Witchcraft and Gender: The Fear of Demonic Powers or Women Hunt?
Witch hunting, which was notoriously known as a prevailing phenomenon of the Middle Ages, had made a huge number of people victims of Christians’ superstitious fear. Witch trials took the lives of nine million of Europeans, turning into one of the most serious and massive actions conducted by the Church. According to the estimations, 90% of these victims were female, which made many historians question the real nature of witch trials (Natrella 1). Women were especially believed to be easily brought under Satan’s control. Due to the predomination of patriarchy and regulative gender roles, women’s role in society was diminished. Many feminists claimed that witch hunting was by nature an action against females. It would be a rather drastic statement, even though gender roles and stereotypes still largely contributed to these hunts. This paper is going to explain that gender was a significant reason for making women the main targets of witch hunting but still not the primary one.
Both genders were prescribed to certain types of behavior. Still, men were allowed to show some feminine features in their souls, while women could not manifest any masculinity (Michelle). Any deviation from these roles was a ground for accusing them of being involved in witchcraft. One’s marital status mattered greatly as it signified the male and female power. Men were in charge of the entire family, and women had to be obedient and submissive. However, widows or those, who rejected marriage, were left without husband protection, and their independency was considered as a deviant and inappropriate action (Dumycz 16). Moreover, one’s social status was strongly connected to the reproductive function because of the bad demographic situation. Since old women were no longer fertile, their sexuality and motherhood potential was exhausted, so they were also targets of witch hunting (Nutrella 11). This was also a threat to their status in society because motherhood was believed to be the purpose of women’s lives. In fact, anti-mother image was one of the main reasons for chasing women who rejected motherhood or had failed to bear a child, as they did not fulfill their social role. Witches were the embodiment of women’s fear to lose the child because they could even kill babies to use their bodies as ingredient for spells (Nutrella 12). In addition, women were responsible for keeping the household and raising children under the male rule. Still, witches were able to deceive this notion of a perfect housewife by attacking household goods of their neighbors or, for example, their animals that people raised for milk, wool, or meat. Women, owning land or managing their household independently, deviated from the established patriarchal order (De Blécourt 8). Due to all these reasons, women disrupting the prescribed gender roles were considered witches.
Furthermore, it is hard to deny that male superiority diminished women’s cultural and social importance because of the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy. Paganism claimed the predominant role of women through the images of goddesses and other powerful female characters in the myths. However, orthodox views had changed the notion of female power by demonizing it (Tadeu 2). Female nature seemed malicious, mysterious, and even evil for men, thus creating some suspicion about their hidden powers. Witchcraft was regarded as a specifically female sort of power in cultural and social spheres (Dumycz 4). This also appeals to the concept of binary oppositions that naturally derive from each other. If the male gender was viewed positively due to their power and stability, females had to be their “negative counterparts” (Natrella 7). Female nature was believed to be vulnerable and easily taken under a demonic control. This can be traced from the Bible, particularly from the story of Eve and the Satan seducing her with the forbidden fruit. Men were aimed at keeping female inferior status, so they restrained strong women, hence affirming their patriarchal superiority (Michelle). Even though men’s power strengthened preferably on the local level, the fact of misbalance could be denied. This also became apparent during witch trials since many women were illiterate and men could change the content of their confessions. By their beliefs, pain could “loosen the tongue” (Natrella 13), so they used different ways of torturing, often making women confess to the actions they had not performed. In general, all the male superstitions and preconceptions about the female nature influenced the results of the trials quite significantly.
Apart from social aspects, religion also had a substantial impact on the accusations. The Church defined witchcraft as a forbidden knowledge because witches tended to create their alternative ways of treatment or otherwise manipulated nature (Tadeu 5). These actions were mostly directed at bringing good, for example, healing people and animals or giving help with domestic matters. However, the Church met any kind of this knowledge as a threat to their beliefs, as magic was a deviation from it. Combined with some reasons of witch hunts stated above, divination and other manipulation with supernatural forces were a solid ground to accuse a woman of being a witch (Tadeu 5).
More to say, the idea of male supremacy is connected to the religious notion of a witch. De Blécourt adduces a concept about the Devil being a symbol of male superiority over women (14). Therefore, it would make sense that it was easier for demons to access women’s souls because their bodies were weaker than men’s were (Michelle). Tadeu analyzed the sources claiming that women were “the Devil’s preferred target” (4), since greediness, vain, and compliance in their souls was easier to exploit. Christian beliefs often implied that women could be deceived and succumbed with less effort than men were. This leads to the sexual aspect of worshipping Satan, as observed in Mahony’s work as women were thought to be sexually insatiable, making them especially vulnerable to Satan’s temptation (3). Mahony cites “Malleus Maleficarum”, where the connection between this weakness and witch powers was affirmed. This idea appeals to the religious views on sex rather as a necessity and a marital process. Consequently, sexual relationships with demons were marked as a heavy sin and an act of unholy union. More to say, men believed that witches were also a threat to their sexual life, as they had an ability to steal male reproductive organs or make them vanish (Beusman). This ridiculous concept was also stated by “Malleus Maleficarum” that had put forward many misogynistic statements, especially concerning female sex desire. That is why women were also chased because of the distorted notion of their sexuality.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to claim that only gender aspect determined the nature of witch-chasing, but it was still quite influential. According to De Blécourt, witch hunts targeted women because they were witches in the first place (4). Gender stereotypes and roles had contributed greatly to the character of these hunts, but it was rather sex-related than gender-specific. Undoubtedly, men were also often accused of using magic, even though their percentage was not that impressive – only 20 to 25% of witches were male in early modern England (Dumycz 9). Moreover, women also participated in witch trials, as they were not only afraid of magic but also of the deviant image of a witch. Some of them wanted to prove their loyalty in front on male accusers to prevent themselves from being suspected (De Blécourt 8). At the same time, as young girls were often under control of old women while being told how to behave and manage their life, they might have delated their possible involvement in witchcraft that resembled an ordinary quarrel evolved into a revenge (Colburn 24). Therefore, despite the presence of the influence of gender stereotypes on witch trials, they did not necessarily define the process.
The contemporary view on witch hunting reflects its benighted nature. Nowadays, there are countries where witchcraft is regarded as impressive and mysterious power, aimed at helping people. In Romania, witchcraft is a well-known and widespread phenomenon, as it is supposed that one to ten Romanians have ever visited a witch or they do it regularly (Broadly). Furthermore, the creators of the TV series called Salem have shown the hysteria over the famous witch trials in Salem, where the word “witch” was used as a label for all people acting abnormally (Braga and Simon).
Summing up, witch hunting was based on gender-relating criteria that derived from various aspects. Thus, superstitions and the widespread fear of witchcraft in society of that time combined with gender roles and stereotypes, and that was the main reason why women were chased more than men were. The dominating role of patriarchy put deviant women under the threat of being accused of witchcraft. All Christian beliefs were strongly connected to the female mysterious nature as well as to the concept of the first sin. The Church had defined a submissive role of women, marking any deviance as a threat to society. Moreover, the secret knowledge of dealing with supernatural was also met with strong disapproval. Even though all this evidence was sex-related, witch hunting was not specified only by gender. Still, it was a sufficient factor during witch trials and indictments, creating a gap between female and male percentage of victims.