Early Modern Witches: Old and Female?

Written by Seth Silverberg

Everyone knows that the people persecuted as witches during the early modern period were old and female. At least, that is what the stereotype would have us believe. But to what extent does the historical evidence support this claim? As we shall see, it is not a clear-cut answer, but rather dependent on various factors. Examining each element separately–looking first at why witches were stereotyped to be women, then why they were mostly considered old–will help shed some clarity on the issue. A number of factors will be taken into consideration: the data gathered by previous historians, the type of historical evidence used–such as pamphlets, engravings, trial records, and witchcraft treatises–as well as the kind of witch hunt that occurred when these stereotypes arose. However, it should be noted that the order in which these factors are discussed does not imply their relative importance. Most, if not all of them, are interlinked. 

Most of the people prosecuted for witchcraft were women, according to the recorded data. Indeed, scholars John Callow, Geoffrey Scarre and Julian Goodare agree that, on average, eighty percent of those who were tried as witches were women. Brian Levack goes further, arguing that in most regions of Europe, more than seventy-five percent of people tried as witches were female, and the number could be as high as ninety percent. However, these numbers are averages. This means that there were cases with lower or higher numbers, and these were dependant on geographical location and attitudes toward the prosecution of witchcraft. Some places had up to one hundred percent of their witches as women, while men made up sixty to seventy-three percent of cases in other areas. For example, in Normandy, Russia, Estonia, and Iceland, a good majority of those accused of witchcraft were men, while in Finland there was a more equal distribution. 

An example of a man, Urbain Grandier, being executed for witchcraft can be seen in the Effigie de la condamnation de mort et execution d’Urbain Grandier of 1634. We can also see the difference in the gender of those mainly prosecuted for witchcraft in different cities within the same country—in this case, Switzerland. Indeed, in Lucerne between 1398 and 1551, there were sixty-three women for every six men accused. In contrast, in Lausanne between 1438 and 1498, it was eighteen men to eleven women who were tried for witchcraft. Although, it bears mentioning that men accused of witchcraft tended to be linked to femininity and seen as weak-minded or foolish. 

A few of the treatises on witchcraft saw witches as existing indiscriminately of gender. Indeed, in his 1608 A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, William Perkins says that he ‘[comprehended] both sexes or kinds of persons, men and women, excluding neither from being witches’. Likewise, Richard Bernard, in his 1630 A Guide to Grand Jury-Men says that ‘the league on the man or woman’s part is to give their souls to [the Devil]’. On the other hand, others identified witches mostly as women. This can be seen in Johann Weyer’s 1563 De praestigiis daemonum, where he sees witches as melancholic women who suffer mental illnesses and need care as opposed to harsh punishment. The emphasis on women as witches can also be seen in Heinrich Kramer’s 1486 Malleus Maleficarum, where he explains ‘why a greater number of witches is found in the fragile female sex than among men’.  

We can also see that the stereotype of the witch being a woman breaks down when the hunt devolved due to panic. This led to further accusations being made, leading to wealthier and more powerful people or even children being accused of witchcraft. This can be seen in the 1626 trials in Würzburg, where children, law students, clerics, and even the bishop and his chancellor were accused. The same phenomenon occurred in the German trials of Niclas Fiedler, the mayor of Trier, in 1591 and that of Johannes Junius, the mayor of Bamberg, in 1628. All these factors show that, although the data points towards witches being mostly women, it was not always the case and depended on geographical location, how the witch-hunt was organised, and what historical evidence is used. 

We now turn to examining the stereotype that witches are old. Using the data available, we can see that most people tried for witchcraft were over fifty years old. For example, in Geneva and Essex, the median age was sixty. However, due to a lack of data, there is a need to be careful with this generalisation that all witches were ‘old’. Indeed, it might be better to use cultural age rather than chronological age—that is, when society considers someone old regardless of their actual age. Early modern European women were considered old as soon as they would not complain when called ‘old’, and also when they showed the physical manifestations of age, such as wrinkles and deformities, which links old age to ugliness.  

