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Reviewed by:
  • Male Witches in Early Modern Europe
  • David O. McNeil
Lara Apps and Andrew Colin Gow. Male Witches in Early Modern Europe. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003. x + 190 pp. index. append. illus. tbls. bibl. £12.99. ISBN: 0–7190–5709–4.

Most early modern Europeans understood not only that witches existed but also that witches might be male or female. Today's common view that witches were primarily or exclusively women is incorrect; Apps and Gow show not only that males could be witches in their own right, but in some places they were the majority of those accused (as shown by a useful table in this book). [End Page 673]

Thomas Laqueur and others have studied how sex has been constructed binarily. Genders also exist in relation to each other. This book attempts to show how gender functioned in early modern witchcraft, which was often associated with perceived female attributes: intellectual and moral fragility, magical practices, strong odors, and (in the familiar "elaborated concept" of the demonologists) subordination to demons. What then of female witches' "conceptual relationship" to their male counterparts?

Male witches have been systematically excluded from consideration by moderns impressed with early modern patriarchal oppression and misogyny. By bringing this to our attention, Apps and Gow challenge rigid "binary" interpretations in contemporary scholarship. Gender boundaries are actually flexible or porous, and the authors argue that witches of the male sex were nonetheless "feminized" in gender.

While restoring male witches to their place in history, this book would also reveal the "historiographical structures and politics" that have hitherto rendered these males invisible. The authors are aware that many feminist historians have a "heavy investment in representing witches as essentially female" and prefer Joan Scott's approach of understanding "how history operates as a site of production of gender knowledge" (5).

Stalking the pages of this book are two major texts: the Malleus Malificarum (1487), where, along with its famous misogynist propositions, male witches are also found; and Stuart Clark's Thinking With Demons (1999), where male witchcraft is held to be "inconceivable" to our misogynist forebears. Apps and Gow show that "canonical" demonological literature reveals more of a discourse about witches of both sexes than a discourse about women, so Clark and others are simply wrong about witchcraft being sex-specific.

The authors argue that modern association of witchcraft exclusively with the female sex is erroneous and simplistic because witchcraft theory (demonology) and practice (witch-accusations) were applied to men as well as women. Male witches were "implicitly feminised" (119), so witchcraft, while not sex-specific, was gender-specific! It is even claimed that under torture both females and males exhibit "soteriological anxiety"(155). There is an earnest but quite unnecessary counting of word-genders, presented as further evidence that early moderns understood that males could be witches. There are also annoying digressions, e.g. about fifth century BCE curse tablets.

This book would have been a more useful survey without such odd theses, and the authors may have overreached in their intention of combating "hegemonic male academic discourse" (17). Digressions about torture (then and now) and theories about psychosexuality contribute little to the overall argument, although they do help bring some of the secondary literature into focus. Apps and Gow also insist on the "agency" of witches, contesting "the stereotype of female passivity in the face of male oppression" (65).

Just because some modern historians find male witches anomalous, an explanation of why premoderns did not is not necessarily called for, but the authors [End Page 674] nevertheless struggle at length with this particular straw man. The book's "not entirely implausible" (130) arguments are at least suggestive. This book is valuable for presenting a variety of perspectives on witchcraft historiography. There is also a useful survey of some sociological, philosophical, and psychological approaches to witchcraft.

This reader is reminded that "witchcraft," rather than being a single phenomenon, was highly variable; perhaps we ought to speak of "witchcrafts" and avoid "reification" of the term. Ultimately the argument that male witches were feminized is self-defeating: if "witchcraft" is so varied a phenomenon, "male witchcraft" may not prove to be a particularly useful...


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pp. 673-675
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Archived 2009
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