This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Anamika Singh. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Witch Hunt In The 16th Century: A History Of Misogyny

More from Anamika Singh

Traditionally, witch hunts have been considered as a combination of worldview and impending tensions revolving around changing social structures, which allowed such a religiously sanctioned holocaust.

Two alleged witches being tried in Salem, Massachusetts as part of the infamous witch hunts. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Witches and witch hunts have been interesting subjects of discussion amongst historians and lately, have been gathering quite an attention. To understand the history of witchcraft one needs to analyse its interwoven relation to gender politics. Majority of the victims of witch trials or persecutions were women; mostly old, unmarried or the midwives. The terms ‘witch’ and ‘wizard’ were quite discriminatory on the basis of gender despite the fact that both of them dealt with magic! Why were women supposed to bear the brunt of a negative association with witchcraft as compared to men being referred to a positive association as wizards? Does this point to an underlying misogynistic history of witchcraft?

A closer look at the image of Mother Nature would point towards a feminine figure bustling with wildlife and earthy vibes. Carolyn Merchant in her book “The Death of Nature“, argued that women were referred to as both ‘virgins’ and ‘witches’, but the idea of a witch was identified as the symbol of  violence against nature, one who was to be blamed to raise storms, one who caused illness, destroyed crops, obstructed generations and killed infants. She argued that true civilizations could be achieved only through the full exercise of power and control in both the physical and mental realms, meaning—controlling the women, especially those who were considered as witches.

Merchant also pointed out that the upheavals of the reformation and the witch trials of the 16th century, were wild and chaotic in nature; women needed to be subdued and kept in their place. In support of this viewpoint, we can argue that in the 16th century a negative religious view regarding women developed frequently. Precisely at times, when men were losing the economic advantages of having a subordinate female class to serve their needs (Keith A. Roberts).

Keith A. Roberts, stressing on the Marxian conflict theory, argued that this theory could be useful in understanding religious expressions of sexism. When social tension and conflict are at its peak, especially in the economic arena, the conflict may find expression in the religious realm. He argued that one anthropologist had also pointed out that belief in witch (evil) occurs when women are attaining economic independence from males, pointing towards the issue of mass women persecutions, in the name of a witch hunt. Churches tried their best to entice women to return to the “traditional role” and in order to achieve this, Roberts argues that two forces were used:

1. Increase in veneration of the Virgin Mary who is presented as a model of traditional female virtue, and

2. By fear of being accused of witchcraft which caused women to think twice before they deviated from norms of proper female behaviour.

The fomenters of ‘witch craze’ were misogynists, and a classic example of their misogyny is found in the famous handbook for witch hunters “The Malleus Maleficarum” (The Witches Hammer) by Jacob Sprenger and Henry Kramer. The authors—both Dominican priests—claimed that the term ‘female’ (which originated from the word ‘Femina’) meant “lacking in faith”. According to them, All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable”. Women were viewed as fickle, feeble in intelligence, spiritually weak and innately carnal, which made them vulnerable to the devil. Witchcraft, as Merchant argues, was a method of revenge and control that could be used by persons who were both physically and socially powerless in the world.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Merchant makes a reference to Johann Weyer’s book, which states that, “witches are women who because of their sex are in constant and dubious faith and because of their age incapable of clear thought. They are especially vulnerable to the devil’s wiles”. Weyer was of the view that women are melancholic and unable to control their emotions. Other individuals who were equally inhumane towards women were, Jean Bodin (Jurist) and Thomas Erastus (Professor of Medicine at Heidelberg).

Bodin argued that woman’s humour was contrary to the bile or melancholic juice from which true adult melancholy proceeded. Erastus accepted the concept of melancholic imagination, but agreed that not all witches were melancholic. They were not passive instruments used by the Devil, but active instigators of evil magic. Reginald Scot in his work “Discoverie of Witchcraft” (1584), defended witches and argued that melancholy that affected witches attacked their brains and depraved their senses and judgment.

Roberts points out that, when powerful and prestigious members of the community were accused as witches they used their influence to stop it. The social conflict between men and women over jobs and family roles was central to the witch hunt holocaust sanctioned by the Christian Church. As can be seen from the work of Merchant, not only women, but people belonging to the poor section of society were also blamed for witchcraft, but the suffering lot were primarily women.

Featured image source: Wikimedia Commons
You must be to comment.

More from Anamika Singh

Similar Posts

By Nitin Meena

By Nandana Krishna

By Bleed Eco

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below