In addition, early modern European historical sources do not unanimously show witches as being old. For example, the woodcut The Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien as well as Albrecht Dürer’s engraving The Four Witches both depict younger women, as does the painting The Witches’ Sabbath by Frans II Francken and David the Younger Teniers’ Witches’ Initiation. On the other hand, in pamphlet images and other woodcuts, we can see the opposite. This can be observed in the woodcut by Hans Baldung Grien of The Groom Bewitched, where we can see an old witch as the killer of the groom. Old witches can also be seen in the front piece of a pamphlet authored by Henry Goodcole in 1621 about Elizabeth Sawyer, the pamphlet for a play based on her case called The Witch of Edmonton, and another printed by John Hammond in 1643 called A Most Certain, Strange and True Discovery of a Witch. In all three cases, the witches depicted are old, deformed, or both, and they need a walking stick. The trend of haggard, old witches continues in witchcraft treatises. For example, Girolamo Cardano saw witches as ‘miserable old women, beggars, existing in the valleys on chestnuts and field herbs’ and Johann Weyer describes them as ‘poor ignorant creatures, old and powerless’. Weyer and Anton Praetorius also see them as ‘weak old hags’.  

Accounts of trials can also provide information on the age of those prosecuted. This can, for example, be seen in the confessions of WaIpurga Hausmännin in 1587, where there is information about her having practised witchcraft for almost thirty years, which would point towards her being at least in her forties if not fifties. Something similar can be observed in the account of the trial of Françatte Camont in 1598, where it is said she ‘had been married some thirty years; she thought she was about fifty-four’. However, some sources actively kept those that did not fit the stereotype of the old witch in the background. This can be seen in the account of the Pendle witches’ trial, where out of the twelve accused, only two were old and one so ugly that she was deemed old regardless of age. Like the stereotype of the witch being a woman, the stereotype of the old witch broke down when the hunt got out of control and panic ensued. This can be seen in the Würzburg trials between 1627 and 1629, when more than twenty-five percent of the witches executed were children. These factors again show that, although the data points toward the average witch being considered old, this depended on location. In addition, the lack of data itself needs to be taken into consideration. 

A factor that could explain why witches might have been stereotyped as both old and female is that of their social status. Indeed, women were seen as deviant by default because men were viewed as the normal standard. As such, women were considered more likely to rely on witchcraft to get what they wanted. In addition, in the case of demonic witches, accusations of sex with the Devil was high, so this made it normal to see witches as women rather than men as the latter were not presumed to have sex with the Devil and the former were seen as more ‘carnal and sexually indulgent’. Women were also thought to have more opportunities to use harmful magic due to their proximity to the domestic sphere in roles as cooks, healers, and midwives and were blamed for important things going wrong, such as poisons in food, breast milk drying up, stillbirths, and crops failing. This would also explain why it would have been older women over younger ones who were accused. They would have needed years to be able to get enough experience to work those type of occupations, and they would have had to build a reputation as a witch before going to trial. 

As we have assessed whether the stereotype of the old and female witch held up to the reality of witchcraft accusations in early modern Europe, we can observe how both were tightly intertwined. When looking strictly at the data of averages, it seems that the stereotype of the old female witch is accurate for what the early modern European would have imagined a witch to be like. However, the answer is not as well-defined as that. Although a lot of historical evidence shows witches to be female, quite a few cases show them to be young rather than old, or mention men as being equally qualified to be a witch, leaving the answer ambiguous, as it depends on the perspective. 


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List of Illustrations Referenced

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Witches, 1497, engraving, 190 x 131 mm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, https://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/d/durer/2/13/1/019.html 

David Teniers the Younger, Witches’ Initiation, 1647-49, oil on wood, 48 x 70 cm, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna, https://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/t/teniers/jan2/2/witches.html 

Frans II Francken, The Witches’ Sabbath, 1607, oil on panel, 56 x 84 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, https://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/f/francken/frans2/witches.html 

Hans Baldung Grien, The Groom Bewitched, c. 1544, woodcut, 33 x 19,7 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, https://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/baldung/4/4groom.html 

Hans Baldung Grien, Witches Sabbath, 1510, woodcut with tone block, 379 x 260 mm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, https://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/baldung/4/2sabbath.html 

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