Academic

Misogyny: The Driving Force of the Great European Witch-Hunts from the Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries 

Written by Sophia Aiello. The Witch Trials of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries have been well studied, but what role did misogyny have in this crisis, and how did the stereotype of the 'witch' develop?

The Great European Witch-Hunts refer to an unprecedented period in early modern history. Although there are no definitive numbers scholars suggest that during this period between 40,000 and 100,000 people were identified and prosecuted as witches, 80-85% of whom were women. Witch-hunts spread through Europe like an epidemic and one of the most significant fuels of this was the societal misogyny of the epoch between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Misogyny played a role in almost all aspects of witch hunts, from conviction, to trial, to the archetype of people executed. Indeed, when considering the role misogyny played in the witch-hunts one must recognise that the definition of misogyny from the era in question, is different to our definition today.  

The Oxford English Dictionary cites that the first use of the word ‘misogyny’ was in 1656 with its origin in the Greek misos ‘hatred’ and gunē ‘woman’. Unlike the contemporary rationale for the hatred of women, misogyny in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was rooted firmly in religious belief. The most influential biblical text came from The Book of Genesis in which Eve betrays God in the Garden of Eden by succumbing to the devil’s temptations. The text was used to demonstrate that women were morally weak and subordinate to men, meaning more likely to succumb to temptation. This belief not only entrenched misogyny within early modern European society, but also became a catalyst for the persecution of women as witches.  

The idea that women were more likely to succumb to the temptations of the devil and, inevitably, become witches was popularised in the fifteenth century through the motif of the diabolic pact. The diabolic pact stated that women would deny Jesus to worship the devil. They would sell their souls and physical bodies to Satan in return for his assistance in employing demons to accomplish magical deeds. It was through this pact that witches were supposed to be able to shapeshift from human to animal. Consequently, they kept animals which were ‘familiar spirits’ and engaged in sex with Satan. These presumptions and preconceptions of the ‘witch’ suggested to early modern society that women were more prone to this ‘tainted’ existence. The misguided belief that witches had sex with the devil particularly singled women out as witches; it would have been unconventional for the devil – universally characterised as a male figure in early modern imagery – to have sex with another male during this period. Moreover, witches’ ‘familiars’ were creatures such as toads, dogs, or black cats. These had been long associated with single women. Such small or domesticated animals are not livestock and therefore it was not seen as a man’s job to look after them. Therefore, it tended to be eccentric women living on their own who kept such animals for companionship. 

However, these misogynistic stereotypes were not the only reasons why women were convicted as witches. Witch-hunts almost exclusively took place in rural communities. A significant feature of which was that they were small, intimate communities, where everyone knew everyone else. This meant that first accusations and then conviction could be much more targeted. In such communities, outsiders, undesirable or eccentric members stood out and because of this they were often blamed when a community faced hardship and needed a scapegoat for their frustrations. Most outsiders were women who did not conform to social norms. Trial records show that convicted witches were most often widows, over the age of 40, and employed as healers or mid-wives. These characteristics of witches threatened the structures of established society. Society expected women to be married. Society also expected men to have superior knowledge. However, women in their 40s – considered reasonably old in this period – who had lived in their small villages their whole lives often had superior knowledge of their communities than younger men. Finally, it was also seen as unnatural for a woman to have a profession, meaning a woman’s involvement in any type of healing or medicine was seen as unusual and threatening. It is then no surprise that when communities suffered illness or bad harvests and were looking for scapegoats, women provided the perfect target and were blamed for possessing power that was seen as unnatural in this period.  

Illustration by Melanie Wu.

Thus, misogyny played a significant role in establishing the belief that witches were more likely to be women. It also helped to create the stereotype of women who were likely to be convicted of witchcraft. 

It is unlikely that these ideas would have turned into the Great European Witch craze without the publication of certain works of misogynistic propaganda. The most famous of these was the Malleus Maleficarum, which provided a guide for hunting and persecuting witches and would influence the European witch craze for the next 200 years. Written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger this work was first published in 1487 and clearly outlined the reasons why women were more likely to be witches than men. The work contains a plethora of sexist views as Kramer was obsessed with the sexual purity of women and their ‘inherent evil nature’.  In an example of this Kramer describes Eve as an ‘unfinished animal’ as she was made from a rib bone of Adam. This shows how women were bestialized and dehumanized, which was common during the period. There was serious debate as to whether men and women were even the same species. This theory influenced the diabolic pact, as women were believed to be able to shape shift between women and animals but not shape shift to men, furthering the idea that they were primitive, closer to beasts than to man. Such views were used explicitly to sanction the torture of women as they were seen as ‘a different species’. 

Methods of torture suggested in the Malleus Maleficarum for exposing witchery were adopted as means of interrogation in judicial courts across Europe and used to exploit women. The male-dominated, paternalistic society ensured that women would inevitably be prosecuted by male judges or clerics. Men devised schemes of hunting witches, through the format of the trial, often sexually embarrassed women. They used torture techniques such as sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation. Accused women were forced to sit on red-hot stools so that they would not be able to perform sexual acts with the devil. Judges and clerics also looked for the ‘witches mark,’ a black spot on a women’s body, indicating they had made a pact with the devil. These female centric trials and prosecutions led to an increase in convictions of women as many were likely to plead guilty rather than suffer torture and embarrassment. Therefore, women’s sexuality was key in the method used to convict witches, and popular works such as the Malleus Maleficarum built a misogynistic climate and blueprint for this.  

The Malleus Maleficarum not only demonstrates how witch-hunts were embedded in misogyny but also how popular these views were throughout Europe. For 200 years the Malleus Maleficarum was a best seller, second only to the Bible. This popularity exposes how widely these beliefs spread across Europe, even if the ideas were not fully accepted by a particular reader, many people were interested in its misogynistic content. Moreover, as the text was so popular it laid foundations for the widespread consensus on the evil nature of witches as women. Later works on witchcraft did not entirely agree with the Malleus Maleficarum but even in less extreme texts the consensus was that women were more inclined to be witches than men. This view was so widely accepted that most authors did not see the need to explain why witches were more likely to be women.  

Misogyny drove the witch-hunts of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, enabling it to develop into a popular craze. This, in turn, led small community prosecutions of witches to become a trend across Europe. Although this period defined misogyny differently to today, many of the same issues are mirrored in our current society. Women who do not conform to social norms are still persecuted because of their differences. Women face injustice in a still largely paternalistic court system and the media persists in presenting women as lesser than men. Although the argument that women are a different species to men seems ridiculous to a modern audience, women are still stereotyped inappropriately and harmfully; sexualized, demeaned, and not taken seriously.  Although the witch-hunts ended in the 17th century, there is still something ‘spooky’ about the role of misogyny and its longevity in our society over 400 years later. 

Written By Sophia Aiello 

Bibliography: 

Barstow, A. L. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. New York: Pandora, 1994. 

Briggs, R. Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft. London: Penguin, 1998. 

Daley M. The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978. 

Kramer, H & Spencer, J. Malleus Maleficarum. London: Pushkin Press, 1486. 

Langbein, J.H and Carlton, C. Torture and the Law of Proof: Europe and England in the Ancien Régime. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. 

Pickering, A. Different Interpretations of Witch-Hunting in Early Modern Europe. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2008. 

Robbins, R.H. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Crown, 1959. 

Sharpe, J. Witchcraft in Early Modern England. London: Pearson Education, 2001. 

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