(Taken from Merry W. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Chapter 7; pp. 218-238.)
As for the first question, why a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men . . . the first reason is, that they are more credulous, and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them . . . the second reason is, that women are naturally more impressionable, and . . . the third reason is that they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from their fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know . . . But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives . . . And this is indicated by the etymology of the world; for Femina comes from Fe and Minus, since she is ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith … To conclude. All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.
Malleus maleficarum (1486) translated and quoted in Alan C. Kors and Edward Peters (eds.), Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700: A Documentary History(Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), pp. 114-27
It is commonly the nature of women to be timid and to be afraid of everything. That is why they busy themselves so much about witchcraft and superstitions and run hither and thither, uttering a magic formula here and a magic formula there.
Sermon by Martin Luther on I Peter, translated and quoted in Sigrid Brauner, “Martin Luther on witchcraft: a true reformer?” in Jean R. Brink, Allison P. Coudert, and Maryanne C. Horowitz (eds.), The Politics of Gender in Early Modern Europe, Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, 12 (Kirksville, Miss. Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1989), p. 34
And then the Devil said, “Thee art a poor overworked body. Will thee be my servant and I will give thee abundance and thee shall never want.”
Confession of Bessie Wilson, quoted in Christina Larner, Enemies of God: The Witch Hunt in Scotland (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), p. 95
These three statements, the first by two Dominican monks in the most influential witch-hunters’ manual of the early modern period, the second by Martin Luther in a sermon on Christian marriage, and the third by a Scottish woman during her interrogation for witchcraft, represent widely varying assessments of the reasons why women were so much more likely to be accused and found guilty of witchcraft during the early modern period. Though they disagree, the three things they point to – sex, fear, and poverty – can in many ways be seen as the three most import reasons why the vast majority of those questioned, tried, and executed for witchcraft after 1500 were women.
Anthropologists and historians have demonstrated that nearly all pre modern societies believe in witchcraft and make some attempts to control witches. It was only in early modern Europe and the English colony in Massachusetts, however, that these beliefs led to large-scale hunts and mass executions. Because so many records have been lost or destroyed, it is difficult to make an estimate for all of Europe, but most scholars agree that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people were officially tried and between 50,000 and 100,000 executed. Given the much smaller size of the European population in comparison with today, these are enormous numbers.
Explanations for the witch hunts
This dramatic upsurge in witch trials, often labeled the “Great Witch Hunt” or the “Witch Craze,” has been the subject of a huge number of studies during the last twenty-five years, and a variety of explanations have been suggested. Some scholars have chosen to emphasize intellectual factors. During the late Middle Ages, Christian philosophers and theologians developed a new idea about the most important characteristics of a witch. Until that period, in Europe, as in most cultures throughout the world, a witch was a person who used magical forces to do evil deeds (maleficia). One was a witch, therefore, because of what one did, causing injuries or harm to animals and people. This notion of witchcraft continued in Europe, but to it was added a demonological component. Educated Christian thinkers began to view the essence of witchcraft as making a pact with the Devil, a pact which required the witch to do the Devil’s bidding. Witches were no longer simply people who used magical power to get what they wanted, but people used by the Devil to do what he wanted. (The Devil is always described and portrayed visually as male). Witchcraft was thus not a question of what one did, but of what one was, and proving that a witch had committed maleficia was no longer necessary for conviction. Gradually this demonological or Satanic idea of witchcraft was fleshed out, and witches were thought to engage in wild sexual orgies with the Devil, fly through the night to meetings called sabbats which parodied the mass, and steal communion wafers and unbaptized babies to use in their rituals. Some demonological theorists also claimed that witches were organized in an international conspiracy to overthrow Christianity, with a hierarchy modeled on the hierarchy of angels and archangels constructed by Christian philosophers to give order to God’s assistants. Witchcraft was thus spiritualized, and witches became the ultimate heretics, enemies of God.
