In this article we will take a look at the European witch hunts of circa 1450-1750, and their gender-selective aspects. Although both men and women were accused and executed for witchcraft in Europe during this era, roughly 75%-80% of those exposed to trial and execution were women.
It should be noted that when we study the pre-modern European witch craze, we find great variation over time and between different regions of Europe. The frenzy of the witch-hunts waxed and waned for roughly 300 years, and the dynamics – including gender-dynamics – could also vary greatly from one locality to the next. As an example, we know of only four executions for witchcraft in Ireland, while over 25,000 witches were killed in Germany. (Source: Jenny Gibbons, “Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt”.) In England, over 90% of those accused of witchcraft were women, while Estonia had women accounting for less than half of those accused, and in Iceland only 10% of those accused of witchcraft were women. (Source: Robin Briggs, “Witches & Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft”, pp. 260-61.)
The immense over-representation of women as victims in witch-trials and witch-executions in England (and in its colonies in North America) is probably one of the reasons why the English-speaking world tend to strongly associate witches, witch-trials and with-hunts with female victims. In essence, the English regional experience has been assumed, at least by English-speakers, to be typical for Europe as a whole.
Were 9 million women burned as witches?
Is it true that 9 million women were burned as witches in Europe from the 14th to the 17th century CE? It is a frequently quoted number in non-academic literature, but it is not based on solid academic research. Instead, modern research points to roughly 40,000 to 50,000 witch executions in Europe between 1450 and 1750, and an estimated 75%-80% of those executed were women. That would put the number of executed women witches at 40,000 or less.
“The most dramatic [recent] changes in our vision of the Great Hunt [have] centred on the death toll,” notes researcher Jenny Gibbons, who points out that estimates made prior to the mid-1970s, when detailed research into trial records began, were almost 100% pure speculation. (Source: Jenny Gibbons, “Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt”.)
One of the researchers who have worked to unveil and publish more accurate numbers is Robin Briggs.
“On the wilder shores of the feminist and witch-cult movements,” writes Briggs, “a potent myth has become established, to the effect that 9 million women were burned as witches in Europe; gendercide rather than genocide. This is an overestimate by a factor of up to 200, for the most reasonable modern estimates suggest perhaps 100,000 trials between 1450 and 1750, with something between 40,000 and 50,000 executions, of which 20 to 25 per cent were men. (…) “these figures are chilling enough, but they have to be set in the context of what was probably the harshest period of capital punishments in European history.” (Source: Robin Briggs, “Witches & Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft”, p.8)
Researcher Brian Levack put the number of witch trials at approximately 110,000. It should be noted that this number is for trials, not convictions or executions. In many cases, Levack found evidence that a trial had occurred, but could not find information about its outcome. (Source: Brian Levack, “The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe”)
Before we go any further, it is necessary to take a few moments to put the European witch-hunts into their proper context. The European witch craze took place against a backdrop of rapid social, economic and religious transformation that impacted many European countries, societies and peoples.
Early modern Europe, also known as the post-medieval period, lasted from the end of the European middle ages in the late 1400s to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the first French Revolution in the late 1700s. This was an epoch of ground-breaking inventions, huge political and religious changes, and world-wide exploration. Movable type printing was developed in the 1450s, the Hundred Years´ War between England and France ended in 1453, and the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Muslim Ottoman Empire in marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and the end of the Roman Empire, a state which dated back to 27 BC and had lasted in various configurations for nearly 1,500 years. The 1490s saw the beginning of High Renaissance on the Italian peninsula, the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula by Christian kingdoms was completed after centuries of struggle, and Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean islands which marked the start of large-scale European exploration and colonization of the Americas. Church-reformer Martin Luther published his Ninety-five These in 1517, a move which would ultimately lead to the Protestant Reformation and many parts of Europe leaving the Catholic faith and Papal control. As the Catholic church weakened in Europe, the idea of the modern nation state came into much greater prominence.
Many of the people living in this era were subjected to massive changes that impacted their daily lives, such as a sudden order from a king to switch religious allegiances. After the Medieval Warm Period came the “Little Ice Age” in the North Atlantic region, which lasted from the 1500s to the 1800s and had a serious impact on food production. Add recurrent epidemics and natural disasters on top, and it is easy to see how society was ripe for mass hysteria and the need for scape goats.
In this era of very real religious tensions and multiple wars being fought along religious lines, various ideas regarding more far-fetched conspiracies against the Christian kingdoms also found fertile soil.
