by congenital syphilis, notes: "A survey of two hundred sixty untreated syphilitic mothers was made in which 45.9 per cent of the infants were born dead or died soon after birth and of the remainder 64.5 per cent were syphilitic." Although we will never know how much the spread of syphilis during the 16th century ac- tually increased the normal prevalence of spontaneous

Volume 36, Number 2, April 1995 / 335

abortion, stillbirths, and congenital malformations, it doubtless did so. The likelihood is that in utero infec- tion often produced results that were inexplicable except by inferring supernatural intervention or infanti~ide.~ The association of mid-16th-century witchcraft with thwarted reproductive potential has never been explained adequately, but, to the extent that it reflected real behavioral trends, syphilis must be considered a factor.

The association is evidenced in a common tendency
for accusations of infanticide to rise with the tide of
witchcraft prosecutions. In England, according to Hoffer
and Hull (1981:28),

Perhaps the most telling similarity of the two crimes during the Tudor era is that both infanticide and witchcraft became objects of royal law and royal prosecution at about the same time. . . . In the years after Elizabeth's accession, royal courts responded to allegations of the two crimes in very similar fashion. When fears of one arose, accusations of the other in- creased correspondingly.

This linkage may have been fairly general. As Monter
(1976: 197-98) writes,

It is interesting that the rise in witchcraft prosecu- tions in the sixteenth century, and the decline late in the seventeenth, apparently coincide with the rise and fall in urosecution of at least two other uecu- liarly sex-lkked crimes: infanticide and sodomy . . . both [of which] had been prosecuted very sporadi- cally in European courts until the sixteenth cen- tury. . . . It is possible that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, almost as many women were executed for [infanticide] as for witchcraft.

Infanticide, of course, had a long history. But, in the 16th century, like witchcraft, it became an increasing cause of suspicion about women in an age when "certain activities of women were made into crimes for the first time" (Larner 1984:86). In a pronatalist age, when Europe was still recovering from the demographic impact of the Black Death, women generally tended to bear the brunt of virtually any intimation that fertility and reproduc- tion were being thwarted by negligence or malevolence. As mothers, they were blamed for infanticide if no su- pernatural involvement could be inferred; if it could, witches were the prime target-and, of course, most witches were women.

While, as Larner appreciates, the intense climate of misogyny cannot be regarded separately from the rise of witchcraft accusations, it cannot in itself provide a convincing explanation of the witch-craze or of the par- ticular concerns behind those accusations. But the prev- alence of latent syphilis can perhaps help to explain a number of interrelated factors that previously have been linked only through fairly unconvincing psychosocial theories (see Schoeneman 1977, Estes 1983). The pattern

6. Of course, congenital abnormalities probably prompted actual infanticide.

of syphilis that probably emerged toward the middle of the 16th century could help to account for the increasing intensity of fears about women, especially those related directly or indirectly to female sexuality. In an age in which misogynist tendencies would have been exacer- bated by syphilis and witchcraft fears intensified by in- explicable threats to fertility and infant survival, the likelihood that women would have borne the brunt of witchcraft accusations increased enormously.

It is interesting that, with reproductive potential threatened in so many ways and women under increas- ing suspicion, the women most targeted were widows or individuals over the age of 50, who themselves had no childbearing role (Monter I 976:I 2 1-23).' Moreover, as Braudel (1967:54) has observed, "all the figures we possess since the sixteenth century show that there were more women than men in the towns and even in the country." Male mortality left "a surplus of widows" who not only stood outside the reproductive community but might easily be regarded as prejudicial to its inter- ests and whose execution would not impair its reproduc- tive potential and might, if they were witches, be thought to enhance it. In this regard, it is important to recall Cohn's observation that "it was popular imagina- tion that saw the witch as an old woman who was the enemy of new life, who killed the young, caused impo- tence in men and sterility in women" (1975 :25 I).

Many of the old women who were accused of being witches were midwives. The midwife was likely to be not only an older woman but, practically speaking,

characterized as witches in the case of suspicious infant death not only underscores strategic differences in the roles that women occupied but also highlights the peril of conforming to the emergent popular image of a witch. Of course, the suspicion that so often fell upon such older women helped to give shape and substance to that image, and it may have reflected more than just their perceived marginality and manifest vulnerability. Enough older, solitary women who were accused of witchcraft-such as Walpurga Hausmannin-were described as miserable, lewd, and generally antisocial for Johann Weyer, the court physician of the Duke of Cleves, to suggest as early as 1566 that many witches were simply mentally ill (Pelicier I 975 :120; Schoeneman 1977:339). Zilboorg (1935) and Ackerknecht (1968) have reiterated this argument from a modern psychiatric vantage point, and while Schoeneman (1977) has criti- cized this interpretation by noting that people generally were capable of distinguishing insanity from witchcraft, this may have been true only for conventional forms of mental illness. It would not necessarily have been so for newer forms of mental disorder.