This demonology was created by Catholic thinkers during the fifteenth century, and is brought together in the Malleus maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), quoted above, written by two German Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, and published in 1486. This book was not simply a description of witchcraft, however, but a guide for witch hunters, advising them how to recognize and question witches. It was especially popular in northern Europe, and the questions which it taught judges and lawyers to ask of witches were asked over a large area; the fact that they often elicited the same or similar answers fueled the idea that witchcraft was an international conspiracy. Though witch trials died down somewhat during the first decades after the Protestant Reformation when Protestants and Catholics were busy fighting each other, they picked up again more strongly than ever about 1560. Protestants rejected many Catholic teachings, but not demonology, and the Malleus was just as popular in Protestant areas as in Catholic ones. Protestants may have felt even more at the mercy of witches than Catholics, for they rejected rituals such as exorcism which Catholics believed could counter the power of a witch. The Reformation may have contributed to the spread of demonological ideas among wider groups of the population, for both Catholics and Protestants increased their religious instruction to lay people during the sixteenth century. As part of their program of deepening popular religious under standing and piety, both Protestants and Catholics attempted to suppress what the elites viewed as superstition, folk belief, and more open expressions of sexuality; some historians, most notably Robert Muchembled, view the campaign against witches as part of a larger struggle by elite groups to suppress popular culture, to force rural residents to acculturate themselves to middle-class urban values. The fact that women were the preservers and transmitters of popular culture, teaching their children magical sayings and rhymes along with the more identifiably Christian ones, made them particularly suspect.
The Reformation also plays a role in political explanations of the upsurge in witch trials. Christina Larner has effectively argued that with the Reformation Christianity became a political ideology, and rulers felt compelled to prove their piety and the depth of their religious commitment to their subjects and other rulers. They could do this by fighting religious wars or by cracking down on heretics and witches within their own borders. Because most of the people actually accused or tried were old, poor women, political authorities felt compelled to stress the idea of an international conspiracy of witches so as not to look foolish and to justify the time, money, and energy spent on hunting witches. Witchcraft was used as a symbol of total evil, total hostility to the community, the state, the church, and God. Only when authorities came to be more concerned with purely secular aims such as nationalism, the defense of property, or the erection of empires did trials for witchcraft cease.
Legal changes were also instrumental in causing, or at least allowing for, massive witch trials, One of these was a change from an accusatorial legal procedure to an inquisitorial procedure. In the former, a suspect knew her accusers and the charges they had brought, and an accuser could in turn be liable for trial if the charges were not proven; in the latter, legal authorities themselves brought the case. This change made people much more willing to accuse others, for they never had to take personal responsibility for the accusation or face the accused’s relatives. Inquisitorial procedure involved intense questioning of the suspect, often with torture, and the areas in Europe which did not make this change saw very few trials and almost no mass panics. Inquisitorial procedure came into Europe as part of the adoption of Roman law, which also (at least in theory) required the confess ion of a suspect before she or he could be executed. This had been designed as a way to keep innocent people from death, but in practice in some parts of Europe led to the adoption of ever more gruesome means of inquisitorial torture; torture was also used to get the names of additional suspects, as most lawyers trained in Roman law firmly believed that no witch could act alone. Another legal change was the transfer of witchcraft trials from ecclesiastical to secular courts. Though the courts of the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions have a reputation for secrecy and torture, in actual practice they were much more lenient than secular courts or other types of ecclesiastical courts; judges of the Inquisition were more likely to send a woman accused of witchcraft home again with a warning and a religious penance.
Many historians see social and economic changes as also instrumental in the rise of witch trials. Europe entered a period of dramatic inflation during the sixteenth century and continued to be subject to periodic famines resulting from bad harvests; increases in witch accusations generally took place during periods of dearth or destruction caused by religious wars. This was also a time when people were moving around more than they had in the previous centuries, when war, the commercialization of agriculture, enclosure, and the lure of new jobs in the cities meant that villages were being uprooted and the number of vagrants and transients increased. These changes led to a sense of unsettledness and uncertainty in values, with people unwilling or unable to assist their neighbors, yet still feeling they should. The initial accusation in many witch trials often came from people who refused to help a fellow villager, and then blamed later misfortune on her anger or revenge; Hugh Trevor-Roper has suggested that in such a scenario, witchcraft accusations were used as a way of assuaging guilt over uncharitable conduct. This explanation can help us to understand the first accusation in a trial, but not the mass trials which might involve scores or hundreds of people.
Demographic changes may have also played a part. During the sixteenth century, the age at first marriage appears to have risen, and the number of people who never married at all increased. The reasons for these changes are not entirely clear, but this meant that there was a larger number of women unattached to a man, and therefore more suspect in the eyes of their neighbors. Female life expectancy may also have risen during the sixteenth century, either in absolute terms or at least in comparison with male life expectancy during this period when many men lost their lives in religious wars.