In her book about the witch hunts, Jenny Gibbon´s points out the ties between them and other types of “panics” in early modern European society.
“Traditional [tolerant] attitudes towards witchcraft began to change in the 14th century, at the very end of the Middle Ages. (…) Early 14th century central Europe was seized by a series of rumor-panics. Some malign conspiracy (Jews and lepers, Moslems, or Jews and witches) was attempting to destroy the Christian kingdoms through magic and poison. After the terrible devastation caused by the Black Death (1347-1349), these rumors increased in intensity and focused primarily on witches and “plague-spreaders.” Witchcraft cases increased slowly but steadily from the 14th-15th century. The first mass trials appeared in the 15th century. At the beginning of the 16th century, as the first shock-waves from the Reformation hit, the number of witch trials actually dropped. Then, around 1550, the persecution skyrocketed. What we think of as “the Burning Times” — the crazes, panics, and mass hysteria — largely occurred in one century, from 1550-1650. In the 17th century, the Great Hunt passed nearly as suddenly as it had arisen. Trials dropped sharply after 1650 and disappeared completely by the end of the 18th century.” (Source: Jenny Gibbons, “Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt”.)
Some scholars have noted out how former Catholic societies that now found themselves Protestant experienced a shift from a relatively stable world-view to more uncharted waters, and how the schism also encouraged hyper-suspiciousness in not just Protestants but also in Catholics – at least in countries where the Catholics keenly felt how Protestantism was a major threat to Catholicism. Interestingly, there are hardly any reports of any witch panic developing in countries where the Catholic church was still strong and largely unchallenged.
“This helps us understand why only the most rapidly developing countries, where the Catholic church was weakest, experienced a virulent witch craze (i.e., Germany, France, Switzerland). Where the Catholic church was strong (Spain, Italy, Portugal) hardly any witch craze occurred (…) the Reformation was definitely the first time that the church had to cope with a large-scale threat to its very existence and legitimacy.” (Source: Nachman Ben-Yehuda, “The European Witch Craze of the 14th to 17th Centuries: A Sociologist’s Perspective,” American Journal of Sociology, 86: 1, July 1980, pp. 15, 23.)
Despite the involvement of religious authorities, the vast majority of those convicted of witchcraft were convicted by secular courts, and local courts were especially zealous. (Source: Jenny Gibbons, “Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt”.)
The victims of the witch hunts, from a gender perspective
Overall, an estimated 75-80% of those accused and convicted of witchcraft in early modern Europe were women. This does not mean that it was common for women to be accused or convicted of witchcraft; only that of those who were, three-quarters or more were women.
Researcher Christina Larner calls the with-hunts “sex-related” rather than “sex-specific”.
“This does not mean that simple overt sex war is treated as a satisfactory explanation for witch-hunting, or that the (…) men who were accused are not to be taken into account.” [Rather] “it means that the fact that the accused were overwhelmingly female should form a major part of any analysis.” (Christina Larner, “Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland”, p. 3.)
As Steven Katz notes, statistical evidence show that over 99.9% of all women who lived in Europe during the three centuries when the European witch craze was at its strongest were not harmed directly by the police arm of either state or church. Still, the victims of the witch craze were overwhelmingly women, and the witch-hunting can therefore be viewed as a case of genderized mass murder. (Source: Steven Katz, “The Holocaust in Historical Context”, Vol. I, p. 503.)
“(…) the overall evidence makes plain that the growth — the panic — in the witch craze was inseparable from the stigmatization of women. (…) Historically, the most salient manifestation of the unreserved belief in female power and female evil is evidenced in the tight, recurrent, by-now nearly instinctive association of women and witchcraft. Though there were male witches, when the witch craze accelerated and became a mass phenomenon after 1500 its main targets, its main victims, were female witches. Indeed, one strongly suspects that the development of witch-hunting into a mass hysteria only became possible when directed primarily at women.” (Source: Katz, “The Holocaust in Historical Context”, Vol. I, pp. 433 and 436)
Steven Katz also points to the similarities between the Christian misogyny fuelling the witch-hunts and the corresponding Christian conception of Jews in this epoch.
