Women and the Early Modern Witch-Hunts

Salem Witch Trials, 1692-3
Salem Witch Trials, 1692-3

It appears as if most of us always think of women when thinking of the early modern witch-hunts. This hasn’t been helped by the depiction of witches in popular culture, films and TV, but it makes us forget the array of complexities encompassing early modern witchcraft and its crime. So how did the witch-hunts come into motion? Well, typically accusations stemmed from the act of maleficium, and in other areas across the globe, predominantly North America, there was a greater focus on diabolism; both of which had implications in terms of both the administration and scale of the hunts. This creates further difficulties when assessing the role of gender, particularly alongside the rise of gender history where ideas surrounding the witch-hunts have taken an interesting turn, allowing opportunity for psychoanalysis and the implementation of  modern-day values and standards onto the past; an undoubtedly problematic development. Certainly, women were socially vulnerable to the profile of a witch, but examining the popular beliefs and ideologies of people living at the time, alongside the involvement of men in the early modern witch-trials, demonstrates a clear belief in the reality of the witch as opposed to the intention of a gendered attack on women.

Firstly, exploring what the witch-hunters were looking for in a suspect is the first way to discover how far gendered motives contributed to the accusations. Diabolism concerned the idea of an active pact with the Devil in fear of an antichristian conspiracy and was therefore commonly investigated by the secular courts rather than “from below”. In terms of maleficium, an individual practicing harmful magic, suspicions of witchcraft rooted from ordinary people in neighbourly communities before an official trial if reported. This indicates the genuine belief of people at the time in the crime of witchcraft as a reality; the fear of which was certainly exacerbated by the post-Reformation context in which it encompassed, where the presence of witches was both illuminated alongside their dangers to society. In addition, the belief fulfilled a social need to explain everyday human misfortune; one of many social needs which contributed to witchcraft accusations. Typically, as conveyed in Malleus Maleficarum (1484), the criteria of a witch encompassed the morally weak and essentially those who could easily submit themselves to the sphere of harmful magic or to the Devil through lust and lack of self-control. These qualities were readily attributed to women because of early modern gender ideologies, and as such were certainly more likely to fit the witch profile. These ideologies root from a patriarchal society in addition to religious influence… we all know how in Garden of Eden Eve gave in to the Devil’s temptation and caused the ruin of mankind which is not an easy thing for women to live down and as such were viewed in the popular imagination as the weaker and more “corrupted” sex. However, men could commit exactly the same crime as women in terms of witchcraft and were not explicitly excluded from the criteria; just like women, they could take part in the Sabbath for example.

Key statistical evidence on condemned witches in various countries across the globe challenge the popular assumption that because women totalled an overall of seventy to seventy-five per cent of the accused, they were always the majority of victims in every society. However, in places such as Iceland where males made up ninety-two per cent of the condemned, in addition to Normandy and Estonia where the statistics were also male-dominated, and Burgundy with an equal balance, it becomes clear that ‘women as victims’ was not a constant phenomenon.

As previously mentioned most witch accusations stemmed from the crime of maleficium and followed a very typical format. This helps to identify why women were so susceptible in cases that started “from below”. The accuser would experience some type of misfortune; illness, death or the loss of livestock after a hostile encounter with another neighbour who was generally of lower socio-economic status. A combination of rumours and class hostilities would contribute to a whirlwind of suspicion in genuine belief that they had been the victim of supernatural revenge. The fact that women were themselves as likely to be witnesses alongside men the idea of female persecution must be omitted. Even though see the label of a witch as giving political power to women, and to accuse other women was to reinforce the notion of competitive authority and violence in a society that had sex-specific legal restrictions, to implement modern psychoanalysis onto the past is a very dangerous business and risks overcomplicated genuine popular beliefs and deep-rooted ideologies. What the prosecutions actually reflect is a very real belief in witchcraft and its crime, a challenge for us to understand today, rather than sex-specific occurrences.

If an attack on women themselves, the number of witch accusations would then surely be equivalent to the number of witch-trials, and even more to the number of guilty verdicts; yet the comparisons represent a sense of unwilling co-operation from the male elite who operated in secular courts. The case of Tituba in 1692 also demonstrates other contributing factors in the accusations; her ethnicity, cultural background and slave status increased the level of threat to the Salem community because of her physical differences and “strange” customs and traditions which would not be easily accepted, and so made accusations against her easier to emerge.

The contemporary socio-economic society in which the crime was produced tell us most about the nature of witchcraft.  Early modern woodcuts reflect the birth of the stereotypical witch as an old, unkempt woman usually with physical malformations. Although exaggerated, this does somewhat reflect the majority of women who were accused of witchcraft. Marginalized characters of society, particularly cunning folk, with a low socio-economic status, were likely to turn to charity following the end of the manorial system, which previously provided a great degree of labour work, and often resulted in dependence upon superiors. The denial of charity to a neighbour frequently led to feelings of guilt which could manifest into suspicion following misfortune; scapegoating is a common occurrence in human civilization, and enables us to understand why most women accused were older, widowed or marginal characters of society who had no male or financial support on which to depend. So surely, class, age, race, marital and socio-economic statuses all contributed to the witch-hunts and must not be neglected.

For various reasons it is easy to forget that men consisted of a reasonable proportion of the accused. An explanation for this is that the idea of the female witch carries greater symbolic weight than persecution of males. Some argue that men were effectively emasculated and subsequently feminised through witchcraft accusations, but this conflicts with the descriptions of accused males by their accusers, who describe their qualities with no reference to any weak or powerless traits. Although men were often accused alongside female relatives, individual cases of male convictions were not as rare as made out to be. Men could also be of low socio-economic status as well as a marginal character of society. The case of Nicholas Stockdale, accused by his male neighbours in early seventeenth-century England, also represents an alternate type of socio-economic hostility. In a competitive environment, accusations against men also had the perfect preconditions to initiate a genuine witch-panic. So not only was there focus on charity and the poor, but in the case of men feeling threatened or attacked by other men’s prosperity – certainly not a gender-based issue.

Although women appear to be the starring role of the early modern witch-trials, our focus should remain on witchcraft in light of popular belief and feelings at the time rather than the popular ideas we have now.

Postscript: In England, only one major witch-hunt broke out under the influence of Matthew Hopkins (Witch-Finder General, 1644-47) during the English Civil War. Approximately 300 women were said to have been executed and even more tortured. Despite its atrocity, it is important to remember that because of the Civil War, the legal system had effectively collapsed and paved the way for unfair trials.


1. Thomas, K., Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1991)

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

3. Karlsen, C., The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (London, 1987)

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