The European Witch Hunts: A Mass Murder of Women?

The European Witch Hunts: A Mass Murder of Women?

It is generally accepted that the European witch hunts took place between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, with the ‘craze’ reaching its peak during the seventeenth century. Anne Llewellyn Barstow has controversially referred to the trials as a ‘mass murder of women’, while Thea Jensen, even more controversially, dubbed them a ‘holocaust of women’. This was in part due to the burning of prosecuted witches on the European continent (though witches were hanged in England), and to what Jensen and other feminist scholars have considered a deliberate targeting of women, particularly women healers, for witchcraft prosecution.  Other historians, such as Dianne Purkiss, have been highly critical of this rhetoric, considering it to have established a ‘myth of the burning times’. During this period in Europe, around 80 percent of those accused of witchcraft were women, and in England this figure stood at around 90 percent. Proportions of accused women were similarly high in New England, where between 1620 and 1755, 78 percent of witches accused (of whose sex is known) were women. However, the fact remains that women were disproportionately subject to witchcraft prosecutions during this period. Surprisingly few historians have offered any in depth analysis of gender as a factor in the trials, focusing instead on religious or socio-economic factors. This article will consider some of the popular theories posited by historians on why women were so disproportionately accused and prosecuted as witches.

The female healer versus the male physicianwitchpic1

Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English are proponents of the theory that women healers, perceived as a threat by male physicians and medical practitioners, were specifically targeted for witchcraft accusations in order to remove competition from the medical market. Ehrenreich and English’s work was published during the second wave of feminism in the United States, a point they have addressed in the preface to the most recent edition of their work:

“By the early 1970s feminists were becoming aware of a variety of wars women were abused or treated unjustly by the medical system. As healthcare professionals, women were largely confined to subordinate roles as nurses and aides. As consumers of care, we found ourselves subject to both insensitive and hazardous treatment: unnecessary hysterectomies, over-medicated childbirth, insufficiently tested contraceptives, involuntary sterilizations, and the almost universal condescension of male doctors.”

Incensed by modern day inequalities in both the role of women in the medical profession and their treatment by, mainly male, medical professionals, Ehrenreich and English developed their thesis. It is clear that the authors translated this anger to the early modern setting, envisaging these same inequalities and viewing early modern women as the original victims of a patriarchal system designed to undermine women in a number of ways, but most pertinently in the medical setting. They ‘traced their [modern day] power struggle’ back to the nineteenth, and even further into the sixteenth centuries where women were deliberately removed from their positions of power as healers and excluded from the new and ever-growing medical profession, namely through their exclusion from universities in which they could train in medicine. It was and continues to be a compelling, radical, and overall contentious theory, inspiring what some historians have deemed ‘myths’ of the witch-healer and contributing to the ‘myth of the burning times’ as a whole.

So, what about the evidence for Ehrenreich and English’s theory that women were removed from their position of power as healers by men? As Dianne Purkiss has highlighted, there is very little evidence that most of those accused were local healers or wise-women. The nature of court records often disguises the occupations of women, particularly of those who were married, and so the assertion that most of those women accused were healers is difficult if not impossible to prove. This theory also does not explain why men who were also in competition with physicians, such as male healers or barber-surgeons were not equally subjected to witchcraft accusations. Moreover, in court records we find that women were often accused by other women; therefore, if women were accused on the basis of their competition with male medical practitioners, why were women not more often accused by men? Purkiss also makes an important point that midwives were often tasked by the courts with searching for ‘Devil’s marks’ – considered to be the teats on which the devil or his demons sucked on the witch’s blood – on accused witches, their expertise in the matter meaning they were colluders with accusers rather than their victims.  Ehrenreich and English also claim that physicians authored works on witchcraft, but so too did clergy – even James I himself authored a work on demonology. The assumption underpinning Ehrenreich and English’s thesis, that women were targeted specifically as healers, and that their persecution as such was a means of removing women from healing practice, relies on a set of assumptions for which there is little or very weak evidence. It remains to be seen whether historians will be able to find source material to emphatically confirm or deny the assertion.

Woman versus Manwitchpic2

Historians who suggest that ideas about women’s sexual propriety were central to the disproportionate targeting of women as witches often use a fifteenth century work the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, authored by a Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer. The text contains incredibly misogynistic overtones, which is why it has been oft-cited by some feminist historians who seek to create a narrative of ‘women-hunting’. Moreover, the text itself directly addresses the question of why women were more likely, in the contemporary view, to be witches. Kramer claims that women were more carnal beings than their male counterparts, with an insatiable lust. Sigrid Brauner has interpreted the theory underpinning the Malleus as essentially dualistic, in which the Devil is the antithesis of God and woman the antithesis of man. The theories of the Malleus are not entirely new; Aristotle famously theorised that women were imperfect or ‘mutilated males’. Aristotle considered women as deviations from the norm (men) and the product of imperfect incubation, their humoral composition, being cold and wet rather than the hot and dry of the male, meaning that they were not able to reach the perfection achieved by men. Galen echoed Aristotle’s views, considering women’s internal reproductive organs as evidence of their humoral disposition and therefore their imperfection. Misogynistic theories about the imperfection of women continued into the early modern period and are exemplified in anatomical treatises which present the female uterus as an inverted penis, famously depicted in Andreas Vesalius’ De Fabrica and reproduced in countless other works. The depiction plays into already established ideas during the period of woman as the inverted male, in much the same way as women are presented in Kramer’s Malleus.

witchpic3The Malleus itself is certainly not lacking in material to support the assertion that Kramer himself was a misogynist, exemplified by the excerpt below, just one of many that seek to paint women as inherently more sinful and infinitely more susceptible to seduction by the Devil:

“What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours! Therefore if it be a sin to divorce her when she ought to be kept, it is indeed a necessary torture; for either we commit adultery by divorcing her, or we must endure daily strife.”

