The Misogyny Involved in Medieval Witchcraft

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

During the medieval and early modern era, witchcraft was as real as Jesus Christ in the minds of everybody who lived through this fragile existence. The study of witchcraft by many historians explores an entirety of notions, however one of the most ample investigations is the question of, ‘why were witches women?’ Be that as it may, it is important to understand that men, too, were accused of witchery; though the figures differed substantially because, ‘From the early decades of the 14th century until 1650, continental Europeans executed between 200,000 and 500,000 witches, 85% or more of whom were women.’ At the very beginning, women were seen in the eyes of all mankind, as bearing the influence of the Virgin Mary; the mother of Jesus, however those ‘not resident in paradise dwelt more in the shadow of the fallen Eve than the risen Mary.’ The consequences of Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden were endless, once she surrendered to the temptation from the serpent and coerced Adam to eat the forbidden fruit also, women were always seen as sinful beings from this point onwards. Quoting from one of the most famous books studying witchcraft: the Malleus Maleficarum, ‘All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.’ It is important to understand that witchcraft was not always seen as an evil, wicked practice. Witchcraft was, at a time, used in goodwill, and the presence of Wise-Women in many towns and villages was almost a godsend because they would cure ailments, heal broken bones, tend to wounds and assist with childbirth. However, when the Papal Bull was introduced in 1484 by Innocent VIII, making all witchcraft heretical and ultimately, when the rise of the Reformation in the sixteenth century took over, the fear of the devil intensified; this is when the innocent, helpful practice of witchcraft slowly contorted to witches being accused of worshipping the devil, and this is known as diabolism. The religious authorities wanted to stamp out superstitious practices and impose religious orthodoxy, so this new dependence on the Bible and purification of the church reminded society of the Devil’s threat.

The bibles makes it clear that Christians must guard against the Devil and actively seek and destroy his servants; from Exodus 22:18, ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ It can be argued that it was at this point when witchcraft drastically became more feminised and focused mainly on attacking women simply because they were women, ‘in the process of the feminisation of witchcraft, the crime of witchcraft was also feminised.’ However it is important to understand that misogyny has existed for many centuries before the witch-hunts, so if anything, it is more a factor than a cause. However, this dismissive line of thought fails to explain why, up to 80 to 90% of women ended up being persecuted for this crime; some scholars have even gone so far as to directly blame women for causing such ill-treatment against themselves, Midelfort proposes that, ‘women seemed also to provoke somehow an intense misogyny at times.’ Every historian thinks differently, and in this case there are some who believe that misogyny was not a factor at all; ‘the disavowal of misogyny as an issue continues in the work of Clark, and also Larner, who both shifted the paradigm by suggesting that witches were accused not because they were women, but because they were witches.’ The term, misogyny, goes all the way back to the Greek period, derived from the Greek root misogynia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, misogyny refers to the ‘dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.’ This description sounds plausible enough, however the truth behind this simple term is laced with a much more complicated notion, as proposed by Gilmore, misogyny means ‘an unreasonable fear or hatred of women that takes place on some palpable form in any given society.’ This collective knowledge around misogyny, combined with the rising works of clerical literature at the time, meant that this backlash reached its blistering heights during the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. ‘It can also be argued that because women accused other women, misogyny was not the prime factor,’ this is interesting because if we were to look at this from the scope of patriarchy, which severely divides women because only men can be at the top, so this means that ‘patriarchy functions so as to encourage women to enforce patriarchal norms against other women in order to strengthen their own precarious position in that order.’ So for this reason, if we are to understand the feminisation of witchcraft, being that women were primarily targeted; the vigorous nature of patriarchy where, ‘continuity of inequality between men and women relies on changing forms of oppression over time’, this must be looked into before making any confirmed judgements about how feminised witchcraft truly is. The link between diabolism and femininity is important in understanding why so many women were accused, it is said that once women had sex for the first time, they couldn’t get enough of it; so the Devil would disguise himself in a male human form, approach multiple women and use their sexual weaknesses against them, and this is how a pact between a witch and the devil would be formed. According to Kramer and Sprenger, the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum, ‘all witchcraft comes from carnal lust which is in women insatiable.’ Aristotle also writes that, ‘women are more susceptible to witchcraft because they are weaker and more defective as a gender.’ Notions of such powerful, harmful demonic magic being the work of women was difficult to believe, ‘that is, until the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, when performance of demonic sorcery itself became in a way feminized in the concept of witchcraft.’ There is a very strong influence of literature against women during this time, firstly the term ‘witch’ or ‘wiche’ was specifically documented as an old woman in the fifteenth century. The publication in 1487 of the highly misogynistic book, the Malleus Maleficarum, otherwise known as The Hammer of the Witches by Heinrich Kramer, a scholar and clergy man was a severe turning point for the misery of hundreds of thousands of women; Kramer makes his thoughts on women very clear in his book: ‘Now the wickedness of women is spoken of in Eccpeclesiasticus xxv: There is no head above the head of a serpent: and there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman. I had rather dwell with a lion and a dragon than to keep house with a wicked woman. And among much which in that place precedes and follows about a wicked woman.’

