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 50 per cent in Finland. On the other hand there are regions where 90 per cent or more of known witches were women; these include Hungary, Denmark and England. The fact that many recent writers on the subject have relied on English and North American evidence has probably encouraged an error of perspective here, with the overwhelming predominance of female suspects in these areas (also characterised by low rates of persecution) being assumed to be typical. Nor is it the case that the courts treated male suspects more favourably; the conviction rates are usually much the same for both sexes.” (Briggs) When these facts and figures are put it into context, it could be argued that while misogyny was a contributing factor to the persecution of ‘witches’ in certain regions of Europe, this pattern was not consistent across Europe nor was misogyny the sole motivation behind the so-called witch craze. When looking at the ‘bigger picture’ it is very difficult to argue that the ‘witch’ persecutions were woman hunts because the number of women prosecuted represented such a small proportion of the number of women in Europe, and there is little to no evidence to support the view that they were simply targeted because they were women, contradicting the view that the witch craze constituted a persecution of women.
However, from the perspective of a feminist such as Anne Barstow, it could be argued that “the fact that overall about 20 per cent of the accused were male is less an indication that men were associated than it appears, most of these men were related to women already convicted of sorcery – as husbands, sons or grandsons – and thus were not perceived as originators of witchcraft. Of the few who were not related, most had criminal records for other felonies such as theft, highway robbery, murder, the theological crime of heresy or sexual crimes such as rape, incest, fornication, adultery, or sodomy. For them, witchcraft was not the original charge but was added on to make the initial accusation more heinous.” (Barstow, 1994) In her survey of early modern European women and gender, Merry Wiesner presents a variation of this argument, also stating that “male suspects were generally relatives of the accused women” and “the men accused in mass panics were generally charged with different types of witchcraft than the women – of harming things in the male domain such as horses or crops rather than infants or spoiling bread – and only rarely accused of actions such as night-flying or pacts with the devil.” Although both Barstow and Wiesner do discuss male witches in general terms, the effect of their description is to eliminate male witches as valid historical subjects by casting them as either mere collateral damage in the persecution of women or as something completely different from female witches. It is due to the one sided nature of many feminist explanations of the witch craze that historians such as Fudge believe that “Barstow’s work is deeply flawed”. I believe that the witch-hunts cannot simply be viewed as an attack on women when both men and women were persecuted and that although misogyny contributed to the increase in persecutions, it was not the only factor. To only argue from one perspective means that you, in turn, disregard everything else and that you are almost ‘blinkered’ seeing your views and nothing else. By simply seeing this as an attack on women, so many questions are left unanswered, the key one being ‘WHY WOMEN?’
According to Larner, “one line of argument is that, since women accused other women and were frequently chief witnesses in the courts, there was nothing misogynous about witch-hunting. Male judges were simply responding to the pressures below; pressures which came largely from women.” She also argues that “the cursing and bewitching women were the equivalent of violent males. They were disturbers of social order; they were those who could not easily cooperate with others; they were aggressive. Witches, like male bullies, were not nice people. From this perspective, the pursuit of witches was no more a persecution of women than the prosecution of killers and mamers was a persecution of men. The parallel is not exact but it is not absurd. The prime interest of authorities at the time was the pursuit of witches. A witch to them was a person who had renounced Christian baptism, given his/her soul to the Devil, and was in conspiracy with other witches to overthrow social order. The purpose of a witch hunt was the prising out of dangerous persons who were enemies of God, the state and the people. The fact that these ideological enemies turned out to be 80 per cent female could have added fuel the misogyny of the age rather than been a direct consequence of it. Despite the long term stereotype, sixteenth century demonologists spent much time puzzling over why women were so much more wicked than men.” (Oldridge, 2002) It is arguable, however, that the example of women attacking each other is an indication of ‘internalised misogyny’ where women are sexist towards each other and project sexist stereotypes onto each other, but this is something that women still do to this day. Feminists have fought for equality for centuries, yet to this day they still attack each other. The internalised misogyny displayed in these witch trials is still present in the modern world; a comparable example is the ‘slut shaming’ that has become common behaviour amongst women in the western world. But, this still does not mean that the sole motivation behind the persecution of witches. The fact that women attacked each other may well be an indication of internalised misogyny but there is no evidence that these women were targeted BECAUSE they were women, just that females happened to be the main targets by both men and other women.
