Why was witchcraft in early modern (1500-1800) Western Europe a crime that disproportionately involved women as accusers and victims? By Natalie Ford. (with minor edits for publication in Lily Mag).
We share a historical research paper by Natalie Ford, Writer, Instructional Designer & Trainer on witchcraft in early modern Western Europe and how the role of women in that time played out a possible shift in the recognition of women’s capabilities and impacted on the role of women as healers, herbalists, spiritualist and guides, not to mention free thinking, independent souls. It demonstrates some of the dynamics between women of closed minds with more free spirited women which on reflection has not changed much. Although at least these days women in roles as naturopaths, midwives, natural product makers, aromatherapist, massage therapists you name it have a freedom to practice their craft. However at that time this paper demonstrates women who were a lone practitioner of almost any sought were simply judged, outcast or used as a scapegoat and sadly in particular accused by other women for simply demonstrating independence or healing which may have been deemed as evil or labelled witchcraft with negative connotations. Many were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. However in the interest of historical accuracy a huge thank you to beautiful Natalie for kindly allowing me to publish your incredible writing, undertaken whilst furthering her writing and history knowledge at Melb Uni. As always the universe provided the perfect article to publish at All Hallows, the Season of the Witch.
Early modern Europeans believed in magic and witchcraft, and these beliefs were fundamental to their worldview. Witches could be beneficent or maleficent, and maleficent witches presented a generalised threat for most ordinary folk. Although early modern Europeans believed that anyone could conceivably be a witch, women were more likely to be witches than men. While few witchcraft trials occurred prior to the fifteenth century, the spread of new ideas from the early sixteenth century contributed to tens of thousands of suspected witches executed, most of them women. In this article we will examine the beliefs and practices that resulted in the overrepresentation of women as both accusers and accused and that women were overrepresented as the accused because of the convergence of traditional and emerging beliefs resulting from them being more likely to interact with suspected witches in the context of their social and occupational roles.
Between 1400 and 1800, approximately 40,000 to 60,000 witches were executed for witchcraft across Europe, and around 75 per cent of those killed were women. In Germany, around 26,000 people were killed and 80 per cent were women. In some German villages, however, women comprised 100 per cent of convicted witches. This statistic is repeated in Scotland, where nearly 4,000 people were tried for witchcraft, and 80 per cent were women. The Netherlands recorded even greater numbers of women executed, with women representing close to 100 per cent of those convicted. In France, the number of women executed for witchcraft varied across regions, with higher numbers condemned in areas closer to Germany and Switzerland. The exceptions are Ireland and Wales, where only a handful of suspected witches were tried, and executions were rare. Overall, however, women were significantly overrepresented in the number of executions across early modern Europe. The existence of traditional beliefs combined with the emergence of new beliefs contributed to greater numbers of women than men executed for witchcraft. Christina Larner attributes this overrepresentation as a reflection of widespread and popular beliefs that women especially practiced maleficium.
Early modern Europeans believed in magic and lived in a world dominated by the supernatural in which spirits, elves, fairies and witches existed and could be beneficent or maleficent. Ordinary European folk worried that neighbours might use their magical powers to harm their children, kill their livestock and destroy their crops. For early modern Europeans, witchcraft was a ‘logical’ explanation for maleficium, or misfortune. In cases of suspected maleficium, these folk appealed regularly to local healers, diviners, cunning folk, astrologers, and wise women and men to ‘unwitch’ suspected maleficia. The maleficent witch thus represented a real threat to most early modern Europeans. In Wales, a witch was always a woman, and in most regions of early modern Western Europe, people believed that witches were more likely to be women than men.
The publication of several witchcraft treatises and demonological texts in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries had a significant influence on beliefs about witchcraft, particularly among the ecclesiastical and intellectual elite. The Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches, published in 1486, was the most influential text in the dissemination and widespread acceptance of demonology. In particular, the Malleus promulgated an entirely new idea about witchcraft: that witches denied Christianity and instead made a pact with the Devil; they flew to Sabbaths, stole “unbaptised babies to use in their rituals” and were united in a campaign to destroy Christianity. Witchcraft came to be associated with diabolism: that all magic and witchcraft involved a pact with the Devil.
