Sunday, 15 January 2012

Witch Persecutions, Women, and Social Change: Germany 1560-1660

PART FOUR, Last in a series

Read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three

The late 16th and early 17th century was an era of radical social, economic, and religious change. As women had much to lose, they had reason to rebel. And they remained a threat to the new social order. Art of this period often depicted women as insubordinate and wanton: beating their husbands, swilling wine, and lustfully dragging men to bed (Merchant 133). Reformer John Knox was of the opinion that if a woman was presumptuous enough to rise above a man, she must be "repressed and bridled" (Ibid 145). This was one of the most bitterly misogynistic eras ever known.

Political and religious leaders seemed terrified by their fear that witches had organized themselves into a secret female society, as described in Kramer and Sprenger's Malleus Maleficarum and King James's Daemonologie, among other works.

During witch trials, the witchfinders obsessively tried to force the accused to describe what went on at the alleged sabbat and to name the other women she had seen there. Georg Pictorious, a physician and scholar at the University of Freiburg in Germany, believed that witch persecutions were the only way humanity might be saved from these evil women. He maintained that if all the witches "are not burned, the number of these furies swells up in such an immense sea that no one could live safe from their spells and charms" (Midelfort 59).

In the 1970s and 1980s, some feminist historians such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English drew on Margaret Murray's study from the 1920s, The Witch Cult of Western Europe, to try to prove that there was indeed a secret society of women who practiced magic as part of an organized pagan cult. (See Ehrenreich and English's Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers)

While these speculations are very interesting, scant evidence exists to support this theory and most of it is based on torture-induced confessions.

It is, however, safe to state that people during the period of the witch persecutions sincerely believed and feared the existence of a secret female society.

Witches were believed to be a threat to both Christianity and to the middle class as it struggled to gain social authority (Hoher 46). The anti-puritan, plebian culture of lower class women stood in the way of the new values of the emerging bourgeois society. The stereotype of an organization of women out of control of society, women who cursed their enemies and mocked Christianity with their bizarre orgies, is perhaps indicative of an actual grain of reality behind the public fears. Hoher suggests that the rapidly changing society in Early Modern times, the role of the individual in a world that seemed increasingly confusing and uncertain, led to a collective insecurity--a fear that society would regress into old feudal traditions and chaos.

This fear was taken out brutally on those who would not integrate into the new order. The continuing disorder of the rural plebian culture and the refusal to conform to the new system took shape in the paranoia of the witch craze. Women, who according to Thomas Aquinas, Kramer, Sprenger, and others, were by nature weak-willed and sensual, were feared as the chief representatives of this rebellion--the chaos of uncontrolled nature and sexuality that must be subdued. Thus, it was these disorderly, uncontrollable women who were the most feared and hated. For the new order to survive, these women must be brutally exterminated (Ibid 42).

In examining the chronology of the witch trials, we see that the first trials targeted mainly poor, elderly women. As time went on and rich people and men started being accused, the witch hunts were considered to have got out of hand and they lost popular support. By this time, however, the new capitalism and religious order had been firmly established and the persecutions were no longer necessary.

This chronology reveals clearly what interests were at stake. The earliest trials of the 1560s focused almost exclusively on poor, older women. In the early trials of Wiesensteig and Rothenburg, 95 to 100% of the accused fit this stereotype. As the witch hunts progressed and the accused were tortured to name other witches, more and more men and upper class people were implicated (Midelfort 179). In Ellwangen in 1615, "accusations and convictions of highly placed and undoubtedly honorable men must have shaken people into recognizing that something had gone wrong" (Ibid 105).

Slowly the caricature of the witch as an old peasant woman was breaking down, "leaving society with no protective stereotypes, no sure way of telling who might be, and who could not be, a witch" (Ibid 182). Witch hunting so thoroughly shook up normal bonds of social trust that the most respected members of the community were no longer immune. The trials began to draw more and more criticism. Finally in 1672, the council of Altdorf in Schwaben declared all accusations of witchcraft illegal (Ibid 82). By this time, the persecutions had accomplished their original goal--the subjugation of rebellious lower class women and firmly entrenching those who survived the witch hunts into a subordinate domestic role. By the late 17th century we have no more illustrations of threatening, insubordinate women asserting their power.

Why this emphasis on poor and elderly women and why the last half of the 16th and first half of the 17th century? This period was crucial for the development of modern capitalism, a stricter moral code, and the placement of women into a narrowly defined domestic sphere, with utter economic dependence on their father or husband. The women who would most likely resist, at least in the early years of the persecutions, would be the older peasant women who remembered and clung to the old ways of plebian agrarian culture, the domestic economy, and the social and economic power they enjoyed. Such women would not easily relinquish their economic independence, their right of subsistence, or their personal freedom. The young woman beating her husband with her distaff, the symbol of her economic independence, in the early 16th century, became the old woman accused of witchcraft fifty years on. Note that in the 16th century illustrations I have included here, the old witch is depicted not with a broomstick but with her distaff.

Post-menopausal women were unburdened by pregnancies and childbirth. This gave them more freedom, time, and energy to stir up trouble. The accused witches' descriptions of the sabbat sound like the witch hunters' perversion of the joys of plebian peasant culture--drinking, dancing, and uninhibited celebration and sexuality. The earthly pleasures of the older generation became the evil heresy of the next. Since the descriptions of the alleged sabbat were drawn by torture, we must be cautious when drawing conclusions, but it makes a certain amount of sense in this historical context.

The women who had been strong, economically independent, and pleasure-loving members of the previous generation would not throw away their old privileges easily, so they became the witches of the new generation, a threat to society that had to be violently subdued for the new order to become established.


Hoher, Friederike, "Hexe, Maria und Hausmutter--zur Geschichte der Weiblichket im Spaetmittelalter," Frauen in der Geschichte (Vol III) Kuhn/Rusen, (eds.). Padagogischer Verlag Schwann-Bagel, Dusseldorf, 1983.

Merchant, Carolyn, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1979.

Midelfort, Erik, H.C., Witch Hunting in Southwest Germany 1562-1684: The Social Foundations Stanford, 1972.

Ruether, Rosemary, New Woman/New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation, Seabury Press, New York, 1975.

Note: This essay was my Senior Paper I wrote in 1988 while an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. Some of the sources may seem dated, but I think most of the history still stands up.

In recent years some serious scholars have revisited Margaret Murray's contention that there was indeed a secret female society in Europe during the period of the witch persecutions. See Carlo Ginzburg's book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath and Emma Wilby's brilliant new book The Visions of Isobel Gowdie.

This website provides an interesting and well-researched view into medieval folk magic and possible pagan survivals in evidence before the beginning of the witch persecutions.