publisher colophon
  • Witchcraft Studies from the Perspective of Women’s and Gender HistoryA Report on Recent Research

This essay examines how the rise of women's studies and women's history in academia since the 1970s has influenced research on witchcraft and witch hunting. It also examines how more recent developments in gender history, including serious attention to the historical construction of masculinity, has affected scholarship on witchcraft.


Witchcraft, Women's history, Gender history, Femininity, Masculinity, Demonology, Feminism, Patriarchy, Sexuality

Persecution of Witches as Persecution of Women? Feminist Roots

Without doubt gender had a special significance in the witch persecutions of the early modern period. This led many authors in the heyday of the newly established feminist movement some decades ago to the assumption that persecution of witches was a deliberate undertaking on the part of the “patriarchy” and its male agents (clerics, physicians, inquisitors, and so forth) to persecute women and/or to destroy those among them who possessed secret knowledge (for example, about contraception or abortion) and thereby allowed all women a certain autonomy in intimate sexual matters.1

Current feminist studies show, however, that there was no “holocaust against women” to speak of, but that many of these earlier interpretations can nevertheless be verified at the microhistorical level. Those suspected of being witches were often “strong” women with knowledge of magic who struggled in times of crisis for their physical and social well-being. Thus they did not fit (any longer) the conception of an early modern patriarchal society that ultimately gave impetus to the thesis of the domestication of women in early modern society.2 This thesis, however, requires [End Page 90] greater specificity and precision, to which feminist and gender research has dedicated itself with considerable success in the last decade. Thus research has set aside the prejudice arising from Romanticism that women convicted of being witches were mostly “wise women,” that is, healers and midwives. On the contrary, because of their importance in assisting with births in the village, these women were shielded from accusations of witchcraft.3 Because of their knowledge, in fact, “wise women” and midwives were sometimes consulted by witch-hunters to help uncover “real” witches.4

The concentration on midwives and women healers as allegedly prominent victims of witch trials went hand in hand with a marked change in perspective in witchcraft research as well as research on women in general. Trial records, which were long viewed as expressions and instruments of authorities’ desires to persecute and discipline, attained new meaning as records of folk-magic and/or common familial or neighborly conflict, particularly from a female perspective. These sources allow conclusions to be drawn about collective ideas and practices, but above all about fears and emotions. Recently, some scholars have again turned strongly toward the suggestions and explanatory models provided by psychoanalysis. Already in 1986 Eva Heinemann sought to trace persecution of witches back to Freudian oral deprivation and intrusive, violent practices in raising children. These supposedly resulted in a split perception of reality in early modern people, and a split perception of mothers: the Virgin Mary versus the witch. This, in conjunction with social tensions brought about by the process of modernization, explains why women in particular were hunted and executed as witches.5 This study leads, however, [End Page 91] to the pathologization of an entire epoch, which can hardly be supported by the historical sources.

Lyndal Roper argues along these lines but with closer reference to the early modern trial records. According to her observations, the female body, and particularly the motherly body as the central metaphor of early modern physicality, becomes the focus of interest. It also receives particular attention within the framework of witchcraft fantasies—albeit in an ambivalent fashion.6 This is in contrast to previous interpretations of witchcraft as a strongly sexualized crime in which (normally repressed) sexual fantasies were expressed.7 Possibly such impressions have to do with fears and interpretations oriented and organized in gender-specific ways. In any case, the interpretation that has hitherto dominated research, of the crime of witchcraft and image of witches as sexual fantasies, must be even more strongly questioned, insofar as here group-specific and gender-specific wishes, fears, and suppressed feelings could be developed or dismissed.8

The aforementioned connection between the idealization and demonization of female roles and female fertility also brings the religiohistorical dimension of belief in the persecution of witches back into the foreground.9 The phenomenon of witch trials developed first in close connection [End Page 92] to late medieval persecution of heretics. However, while the study of female religious dissidence in the Middle Ages is counted among the classic themes of historical research, the same does not hold true for research on witchcraft. The scholar of mysticism Peter Dinzelbacher provided a pioneering study in this area some years ago, but this has found little resonance in subsequent witchcraft research, although he was able to identify many parallels between the perceptions and experiences of saintly women and witches.10 As convincing as many of his observations are, his research remains problematic in that he does not identify clearly enough the stark differences between these phenomena. At the center of his study are female mystics—religiously motivated and gifted women who never conceived of themselves as witches or sorceresses, but as instruments of God. The situation of witches was for the most part quite different. The great majority of accused women denied until their death, or until their release from custody, any witch-like activities. They also generally had no special religious ambitions, in contrast to the mystics and “living saints” of the late Middle Ages.

