The ‘Ideal’ Sorceress: Gender Ideology and the Stereotypical Witch.

Why is it that on hearing the word ‘witch’, I immediately think of scary old ladies? If you are anything like me and have seen one too many Disney films, it’s not hard to see where the stereotype is reinforced in our modern society. J K Rowling has done a good job at making witches a little less hunchbacked and wart-covered, but it is the image of the old, decrepit widow with a vendetta against society is what will always endure. This image of a witch became prevalent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it is possible to glean some insight into how people thought about women at the time when such an image became deeply rooted in the common psyche. In religious terms, women were complete contradictions (how could they be both Eve and the Virgin Mary?) and so were regarded as inconstant and suspicious. This might be the reason why, at a basic level, women were the ones accused of witchcraft.

The primary concern of a community was maleficia. This type of magic had long-standing associations with the cunning-folk who were a constant in English communities from the Middle Ages. They are described as possessing a multitude of skills, including healing and love magic, and interestingly counter-magic for those who believed themselves bewitched. Obviously these cunning folk had a place within the community, albeit ambiguous and open to suspicion as their quasi-pagan practices were both strange and invaluable. Cunning-folk were often older, widowed women, whose ‘magical’ services provided income, thus reinforcing the image of a witch as a marginalised female in popular thought. When the post-Reformation push to rid society of these cunning folk began a programme of persecution, these marginalised women were the first in the firing line.

Maleficia, natural misfortunes without obvious explanation, were additionally more prevalent in spheres naturally attributed to women, such as cooking, midwifery or nursing. It was generally recognised that these particular roles offered women better opportunities to practice malign magic; thus inviting accusation. For example, in 1661, a lady named Helen Grey was nursing a boy extremely ill with kidney stones. The pain made him hallucinate, and as a result he accused Helen of witchcraft. To back this up, a neighbour said that it was Helen who had made her bread go sour using maleficium. Helen’s involvement in the care of the sick and preparation of food, vocations natural to her sex, left her vulnerable to charges of witchcraft. Other professions, such as midwifery or wet-nursing, were exclusively female roles, and thus the male exclusion gave fertile ground for the suspicion of women. Demonological theory, prevalent in the state driven witch-hunts, associated midwives with diabolism through their proximity to unbaptized children as these infants could be acquired for ceremonial sacrifice. High mortality rates in young children only served to ‘prove’ the notion that it was women who caused such suffering. Evidently, the roles attributed to women made then vulnerable to suspicion, demonstrating that gender ideology did contribute to the image of the stereotypical witch.

Women who didn’t sit quietly, as gender ideology dictated, were also open to suspicion. Suspicion also developed over time, explaining why women accused of witchcraft were of advanced age. For example, Jane Wenham is described in 1712 as ‘…and old woman over seventy who had a very unsavoury reputation in the village.’ Age and reputation evidently work against here in this case. And to add fuel to the fire, Jane was a widow. In Kent, 75 per cent of those accused were unmarried women. This is because widows were both estranged from and dependant on the parish, as they had no other means of income. Giving alms was an integral part of society, but doing so became more difficult in the economic downturns of 1550 to 1650. This created a ‘gulf of misunderstanding and suspicion’ between the social orders of a parish, and the resulting guilt and fear of retribution undoubtedly contributed to accusations of witchcraft. This was especially prevalent as old, widowed women were naturally connected to cunning-magic, thereby giving her a vehicle for revenge. That many accusations of maleficia begin with the refusal of alms adds credence to this view.

On the other hand, when the hunt was run by the state rather than the community, the focus was on diabolism. This includes all the gruesome practices like child sacrifice and sexual relations with the Devil. Specialist contemporary writings such as the Malleus Maleficarum and On the Demon-Mania of Witches strengthened the connections between women and witchcraft. According to the Malleus, women were witches because they were weaker, feebler and more impressionable than men, thus falling more easily into the clutches of evil spirits. Although being described as ‘intensely misogynistic’, the Malleus is useful because it overtly expresses the ideas held by many members of the elite concerning the female state and constitution. This undoubtedly bolstered the female witch stereotypes as it drew on her weak and fundamentally wicked nature to explain and justify the presence of witchcraft.

Additionally, there is a focus on female sexuality; a pivotal factor in the demonological stereotype of a female witch. This opinion is reflected in the writings of Jean Bodin who claims that all witches had a sexual relationship with the Devil. As the Devil was male, women were considered his natural mates, so implicating women on their gender alone. This view stemmed from male concerns about female sexuality, particularly highlighted by the carnal image of women endorsed by the clergy. In this respect, it could be argued that widows were accused of witchcraft because their status as experienced women without the restraints of a male patriarch made them sexually threatening to men. This element of the witch stereotype is displayed in the works of Hans Baldung Grien, a German artist who in the sixteenth century depicted witches as the embodiment of female sexual power.

To sum up, this brief assessment of the witch in early modern England demonstrates why it was women, not men, who felt the brunt of witchcraft accusations. There was a polarised view of the world; men were rational and strong whilst women were physically and morally weak. The state’s focus on diabolism reflected these moral concerns. Documents such as the Malleus Maleficarum served to enforce this view, harnessing the classical and religious interpretations of fundamental evil to enforce the female stereotype. Women also became the focus of accusations due to her position within the community, dictated by the gender ideologies of household and a submissive relationship to the patriarchal society. For example, a community’s concern with maleficia became tied to the image of women through her designated roles, buttressed by the traditional interrelation of widows and cunning-magic that had endured for centuries. Undoubtedly elements of misogyny do creep into the stereotype, particularly clear in the Malleus wherein Kramer and Sprenger barely associate women with humanity. This once again reflects the paradoxical nature of womanhood in this period, a key factor in driving gender ideology and creating the witch stereotype of pre-industrial England.


Amussen, S.D., ‘Gender, Family and the Social Order, 1560-1725’, in Fletcher, A., and Stevenson, J., (eds), Order and Disorder in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1985), pp.196-217.

Davies, O., Cunning-Folk, Popular Magic in English History, (New York, 2003).

Gaskill, M., ‘Witchcraft and power in Early Modern England: The Case of Margaret Moore,’ in Kermonde, J., and Walker, G., (eds), Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England, (London, 2003), pp.125-145.

Guskin, P. J., ‘The Context of Witchcraft: The Case of Jane Wenham (1712)’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 15 (1981), pp.48-71.

Holmes, C., ‘Women: witnesses and witches’, Past and Present, 140 (1993), pp.45-78.

King, M. L., Women of the Renaissance, (Chicago, 1991), pp.1-2

Levack, B. P., (2nd ed), The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, (London, 1995).

Scott A. R., and Pearl J. L., (trans), Bodin, J., On the Demon-Mania of Witches, (Toronto, 1995),

Summers, M., (trans), The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, (New York, 1971)

Zguta, R., ‘Witchcraft Trials in Seventeenth Century Russia,’ American Historical Review, 82 (1977), pp.1187-1207.

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