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Witchcraft Week 3 Essay

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

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Connie Kissock
To what extent does the frequency with which women and men were accusers and accused affect gendered interpretations of the nature of witchcraft?
The European witch-trials can be seen as 'a high point in the history of the oppression of women' 1, with anywhere between 70-90 per cent of the up to 60,000 victims being female2. Gendered interpretations of the nature of witchcraft and the witch-hunts are inevitable and cannot be argued against; the learned demonologies, trial reports, and the very definition of witchcraft worked overwhelmingly against women, defining witchcraft as a female crime which subverted patriarchal expectations of the humble,
cooperative and maternal woman. Still, this did not mean that the male witch was 'literally unthinkable' 3 as Stuart Clark once stated - in some areas of Europe, like Normandy and Iceland, male witches dominated the statistics, and were open to conviction in Britain too, even if this was only as a small minority. Still, for many of these male witches their crime was a specifically female one, associating their weak nature for submitting to the Devil with womanly qualities, or convicting them by direct association with witch mothers, wives, or other female family members. There also seems to be a distinction between convictions for sorcery or magic, and specific charges of maleficium, a type of magical wrongdoing which was typically associated with female sorcerers. Thus, though men could be victims of witchcraft accusations, more often than not they dominated as accusers, and when they were accused,
this was often in association with the female nature of the crime, maintaining the significance of gendered interpretations.
Though both women and men could act as the accuser or the accused, there is a significant distinction between the genders in that only men were the authors of learned demonologies and trial reports, the sources of belief underpinning many of the actual witchcraft prosecutions across Europe. In this sense, in many areas elite men become the accusers, writing of their beliefs that 'a larger number of sorcerers is found among the delicate female sex than among men'4, which are then allowed to permeate communities and are perpetuated by the 'evidence' in trials. The definition of 'maleficium',
the term for harmful magic, may be a female-specific one, with Kramer's Malleus Malificarum,
associating the term with female sorcerers 5, and the Lutheran translation of the biblical statement underpinning many witch-trials, 'thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'6, similarly conflating this with women. This association is replicated in much of the real trial evidence: in Rothenburg, Germany,
Rowlands found only one man accused as a maleficient witch in his own right7, and similarly in Tuscany,
Italy, only 2 of the 178 people tried for maleficium by the inquisitorial tribunal between 1520 and 1721

1 Burghartz, Susanna, The Equation of Women and Witches: A Case Study of Witchcraft Trials in Lucerne

and Lausanne in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (pg. 57), in Richard J. Evans (ed.), The German
Underworld: Deviants and Outcasts in German History, Routledge (1988)
2 Gaskill, Malcolm, Masculinity and Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century England, in Alison Rowlands (ed.),
Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe (pg. 171), Palgrave Macmillan (2009)
3 Rowlands, Alison, Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Europe (pg. 455), in Brian P. Levack (ed.), The
Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, Oxford University Press
4 Mackay, Christopher S., The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (pg.
160), Cambridge University Press (2009)

5 Mackay, The Hammer... (pg. 165)
Rowlands, Witchcraft... (pg. 455)
7 Gaskill, Masculinity... (pg. 173)

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