Social and intellectual factors have both been part of recent feminist analyses of the witch hunts. In perhaps the most radical of these, Mary Daly asserts that the women accused of witchcraft not only were perceived as a challenge to dominant ideas of women’s subordinate place, but actively opposed male supremacy. She views the witch hunts as attempts by male authorities to suppress independent women, especially those who had spiritual knowledge or were healers. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English have also focused on female healers, arguing that the witch hunts were primarily driven by male doctors trying to take over control of medicine from female healers; they point to a statement in the Malleus maleficarum in which midwives were specifically accused of having a special propensity for witchcraft. This emphasis on female healers and midwives has been challenged by other historians using actual trial records, for midwives were not accused more often than other women. Marianne Hester has stressed that this does not negate the value of radical feminist analysis, but argues that the emphasis should be placed on male sexual violence and the maintenance of male power through the eroticization of male-female relations rather than on the more narrow issue of male control of medicine. In her study of the New England witchcraft persecutions, Carol Karlsen also discusses the role of male-female power relations, not only sexual and ideological, but also economic; she finds that many of the women accused of witchcraft were widows or unmarried women who were a potential challenge to male economic control as they had inherited property or might do so, and that older women received harsher sentences than younger.
Medical issues have also been part of another area of investigation related to the witch craze. Witches were often accused of mixing magic potions and creams, leading some scholars to explore the role that hallucinogenic drugs such as ergot and belladonna may have played, particularly in inducing feelings of flying. Such hallucinogens could have been taken inadvertently by eating bread or porridge made from spoiled grain. A problem with this is that witches were rarely accused of eating their concoctions or rubbing them on their bodies, but of spreading them on brooms or pitchforks, which they then rode to a sabbat. If delusions of flying came from eating spoiled grain, why was not the whole population of an area equally affected?
No one factor alone can explain the witch hunts, but taken together, intellectual, religious, political, legal, social, and economic factors all created a framework which proved deadly to thousands of European women. In the rest of this chapter, I would like to consider why the vast majority of European witches were women; to do this we must first examine how the stereotype of witch-as-woman developed, and then explore actual witch trials to develop a more refined view as to what types of women were actually accused and convicted.
The idea that women were more likely to engage in witchcraft had a number of roots in European culture. Women were widely recognized as having less physical, economic, or political power than men, so that they were likely to need magical assistance to gain what they wanted. Whereas a man could fight or take someone to court, a woman could only scold, curse, or cast spells. Thus in popular notions of witchcraft, women’s physical and legal weakness was a contributing factor, with unmarried and women and widows recognized as even more vulnerable because they did not have a husband to protect them. Because women often married at a younger age than men and female expectancy may have been increasing, women frequently spent periods of their life as widows. If they remarried, it was often to a widower with children, so that they became step-mothers; resentments about preferential treatment were very common in families with step-siblings, and the evil stepmother became a stock figure in folk tales. If a woman’s second husband died, she might have to spend her last years in the house of a step-son or step-daughter, who resented her demands but was bound by a legal contract to provide for her; old age became a standard feature of the popular stereotype of the witch.
Women also had close connections with many areas of life in which magic or malevolence might seem the only explanation for events – they watched over animals which could die mysteriously, prepared food which could become spoiled inexplicably, nursed the ill of all ages who could die without warning, and cared for children who were even more subject to disease and death than adults in this era of poor hygiene and unknown and uncontrollable childhood diseases. Some women consciously cultivated popular notions of their connection with the supernatural, performing rituals of love magic with herbs, wax figures, or written names designed to win a lover or hold a spouse. Though learned notions of witchcraft as demonology made some inroads into popular culture, the person most often initially accused of witchcraft in any village was an older woman who had a reputation as a healer, a scold, or a worker of both good and bad magic.
We might assume that women would do everything they could to avoid i such a reputation, but in actuality the stereotype could protect a woman for many years. Neighbors would be less likely to refuse assistance, and the wood, grain, or milk which she needed to survive would be given to her or paid as fees for her magical services such as finding lost objects, attracting desirable suitors, or harming enemies. This can help to explain the number of women who appear to have confessed to being witches without the application or even threat of torture; after decades of providing magical services, they were as convinced as their neighbors of their own powers. Though we regard witchcraft as something which has no objective reality, early modern women and men were often absolutely convinced they had suffered or caused grievous harm through witchcraft.
This popular stereotype of the witch existed long before the upsurge in witch trials, and would continue in Europe centuries after the last witch was officially executed; in some more isolated parts of Europe people still mix magical love potions and accuse their neighbors of casting the evil eye. The early modern large-scale witch hunts resulted much more from learned and official ideas of witchcraft than from popular ones, and in the learned mind witches were even more likely to be women than they were in popular culture.