“The medieval conception of women shares much with the corresponding medieval conception of Jews. In both cases, a perennial attribution of secret, bountiful, malicious “power,” is made. Women are anathematized and cast as witches because of the enduring grotesque fears they generate in respect of their putative abilities to control men and thereby coerce, for their own ends, male-dominated Christian society. Whatever the social and psychological determinants operative in this abiding obsession, there can be no denying the consequential reality of such anxiety in medieval Christendom. Linked to theological traditions of Eve and Lilith, women are perceived as embodiments of inexhaustible negativity. Though not quite quasi-literal incarnations of the Devil as were Jews, women are, rather, their ontological “first cousins” who, like the Jews, emerge from the “left” or sinister side of being.” (Source: Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, p. 435.)
As mentioned above, researcher Christina Larner calls the with-hunts “sex-related” rather than “sex-specific”, as an estimated 75-80% of those accused and convicted of witchcraft were women. (Source: Christina Larner, “Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland”, p. 3.)
Robing Briggs offers up the same estimate, claiming that 20 to 25 percent of those executed for witchcraft in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries were male, and that accused males were not afforded a lower conviction rate than accused women. Briggs also provides us with some interesting information regarding regional variations for the witch-hunts, e.g. how men accounted for 90% of the accused in Iceland, and how France forms a “fascinating exception to the wider pattern, for over much of the country witchcraft seems to have had no obvious link with gender at all. Of nearly 1,300 witches whose cases went to the parlement of Paris on appeal, just over half were men. (…) The great majority of the men accused were poor peasants and artisans, a fairly representative sample of the ordinary population.” (Source: Robin Briggs, “Witches & Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft”, pp. 260-61.) Something similar went on in Finland where men accounted for nearly 50% of all accused, and in nearby Estonia where the figure was 60%. Briggs also goes on to show some regions where women were the accused in 90% or more of the known witch cases; countries such as Denmark, Hungary and – famously – England.
As mentioned in the ingress, the predominance of women in witch-trials in England (and in its colonies in North America) is probably one of the reasons why the English-speaking world tend to strongly associate witches, witch-trials and with-hunts with female victims. In essence, the English experience has been assumed to be typical for Europe as a whole.
Victim profile: Where age, gender and dependence intersect
Not all women were equally at risk of being tried and punished for witchcraft.
“The limited data we have regarding the age of witches (…) shows a solid majority of witches were older than 50, which in the early modern period was considered to be a much more advanced age than today.” (Source: Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe”, p. 129.)
According to Katz, older women without children were at an even higher risk.
“The reason for this strong correlation seems clear (…) these women, particularly older women who had never given birth and now were beyond giving birth, comprised the female group most difficult to assimilate, to comprehend, within the regulative late medieval social matrix, organized, as it was, around the family unit.” (Source: Katz, “The Holocaust in Historical Context”, Vol. I, pp. 468-69.)
Deborah Willis has proposed that older women were at increased risk as they were, or risked becoming, a burden to their neighbours. This theory works well together with Katz´s findings that older women without children were more likely to be punished for witchcraft, as a woman without children to support her in old age would be more likely to become dependent on help from her neighbours. Compared to men, women were more likely to survive into a dependant age where they could no longer care and provide for themselves.
“The woman who was labeled a witch wanted things for herself or her household from her neighbors, but she had little to offer in return to those who were not much better off than she. Increasingly resented as an economic burden, she was also perceived by her neighbors to be the locus of a dangerous envy and verbal violence.” (Source: Deborah Willis, “Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England”, p. 65.)
Where midwives more likely to be targeted?
In their 1973 pamphlet “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses”, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English claims that midwives were especially likely to be targeted in the witch-hunts. This claim has been strongly refuted by subsequent historical research, which has shown the opposite to be true: being a licensed midwife actually decreased a woman´s risk of being tried and punished for witchcraft. Also, there is evidence of midwives actually helping witch-hunters.
- Jenny Gibbons, “Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt”
- Diane Purkiss, “The Witch in History”
Malleus maleficarum: A (highly misogynist) guide-book for witch-hunters
When it comes to the European witch-hunts of this epoch, the book Malleus maleficarum was highly influential and it would be wrong to not mention it in this article. The title is Latin for the Hammer of Witches, and the book is a treatise on witchcraft written by the Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer (Henricus Institor) and first published in Germany in 1486.
Interestingly, the book was not approved by the Catholic church. On the contrary, it was condemned by top theologians for being inconsistent with Catholic doctrines of demonology and for recommending illegal and unethical procedures. Heinrich Kramer wrote Malleus maleficarum after being expelled from Innsbruck by the local bishop due to charges of illegal behaviour and because of Kramer´s obsession with Helena Scheuberin, a women who stood trial for witchcraft in 1485.