Kramer’s assertion that women are ‘natural temptations’ is particularly revealing and this passage suggests that, as well as those arguments made elsewhere in the text that women are inherently more susceptible to sin, they were also dangerous to men.  This passage exemplifies Kramer’s paranoiac fear of female sexuality. These fears may be grounded in genuine concerns about paternity during this period; as Caroline Bicks explains, midwives played a particularly significant role in this period because they were able to confirm or deny paternity. Ironically, the central role of midwives in this instance casts further doubt on Ehrenreich and English’s theories.  However, the influence of the Malleus has been contested by historians such as James Sharpe who are especially sceptical about the influence a Catholic work would have had on Protestant thinking. Furthermore, Keith Thomas has pointed out that many of the explicit sexual ideas present in the Malleus are lacking in English witch trials, indicating that Sharpe’s argument bears some credence. On the other hand, Darren Oldridge argues that the content of the Malleus is reflected in contemporary jestbooks, indicating that misogynistic ideas such as those contained in the Malleus could have been widespread. It is certainly the case that misogynistic tropes were prevalent in elite works such as the Malleus as well as anatomical treatises, but this theory requires stronger evidence to justify any assertion that works such as Kramer’s were highly influential or provided a comprehensive rationale for the targeting of women as witches.

Women versus Poor women and widows

The idea of the European witch trials as a ‘mass murder’ of women has been refuted by Keith Thomas, who disagrees on the basis that witchcraft did not affect all women. Demographic studies show that the women accused were overwhelmingly poor or widowed women, leading to Thomas’s comment that those accused were ‘usually poor and usually women’. He hypothesises that poor women were often accused for taking food from their neighbours, supported by the fact that women would often accuse their own neighbours of witchcraft. However, Thomas neglects to take the argument further to explain why it should be a woman rather than a man that should have to seek food, and therefore why women would be at greater vulnerability of witchcraft accusations. Anne Llewellyn Barstow and Marianne Hester attempt to explain this by arguing that women were economically marginalised. During times of economic hardship, women would be pushed out of employment, presumably in order to preserve jobs for men, and were frequently excluded from guilds. Women were also unable to learn a craft because the time required directly conflicted with domestic duties. Furthermore, during the development of the capitalist economy as well as the spread of enclosures, women lost the ability to make an income through maintaining their own dairies and gardens. The result was a higher propensity toward poverty for women rather than men, or what Hester terms ‘a feminisation of poverty’, and thus more women had to resort to seeking neighbours’ assistance and were accused as a result. Lyndal Roper has also argued that early capitalism brought with it a sense of guilt, particularly for Protestants, in terms of wealth and money lending. According to the theories of Alan Macfarlane, Michael D. Bailey, John Demos and Brian P. Levack, these feelings of internalised guilt could then be projected onto the witch.

Explanations for accusations toward widowed women also centre on economic factors. Barstow, for example, argues that widowed women were targeted because of the greater economic opportunities afforded to them, such as the ability to inherit property and defend their own interests in court. Barstow uses the low rate of remarriage, despite men being in need of wives during this period, as evidence for the fact that women could enjoy greater freedoms if they remained unmarried. Widowed women were therefore acting outside of the usual social structure, in which women were controlled by their husband or father. It was because these women were not only living but thriving on the fringes of society that, it is argued, they became targets for witchcraft accusations. These women had effectively subsumed male roles, and the association of the witch with the inversion of gender hierarchy is evident in popular culture, for example in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where the witches are given male attributes. Evidence of the high proportion of accusations made to the unmarried can be seen in Brian P. Levack’s study on European witchcraft, which reveals that unmarried women outnumbered those married among the accused in a number of European regions. This did not just include widows, but also younger unmarried women, who in remaining unmarried were ‘anomalous’. It was therefore women who were acting, at least partially, outside of the confines of society and the patriarchal hierarchy that were targeted. So, whilst not all women were the target of accusations, it can be argued that ‘anomalous’ women were, especially where material gain was to be made through the acquisition of a wealthy widow’s property.


                  Of the several theories posited by historians (which are by no means all presented in this article) regarding the fact that more women were accused of witchcraft than men, none are truly convincing. In part, this is due to lack of evidence, particularly on the motives of those who accused others of witchcraft, and the subsequent need to speculate about what these motives may have been. We also find that some historians construct their theories in response to modern day concerns, in the case of Ehrenreich and English for example, meaning that in some cases the early modern context is lost. It remains to be seen whether more evidence can be found for a solid theory about why women were the largest proportion of victims during the witch hunts.

Written by Enya Holland


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