The quotations from the Malleus and Luther which opened this chapter demonstrate that the connections between women and witchcraft for Europe’s intellectual elite came from the two main bases of their intellectual tradition, Aristotle and Christianity. As we saw in chapter 1, Aristotle regarded women as defective males, as more passive and weaker not just physically but also morally and intellectually, making them more likely to give in to the Devil’s offers. Aristotle’s biological ideas provided added grounds for the connections. He viewed the woman’s role in reproduction as totally passive, with male semen providing all the active force needed for conception. Late medieval and Renaissance authors used this and women’s capacity for multiple orgasm as an explanation for what they regarded as female sexual voraciousness; in the words of the Malleus, “Proverbs XXX says there are three things which are never satisfied, but yea, there is a fourth thing which says not, It is enough; that is the mouth of the womb. Wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they [women] consort even with devils.” Male authors also worried about the effects of too much sexual intercourse on their own sex, for brain tissue, bone marrow, and semen were widely regarded as the same thing. Sexual intercourse was thought to draw brain tissue down the spine and out of the penis, making all intercourse a threat to a man’s reason and health. This worried even such leading intellectuals as Leonardo da Vinci and Francis Bacon, and men were advised to limit their sexual relations if they wished to live a long life. Intercourse with female demons (succubi) was especially threatening, for such creatures attempted to draw out as much semen as possible, thus drastically debilitating any man. (Because the Devil and his demons were regarded as impotent, learned demonologists had to figure out where they got semen to impregnate witches; the theory developed that because demons could change shape they would appear as a woman (succubus) in order to draw semen out of a human man, then change into a male demon (incubus) for intercourse with female witches. Because the semen had spent time in a devil’s body, it produced demonic children.)
This anatomically based suspicion of sexuality was enhanced by the writings of Christian authors such as Jerome, Augustine, and Tertullian which expressed not simply suspicion, but hostility and loathing. Because women were the source of their sexual temptations, their hostility to sexuality was often expressed as a more general hatred of women. Christian misogyny continued throughout the Middle Ages when the western church attempted to enforce celibacy for all clerics, and, as we saw in chapter 1, though Protestants rejected celibacy and championed marriage, they were at best ambivalent about sexual pleasure and affirmed that procreation was the one justification for intercourse. Female sexual drive was viewed as increasing throughout a woman’s life, making, in learned eyes, the post-menopausal woman most vulnerable to the blandishments of a demonic suitor. If this older woman was widowed or single, she of course had no legitimate sexual outlets, and even if she were married, sex with her husband was officially frowned upon because it could not result in children.
This obsession with the sexual connection between witches and the Devil is something quite new in late medieval ideas of witchcraft. Many commentators have pointed out that the Malleus is much more misogynist than earlier works on demonology, and a recently discovered letter written by Heinrich Kramer, one of its authors, to the pope, suggests that Kramer may have had an unusually gender-specific view of Satanic witches. In this letter he talks about the unsatisfactory measures taken against heretics in his day, which he defines as male conciliarists (theologians who advocated that the highest authority in the church should be a council rather than the pope) and “certain other heretics, especially some women who abjure their Catholic faith in front of male demons (incubi).” No mention is made at all of maleficia, indicating that in Kramer’s mind the essence of witchcraft was an abjuration of faith by women, and an abjuration directly connected to sex with demons, for the word incubi always has a sexual connotation. Female heresy is thus demonic and sexual, whereas male heresy, that of the conciliarists, is intellectual and theological, with no connection either to the Devil or the body. Kramer was not the only one to see sexual relations with the Devil as limited to women, however, for in Scotland no man was ever accused of such actions, though men were tried and executed for witchcraft; perhaps the judges could simply not bring themselves to imagine members of their own sex doing such things. In France, on the contrary, demonologists thought witches of both sexes engaged in sexual intercourse with the Devil, and were much less concerned than the authors of the Malleus about why witches were women.