It is because of his very views that, ‘historians often credit this text as being especially influential in the significant increase in witch prosecutions during the second half of the sixteenth century.’ The book’s own title is in the feminine tense, putting forward that even before you start to read the book, you know that all of the grizzly details within are going to be directed at women. An interesting notion is that ‘misogynists are “essentialists”, posting a stereotypical “essence” in women, a basic, immutable, and evil nature allowing for no individual variation.’ There is also a strong indicator that there is a relationship between gender and misogyny in and amongst all of the prosecutions against females, Anne Llewellyn Barstow calls this “sexual terrorism”, because ‘while witches were almost always women, they were invariably tried, judged, jailed, examined, and executed by men.’ The definitive link between misogyny and the rise in witchcraft accusations is evident when examining misogynistic literature such as the Malleus Maleficarum, but also another titled, Formicarius written by Johannes Nider, a Dominican theologian and reformer in 1437; both of these texts connected ‘the operations of magic to female weakness and then set about prosecuting women for the resulting crime of witchcraft.’ What is significant with Nider himself is that he was, ‘the first clerical authority to argue that women were more prone to become witches than men.’

Because the Formicarius was written fifty years before the Malleus Maleficarum, Kramer ultimately found inspiration from Nider and took it upon himself to continue Nider’s ideas of women’s tendency towards evil. Another critical text examining witchcraft is the Daemonologie written in 1597 by King James I of England, Scotland and Wales; also known as King James VI of Scotland. This book is, in some ways, quite different to the previous two; firstly because it was written by the king of Scotland, soon to be England, so the immediate influence that this book must have had on the local people would have been universal. Just like Kramer and Nider, James hated witches, he complains about: ‘the fearful abounding at this time of those detestable slaves of the devil, the witches or enchanters, who were never so rife in these parts as they are now.’ One key reason why his hatred may be so is because he blamed them for causing ferocious thunderstorms that hit upon his ships that he and his wife, Anne of Denmark, were voyaging on. Witchcraft had been a deep obsession with James I ever since his childhood when his mother, Mary Queen of Scots was executed in 1587 when James was twenty one, and he believed that this traumatic event was foretold by witches who had seen “a bloody head dancing in the air.” Now that both the Malleus Maleficarum and the Daemonologie have been looked at individually, it is important to compare and contrast both of them between each other. The immediate thing that we can notice is the language used between the both of them within their books, Kramer is, without a doubt, a misogynist so his overall language was completely clouded with his hatefulness against women; he comprises a very natural reason behind women’s incline towards witchery, relying fully on all women being incarnations of Eve; Kramer explains that women are much more carnal than men, the reason behind this carnal abomination is due to the fact that God made women from a bent breast bone, or a rib. Kramer concludes this section by saying: ‘And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives. For Cato says: When a woman weeps she weaves snares.

And again: When a woman weeps, she labours to deceive a man.’ Kramer and James I both agreed that women were the inherently weaker sex; James, on the other hand, brings about a more humanist view in his work, reasoning that no man or woman is inherently born into wickedness, but rather, they are tempted towards it in their life. Unlike Kramer, who focuses his language mainly on women, James I contrasts his language by incorporating both genders as working the devil’s magic: ‘I say, some of them rich and worldly-wise, some of them fatte or corpulent in their bodies, and most part of them altogether given over to the pleasures of the flesh, continual haunting of companie, and all kind of merrines, both lawfull and unlawfull.’ Instead of blaming women’s independent weaknesses as the cause of them to be accused as witches, James I believed that witches were created from living sin such as greed, luxury and wrath, rather than inherently being born evil as Kramer claims. Moving away from the similarities that both of these texts share, it is necessary to examine the differences between them: firstly, the Malleus Maleficarum is a catholic manuscript, whereas James VI’s Daemonologie is presbyterian and overall, because James’ book was written in Scotland, this is the main source of knowledge when researching the Scottish witch trials. Another key area to examine is whether ‘witches’ were the ones being hunted at all, many feminist historians have stated that it is a case of woman hunting, not witch hunting. Feminist philosopher Mary Daly explains that the witch hunts were ‘a specific attack on independent women.’ Regarding Daly’s statement, another concept that can be looked into is whether the use of stereotypes was an instance of woman hating? The learned concept or stereotype of who would be branded a witch was so specific that every woman was likely to be in danger: elderly women, widows, spinsters, the poor, even women who were physically disfigured or mentally disturbed were accused. It was not only the physical stereotypes of women that were used against them, if a woman simply stood up for herself, she would fall under the finger of blame: the case of Jane Wenham, accused of witchery in 1712 had endured many allegations against her for years. ‘Earlier that year a farmer named John Chapman called her a ‘Witch and Bitch’, blaming her for a spate of deaths among his livestock. Wenham decided to nip any further accusations in the bud, and on 9th February she applied to the local justice, Sir Henry Chauncy, for a warrant against Chapman for defamation.’