There are several reasons for regarding mental illness as a factor in the process of identifying witches. Follow- ing Zilboorg and Ackerknecht, some accused witches are likely to have been mentally ill and to have con- fessed to all kinds of suggested crimes, their confessions then reinforcing the general climate of belief. Many of the self-confessed victims of witchcraft are also likely to have suffered from some mental disorder (making the

someone with ample opportunity to kill the ne~born.~ distinction between putative witch and ostensible vic-

An exemplary case is that of Walpurga Hausmannin of Dillingen, Germany, described in a contemporary ac- count as a "malefict and miserable woman" who in I 5 87 confessed under torture to being a witch and was duly executed. A widow for some 30 years, she admitted to having had "lustful intercourse" with the devil, who, among other things, had "compelled her to do away with and to kill young infants at birth, even before they had been taken to Holy Baptism. This she did, whenever possible," and the task was facilitated by her being "a licensed and pledged midwife" (von Klanvill 1924:107-

14). Similar cases occurred persistently across Europe during these years, and because such women were gener- ally executed only after "evidence" had accumulated against them, we are compelled again to consider that such widows and midwives were hot only logical and expendable victims but the scapegoats for a real upsurge of stillbirths and neonatal deaths for which no natural explanations seemed adequate but for which syphilis could have been partly responsible.

That younger women were more likely to be cTiarged with infanticide while older women were more often

Monter estimates that 30-55% of women accused of witchcraft were widows, while many others were spinsters. "It is almost cer- tain that fewer than half of all women accused of witchcraft were married at the time of their accusation" (1977:133-34)

A midwife was rarely executed after one infant death; this was more likely after years of cumulative evidence which, in retrospect, finally raised suspicions.

tim one of degree). The casebooks of Richard Napier, an Anglican priest and astrological physician, are interest- ing in this respect, for they record, over a quarter of a century (1601-27)) many of his patients1 accusations of bewitchment. The evidence for having been bewitched was usually some unexpected illness, and "of all the afflictions attributed to witchcraft none was as common among adults as disturbances of the mind, which af- fected the mood, perception, and behavior of victims" (Sawyer 1989:468).

Several factors would have contributed to an increase in mental illness during this period. Pellagra, a defi- ciency disease which became endemic in certain regions of France, Spain, and Italy after the introduction of American maize, caused psychological disturbance (Pel- icier 1975:112). Long before there was any hint of the nutritional basis of this disorder, some of these regions became well known for their supposed prevalence of witches (Lopez Ibor 1975: 102). It is interesting, however, that discussions of witchcraft have never alluded to the fact that late or advanced syphilis can also cause mental deterioration through involvement of the central ner- vous system. While the victims of milder forms of neu- rosyphilis might only have believed that they were be- witched, in more advanced cases behavioral changes might have suggested to others that the victim actually was a witch. Consider this description of syphilitic de- mentia: '{As the disease progresses, personality changes, irresponsible behavior, and slovenly habits become no-

Volume 36, Number 2, April 1995 1 337

ticeable. A variety of psychiatric syndromes may be pro- duced-the manic euphoric patient with delusions of grandeur is the most common type" (Holvery 1972: 1540). There is more than a hint of the 16th-century witch in this ~icture.

Precisely because mid.-16th-century witchcraft was a complex reflection of the many diverse symptoms of a disintegrating feudal society, it is doubtful that any sin- gle explanation could encompass all of its features. Nonetheless, it is intriguing that, around this time, many new aspects of witchcraft belief emerged and cer- tain traditional features acauired a new intensity. Some of these-especially the &isogynist character' of the witch persecutions-which have long resisted explana- tion seem less enigmatic when we consider the possible impact of syphilis. The stereotypical image of the witch may embody more than we thought.

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Kuldara: Earliest Human Occupation in Central Asia in Its Afro-Asian Context1

Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography, Rudaki Ave. 33, 734025 Dushanbe, Republic of TajikistanlLaboratori d'Arqueologia, Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Imperial Tarraco I, 43005 Tarragona, Spain. 8 VIII 94

Archaeological materials found at Kuldara in the Repub- lic of Tajikistan have been dated to 0.85 million years ago and are therefore the earliest evidence of human oc-

I. O 1995 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved OOI 1-3204195 13602-ooo8$1 .oo. This research on Eurasian lithic industries was made possible by the support of the Direccion General de Investigacibn Cientifica y Tec- nica (Project PBgo-0126). We are grateful for the assistance of col- leagues on the Atapuerca Project (Burgos, Spain) and members of the Laboratori dlArqueologia of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (es- pecially Carolina Mallol) and the Institute of Archaeology in Du- shanbe. Correspondence should be directed to Eudald Carbonell and Xose Pedro Rodriguez.

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