The commonalities or at least similarities between witches and saints, which Dinzelbacher has thoroughly noted, have been fundamentally established in medieval and early modern scholarly discourse. Comparable reflections on female religiosity and religious deviance, and about the closer proximity of women to God, the devil, and demons, arose quite early, already, for example, in the Malleus maleficarum.11 A systematic examination of demonological discourse, with an eye toward the development [End Page 93] of confessional differences and similarities, but also with an eye toward broader cultural and religious connections, would be useful, especially as it seems that the Western connection between the devil and femininity is unique among the religious cultures of the world, and because it gave evil a notably “human” and also sexualized form.12 Without doubt, comparative cultural research into witchcraft and witch trials from the perspective of women’s and gender studies is just beginning.13

The current most thorough study of early modern demonology is that of Stuart Clark. He asserts that the question why women were particularly regarded as witches received relatively little attention in demonological literature. According to him, practically no conclusions can be drawn from demonological debates to explain the high numbers of women among the victims of witch trials.14 In this, however, his interpretation is too undifferentiated and unhistorical, because he breaks all of his texts’ contextual ties and makes the force of rhetoric absolute. Clark’s chosen formulation of “literary game-playing” to describe the misogynist demonological representation of gender obscures the close relationship between demonological texts and institutions. Demonological texts (and their authors) had a very close connection to the agents of persecution and politics.15 The “community of discourse” among demonologists was also a “community of action”—all the more so because religious convictions, but also religious differences and dissidence, contributed decisively to the [End Page 94] construction of early modern political systems and their institutions.16 In this respect a better contextualized analysis of demonological discourse is an urgent desideratum, not least because clear traces of misogyny can still be detected in enlightened writings critical of the persecution of witches and in modern scientific discourse, whereby the “gender bias” of the witch-hunters lingered on well into the modern period.17

In this context witchcraft research in the future should concentrate more on early modern mass media and its conditions and functions, and set the images of witches found there—in words, writings, and visual images alike—more clearly into the relationship between the persecution of witches and popular conceptions of magic and witchcraft.18 Based on research findings thus far, it can be assumed that here too the figure of the witch (for many artists, and in some media completely) was female, although there were certainly clear regional differences, and differences over time, in the media representation of witchcraft and witch persecution.19

From Women’s History to Gender History of the Persecution of Witches

Feminist research, which initiated and contributed decisively to many of the research approaches mentioned above, became the subject of tremendous internal criticism in the 1990s, and experienced a decisive reorientation [End Page 95] thanks to the advent of gender history. Women as a distinct social group were no longer the central subject matter of gender-historical research. Instead, gender more broadly conceived became a fundamental category of historical study. This certainly affected research into witchcraft beliefs, magic, and witch trials in the early modern period. The central question of modern witchcraft research is, therefore, no longer “Was the persecution of witches a (deliberate) persecution of women?” but rather “On the basis of what conditions and dynamics did persecution of witches become primarily a persecution of women, while still also including the persecution of men?”20

This reorientation requires that we look much more closely at the gender dynamics surrounding the crime of witchcraft and the witch trials, and thereby assign a clearer role to gender difference than has sometimes been the case in the past. Eva Labouvie showed, for instance, how differently the magical practices of men and women were evaluated, so that male magic was to some extent seen as less devilish than female magic, and also that there were clear, gender-specific “competencies.”21 These should not be seen, however, as entirely exclusive. The witch, or perhaps the witch’s cat, was, for example, the female counterpart to the werewolf, which connoted “male” in many parts of Europe. In many regions, however, there were also female werewolves. Similar examples could be drawn for love magic, divination, “black magic,” or magical treasure hunting.22