Unfortunately, as a result, because she decided to stand up for herself, this was all it took for her to be subjected to a harsh witchcraft trial. Aside from witchcraft accusations attributing from higher ecclesiastical authorities, most accusations of witchcraft came ‘from below’, this meant that it was the common villagers that brought up the accusations in the first place; again, just like the higher authorities, most of their fingers were pointing at the women and hardly ever the men; one reason is that they suspected traditional female activities such as cooking or healing one’s illness as an exercise of magical power. The link between the community and stereotypes of specific women is key to how witches were sought out, the key word here being marginalised; the poor, women who were dependent on the community, often unmarried and just generally a nuisance.

The power of scapegoating was also very influential towards the witch-hunts. This would create conflict between the two genders because you would obviously have men accusing women, but then, some women would bite straight back; this is known as a chain-gang reaction, for example, in Ellwangen in Germany 1611-12, a seventy year old woman is accused this, in turn,, results in her accusing the wife of the priest, who is then immediately suspected when he defends her. ‘According to scapegoat perspectives, witches are pursued as a communal catharsis or as a diversionary strategy by elites to structure and deflect blame.’ Author Sigrid Brauner states that up to the fifteenth century, ‘witchcraft was not considered gender-specific’, the accusations were very balanced between both men and women, so the study of gender is undoubtedly central in understanding the evolution of witchcraft. Historian Christina Larner explains that ‘the witch hunts were sex-related but not sex-specific’, this is an interesting statement because, referring back to the Malleus Maleficarum, it specifically targets midwives as ones especially prone to the accusation of witchcraft; the role of midwifery was a specific female occupation during the Early Modern period. Within the second section of the book, the authors explain how midwives were coerced by demons. ‘The Malleus Maleficarum was indicative of the fear men had of women attaining levels of power over them.’ Essentially controlling life and death was something that a woman should not have control of, ‘midwives who were at all connected with abortions were seen as unholy and evil and executed for their actions. There is even one report of a midwife being tried after a baby was stillborn; the mother accused her of jealousy and witchcraft, and the midwife was executed.’ Women like this ultimately threatened the hierarchy and challenged the authority of masculine ideals and because women ascertained this much power through medicine; author Marianne Hester says that ‘the witch hunts were a means of sexual violence by which men exerted social control to maintain power.’

The term sexual violence is important because it is indicative that ‘the witch hunts may be seen as an instance of sexual violence against women, relying on sexual constructs of masculinity and especially femininity, and they constituted an important part of the dynamics of male domination in sixteenth – and seventeenth – century England.’ Even though the statistics that were discussed at the beginning of this essay state that women were the utmost majority to be accused and ultimately executed; it is crucial to understand that men too, were accused, in some places more than others such as Iceland, Normandy, Estonia and Russia, some lie outside of the European area. What is interesting about one way men ended up being accused, is exactly one of the reasons why women were accused: if they were thought to be too powerful or strong-willed within their community so in a way, the men accused were feminised in some way, being related to a woman’s independent stereotype. It can be argued that men were essentially invisible to be indicted of the crime of witchcraft. ‘Rigorous application of gender analysis to the male witch has so far been absent from the historiography.’ Two separate historians relating to the study of male witches explain why men would end up being accused: Alan Macfarlane says that if they were related to a female suspect, this would lead to them possibly being accused also and H. C. Erik Midelfort says that men were accused of witchcraft in fairly large numbers, however this only occurred when a witch-hunt spiralled into a mass panic and the normal stereotype of the female witch broke down entirely. Both of these examples gravitate towards women as being the cause and/or the reason as to why the men ended up being accused; this brings us back to how the male gender comes to be feminised because at the centre of all the statistics, the literature and the patriarchy at the time is the cunning evil woman who copulates with the Devil and performs harmful maleficent magic.

In conclusion, from everything that has been discussed, it is clear that the relationship between misogyny and witchcraft accusations did attribute to a very high majority of allegations and ultimately, executions. The rise of highly misogynistic literature by Kramer and Nider during this time proved that without a doubt women were, pretty much, the only ones to fall under the crime of witchery; this was upended when the concept of diabolism was brought into the mix, the idea that witches gained their powers through sexual submission to the devil and because women are ultimately the weaker sex, and have been since the story of Adam and Eve, there is no question that they were more susceptible to the devil’s seductions. However it cannot be ignored that some historians did not believe that misogyny was the leading cause towards the persecution of hundreds of thousands of women during the witch-hunts and the fact that many men too, were also tried and executed of the crime of witchery. Women accusing other women as well must be thought about before thinking that misogyny was the key factor in accusations. However, despite everything that has been discussed, it is very clear that the severe impact of misogyny was the reason for the fact that women were the primary victims of witchcraft and it all revolved around the masculine disdain against women.


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