The Malleus also propagated the idea that witches were women. Part of the success of the Malleus in spreading the idea of woman as maleficent witch was that it reinforced popular beliefs. For example, the Malleus fostered the popular belief that witches, particularly old women, could exact sorcery through the “evil eye” to bring about physical effects. Further, women have “loose tongues” and “lack physical strength” so they seek vengeance “secretly through acts of sorcery”, which reflected a popular belief in that women practice superstition because of their inherent ‘weakness’ and propensity to seek revenge through maleficium.
Daughters of suspected witches also had a “bad reputation” and were immediately suspected of being witches. Further, women were perceived as significantly more threatening when they congregated in groups. The association of two or more women called itself to people’s attention by their coming and going, and when any one of them fell under suspicion the others might also. The impact of demonological doctrine on the greater numbers of women accused than men can be substantiated when we examine regional differences. While any women could conceivably be a witch in early modern Western Europe, it was the ‘poor, old woman’ who lived on the margins and transgressed social norms with her words and deeds that was most likely to be accused. This is especially the case in areas where demonology had taken hold. In Germany, for example, where the Malleus was highly influential, the author’s claimed that sorcery was “practiced among uneducated and illiterate peasant women”, and nearly half of all accused witches were female beggars or from the lower classes. In other areas of Germany,the proportion of accused women reached up to 84 per cent.
This is repeated in Scotland, where demonology was widespread and promoted by King James I. In Lucerne, Switzerland, secular authorities referred to the Malleus as the basis for accusations, and more than 90 per cent of convicted witches between 1398 and 1551 were women. Conversely, in Wales, where the demonic element was not present in witch trials, the few women accused of maleficium were usually married with an income of their own and from the lower-middle classes.
In Ireland, a disinclination towards official witchcraft theory in favour of local and popular belief resulted in very few formal accusations of witchcraft. Therefore, regions with
little demonological influence resulted in few formal accusations and even fewer executions, as well as greater variation in the age and status of those accused. The introduction and dissemination of demonology, particularly the Malleus, contributed to a higher proportion of
women than men executed for witchcraft during the ‘witch craze’.
However, it was also the enactment of new legislation that legitimated witch hunts and witch trials. The implementation of the English Witchcraft Act of 1563 and Scottish Witchcraft Act in the same year precipitated a mass of witchcraft trials. Before the witch trials, most peasants tolerated neighbours whom they suspected of witchcraft. Many of the women formally accused had long-standing reputations as witches sometimes years or decades before their trials. As demonology spread and fears of diabolism intensified, professional witch-hunters,
and the intellectual and judicial elite, encouraged peasants to come forward and depose their suspected neighbours. Female accusers were afforded the opportunity to recall past grievances and suspicions that had lingered for years. This may explain the significant time lapse between initial hostile encounters and eventual formal accusations.
For example, when Elizabeth Field testified that her child had died many years ago after Jane Wenham touched it, the judge asked: "why she did not prosecute Immediately?" Field replied: "the opportunity presenting itself".While the number of male and female accusers in England had remained relatively equal up until the late fifteenth century, the proportion of female accusers increased significantly throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with women as accusers, examiners and witnesses for the prosecution. Young women who claimed they had been “possessed by the Devil through the agency of a witch” often testified against the accused. Instances of “possessed” young women were overrepresented in published accounts of witch trials, and it is likely that these ‘victims’ were manipulated by professional witch-hunters, as well as the clerical and judicial elite to propagate official witchcraft theory. Women might also participate in formal accusations as examiners of the suspect’s body for the ‘Devil’s mark’ and report the results of physical searches, and only women were permitted to perform this task. The presiding judge would nominate a committee of women, usually between four andeight women, to examine the accused for marks. The judge then deposed each woman to report their findings. Examinations of the accused’s body for the ‘Devil’s mark’ wereincreasingly employed during prosecutions to substantiate witchcraft as diabolism. Examiners may also testify to her reputation as a witch or their own experience of her maleficence.
Frances Ward, for example, along with three other women, found incriminating marks onMargaret Morton. Ward also attributed the deaths of two of her children to Morton, and reported that the accused, her mother and her sister were "all long time suspected" of witchcraft. Some women therefore provided dual testimony as both examiners and accusers,which further contributed to the overrepresentation of woman as accusers.