Sexual relations with the Devil rarely (and in some parts of Europe, especially Scandinavia, never) formed part of popular ideas about witch craft. A witch was generally accused by her neighbors of maleficia, but during the course of the questioning the judges and inquisitors turned their main attention instead to her pact with the Devil, and required the exact details of her demonic sexual contacts. Suspects were generally stripped and shaved in a search for a “witch’s mark,” a sign which the Devil left on her body; if no wart or mole could be found which could be viewed as such a mark, she might be “pricked” with a needle in an attempt to discover a spot that was insensitive to pain, also regarded as a sign from the Devil. This concentration on sexuality may have partly resulted from the fact that so many interrogations were based on the questions posed in the Malleus, and partly also because the middle- and upper-class authorities doing the questioning were suspicious of lower-class sexual mores in general.
Other aspects of the learned stereotype of the witch also never became part of the popular stereotype. As noted above, the Malleus is convinced that witchcraft is particularly rampant among midwives, “who surpass all others in wickedness . . . No one does more harm to the Catholic faith than midwives.” This is not reflected in popular denunciations for witchcraft, and considering that most midwives were part of the population group from which the majority of witches were drawn – older women – their numbers are probably not over-represented among the accused. As we noted in our discussion of midwifery in chapter 2, female midwives remained the primary birth assistants throughout the early modern period, even in the areas of Europe such as the Holy Roman Empire where witch persecutions were most widespread.
Though at the popular level people continued to be primarily concerned with the effects of a witch’s powers while at the learned level they were concerned with the origins of these, the learned stereotype gradually began to infiltrate popular understanding of what it meant to be a witch. Illustrated pamphlets and broadsides portrayed witches riding on pitchforks at sabbats where they engaged in anti-Christian acts such as spitting on the communion host and sexual relations with demons. Though witch trials were secret, executions were not; they were public spectacles witnessed by huge crowds, with the list of charges read out for all to hear. By the late sixteenth century, popular denunciations for witchcraft in many parts of Europe involved at least some parts of the demonic conception of witch craft. This spread of diabolism led inevitably to a greater feminization of witchcraft, for witches were now the dependent agents of a male Devil rather than independently directing demons themselves, and it fitted general notions of proper gender roles to envision women in this dependent position; even witches could not break fully with masculine norms. In areas of Europe in which the demonic concept of witchcraft never took hold, such as Finland, Iceland, Estonia, and Russia, witchcraft did not become female identified and there were no large-scale hunts. In Finland and Estonia about half of those prosecuted for witchcraft cases were male, and in Iceland and Muscovite Russia, the vast majority of those prosecuted were men charged with sorcery or using their skills as healers to harm people or animals instead.
In the same way that they have analyzed factors contributing to the upsurge in witch-trials in general, modern scholars have searched for underlying intellectual concepts which would have supported the link between women and witchcraft. One of these was the dichotomy between order and disorder, one of the primary polarities of both Greek and Christian thought. In both the classical and Christian traditions, women were thought to be more disorderly, and witches both disorderly and actively bent on destroying order. Witched disturbed the natural order of the four elements and the four humors in the body by causing storms and sickness. They disrupted patriarchal order by making men impotent through spells or tying knots in a thread, and subjecting their minds to their passions in a double emasculation. The disorder they caused was linked to the first episode of disorder in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the rebellion and fall of Satan. Related to this order versus disorder dichotomy were those of culture versus nature, reason versus emotion, mind versus body, all dichotomies in which men were linked to the first term and women to the second. In every case, witches were women who let these qualities – links with nature, their emotions, and their bodily drives – come to dominate them completely, but no woman was free from them. Thus all women, even the most outwardly pious, were, in the minds of demonologists, potential witches.
Witchcraft also represented an inversion of the normal order, with witches often portrayed riding backwards on animals or their pitchforks to sabbats where they did everything with their left hand, ate nauseating food, and desecrated rather than honored Christian symbols; witches also often passed on their powers from mother to daughter, an inversion of the way property normally passed from father to son. The witch was also the inversion of a “good woman,” and set a negative standard for women; she was argumentative, willful, independent, aggressive and sexual, rather than chaste, pious, silent, obedient, and married. As the indictment of Margaret Lister in Scotland in 1662 put it, she was “a witch, a charmer, and a libber.” The last term carried the same connotation and negative assessment of “liberated woman” that it does today. The witch did not fulfill her expected social role as a wife; the sixteenth-century scientist and physician Theophrastus Paracelsus describes witches as “turning away from men, fleeing men, hiding, wanting to be alone, not attracting men, not looking men in the eye, lying alone, refusing men.” The witch was an inversion of the good mother as well as the good woman. She might in actuality be a step-mother, or simply charged with using her body to destroy, rather than sustain, infants and children. Lyndal Roper has recently pointed out that issues of maternity and images of bad mothers emerge more often in witch trials in Augsburg than do those of male/female sexuality.
