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Witch-Hunting Or Woman-Hunting? To What Extent Can The Gender Imbalance In Witchcraft Accusations In Europe Be Attributed To Misogyny?

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In this essay I will be exploring the actual significance of the gender imbalance in accusations during the witch craze of the 17th century. To do this I must first locate these incidents within the social context of the time and discover attitudes towards the 17th century European woman in general. I shall then look at what kinds of people were most likely to be accused of witchcraft, including the plight of men, and whether or not gender emerges as the overriding factor. I shall conclude by taking an overview of theorised psychologies behind the witch-hunts and come to a decision about whether or not this harrowing time was driven by genuine fear for the soul or simply a misogynistic grasp on power.

To paint an accurate portrait of the early modern European woman is not easy. Much of existing literature focuses on the words of elite women whose lives differed greatly from those of the masses. It is the experiences these all important masses which are most difficult to gain access to. Most records we have of ordinary women survive only because they were made by others: justices of the peace, clerks, doctors and other exclusively male occupations. Even if we were the obtain some undiluted evidence from the hand of a genuinely average 16th-17th century female we could not forget that they did not exist outside the context of the time and that their perception of the world and themselves would be shaped thus. An acute example is that of the 1586 Catholic martyr Margaret Clitheroe who was sentenced to be pressed to death for secret catholic worship; she expressed the most concern however with the shame of the public nudity ordered by the sheriff. This display of a preference for death over indecency illustrates a person shaped by her society’s prescriptions for female behaviour. Even this comes with a disclaimer however as Clitheroe’s words are recorded only by her confessor.

We can safely state that early modern Europe contained a series of patriarchal societies and that this was believed to be justified by natural law. This patriarchal power was seen as central to political, spiritual and social order and so its preservation was essential to society. This key to patriarchal power is possession and most importantly subjection of a wife.1 In these societies becoming master of a household increased one’s authority and therein lay the catch. A man’s power over women was dependant on the woman herself. Is it so unbelievable that an entire witch craze was born initially from nothing but paranoia and mistrust? Women were frequently accused of wiling their days away gossiping, cursing and engaging in immodest talk. One proverb of the time stated �many women, many words: many geese, many turds’.

There are some potentially disturbing statistics on conditions of life for the 17th century married woman. On average women lived longer than men but during the first ten years of marriage, women were four times more likely to die. This can be only party explained by maternal mortality. Any possible paranoia over the control on society held by women would not have been helped by the surprising fact that of those born in 1600 almost a quarter of the female population never married at all, almost the same proportion as in Britain today. This combined with a high frequency of widowhood mean that 50% of women were husbandless at any one time and 10% of all households were headed by a woman. The widow would have been of chief concern to all would-be paranoid conservative misogynists as widowhood transformed a woman’s position in society. Those lucky enough to be left with a decent inheritance took on a newfound key role in the local economy and by the late 17th century the number remarrying was falling. Women’s roles in society were accepted as vital but still undervalued and under paid proving that subjection on women was still seen as a necessary means to maintaining the natural order.

So the woman’s lot was not an enviable one. They were clearly subject to persecution, and mistrust but we are still some way from attributing the witch-hunts to a misogynistic control mechanism. We must explore the other common characteristics of the accused in order to construct a model of the average �witch’.

Richard Horsley writes in his article on the matter that there is much argument about exactly which kind of people were tried and burned as witches. Every study carried out points out that the vast majority comprised of poor, elderly women but Horsley insists there is a great deal to be taken from a more qualitative analysis of the social status, roles, and relationships of the victims of the great witch hunts. He complies from the works of Midelfort, Monter and Cohn a four pronged definition of “witchcraft”, conceived in the lead up to and throughout the late middle ages: 1) Maleficium, or causing harm to others through super natural means; 2) flying through the air at night to desolate places for evil purposes such as eating babies; 3) participating in a sect or cult which met in periodic “sabbats” to worship the devil and engage in sexual orgies and 4) making a pact with the devil. All seem fairly non-gender specific but they also non class, occupation or age specific either. The statistics of who was more regularly accused would suggest that these criteria were not all that were used to judge one guilty of witchcraft. Horsley argues we must be wary of the difference between the official concept of witchcraft, compiled by the ruling classes, and the popular realities perceived by the largely peasant communities from which the accused emerged. His best example is as follows:

We require a more comprehensive sociological analysis, in particular a class analysis, in which the difference in beliefs, interests and actions between the ruling groups and the peasants are discerned. When Monter confronts the Essex material studied by MacFarlane in which there was “no mention of the devil at all”, he comments: “The Devil was fundamental to the concept of witchcraft nearly everywhere in Christendom; the fact that he plays such a small role here indicates that Essex witchcraft was primitive.” Perhaps this is so, but the more obvious explanation had already been stated… whereas the learned Christian demonologists on the continent believed the devil to be fundamental to the concept of witchcraft, the common people on Essex held no such belief.

To truly understand why specific people were tried we must not only focus on the similarities of those accused but also the differences in beliefs, interests and practises between the ruling classes who carried out the witch



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