However it could be argued that the witch trials had nothing to do with gender at all and that they emerged as a response to socio-political turmoil in the Early Modern world. One form of this is that the persecution of witches was a reaction to a disaster that had befallen the community, such as crop failure, war, and disease. For instance, Midelfort suggested that in southwestern Germany, war and famine destabalised local communities, resulting in the witch prosecutions of the 1620s. However, this scenario would clearly not offer a universal explanation, for trials also took place in areas which were free from war, famine, or pestilence. Using Germany as a specific example, the late 16th and 17th centuries for Germany were a time of political and religious upheaval. Politically, the Holy Roman Empire grew weaker while new territorial states gained power. Geographical evidence points to the possibility that during the period, Europe suffered a “mini ice age,” during which low temperatures and snowfall meant that growing crops was next to impossible. A series of poor harvests in the 1590s led to widespread famine, the opportunity for accusations of a supernatural cause among a superstitious and scientifically ignorant peasantry. Economically, Europe was suffering. The influx of Spanish silver from the New World catastrophically damaged the European economy, resulting in massive inflation. This quantity of wealth had little in the way of goods and services to compete for; currency was devalued, causing an increase in food prices which the poor simply could not meet. Pestilence ravaged throughout Europe, particularly in the overpopulated European cities and towns, marked by their poverty and lack of sanitation. The transmission of disease was also aided by widespread malnutrition and the movement of large armies of infected soldiers across the countryside. The unpleasant synthesis of these causes required only what historians Scarre and Callow call the “catalyst” of Religion, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and hatred which allowed witchcraft trials to flourish. The fact that so many different factors took part in the fear and desperation which led to the ‘witch craze’ is why I do not believe that it was simply an attack on women. (Sibai)
One could also argue that the Protestant Reformation, which challenged Catholicism, also played a role in the increase in witch persecutions. The changes within these religious institutions threatened the social structure, causing people to be more insecure and vulnerable. The superstitious Europeans readily accepted witchcraft because they were ignorant of science and excessively fearful with regards to religious heresies. It is due to these changes that (Sibai) argues that the witch trials occurred as a result of shifting power structures and often were attempts by both secular and religious leaders to curb the hostilities such rivalries caused within the social communities and that witch persecutions were used as a means of controlling the people and frightening them back into quiet obedience and subservience. Robin Briggs estimates that “some 40,000, to 50,000 people were executed as witches in Europe between roughly 1400 and 1750.” The role of the Reformation in these persecutions is contentious; there is much debate about the influence of organised Religion in their cause, as opposed to existing folk beliefs concerning witches.
The historian Keith Thomas argued that “Religious beliefs in terms of witch hunting were a necessary precondition.”
Religious explanations of the witch-hunts have been some of the earliest attempts by modern scholars to comprehend the bizarre phenomenon of the Early Modern Period. Among the first was that of Historian Hugh Trevor Roper, who advocated the idea that the witch trials emerged as part of the conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Early Modern Europe. In this, he argues that in a new age of Religious textual understanding and enlightenment, the Reformation damaged the existent understanding of the Christian faith and returned it to a more petty and confused comprehension. This could go some way to explaining the Religious violence in the period. According to Hugh Trevor Roper, Protestant states executed their Catholic minorities, and vice versa. Witch-hunting was a facade; a means for secular and Religious authorities to execute members of the opposing confession in large numbers, thereby showing their “Godliness.” This policy was implemented during times of peace, when Religious wars were not raging, and were a means of relieving tensions caused by a close proximity of differing confessions. This view is today considered too simplistic and received little support, however the importance of confession within the context of the witch hunts is worthy of some consideration. Although there are not huge amounts of evidence to support the view that the witch craze occurred as a result of religious turmoil. (Trevor-Roper) (Briggs) (Thomas)
In conclusion I do not believe that the increased persecution of ‘witches’ constituted an attack on women. Although feminists such as Anne Barstow argue that misogyny was the driving force of the witch-hunts, many of the arguments are very one sided and do not explore any of the other factors that contributed to the increase in persecutions. I do, however, believe that in many cases misogyny did play a huge role in the hunting and persecution of witches. There were also many other contributing factors such as the Protestant reformation, a change in climate that was referred to as ‘a mini ice age’, crop failure, famine, social turmoil and changes in social structure. Throughout different periods of turmoil, ‘witches’ were used as scapegoats across European communities and the majority of these ‘witches’ were women. Although the majority of convicted ‘witches’ were women there is little to no evidence to support the view that they were accused of witchcraft simply because they were women. This is why I believe that rather than arguing that these persecutions were a straight forward attack on women by sadistic and misogynistic men, we must ask why women appeared to be such a significant threat to society that they were consistently used as scapegoats across an entire continent for over a century; or if it was actually the complete opposite, that they were just easy targets. The answer to this question goes beyond the scope of this essay, but it does indicate that misogyny was not the sole motivation behind the witch craze.