Comparative consideration of witch trials offers interesting findings. Here we can see how comparatively important and “weighty” the testimony of women and men was in court, which normally produced a clear disadvantage for female defendants,23 and this aside from the fact that the early modern judicial system was clearly dominated by men and in many cases also signified maleness.24 Generally women were present in court as defendants or in the [End Page 96] best case as witnesses, but never as judges, magistrates, or jurors.25 Ultimately, witch trials functioned, as Uschi Bender-Wittman writes, “as a filter that favored men and disadvantaged women.”26 Paradoxically, however, in witch trials female defendants gained, through the fatal mechanism of their own testimony, a disproportionately high level of credibility and importance, albeit at the price of a confession of witchcraft and consequent execution.27

In light of new considerations of this sort, it is ultimately clearer why many men also fell victim to witchcraft persecution. Indeed, while men comprised “only” 20 percent of all victims of the European witch craze, depending on time and place this figure fluctuated between 5 and 55 percent.28 Clearly in the eyes of the witch hunters men were a less well-defined “category of offender” than women, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say masculinity played a far less clearly defined role in the persecution of witches than did femininity. Only recently has this problem been taken seriously in (gender) research. The first major study of “witch-masters,” by Rolf Schulte, appeared in 1999.29 More intensive investigation into the phenomenon in recent years has led to interesting discoveries, which on one hand round out the preexisting picture of “gender-specific” magical practices and perceptions of magic, but on the other also help revise them in part (see above).

A further interesting observation relates to the connection between witchcraft and female gender found in demonological treatises. Here both Schulte and Andrew Apps and Lara Gow show that this relationship in no way fundamentally argues against the persecution of men as witches. In fact, men suspected of being witches were presented in demonological texts as people who, “like women,” presented little resistance to the devil, were driven by physical desires, were weak in will and understanding, and so were “effeminate,” although not actually female. [End Page 97]

Who were these “weak” men? Studies show that men most often became victims of persecution when they belonged to fringe social groups or occupations that dealt with, among other things, healing practices and healing magic: shepherds, ox drivers, or horse grooms, but also animal skinners and gravediggers were more easily believed to have contact with the devil than other people.30 Criminals, typically petty ones, or members of the Jewish minority could also find themselves among the men tried as witches.31

Rolf Schulte calls attention to yet another important aspect: the temporal and confessional dimension of persecution of men. There were higher percentages of men in the mass trials of the seventeenth century than in earlier individual trials, and higher percentages in the Catholic territories of the German empire than in Protestant ones. According to Schulte, this can primarily be explained by the fact that in Catholic regions the concept of the witches’ sabbath, which was thought of as superceding gender, was more widely disseminated and held than in Protestant territories.32

All the aforementioned studies bring into clearer light in scholarly discourse at least one dimension of the many-layered relationship between witch persecution and masculinity for the first time. A broader and more intensive examination of the connection between masculinity, magic, and the judicial system is still lacking, beginning with the role of judges and witch hunters, including the role of witnesses, and also dealing with demonologists and their discourses, which were just as “gendered” as the “crimes” of the (alleged) witch-masters, and even the devil himself.33

The connection between masculinity and the promotion, but also the obstruction, of witch persecution and witch beliefs remains open, especially in terms of the suspicion often expressed in demonology about “feminization” and “emasculation,” of which opponents of persecution were generally accused.34 The meaning of witch persecutions and accusations is also evident in [End Page 98] political disputes and power struggles, led in most cases by socially prominent men or (male) groups.35 “Witch persecutions from below,” which we find in many outlying regions of the German empire, were always carried out by groups of men, often under the active leadership of a man who was a “witch expert.” This was certainly an expression of a “masculine” understanding of order, politics, and leadership.36 The outspokenly aggressive and “virile” self-image of successful witch hunters would be another stone in this mosaic tableau, which still, however, almost completely lacks corresponding study oriented toward men’s history. [End Page 99]

Claudia Opitz-Belakhal
University of Basel


1. For an account and critique of this research, see Elspeth Whitney, “The Witch ‘She’/The Historian ‘He’: Gender and the Historiography of the European Witch-Hunts,” Journal of Women’s History 7 (1995): 77–101.

2. Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York, 1987); Ingrid Ahrendt-Schulte, Zauberinnen in der Stadt Horn (1554–1603): Magische Kultur und Hexenverfolgung in der Frühen Neuzeit (Frankfurt am Main, 1997); idem, Weise Frauen—böse Weiber: Die Geschichte der Hexen in der Frühen Neuzeit (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1994).

3. Eva Labouvie, Beistand in Kindsnöten, Hebammen und weibliche Kultur auf dem Land (1550–1910) (Frankfurt am Main, 1999), 89; see also David Harley, “Historians as Demonologists: The Myth of the Midwife-Witch,” Social History of Medicine 3 (1990): 1–26; and Walter Rummel, “‘Weise’ Frauen und ‘weise’ Männer im Kampf gegen Hexerei: Die Widerlegung einer modernen Fabel,” in Europäische Sozialgeschichte: Festschrift für Wolfgang Schieder, ed. Christoph Dipper et al. (Berlin, 2000), 353–76.

4. See Eva Labouvie, Zauberei und Hexenwerk: Ländlicher Hexenglaube in der frühen Neuzeit (Frankfurt am Main, 1991), esp. 179–82. On the contrary regarding the precarious situation of healers in the early modern period, see Annemarie Kinzelbach, “Konstruktion und konkretes Handeln: Heilkundige Frauen im oberdeutschen Raum 1450–1700,” Historische Anthropologie: Kultur-Gesellschaft-Alltag 7 (1999): 165–90.

5. Evelyn Heinemann, Hexen und Hexenangst: Eine psychoanalytische Studie des Hexenwahns der frühen Neuzeit, rev. ed. (Göttingen, 1998).

6. Lyndal Roper, Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe (London and New York, 1994), 199–225, here 217–18; see also idem, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (New Haven, Conn., 2004). Deborah Willis discovered a similar connection between motherhood and images of witches—to her surprise, as she wrote—in the records of English witch trials. See Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithaca, N.Y., 1995).

7. On this, see Helmut Brackert, “Zur Sexualisierung des Hexenmuster im 16. Jahrhundert: Eine zivilisationstheoretische Studie,” in Ordnung und Lust: Bilder von Liebe, Ehe und Sexualität in Spätmittelalter und früher Neuzeit, ed. Hans-Jürgen Bachorski (Trier, 1991), 337–58; also Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and the Crisis of Belief (Chicago, 2002).

8. This is certainly connected to the gender-specific differentiating concepts of sexual activities and fantasies, as Lyndal Roper, Ulrike Gleixner, and most recently Jonathan B. Durrant have worked out from early modern (witch) trial records. See Roper, “Will and Honor: Sex, Words and Power in Augsburg Criminal Records,” in her Oedipus and the Devil, 53–78; Gleixner, “Das Mensch” und “der Kerl”: Die Konstruktion von Geschlecht in Unzuchtsverfahren der frühen Neuzeit (1700–1760) (Frankfurt am Main, 1994); Jonathan B. Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society in Early Modern Germany (Leiden, 2007).

9. The connection between Reformation, moral politics, and persecution of witches has been established as a theme, but more deeply probing studies along these lines are still lacking. See, e.g., Joseph Klaits, Servants of Satan: The Age of Witch Hunts (Bloomington, Ind., 1985); for discussion of research, see also Whitney, “The Witch ‘She,’” esp. 91–93, and literature cited there.

10. Peter Dinzelbacher, Heilige oder Hexen? Schicksale auffälliger Frauen in Mittelalter und Frühneuzeit (Zurich, 1995); a similar interest is pursued in Marie A. Conn, Noble Daughters: Unheralded Women in Western Christianity, 13th to 18th Century (Westport, Conn., 2000), which followed a stronger chronological instead of structuralist logic, examining female religious dissidence in western Christianity (especially Catholicism) from the Belgian beguines, to female Anabaptists and witches, and finally to the “dissident” nuns of Port Royal.