Positive and negative standards for female behavior in early modern Europe were of course set by men, but women institutionalized these cultural values as well, which helps to explain why women also joined, and some times led, the attacks on witches. Women gained economic and social security by conforming to the standard of the good wife and mother, and by confronting women who deviated from it. Witch-hunting was thus not simply women-hunting, but the tracking down of a certain type of woman. Because this type of woman often used words as a weapon, witchcraft has also been analyzed in the context of language, speech, and meaning, for in witchcraft words have the power of waging war. The language of the witch hunts provided a vocabulary for educated Europeans to describe the natives of the New World; in 1585, for example, the French explorer Jean Lery described religious rituals of Brazilian women in words he had taken from a contemporary French demonological guide. Like women in Europe, the women of the New World were regarded as especially likely to give in to demonic suggestion; linking their practices with those of European women charged with witchcraft also made European witches appear even more exotic and dangerous, representatives of a truly worldwide conspiracy.
The actualities of persecutions for witchcraft
How well did the people who were actually accused, charged, and executed for witchcraft fit the popular and learned stereotypes of the witch? This question can only be answered by intensive local studies of actual witchcraft trials, which have resulted in a recognition of regional and chronological differences, as well as differences between types of witch hunts.
To take the last distinction first. Historians now distinguish between two types of hunts, the isolated case or small hunt involving one or only a few suspects and the mass panic. Isolated cases, and in fact most hunts, began with an accusation of maleficia in a village or town, and the persons accused most often closely fit the stereotype. They were female, over fifty, often widowed or single, poor, and in some way peculiar –they looked or behaved oddly or were known for cursing or scolding or aberrant sexual behavior. They were often on the margins of village society and dependent on he good will of others for their support, suspect because they were not under the direct control of a man. In some parts of Europe and in North America they might also be women suspected of other types of crimes. They might be women who had been troublesome to authorities for different reasons, as, for example, Doritte Nippers, who was convicted and executed for witch craft in 1571 in Elsinore, in Denmark, despite refusing to confess even when tortured; she was the leader of a group of female traders who refused to stop trading when ordered to by the town council. They might be women who cared for women who had recently given birth and their infants, for though midwives were not more likely to be accused than other women, the older women who hired themselves out temporarily as lying-in maids were.
Local studies have shown that kinship stresses often played a role in these initial accusations, for tensions over property, step-children, or the public behavior of a relative or in-law were very common in early modern families. Women were in a more vulnerable position once such strains came out into the open, for marriage had often separated them from their birth families and they were dependent on their husband’s family to protect them. House hold or neighborhood antagonisms might also lead to an accusation, particularly between those women who knew each other’s lives intimately such as servants and mistresses or close neighbors; women number very prominently among accusers and witnesses as well as among those accused of witchcraft because the actions witches were initially charged with, such as harming children or curdling milk, were generally part of women’s sphere.
Very often the incident which led to the charge was not the first, but for some reason the accuser decided no longer to tolerate the suspect’s behavior. Once a first charge was made, the accuser often thought back over the years and augmented the current charge with a list of things the suspect had done in the past. The judges then began to question other neighbors and acquaintances, building up a list of suspicious incidents which might stretch for decades. Historians have pointed out that one of the reasons those accused of witchcraft were often older was that it took years to build up a reputation as a witch. Fear or a desire for the witch’s services might lead neighbors to tolerate such actions for a long time, and it is difficult to tell what might finally drive them to make a formal accusation.
At this point, the suspect was brought in for questioning by legal authorities, and here there were great regional differences in the likely outcome. In Spain and much of Italy, all cases of witchcraft were handled by the Spanish or Roman Inquisitions, which continued to make a distinction between ritual magic and diabolic witchcraft. If there was no evidence that the suspect had worshipped the Devil or used Christian objects such as crucifixes or communion hosts in her magic, the case was most often simply dismissed. Even if the suspect was found guilty, judges of the Inquisition in many parts of southern Europe preferred punishments of public humiliation such as whipping or standing in the pillory to execution; even these might be foregone or lessened if the woman’s husband or relatives pleaded with the judges. In the Friuli, for example, a region in northern Italy, 131 people, 85 percent of them female, were charged with witchcraft between 1596 and 1670, and not a single one put to death; that pattern was not unusual in Italy, for there is no clear evidence the Roman Inquisition ever executed any witches, nor that it allowed secular courts in the areas where it operated to handle witchcraft cases. The numbers from Spain are comparable – over 4,000 cases of witchcraft from 1550 to 1700, and less than a dozen witches executed.