Perhaps most significantly, many women appeared as accusers and witnesses to witchcraft or its effects because they fulfilled particular roles that increased the likelihood of an interaction with a suspected witch. Domestic work, for example, although men did contribute, was a predominantly female role in early modern Europe. Most women spent much of their time in and around the home attending to domestic chores, tending to livestock and crops and looking after young children. Conversely, men often worked farther from home and some travelled
for long periods of time. Agriculture, for example, was the largest male employment sector in most of early modern Western Europe, which kept most men working in the fields. This division of labour meant that husbands and wives were separate for most of the day, and sometimes for months. It is interesting to note that many neighbourly disputes in early modern European village life reflect this division of labour. Conflicts between men usually occurred in the fields, while disputes between women usually occurred in or around the house.
Domestic servants were predominantly female and maidservants’ testimony recurs frequently throughout accounts of witch trials. Anne Bodenham of England was on trial for witchcraft, and one of the witnesses was a maidservant, Anne Styles. Styles claimed that she was sent to Bodenham’s house on at least two occasions to make enquiries on behalf of her employer about missing items, and observed Bodenham consulting books that contained pictures of the Devil. Styles then relays to another maidservant, Betty Rosewell (who was also a witness), that she had “seen their household” in a green glass that Bodenham had rubbed and held up to the sun. In another example, Ann Kippax, a maidservant, deposes Mary Atkinson, and claims that Atkinson entered her employer’s house and commented on the “health of a young child who was being nursed” and claimed “that it was bewitched by Margaret Awcocke”. A maiden “in the diocese of Strasberg” confessed that when she was “walking around alone in her father’s house” and an “old woman of that town came to visit her” and uttered “dirty words”. In Wurtemburg, Katarina Masten was accused of physical assault by a maidservant who had interacted with Masten when she came to the house to collect a debt.
Therefore, many women were likely to testify against other women due to their domestic service role, which was primarily a female role in early modern Europe. Childrearing responsibilities also kept most women close to home, and it was infants and children who were often perceived to be the target of suspected maleficium. According to popular belief and demonological doctrine, children and infants were particularly vulnerable to maleficium, and depositions supplied by female accusers and witnesses frequently involved infants and children.
Jane Brooks of England was accused for giving an apple to a small boy, stroking his right side and shaking his hand, which apparently caused a violent convulsion in his body. Margaret Fowler accused Joan Meriweather of causing a child to “fall into a very great distemper” after kissing him. A servant girl, Mary Weston, told how she watched a
child in its fits at the command of her employer, Anne Smallwood. Margaret Morton is accused of bewitching a child. Several other women testified against Morton, including a woman who confirmed the child’s illness, and another woman testified that she was also responsible for several other children’s deaths through maleficium. It was therefore this social and occupational organisation and division of labour between men and women in early modern Europe that established the essential conditions for witchcraft accusations.
Given women’s primacy in the domestic context, women were therefore more likely to interact with suspected witches, which thus increased the possibility that they could testify to the behaviour and practices of the accused witch. Between 40,000 and 60,000 witches were tried, convicted and executed for witchcraft in early modern Europe. Most of those condemned to death were women. Examination of popular and traditional beliefs in early modern Western Europe indicate that women were more likely to practice maleficent witchcraft than men. The spread of demonological doctrine supported this belief, but also introduced an association between women, witchcraft and the Devil. It was this fear that precipitated the “witch craze” and witch hunts of early modern Europe. Women were also overrepresented as accusers, including as examiners and witnesses, that testified to a suspected witch’s maleficence. This is largely because only women could examine other women and also because witnesses were more likely to interact with suspected witches due to their social and occupational roles.
1 Lara Apps and Andrew Gow, Male witches in early modern Europe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 50; Hans P. Broedel, The “Malleus Maleficarum” and the construction of witchcraft, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 167; Andrew Sneddon, “Witchcraft belief and trials in early modern Ireland.” Irish Economic and Social History 39 (2012), 1.
2 Apps and Gow, Male, 50; William de Blecourt, “The Making of the Female Witch: Reflections on
Witchcraft and Gender in the Early Modern Period.” Gender & History 12, 2 (2000), 293.
3 Larry Gragg, “Witchcraft in the Early Modern West.” Comparative Civilisations Review 72 (2015), 145.
4 Lauren Martin, “Witchcraft and Family: What can Witchcraft Documents Tell Us About Early Modern Scottish Family Life?” Scottish Tradition 27 (2002), 10; Sneddon, “Witchcraft”, 1. 5 De Blecourt, “The Making”, 296.
6 William Monter, Witchcraft Trials in France.” In The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, 1-17. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 1-3, 12.
