Thursday, 11 July 2013
Essay: The feminisation of witchcraft and rise of misogyny in late medieval and early modern Europe
The stereotype of the witch first appeared in Europe in the late medieval period. Whilst the figure of the witch had previously existed in popular and learned imagination, it was during the fifteenth century that the separate elements of witchcraft – harmful sorcery or maleficium, diabolism, heretic cultic activity, and nocturnal flight – were collapsed into the single concept of satanic witchcraft.[i] It was also during this period that the witch became gendered, with the term “witch” standing in metonymically for “female”. The aim of this essay is to examine the relationship between the feminisation of witchcraft and rise of misogyny in late medieval and early modern Europe. This will be achieved by looking at scholarship surrounding the impact of the witch-hunting treatises by Johannes Nider, and Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, respectively titled, the Formicarius (1437), and the Malleus Maleficarum (1486). Alongside an examination of the perennial question: “why were witches women?”, I will argue that gender and misogyny are important issues in understanding what Barstow calls ‘sexual terrorism’ – the fact that ‘while witches were almost always women, they were invariably tried, judged, jailed, examined, and executed by men.’[ii]
At the outset any discussion of witchcraft is immediately brought into difficulty by the term “witch”, a word that is complicated by its polysemic baggage.[iii] In the early fifteenth century, the Latin word that Nider and other clerical authorities commonly used to signify “witch”, was maleficus (or malefica in the feminine), which translated to ‘a person who performed harmful sorcery, maleficium, against others.’[iv] Such acts included committing crimes such as ‘theft or murder by magical means, causing pestilence or disease, withering crops or afflicting livestock, and conjuring lightning and hail.’[v] However, during the late fifteenth century and into the great witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a very specific image of the witch emerged, and the practice of witchcraft involved a crime far greater than maleficium; that is, the crime of diabolism, in which a witch obtained their powers to work their magic through a demonic pact with the devil.[vi] As demon worshippers and servants of Satan, witches were thought to be part of a large, organised conspiratorial cult, headed by the Prince of Darkness and in opposition to the Church itself, which both ecclesiastical and secular authorities sought to extirpate.[vii]
According to Kieckhefer, this new obsession with diabolism was also related to the spread of theological texts of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, which ‘set forth all the elements of diabolism in great, pornographic detail.’[viii] As will be demonstrated shortly, it is through the notion of diabolism – the belief that magic involved pacts with demons, and ultimately the worship of demons or the devil – that witchcraft during this period became feminised.[ix] According to Brauner, until the fifteenth century, ‘witchcraft was not considered gender-specific’, with ‘women believed to be no more likely than men to be witches.’[x] Gender, therefore, is clearly central to understanding the witch-hunts, and the way in which women were essentially constructed as witches.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘misogyny’ (from the Greek root misogynia) simply refers to ‘hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women’.[xi] However, misogyny is a much more complicated concept than this description would indicate. In fact, as suggested by Gilmore, misogyny means ‘an unreasonable fear or hatred of women that takes place on some palpable form in any given society.’[xii] He notes further that misogyny is a feeling of enmity toward the female sex, a ‘disgust or abhorrence’ toward women as an undifferentiated social category, which ‘finds social expression in the concrete behaviour: in cultural institutions, in writings, in rituals, or in other observable activity.’[xiii] Misogyny, then, is a ‘sexual prejudice that is symbolically exchanged (shared) among men, attaining praxis.’[xiv], This practiced misogyny, fuelled by the dissemination of learned clerical literature, reached its searing heights in the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
For the purposes of this discussion, it is important to understand that ‘misogynists are “essentialists”, positing a stereotypical “essence” in women, a basic, immutable, and evil nature allowing for no individual variation.’[xv] It is through such an essentialist move that the authors of the Formicarius, and the Malleus Maleficarum, connected ‘the operations of magic to female weakness and then set about prosecuting women for the resulting crime of witchcraft.’[xvi] According to the figures compiled by Kieckhefer, in the early fourteenth century, men comprised 70% of the proportion of those accused in trials of sorcery or diabolism, and by the first half the fifteenth century, that figure dramatically shifted, with women comprising roughly 60-70% of those accused in witchcraft trials.[xvii]