When researching feminist explanations for the European witch craze was Anne Barstow’s witch craze was particularly useful. She had various arguments to suggest that the witch craze was simply a misogynistic attack on women, many of which were linked to the fact that approximately 90 per cent of prosecuted witches were women. However, many of her arguments were very one sided and ‘blinkered’; not taking other contributing factors into account. The one sided nature of her perspective leaves the question of why women were targeted unanswered which, in my opinion would be a key point when trying to argue that misogyny was the sole motivation behind the persecutions.
The Malleus Maleficarum was also very useful because it is a primary source which helped me to understand where many of the misogynistic ideals that existed during the Early Modern Period originated from. Although I do not believe that misogyny was the sole motivation behind the witch hunts, that isn’t to say misogyny did not play a substantial role. The Malleus Maleficarum was a clear attack on women and so although I didn’t reference it a lot in my essay, it was essential in understanding how women could have been used as scapegoats in times of turmoil by ignorant, naïve and desperate Europeans.
In contrast, Steven Katz argues from a feminist perspective, but still explores the subject from all angles. He recognises that although the majority of ‘witches’ were women, these women accounted for a very small proportion of the European population and so it is arguable that the witch craze cannot truly be considered a misogynistic attack on women, because the pattern was not consistent enough across Europe. It is because of Katz’s ability to explore the arguments against his own point of view that I found his work so useful and an interesting contrast to the extreme feminist viewpoint of Barstow.
However when arguing against the feminist interpretations I found ‘witches and neighbours’ by Robin Briggs particularly informative. Briggs argued that regional variations in the gender of prosecuted witches made it difficult to argue that the witch hunts were simply a misogynistic attack. He also notes the role that religious and political turmoil caused by the fall of the Holy Roman Empire and the Protestant reformation. His views were also supported by Thomas and Sibai. What I found most useful about Briggs’ work was that while he did not support the feminist viewpoint, he didn’t discount it. He not only recognised that misogyny was a factor that contributed to the increase in witch persecutions, but also tried to explore other events which had taken place at the same time as these trials to understand what could have led to this period of mass murder and scapegoating.
When viewing the increased persecutions from a religious stance, I found Hugh Trevor-Roper’s work quite interesting, in particular his arguments based around protestant and catholic conflict. He argued that Catholic states had executed their Protestant minorities, and vice versa. Although I found this argument quite interesting it is quite an old source and for this reason it has not received much support from the more modern historians that I have read.
On a whole I did not find any one source more useful than the others, it was the combination of these sources which helped to draw out my argument and come to a logical and educated conclusion.
Barstow, A. (1994). Witchcraze.
Briggs, R. (n.d.). Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft.
Heinrich Kramer, J. S. (1487). Malleus Maleficiarum.
Katz, S. (n.d.). The Hollocaust in Historical Context Volume 1.
Oldridge, D. (2002). The Witchcraft Reader.
Sibai, T. (n.d.). Witch Trials in Germany: Politics or Hysterics?
Thomas, K. (n.d.). Religion and the Decline of Magic.
Trevor-Roper, H. (n.d.). The European Witch Craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.