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Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002) 120-134

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The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages

Michael D. Bailey
Saint Louis University

The figure of the witch first appeared in Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages. That is, while all the separate components of witchcraft—harmful sorcery or maleficium, diabolism, heretical cultic activity, and elements drawn from common folklore, such as ideas of nocturnal flight—were widely believed to exist throughout much of the medieval period, only in the fifteenth century did these components merge into the single concept of satanic witchcraft. 1 Also in the fifteenth century an aspect of witchcraft emerged that, to many modern minds at least, is perhaps the most striking and compelling element of the stereotype—the pronounced association of witchcraft with women rather than with men. This connection was developed most completely and ruthlessly in what is now by far the most famous late-medieval text dealing with witchcraft, the witch-hunting manual Malleus maleficarum, written by the Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Kramer in 1486. 2 In this profoundly misogynist work, Kramer linked witchcraft entirely to what he regarded as women's spiritual weakness and their natural proclivity for evil. Above all, he linked witchcraft to supposedly uncontrolled female sexuality, famously concluding that "all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable." 3 Yet the idea of the female witch was not new to Kramer. Throughout the fifteenth century, the number of women tried for sorcery and witchcraft was significantly higher than the number of men, 4 and the special association of witchcraft with women appeared in authoritative literature fully fifty years before the publication of the Malleus. In his Formicarius, written around 1437, the Dominican theologian and religious reformer Johannes Nider was the first clerical authority to argue that women were more prone to become witches than were men. 5 In fact, his treatment of this issue was extremely influential on the later Malleus, and Kramer incorporated whole sections of Nider's text virtually verbatim into his own more expansive analysis of female proclivity for evil. 6 [End Page 120]

The strongly gendered nature of witchcraft accusations and convictions, clearly sex-related if not entirely sex-specific, 7 has long been of interest to scholars. Most studies of European witchcraft address the issue to some extent, and many focus specifically on this point. 8 Especially for the period of the great witch-hunts proper, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the economic, social, cultural, and even psychological factors that may have underlain and supported accusations against women have all been explored to varying degrees. Yet surprisingly, for all the recognition that the full stereotype of witchcraft represents a constructed concept rather than a practiced reality, interest in the early development of the actual idea of the female witch has remained slight. Often scholars of the early-modern witch-hunts explore the roots of this idea no further back than the Malleus maleficarum, and too readily accept the notion, so seemingly apparent in the Malleus, that longstanding Christian and especially clerical misogyny underlies and explains authorities' ready acceptance of the association of witchcraft with women.

Here I want to explore the earliest appearance of a strong association between women and witchcraft in authoritative literature, namely in the writings of Johannes Nider. After outlining what he has to say on the subject of female witches, and how he explains the particular proclivity of women for this crime, I will contrast his writings with certain earlier clerical accounts of magic and sorcery. Ultimately, I will argue that, instead of undergirding the concept that women were particularly inclined toward witchcraft, for much of the Middle Ages clerical misogyny and typical notions of gender actually made difficult the belief that women might be the chief practitioners of powerful, threatening, and terribly effective demonic sorcery—that is, until the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, when performance of demonic sorcery itself became in a way feminized in the...