In his Formicarius (The Ant Heap), written around 1437, Johannes Nider, a Dominican theologian and reformer, was ‘the first clerical authority to argue that women were more prone to become witches than men’.[xviii] Fifty years later this had significant influence on Kramer, who incorporated whole sections of Nider’s text into his diatribe on female tendency to evil. According to Bailey, ‘[t]hrough Nider we have access to the idea of witchcraft at almost the very moment it first appeared’.[xix] Taking the form of a dialogue between a Dominican theologian and student, the Formicarius described in detail ‘most of those aspects of witchcraft that would in following centuries become standard elements of the witch stereotype.’[xx]
Nider describes the supposed activities of the new sect of heretics, known as malefici or witches, ‘who combined the performance of harmful magic with ceremonies at which they allegedly rejected their Christian faith and performed various horrific acts.’[xxi] Such acts were the standard tropes of the witches’ Sabbath, which were already in place; for example, cannibalistic infanticide, the renunciation of Christianity, the appearance of a demon in the shape of a human being, and instruction in the use of harmful magic.[xxii] The accounts in the Formicarius were seen as depicting an early and undeveloped concept of the Sabbath. However, whilst the idea of nocturnal flight does not appear in Nider’s account, he does draw attention to the danger of this new heretical sect.[xxiii]
According to Bailey, Nider was the first clerical authority ‘to argue explicitly that more women than men were inclined toward witchcraft’, a model that Kramer copied in his Malleus.[xxiv] After a discussion of Joan of Arc and other similar ‘rebellious women supposedly guilty of witchcraft’, the student in the dialogue exclaims: “I cannot wonder enough how the fragile sex should dare to rush into such presumptions.”[xxv] He then provides an explanation of female proclivity for witchcraft, basing his argument on ‘longstanding Christian conceptions of the physical, mental, and spiritual weaknesses of women, and their greater susceptibility to the temptations of the devil.’[xxvi] Nider also believed that women had ‘the potential for extreme good, however, when they did not reach this potential, they sank into the ‘worst of evils.’[xxvii] Both Nider and Kramer offered evidence cited from authoritative sources for their arguments about the extent of women’s propensity to evil. However, these ideas were not new and borrowed heavily from a long tradition of western misogyny.[xxviii]
This connection between women and witchcraft was further developed and disseminated through the publication in 1487 of the turgidly misogynistic text, the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches). Written primarily by Kramer, with assistance from Sprenger, both were Dominican theologians who were influenced by the theological and political views of their order, and its long history of persecuting heretics.[xxix] The Malleus is divided into three parts: the first explains the nature of witches, the second describes the harm they do, and the third prescribes the best way to prosecute them.[xxx] The treatise was a massive success, and during the period of the witch-hunts there were between twenty-five and thirty-five editions, with at least eight appearing by 1500, and thirteen by 1520, ten of which were in Germany alone.[xxxi] Reprinted in 1580, the Malleus was deeply influential on both the Protestant and Catholic witch-hunters in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.[xxxii]
Regarded as the most famous late-medieval text dealing with witchcraft, this influential witch-hunting manual spread the idea that the ‘insatiable womb’ led women to ‘consort with devils’ and practice witchcraft, whereas God had ‘preserved the male sex from so great a crime.’[xxxiii] Kramer linked witchcraft to supposedly uncontrolled female sexuality, arguing that ‘all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.’[xxxiv] The argument is developed around female frailty in which Kramer says, ‘since [women] are feebler in both mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.’[xxxv] He also compares woman to the first temptress Eve, who was ‘formed from a bent rib’, so was therefore, ‘an imperfect animal’.[xxxvi] Kramer even goes so far as to suggest an etymology of the Latin word – ‘for Femina comes from Fe and Minus, since she is ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith.’[xxxvii] Therefore, he argues, ‘a wicked woman is by her nature quicker to waver in faith, and consequently quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft.’[xxxviii]
Whilst the learned misogyny of the Malleus wasn’t original, the arguments that witches tend to be women, not men, and the witches’ pact with the devil is explicitly sexual, were new ideas.[xxxix] And it was through woman’s natural frailty that she became seduced by the devil, entering into a pact that was consummated sexually.[xl] According to Broedel, ‘just as the devil’s power is greatest where human sexuality is concerned, so too is woman’s greatest weakness, for she is naturally more sexual than men.[xli] And as Kramer says, this natural weakness, ‘that she is more carnal than a man’, is made clear ‘from her many carnal abominations.’[xlii]