11. See studies by Patrick Snyder, Représentations de la femme et chasse aux sorcières XIIIe–XVe siècles (Quebec, 2000); Sophie Houdard, Les sciences du Diable: Cinq discours sur la sorcellerie (Paris, 1992); and Sigrid Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews: The Construction of the Witch in Early Modern Germany (Amherst, Mass., 1995). On the ambivalent attitude of the authors of the Malleus, see now also Tamar Herzig, “Witches, Saints and Heretics: Heinrich Kramer’s Ties with Italian Women Mystics,” Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft 1 (2006): 24–55.

12. See Claudia Opitz, “Die Frauen und der Teufel in der okzidentalen Kultur der frühen Neuzeit (1500–1800),” in Weiblicher Blick—Männerglaube / Religion d’hommes—regards de femmes: Beiträge zur Gender Perspektive in den Religionen, ed. Nadine Weibel (Münster, 2008), 55–69.

13. In addition to Gerhild Scholz Williams, Defining Dominion: The Discourses of Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern France and Germany (Ann Arbor, Mich.: 1995), see also, for example, Iris Gareis, “Liebesmagie und Schadenzauber: Zur Rezeption des europäischen Hexenbildes in Hispano-Amerika (16.–18. Jahrhundert),” in Geschlecht, Magie und Hexenverfolgung, ed. Ingrid Ahrendt-Schulte et al. (Bielefeld, 2002), 209–26; or Ruth Behar, “Sexual Witchcraft, Colonialism, and Women’s Powers: Views from the Mexican Inquisition,” in Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America, ed. Asunción Lavrin (Lincoln, Neb., 1989), 178–206. For Asia, see Pompa Banerjee, Burning Women: Widows, Witches, and Early Modern European Travelers in India (Basingstoke, U.K., 2003).

14. Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 1997), 133.

15. This is apparent in the numerous demonological treatises written by judges or witch hunters, which were used in the inquisitorial process as reference material for the conduct of witch trials and witch persecutions.

16. On the connections between misogyny, demonology, and witch trials, see Claudia Optiz-Belakhal, “Warum so viele Frauen? Zur Geschlechtergeschichte der frühneuzeitlichen Hexenverfolgung,” in Frauen in Europa: Mythos und Realität, ed. Bea Lundt et al. (Münster, 2005), 260–75; idem, Das Universum des Jean Bodin: Staatsbildung, Macht und Geschlecht im 16. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt am Main, 2006), chap. 5; similarly, although with more focus on lordship in general rather than construction of state authority in particular, see Williams, Defining Dominion.

17. See Claudia Opitz, “Die letzten Hexen: Hexenverfolgung und Misogynie in der Aufklärung—am Beispiel von Christian Thomasius Schriften gegen die Hexenverfolgung,” in Intoleranz im Zeitalter der Revolutionen: Europa 1770–1848, ed. Aram Mattioli (Zurich, 2004), 91–110.

18. Williams, Defining Dominion; Brauner, Fearless Wives; Sigrid Schade, “Kunsthexen—Hexenkünste: Hexen in der Bildenden Kunst vom 16. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert,” in Hexenwelten: Magie und Imagination, ed. Richard van Dülmen (Frankfurt am Main, 1987), 170–280; Jane Davidson, The Witch in Northern European Art, 1470–1750 (Freren, 1987); and Wolfgang Schild, “Hexen-Bilder,” in Methoden und Konzepte der historischen Hexenforschung, ed. Gunter Franz and Franz Irsigler (Trier, 1998), 329–413.

19. See Joy Wiltenburg, Disorderly Women and Female Power in the Street Literature of Early Modern England and Germany (Charlottesville, Va., 1992).

20. See Uschi Bender-Wittmann, “Gender in der Hexenforschung: Ansätze und Perspektiven,” in Geschlecht, Magie und Hexenverfolgung, ed. Ingrid Ahrendt-Schulte et al. (Bielefeld, 2002), 13–38.