Why, in comparison with other courts throughout the rest of Europe, were the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions so lenient? We must base our answer on the record of the judge’s comments, which may not necessarily represent their true sentiments, but it appears that they simply regarded the women and men charged with witchcraft as pawns of the Devil, as misled by the “Father of lies” into thinking they had magical powers. They disagreed with the authors of the Malleus, which they never used as a guidebook for questioning as did secular and ecclesiastical judges in central Europe, and agreed with the few northern European commentators who opposed hunting witches – such as Johann Weir and Reginald Scot – that most witches were simply stupid or deluded old women suffering from depress ion who needed spiritual retraining and (earthly) male guidance. Their attitude toward women was thus more condescending and patronizing than that of northern judges, but the effects of this attitude on women’s lives was certainly more positive.
In Europe north of the Alps and Pyrenees the initial accusation might also be dismissed if the judges regarded the evidence as questionable, but here there were wide regional differences, and some parts of Europe have not yet been investigated fully, nor might statistics ever be available. At this point, it appears that more cases were dismissed or led to a punishment less than execution in England and Scandinavia than on the continent; one set of figures from the Home Assize Circuit court in England shows 513 persons accused of witchcraft between 1559 and 1736, of which 200 were convicted and 109 hanged, with the percentage of convictions and executions declining throughout the period. At the same time, when an English judge asked some of his German counterparts how a person accused of witchcraft could escape conviction, they could not think of a way to answer him. England, the northern Netherlands, and Scandinavia also had fewer trials in total than areas on the continent with similar populations, and almost no mass panics. Several reasons have been suggested for this: the learned stereotype of witchcraft as a Devil-worshipping international conspiracy was never fully accepted by English, Dutch, or Scandinavian judicial authorities, which both led to and resulted from a much more restricted use of torture. (Torture was generally used primarily to find out a witch’s accomplices and learn the details of her demonic pact; it was employed most by those convinced of the reality of massive numbers of witches and in turn led to the denunciation of as many other people as the judges thought necessary, for torture was stopped only when the accused supplied what the judges thought was a sufficient number of names.) Witches were also tried by jury in England, which some analysts see as leading to milder sentences, though jury trials did not have this effect in Denmark. Witch hunts in England were never begun by church or state officials, but only after personal denunciations by neighbors, and rarely grew into mass panics.
Once the initial suspect had been questioned, and particularly if she had been tortured, the people whom she had implicated were brought in for questioning. This might lead to a small hunt, involving from five to ten victims, which was most common in Scotland and parts of Switzerland and Germany. This next round often included the relatives or neighbors of the first suspect, as well as people whose life-style made them suspect or who had the reputation of being a witch. Most of those accused in such a hunt also fit the stereotype – female, older, poor; male suspects were generally relatives of the accused women. Many of these small hunts could have grown larger, and it is difficult to say why they did not. Historians speculate that perhaps higher officials were otherwise engaged at that particular point and so did not make available the legal machinery needed for a large hunt, or perhaps the communities themselves realized that a further extension of the circle of suspects might prove to be more dangerous than any possible actions by witches.
Small hunts did grow into large-scale panics in at least one instance in England (in the 1640s, led by the self-proclaimed witch-finder Matthew Hopkins) and in Sweden (beginning in the province of Dalarna during the period 1668-76), but the part of Europe which saw the most frequent mass hunts was also that which saw the most witch accusations in general–the Holy Roman Empire, Switzerland, and parts of France. There are a number of possible explanations for this: much of this area consisted of very small governmental units, which were jealous of each other and after the Reformation divided by religion. The rulers of these small territories often felt more threatened than did the monarchs of western Europe, and were largely unhindered in their legal or judicial moves by any higher authority. The parts of France that were under tighter control of the French monarchy saw far fewer large witch hunts than the areas that bordered Switzerland or the Empire. Some of the territories which saw the most devastating hunts were territories within the Empire, such as Wurzburg, Bamberg, or Ellwangen, in which a bishop or other church official was the head of both church and state; for them, Christianity was clearly a political ideology and persecuting witches a way to demonstrate their piety and concern for order. They consciously used patriarchy as a model, describing themselves as firm but just fathers, ruling their subjects for their own benefit; a campaign in which most of the accused and convicted were women, and many of them women who did not conform to male standards of female behavior, fit their aims very nicely.