Kramer was also the first to raise maleficium, which was traditionally the jurisdiction of secular authorities, to the criminal status of heresy, which allowed judges to prosecute ‘with the same vigour as would the Inquisition in prosecuting a heretic.’[xliii] Moreover, the Malleus insisted that the death penalty for convicted witches was the only guaranteed remedy against this heretical sect, who posed the greatest danger of the time – ‘the extermination of the Faith’.[xliv] In the process of the feminisation of witchcraft, the crime of witchcraft was also feminised[xlv]
It is argued that because misogyny has been so permanent a part of western culture that it cannot be deployed as a cause of so specific an event as the witch-hunts.[xlvi] However, taking this dismissive line of reasoning fails to account for why, in some areas of Europe, between 80-90% of the victims persecuted were women. [xlvii] Some scholars have gone so far as to blame women. For example, Midelfort suggests that ‘women seemed also to provoke somehow an intense misogyny at times’.[xlviii] Similarly, Quaife argues that gender was not the important element in the witch-hunts, or perhaps, not a factor at all, ‘misogyny was the negative side of man’s attitude to women and in most cases did not dominate.’[xlix] The disavowal of misogyny as an issue continues in the work of Clark, and also Larner, who both shifted the paradigm by suggesting that witches were accused not because they were women, but because they were witches.[l] Briggs also agrees that the witch-hunts were against witches, not women.[li]
It has also been argued that because women accused other women, misogyny was not the prime factor.[lii] However, it should be pointed out that patriarchy divides women; that is, ‘patriarchy functions so as to encourage women to enforce patriarchal norms against other women in order to strengthen their own precarious position in that order.’[liii] Therefore, if we are to understand the feminisation of witchcraft, which developed into witch-hunting that was primarily targeted at women, the dynamic nature of patriarchy, where ‘continuity of inequality between men and women relies on changing forms of oppression over time’, must also be taken into consideration.[liv]
What seems to be sadly lacking in any of these elisions of misogyny, is an acknowledgement that the female sex ‘seems to have taken on a new significance as a marker for “deviance” in the early modern period which it did not possess earlier.’[lv] The witch-hunts were part of a continuing tradition of male hatred against women, and it is hard to deny the fact that the most distinctive factor of the witch-hunts, was the fact that most witches were women.[lvi]
In conclusion, this essay has provided a discussion of the relationship between the feminisation of magic and misogyny in the late medieval and early modern periods of Europe. Examples were provided from the Formicarius, and Malleus Maleficarum, which demonstrated the development of clerical misogyny and the way that women were more essentially suited to witchcraft than men. The arguments were based on diabolism, in that witches obtained their power through sexual submission to the devil, and as women were deemed to be weaker, they were more susceptible to his seductions. Whilst scholars have argued against the importance of misogyny in understanding the witch-hunts, the fact that in most areas women were the primary victims, it is hard to deny that the witch-hunts were anything but a demonstration of male hatred against women.
List of primary references
Kramer, H. and Sprenger, J. The Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Rev. Montague Summers. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
List of secondary references
Bailey, M.D. Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania University Press, 2003.
Bailey, M.D. “The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages”. Essays in Medieval Studies, 19 (2002), 120-134.
Bailey M.D. “The Medieval Concept of the Witches’ Sabbath”, Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 8, (1996), 419-439.
Barstow, A.L. “On Studying Witchcraft as Women’s History: A Historiography of the European Witch Persecutions”, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 4, no.2 (1988): 7-19.
Barstow, A.L. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco and London: Pandora Books, 1994.
Brauner, S. Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews: The Construction of the Witch in Early Modern Germany. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.
Briggs, R. “Women as Victims? Witches, Judges and the Community”, French History, 5, no.4 (1991): 438-450.
Broedel, H.P. The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.
Clarke, S. “The ‘Gendering’ of Witchcraft in French Demonology: Misogyny or Polarity?”, French History, 5, no.4 (1991): 426-437.
Gilmore, D.D. Misogyny: The Male Malady. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Kieckhefer, R. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
Kieckhefer, R. “Witch Trials in Mediaeval Europe” in The Witchcraft Reader, edited by Darren Oldridge. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
Larner, C. “Was Witch-hunting Woman Hunting?” in The Witchcraft Reader, edited by Darren
Oldridge. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
Levack, B.P. The Witchcraft Sourcebook, New York and London: Routledge, 2004.
