Women as witches: past, present and future

If you ask someone what they think of when they hear the word ‘witch’ most people will come up with a similar image: old, haggard, ugly, bent-nosed, broomstick-laden and, above all, female.

But how accurate is this stereotype?

Witchcraft was a crime in Europe during what is generally referred to as the early modern period: that is, the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Different countries enacted different laws to deal with witches but, for the most part, by the mid-16th century witchcraft was a secular crime, one that could be punished by imprisonment, pillory or execution. During this period, approximately 90,000 people were formally accused of witchcraft and about half of this number were executed. That’s 45,000 deaths.

A pillory – a wooden device that trapped the victim by the head and hands so they could be subjected to public abuse. Picture: An 18th century illustration via Wikipedia.

A pillory – a wooden device that trapped the victim by the head and hands so they could be subjected to public abuse. Picture: An 18th century illustration via Wikipedia.

So where do women come in? Well, it depends on what country you were in but, on the whole, women made up the vast majority of those accused and executed. In England, we estimate that women made up approximately 90 per cent of the accused; in the largely German-speaking Holy Roman Empire, this number was 76 per cent; in Hungary, 90 per cent; in Switzerland, over 95 per cent; and in parts of France, 76 per cent. There are exceptions to this trend. In Iceland, women made up only eight per cent of the accused and low figures can also be seen in Russia (32 per cent) and Estonia (40 per cent). But, for the most part, and especially in Western Europe, women were far more likely to be accused of witchcraft than men.

Witches were generally defined as people who made a pact with the Devil in exchange for magical power to commit evil acts.

They were believed to join with the Devil, meet with him at night-time sabbaths, pledge homage, engage in lurid sex, kill children and maim pregnant women. They were also believed to make men impotent – in some cases by actually stealing their genitals.

A manuscript image of nuns hoarding penises - some medieval authors claimed that witches stole penises.

A manuscript image of nuns hoarding penises - some medieval authors claimed that witches stole penises.

So why were women so much more likely to be accused? This is a huge question, far too large to answer in a short blog post, but much of it had to do with ideas about women’s temperaments. One of the most vitriolic texts, Heinrich Kramer’s 1487 Malleus Maleficarum described how women were ‘chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions’ and went on to blame her greed, her credulous nature, her feeble mind and body, her slippery tongue, her jealous nature and her inherently evil disposition for her tendency to give in to the Devil’s influence. Other texts described women’s credibility in the face of the Devil’s tricks or their innately malicious natures.

We can also think about women being suspected as witches in terms of power; many of the women accused were poor, often elderly, widowed, single or otherwise unprotected.

Their only source of power came from their supposed ability to perform malicious witchcraft – a fact that made them all the more likely to be suspected of having given in to the Devil’s temptations of wealth and the power to maim or even kill those who had wronged them.

Witches and their familiars.

Witches and their familiars.

On looking at the numbers of accused and the hatred described above, it would be easy to build up a picture of educated men persecuting oppressed women. But this is far too simplistic a reading. In many areas across Europe, women were actually far more likely to be accused of witchcraft by other women. Allegations often came about at a village level – in a place where tensions could flourish over years, or even decades before exploding. Witches were often believed to operate in a female sphere – they were accused of killing children and disrupting fertility, or of spoiling beer or bread making, or of drying up cows so that they couldn’t be milked. These acts all attacked female-dominated activities.

When reading transcripts of witchcraft cases, we hear women’s voices – not just in the accused witch’s answers, but also in the damning testimony of her female neighbours.

This is not to say that many men did not view women as far more likely to be witches – they did – but that women were not passive victims of men. They had agency and they acted on it.

So where does all this leave us today? Witches are still very much female in the public imagination and labelling a powerful women a witch (such as the vitriol aimed at Julia Gilliard and Hilary Clinton) is a sure-fire way to conjure up imagery of an evil, dried-up and nasty woman. Many are unaware that men were ever accused of witchcraft or that this was not purely a process of men persecuting women.

A political sign denouncing a female candidate.

A political sign denouncing a female candidate.

Increasingly, many women are attempting to re-appropriate the label of witch as a powerful signifier of feminine power rather than as a dangerous insult.

Some are even taking on this power to make a political point (see, for example this spell to bind Donald Trump).

There are, of course, potential problems with people today taking on the label of witch. First and foremost is the fact that the vast majority of those accused would never have thought of themselves as witches – and the fact that they were not guilty of the crimes attributed to them. Second, although being accused of witchcraft is no longer dangerous in most western countries, in areas of the South Pacific, Asia and Africa, people believed to be witches are still persecuted and, even in places where laws have been changed to disallow witch-hunting, many men and women are still attacked and even killed by their neighbours under suspicion of witchcraft.

It seems that we now have two different types of modern witches: those still persecuted for crimes they didn’t commit and those who take on the mantle for self-empowerment.

The history of witchcraft is intrinsically tied with women’s histories and women’s stories. Studying these events allow us to know more about how women were thought of in the past, to uncover their often obstructed voices, and sheds light on modern-day stereotypes. In early 2019 the UQ Art Museum will be putting on an exhibition to highlight some of these conflicting ideas. In doing so we hope to bust some popular myths about witchcraft and to shed light on the ongoing associations between women and witchcraft. We hope to see you there!

Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar is a UQ Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland and the author of ‘Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern England’ (Routledge, 2017).

She is interested in the intersections of supernatural belief, gender, emotions and print culture and is working on a new project on early modern ghosts. She regularly talks about women and witchcraft on radio and at public events, as well as in a university setting.

You can follow her on Twitter @drcmillar.