Large-scale panics might begin in a number of ways. Many were the outgrowths of smaller investigations, in which the circle of suspects brought in for questioning simply continued to grow unchecked; in one hunt in Ellwangen, over 400 people were executed between 1611 and 1618. Some were also the result of legal authorities rounding up a group of suspects, and then receiving further denunciations. Women continued to be the majority of those accused in such mass panics – in 1585, two villages in Germany were left with one female inhabitant each after such an outburst – but when such large numbers of people began to be accused the stereotype also often broke down. Wives of honorable citizens were taken in, and the number of male suspects increased significantly, though these were still often related to female suspects. Girls and boys as young as seven might be tried, and children used as witnesses though their testimony was not normally accepted in law courts. It was only at this stage that witches were generally accused of causing general problems such as famine or disease; in smaller trials, they were charged only with maleficia directed against individuals or small groups. 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 killing infants or spoiling bread and only rarely accused of actions such as night-flying or pacts with the Devil. In Germany, Sweden, and perhaps elsewhere they were wealthier than accused women, and more likely to be defended successfully by friends and family, so that their execution rate was lower.
This breaking down of the stereotype is perhaps the primary reason why any mass panic finally ended; it suddenly or slowly became clear to legal authorities, or to the community itself, that the people being questioned or executed were not what they understood witches to be or that the scope of accusations defied credulity. Some from their community might be in league with Satan, but not this type of person and not as many as this. This realization did not cause them to give up their stereotype, but simply to become skeptical about the course of the hunt in their village or town, and to call for its cessation.
In many ways it was similar skepticism which led to the gradual end of the witch hunts in Europe. Gradually the same religious and legal authorities who had so vigorously persecuted witches began to doubt whether witches actually existed, or at least whether the people brought before them actually were witches. The skepticism had its roots in the growth of rationalism among many middle- and upper-class people, which required even religion to follow the dictates of reason, and of pietism among others, which saw witchcraft as a purely theological matter and not something for secular judges. There was also a spreading conviction among people with at least some education that natural explanations should be sought for things which had been attributed to the supernatural. Older women who thought them selves witches were more likely to be regarded as deluded or mentally defective, meriting pity rather than persecution, even by people who still firmly believed in the Devil. These intellectual changes resulted in the demand for much clearer evidence and a decreased use of torture, which in turn led to fewer accusations and greater doubts about the reality of witchcraft. Creating a godly society ceased to be the chief aim of governments, and laws were passed which restricted or forbade prosecutions for witchcraft; in some parts of Europe, district and national judges fined local pastors or bailiffs for arresting and torturing women. At the popular level, belief in the power of witches often continued, but this was now sneered at by the elite as superstition, and people ceased to bring formal accusations when they knew they would simply be dismissed. The decline in prosecutions happened earliest in areas which had seen few mass panics and a generally low level of witch trials, and latest in the continental heartland; the last official execution for witchcraft in England was in 1682, but in the Holy Roman Empire not until 1775. This did not mean an end of demands for death to witches, however, for lynchings for witchcraft or sorcery have been recorded in Europe within the last few decades.
Though historians have investigated all aspects of the great witch hunts, few have tackled or even asked what may be the central question for our investigation of the lives of early modern women: what effects might all this have had on women? As noted above, we must reject one hypothesis that has been made, namely that the witch hunts were directed primarily at female midwives and healers, destroying their opportunities for independent action. Several other hypotheses may be more fruitful. Edward Bever notes that the stereotype of the older woman from the late Middle Ages is one who is bawdy, aggressive, and domineering, while that of the nineteenth century is one who is asexual, passive, and submissive. Because some women accused of witchcraft clearly did act the part and firmly believed in their own powers, he suggests that witch trials may in fact have convinced older women to act less “witch-like.” Witch persecutions have also been seen as part of the criminalization of female behavior in early modern Europe, for at the same time that witchcraft accusations increased, accusations of women for other types of crimes also increased, particularly gender-specific ones such as prostitution or infanticide. Christina Larner and Susanna Burghartz both note that along with witch trials, these other sorts of criminal charges were a means of controlling female behavior.
All answers to this central question remain speculative at this point, and may perhaps always be, because the women who could have answered it best, the women accused of witchcraft, had no way of leaving an answer for us. It was one question which religious and legal authorities, either those who persecuted witches or those who stopped the persecutions, never thought of asking.
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