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.
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.
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.