To what extent did the increase in the persecution of witches in Europe from 1550-1650 constitute an attack on women?

Authors Avatar by jadehowe1997gmailcom (student)

To what extent did the increase in the persecution of witches in Europe from 1550-1650 constitute an attack on women?

The witch hunts of the Early Modern Period, which have also been referred to as the Great Witch Craze, were a period of witch hunts that took place across early modern Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries. The period between 1550 and 1650 in particular, witnessed a widespread and concerted effort to discover and eradicate witchcraft, and though estimates vary it is reasonable to conclude that – at a minimum - 100,000 people were prosecuted for the crime, and some 40,000 were executed for it. Some argue that the increase in the persecution of ‘witches’ between 1550 and 1650 constituted a persecution of women, I disagree. I believe that although there may have been some misogynistic motivations behind these witch hunts, misogyny was not a consistent motivation across Europe and there were also many other factors involved such as religious and socio-political turmoil, disease and famine. Therefore it would be unfair and illogical to state that the witch hunts were simply a persecution of women when there were so many other contributing factors.        

From a feminist perspective, it could be argued that because the majority of ‘witches’ were women, the main motivation behind the witch hunts was misogyny. According to Steven Katz, the witch hunts can be viewed as a case of “genderised mass murder” because “the overall evidence makes plain that the growth in the witch craze was inseparable from the stigmatisation of women. Historically the most salient manifestation of the unreserved belief in female power and female evil is evidenced in …the tight, recurrent by and now nearly instinctive association of women and witchcraft. Though there were male that were labelled as witches, when the witch craze accelerated and became a mass phenomenon after 1500 its main targets, the main victims, were female witches. Indeed one strongly suspects that the development of witch hunting into a mass hysteria only became possible when directed primarily at women.” (Katz) “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman… What else is woman but foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours?.. Women are by nature instruments of Satan – they are by carnal a structural defect rooted in the original creation.” (Heinrich Kramer, 1487) This is a classic example of the deranged misogyny that is the Malleus Maleficarum which “was the single most influential work on the witch craze of the early modern period that led to many accusations and executions of women.”

The Malleus states that: “ it is self-evident that witches are female… where there are many women there are many witches… men, like Jesus are protected from lures of the devil, but women because they are feebler both in mind and body are easy prey just like their predecessor Eve… furthermore women are more carnal than men… they are sexually insatiable.” (Heinrich Kramer, 1487) It then itemised all the crimes witches committed, and how to torture, convict and execute them. Numerous translations and thirty editions of the Malleus appeared rapidly, pointing out the popularity of this propaganda. The fact that the Malleus was very specific about the fact that ‘witches’ were women, meant that the misogyny which already existed was only heightened, and meant that all women could be potential suspects. Usually, the first witch to be accused in a village was the poor elderly outcast woman that was not liked. She would be formally accused, then tortured and convicted. This would then lead to the prosecution of many more ‘witches’. The misogyny displayed in the Malleus became very influential in the persecution of female witches and the also played a role in creating the paranoia which surrounded the persecutions. Due to the fact that the Malleus was had quite a heavy influence, many argue that it is misogynistic ideals led to many female ‘witches’ being targeted and therefore created a ‘woman hunt’ rather than a ‘witch hunt’.

However, the suggestion that the women who were persecuted in Europe actually accounted for such a small minority of the general population, could mean that the “woman hunt” has actually been slightly overstated and the witch hunts were not as genderised and misogynistic as originally thought.  “Statistical evidence makes clear the over 99.9 per cent of all women who lived during the three centuries of the witch craze were not harmed directly by the police arm of either the state or the church, though both had the power to do so.” (Katz) Robin Briggs also calculates that between 20 and 25 per cent of Europeans executed for witchcraft during the Early Modern Period were in fact male. The fact that there were in fact male ‘witches’ completely contradicts the theory that the witch hunts were an attack on women, because men were targeted too.  Once again this leads me to believe that the degree of misogyny has been slightly overstated. The fact that at least 20 per cent of the ‘witches’ prosecuted were men makes the witch craze seem like less of a “woman hunt”.

Join now!

 Regional variations have also been notable. “France was a fascinating exception to the wider pattern for over much of the country witchcraft seems to have had no obvious link with gender at all. Of nearly 1,300 witches whose cases went to the Parliament of Paris on appeal, just over half of them were men… The great majority of the men accused were poor peasants and artisans, a fairly representative sample of the ordinary population. There are some peripheral regions of Europe, with men accounting 90 per cent of the accused in Iceland, 60 per cent in Estonia and nearly ...

This is a preview of the whole essay