21. Eva Labouvie, “Perspektivenwechsel: Magische Domänen von Frauen und Männern in Volksmagie und Hexerei aus der Sicht der Geschlechtergeschichte,” in Geschlecht, Magie und Hexenverfolgung, 39–56; Whitney, “The Witch ‘She,’” esp. 90, gives further examples and cites further literature.

22. Willem de Blécourt, “‘I would have eaten you too’: Werewolf Legends in the Flemish, Dutch and German Area,” Folklore 118 (2007): 23–43; Eva Labouvie, “Männer im Hexenprozess: Zur Sozialanthropologie eines ‘männlichen’ Verständnisses von Hexerei,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 16 (1990): 56–70; Rolf Schulte, Hexenmeister (Frankfurt am Main, 1999), esp. chap. 2.

23. See Labouvie, “Männer im Hexenprozess.”

24. See Opitz, Das Universum des Jean Bodin, chap. 6.

25. See Labouvie, “Männer im Hexenprozeß”; also Clive Holmes, “Women: Witnesses and Witches,” Past and Present 140 (1993): 45–78.

26. Bender-Wittmann, “Gender in der Hexenforschung,” 27; see also Ahrendt-Schulte, Zauberinnen in der Stadt Horn, 236–43; idem, “Hexenprozesse,” in Frauen in der Geschichte des Rechts: Von der Frühen Neuzeit bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Ute Gerhard (Munich, 1997), 199–220.

27. See Williams, Defining Dominion, esp. chap. 4; Opitz, Das Universum des Jean Bodin, chap. 5.

28. Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 3rd ed. (Harlow, U.K., 2006), 141–42.

29. Schulte, Hexenmeister (as above, n. 22), 2nd ed. 2001; see also Lara Apps and Andrew Gow, Male Witches in Early Modern Europe (Manchester, 2003); both also give more precise breakdowns of the numbers of victims in the German empire: Schulte, chap. 3; Apps and Gow, chap 2.

30. See Schulte, Hexenmeister, esp. chap. 7; also, for Normandy, William Monter, “Toads and Eucharists: The Male Witches of Normandy, 1564–1660,” French Historical Studies 20 (1997): 563–95.

31. See the cases from Schleswig in Karen Lambrecht, “Tabu und Tod: Männer als Opfer frühneuzeitlicher Verfolgungswellen,” in Geschlecht, Magie und Hexenverfolgung (as above, n. 20), 193–208.

32. This holds true, however, only for the German empire. The clearly politically motivated witch hunt that took place in Calvinist Scotland under James I around 1600 involved a high percentage of men. See Schulte, Hexenmeister, esp. chap. 9.

33. See my discussion in Opitz, Das Universum des Jean Bodin, esp. chaps. 5–7.

34. Symptomatic of this is the work of Jean Bodin (see Opitz, “Hexerei, Melancholie und Misogynie,” in Das Universum des Jean Bodin, chap. 5), but other demonologists, for example, Martin Del Rio, expressed similar notions, and there are some prominent examples of highly placed men suspected and accused of being sympathetic to witches (see Robert Walinski-Kiehl, “Males, ‘Masculine Honour’ and Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century Germany,” Men and Masculinities 6 [2004]: 254–71, demonstrating particularly the meaning of masculine honor, and the damage that could be inflicted to it, in the context of witch trials in Bamberg at the beginning of the seventeenth century).

35. The example of Scotland, with its comparatively high percentage of men among those tried as witches, remains prototypical of the connection between political disputes and witch persecutions (see Christina Larner, Enemies of God: The Witch Hunt in Scotland, [Baltimore, 1981]). Examples from more recent research also show that witchcraft accusations against men could involve (politically or economically motivated) conflicts. Here see Walinski-Kiehl, “Males, ‘Masculine Honour’ and Witch-Hunting”; Malcolm Gaskill, “The Devil in the Shape of a Man: Witchcraft, Conflict and Belief in Jacobean England,” Historical Research 71 (1998): 142–71; Wolfgang Behringer, Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night, trans. H. C. Erik Midelfort (Charlottesville, Va., 1998).

36. For a summary, see Bender-Wittmann, “Gender in der Hexenforschung,” 27–28.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.