7 Apps and Gow, Male, 50; Sally Parkin, “Witchcraft, women’s honour and customary law in early modern Wales.” Social History 31, 3 (2006), 295; Sneddon, “Witchcraft”, 1.
8 Broedel, The “Malleus”, 172.
9 Gragg, “Witchcraft”, 137.
10 Ibid, 140.
11 De Blecourt, “The Making”, 303.
12 Richard Keickhefer, “The First Wave of Trials for Diabolic Witchcraft.” In The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, 1-17. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 1; Anita M. Walker and Edmund H. Dickerman, “A Notorious Woman:
Possession, Witchcraft and Sexuality in Seventeenth-Century Provence.” Historical Reflections 27, 1(2001), 15.13 Edward Bever, “Witchcraft, Female Aggression, and Power in the Early Modern Community.” Journal of
Social History (2002), 959; Parkin, “Witchcraft”, 296; Sneddon, “Witchcraft”, 25.
14 Christopher Mackay, The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 33.
15 Gragg, “Witchcraft”, 142; Mackay, The Hammer, 27.
16 Richard Horsley, “Who Were the Witches? The Social Roles of the Accused in the European Witch Trials.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 9, 4 (1979), 690.
17 Broedel, The “Malleus”, 167.
18 Ibid, 100.
19 Broedel, The “Malleus”, 23, 30; Mackay, The Hammer, 365.
20 Broedel, The “Malleus”, 170-1; Gragg, “Witchcraft”, 146; Mackay, The Hammer, 164.
21 Bever, “Witchcraft”, 965, 970; Broedel, The “Malleus”, 133.
22 Mackay, The Hammer, 166.
23 Bever, “Witchcraft”, 965, 970; Broedel, The “Malleus”, 133.
24 Frances E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700. (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1994), 197; Mackay, The Hammer, 164.
25 J. A. Sharpe, “Witchcraft and women in seventeenth-century England: some Northern evidence.” Continuity and Change 6, 2 (1991), 186. 26 Bever, “Witchcraft”, 967.
27 Dolan, Dangerous, 197.
28 Richard P. Horsley, “Who Were the Witches? The Social Roles of the Accused in the European Witch Trials.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 9, 4 (1979), 709, 711.
29 Horsley, “Who Were”, 709; Mackay, The Hammer, 84.
30 Mackay, The Hammer, 374.
31 Richard Kieckhefer, Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West.” In The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, 1-23. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 7.
32 Sharpe, “Witchcraft”, 182.
33 Mackay, The Hammer, 26, 31; Alison Rowlands, “Witchcraft and Old Women in Early Modern
Germany.” Past & Present 173 (2001), 70.
34 Broedel, The “Malleus”, 169.
35 Parkin, “Witchcraft” 299.
36 Sneddon, “Witchcraft”, 25.
37 Gragg, “Witchcraft”, 142; Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 3rd edition. London:
Routledge, 2013), 8; Mackay, The Hammer, 27; Apps and Gow, Male witches, 49.
38 Diane Purkiss, “Women’s Stories of Witchcraft in Early Modern England: The House, the Body, the Child.” Gender & History 7, 3 (1995), 408.
39 Rowlands, “Witchcraft”, 563.
40 Horsley, “Who Were”, 713; Purkiss, “Women’s”, 408.
41 Clive Holmes, Witnesses and Witches.” Past & Present 140 (1993), 55-56, 58.
42 Horsley, “Who Were”, 713.
43 Holmes, “Witnesses”, 56.
44 Ibid, 47-48.
45 Ibid, 46, 59, 77.
46 Ibid, 46, 71-72.
47 Ibid, 58, 74.
48 Sharpe, “Witchcraft”, 188.
49 Amanda Flather, “Space, Place, and Gender: The Sexual and Spatial Division of Labour in the Early Modern Household.” History and Theory 52 (2013), 348, 451.
50 Flather, “Space”, 350-1.
51 Malcolm Gaskill, “Witchcraft, Politics, and Memory in Seventeenth-Century England.” The Historical Journal 50, 2 (2007), 298.
52 Gaskill, “Witchcraft”, 298.
53 Sharpe, “Witchcraft”, 190.
54 Mackay, The Hammer, 278.
55 Bever, “Witchcraft”, 960.
56 Sharpe, “Witchcraft”, 189.
57 Purkiss, “Women’s”, 423.
58 Ibid, 190-1.
59 De Blecourt, “The Making”, 303.