While shunned by the Catholic church, Malleus maleficarum became a popular at many royal courts in the Europe during the Renaissance and contributed to the increasingly brutal witch-craze. After its initial release, it appeared in at least 20 other editions, becoming a very widespread book for the time. It was one of the first books mass produced with the help of the recently invented printing press.
Misogyny is rife within Malleus maleficarum. Here is just one example, translated into English.
“All wickedness,” (…) “is but little to the wickedness of a woman. (…) What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours. (…) Women are by nature instruments of Satan — they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation.” (Source: Malleus maleficarum quoted in Steven Katz, “The Holocaust in Historical Context”, Vol. I, pp. 438-39.)
Looking at the “hunters” from a gender-perspective
The available data from the European witch craze is a stark reminder of how a gendercide against women can be both initiated and perpetrated (substantially or predominantly) by other women, against a backdrop of patriarchal power. This corresponds in parts with how gendercide against men is virtually always carried out predominantly by other men.
During this epoch of European history, men were the prosecutors, judges and executioners, while both men and women (and children of both sexes) were accusers and heard as witnesses in witch trials.
Deborah Willis´s research
Researcher Deborah Willis notes how more polemical feminist accounts are “likely to portray the witch as a heroic protofeminist resisting patriarchal oppression and a wholly innocent victim of a male-authored reign of terror designed to keep women in their place.” (Source: Deborah Willis, “Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England”, p. 12.)
More modern research has unveiled how the with-hunts were collaborative enterprises where both men and women participated, especially at the local level.
In her study focused on Early Modern England, Willis notes how there is plenty of evidence of women being actively involved in accusing their own female neighbours of witchcrafts. On pages 35-36 of her book Malevolent Nurture, she quotes research by Alan Macfarlane, Peter Rushton and J.A. Sharpe which all point to women being highly active on both sides of the English witch-hunts.
“Macfarlane finds that as many women as men informed against witches in the 291 Essex cases he studied; about 55 percent of those who believed they had been bewitched were female. The number of witchcraft quarrels that began between women may actually have been higher; in some cases, it appears that the husband as “head of household” came forward to make statements on behalf of his wife, although the central quarrel had taken place between her and another woman. (…) It may, then, be misleading to equate “informants” with “accusers”: the person who gave a statement to authorities was not necessarily the person directly quarrelling with the witch. Other studies support a figure in the range of 60 percent. In Peter Rushton’s examination of slander cases in the Durham church courts, women took action against other women who had labelled them witches in 61 percent of the cases. (…) J.A. Sharpe also notes the prevalence of women as accusers in seventeenth-century Yorkshire cases, concluding that “on a village level witchcraft seems to have been something peculiarly enmeshed in women’s quarrels.” To a considerable extent, then, village-level witch-hunting was women’s work.” (Source: Deborah Willis, “Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England”, pp. 35-36)
Robin Briggs´s research
As already shown above, modern research has unveiled how the with-hunts were collaborative enterprises where both men and women participated, especially at the local level.
Robin Briggs describes it as a case of internalised misogyny existing within both men and women.
“The historical record suggests that both men and women found it easiest to fix these fantasies [of witchcraft], and turn them into horrible reality, when they were attached to women. It is really crucial to understand that misogyny in this sense was not reserved to men alone, but could be just as intense among women.” Briggs notes how many of the accusations arose from conflicts between women, and how men did not become involved until the conflict reached a later stage. Briggs describes how “most informal accusations were made by women against other women, (…) [and only] leaked slowly across to the men who controlled the political structures of local society.”
While English-speaking sources have a tendency to focus on English-speaking regions (such as the British Isles and English colonies around the world), it is refreshing to see how Briggs have dug deep into the archives for the French province of Lorraine, where he found that at the trial level, women frequently testified against other women. On average, women made up 43% of witnesses in these cases, and predominated in 30% of them.
This dynamic was by no means unique to Lorraine or even France, and was for instance the case in England. Briggs quotes a sophisticated count carried out by Clive Holmes for the English Home Circuit which shows that the proportion of women witnesses in these court cases rose from circa 38% in the last years of Queen Elizabeth to 53% after the Restoration.
Source: Robin Briggs, “Witches & Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft”, pp. 264-65, 270, 273, and 282.