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Gender And Social Factors Witchcraft Revision Notes

History Notes > Witch-craft and witch-hunting in Early Modern Europe (OS8) Notes

This is an extract of our Gender And Social Factors Witchcraft Revision document, which we sell as part of our Witch-craft and witch-hunting in Early Modern Europe (OS8) Notes collection written by the top tier of Oxford University students.

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Possible questions

How coherent was the concept of the male witch? (2018)
Why were male witches usually a minority? (2017)
Were anxieties about witchcraft gendered, and fantasies a means of rebuilding masculinity and femininity? (2017)
Were women disproportionately accused of witchcraft because they were feared for their strength? (2016)
Is the masculine identity of demonologists and judges a more useful starting point for understanding the role of gender than the predominantly feminine nature of the crime? (2015)
Was gender or age a more important determinant in accusations of witchcraft? (You should answer with reference to AT LEAST TWO trials). (2015)
Is it more useful to think about witches in terms of their poverty than their gender?
How significant was the demonic pact in defining European witchcraft?
Why were accounts of the witches' sabbath so often sexualised? (2018)
To what extent did male and female witches have distinctively gendered agency? (2017)


The witch-hunt in Europe and colonial America may have claimed the lives of 50,000 people between the 15th and 18th centuries (Brian P. Levack)
- Malcolm Gaskill: 70-90% of these victims could be women
Scotland - 85% of witches were women
England - 92% are women - highest in Europe
Iceland - 92% are men
Estonia - 60% are men
Wales - only women are witches, but men can be 'charmers' or 'healers'
Moscow - 2/3 are men
Rothenberg - only one man accused of witchcraft in his own right (Alison Rowlands)
Tuscany - only 2 of the 178 people tried for maleficium by the inquisitorial tribunal between 1520 and 1721 were men

Background - what was a witch?

Witches were those believed to be engaged in malefice: the malevolent, premeditated use of magic to inflict harm on others (Sally Parkin)
Witches gained their power through a conscious choice to submit to the devil, usually through making a diabolical covenant with the devil in a pact
Could define witches as those viewed as criminals, rather than 'cunning folk' who practice an occupation
But some demonologists and prosecutors view any practitioners of magic as practicing 'an euill custome' (King James VI)
In Wales, the term 'witch', or Wits in Welsh, can only be translated to 'woman diviner' borrowed from English language •

Alison Rowlands suggested "Witchcraft in the early-modern period was very much in the eye and the imagination of the beholder", implying the formation of shared stereotypes was vital in prosecuting witches
Stereotype of

Critical quotes

Julian Goodare: the witch-hunt was 'relatively misogynist'
Sally Parkin: in Wales 'only women were accused as malefice practitioners and slandered as witches'
Alison Rowlands: 'the patriarchal organisation of early modern society was not a 'cause', but a necessary precondition for witch-hunts'
Julian Goodare: interrogation of witches in Scotland was 'wholly patriarchal'
Julian Goodare: - 'reputations were often constructed among women, while prosecutions,
obviously, were controlled by men'
Malcolm Gaskill: 'put simply, most accusers were men, the accused tended to be women'

James VI and I - Daemonologie (1597)

'no sex, age nor rank' is exempt to witchcraft, but women are more susceptible
'What can be the cause that there are twentie women giuen to that craft, where ther is one man?'
'The reason is easie, for as that sexe is frailer then man is, so is it easier to be intrapped in these grosse snares of the Deuill'
Dialogue structure which appealed to the popular reader - easy and understandable
Heinrich Kramer - Malleus Malificarum (1487)

Bestseller in Europe - second only to the Bible in terms of sales for almost 200 years
'a greater number of witches is found in the fragile female sex than among men'
Evidence in the Bible - Ecclesiasticus XXV - 'there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman'
'since they are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft' - 'carnal', 'lustfull'
Kramer accepts that there are 'good women', who are usually good because they help their husbands keep their faith etc...
Jean Bodin - On the Demon-Mania of Witches (1580)

'there is nothing more normal for witches than to murder children'

Legal context

The peak of the witch-craze in Europe (16th /17th centuries) came at a time when there was
'rigorous enforcement of the law' (Edward Bever) to strengthen Christian moral codes in a time of post-Reformation religious instability - to 'bolster the godly state' (Goodare)

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