Midelfort, H.C. Eric. Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany 1562-1684. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.
Oxford English Dictionary (OED), http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/119829?redirectedFrom=misogyny#eid, accessed 15 September 2011.
Quaife, G.R. Godly Zeal and Furious Rage: The Witch in Early Modern Europe. London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1987.
Russell, Jeffrey. R. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1972.
Whitney, E. “The Witch “She”/The Historian “He”: Gender and the Historiography of the European Witch-Hunts”, Journal of Women’s History, 7, no.3, (1995), 77-101.
[i] Michael David Bailey, “The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages”, Essays in Medieval Studies, 19 (2002): 120; Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1972), 23-24.
[ii] Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts, (San Francisco and London: Pandora Books, 1994), 142.
[iii] Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, 13-19.
[iv] Michael David Bailey, Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages, (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania University Press, 2003), 29.
[vii] Ibid., 30.
[viii] Richard Kieckhefer, “Witch Trials in Mediaeval Europe” in The Witchcraft Reader, ed. Darren Oldridge, (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 127.
[ix] Michael David Bailey, Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages, (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania University Press, 2003), 32; Bailey, “The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages”, 121.
[x] Sigrid Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews: The Construction of the Witch in Early Modern Germany, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), 3.
[xi] OED website: http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/119829?redirectedFrom=misogyny#eid.
[xii] David D. Gilmore, Misogyny: The Male Malady, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 9.
[xv] Ibid., 14.
[xvi] Bailey, “The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages”, 128.
[xvii] Richard Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 106-147.
[xviii] Bailey, “The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages”, 120).
[xix] Michael David Bailey, Battling Demons, 30.
[xx] Bailey, “The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages”, 121-122.
[xxi] Brian P. Levack, The Witchcraft Sourcebook, (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 52.
[xxii] Ibid.; it should be noted that Nider never used the term ‘Sabbath’, which appeared only in the late fifteenth century. For more on the characteristics of the Sabbath described in late-medieval sources, see Michael D. Bailey, “The Medieval Concept of the Witches’ Sabbath”, Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 8, 1996, 419-439.
[xxiii] Michael David Bailey, Battling Demons, 47; Levack, The Witchcraft Sourcebook, 53.
[xxiv] Michael David Bailey, Battling Demons, 49.
[xxv] Nider in Bailey, “The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages”, 122; my emphasis.
[xxviii] Elspeth Whitney. “The Witch “She”/The Historian “He”: Gender and the Historiography of the European Witch-Hunts”, Journal of Women’s History, 7, no.3, (1995): 86.
[xxix] Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, 31.
[xxx] Ibid., 32.
[xxxiii] Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, The Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Rev. Montague Summers, (New York: Dover Publications, 1971), 47.
[xxxv] Ibid., 44
[xxxix] Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, 33.
[xl] Hans Peter Broedel, The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 25.
[xli] Ibid.; original emphasis.
[xlii] Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, 44.
[xliii] Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews, 34.
[xliv] Ibid., 34; Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, 48.
[xlv] Christina Larner, Witchcraft and Religion: The Politics of Popular Belief, (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 60.
[xlvi] Whitney, “The Witch “She”/The Historian “He””, 78.
[xlvii] Anne Llewellyn Barstow, “On Studying Witchcraft as Women’s History: A Historiography of the European Witch Persecutions”, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 4, no.2 (1988), 7.
[xlviii] H.C. Eric Midelfort, Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany 1562-1684, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972), 196.
[xlix] G.R. Quaife, Godly Zeal and Furious Rage: The Witch in Early Modern Europe, (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1987), 106.
[l] Stuart Clarke, “The ‘Gendering’ of Witchcraft in French Demonology: Misogyny or Polarity?”, French History, 5, no.4 (1991), 427); Christine Larner, “Was Witch-hunting Woman Hunting?” in The Witchcraft Reader, ed. Darren Oldridge, (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 275.
[li] Robin Briggs, “Women as Victims? Witches, Judges and the Community”, French History, 5, no.4 (1991), 443-445.
[lii] Whitney, “The Witch “She”/The Historian “He””, 88.
[liv] Marianne Hester, “Patriarchal Reconstruction and Witch-Hunting” in The Witchcraft Reader, ed. Darren Oldridge, (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 279.
[lv] Whitney, “The Witch “She”/The Historian “He””, 86.