Women and Witchcraft

What the history books tell us
Without a doubt, the stereotypical witch of Europe has always been female. It is equally incontestable that the vast majority of rumored, persecuted, and executed witches of sixteenth and seventeenth century England and Scotland were indeed women. But it takes more evidence than the fact that most witches were women to conclude that those accused of witchcraft were accused because they were women. It takes even more proof to suggest that convictions of witchcraft were fabricated in an attempt to control and persecute women.

Gender was actually but one of many traits held in common by accused and convicted witches. The majority of witches were also poor, and nearly all were poorer than their supposed victims. Most were elderly, and almost none were children. The witchcraft involved nearly always struck just after a quarrel between witch and victim, and the two were almost always neighbors. Those who gained a reputation for being witches tended to also gain the reputation for being loud and spiteful. To say then that the idea of women being arrested because of their gender is supported by the fact that those arrested were almost always women is ridiculous, because it is just as easy to say that they were arrested because of their age or economic situation. This is not to say that gender (or age, wealth, or personality, for that matter) had no influence in the accusations of witchcraft, but:

Witches were hunted in the first place as witches. The total evil which they represented was not actually sex-specific. Indeed the Devil himself was male. Witch-hunting was directed for ideological reasons against the enemies of God, and the fact that eighty percent or more of them were women was, though not accidental, one degree removed from an attack on women as such.

The witch-persecution, as shall be seen, was not a direct attack on any of the groups it persecuted. Instead, it was a reaction to changing social and economic systems that strained traditional relationships between members of the community.

The period of the major persecutions roughly spans the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is at about this time in history that historians recognize significant social unrest and stress on the social orders as Europe moved from feudalism to capitalism and entered the beginning of the modern era. Traditional roles were being questioned. Some were direct: people refused to acknowledge existing hierarchies and claimed to be on the same level as their traditional superiors. Some were less direct: women did not ask for power equal to that of men, although they were slowly gaining equality. For instance, women started being fully responsible for themselves in cases of misbehavior and criminal activity.

Social changes were accompanied by strains in the economy. For example:

The informal institutions which had dealt with the old and poor, Church relief, the manorial organization, and neighborly and kinship ties were strained…People still felt enjoined to help and support each other, while also feeling the necessity in invest their capital in buying land and providing for their children.

It was the “slightly less affluent neighbors and kin who only demanded a little help who became an increasing source of anxiety. To refuse them was to break a whole web of long-held values.” In short, they were members of the community. It was not the extremely poor but the moderately poor who became the usual victims of the persecution. The very poor – the beggars, vagrants, and vagabonds – were less of a concern because they could always be whipped and sent on to the next village.

This theory is supported by the numbers that show obviously that the accused were usually poor and their accusers at least on marginally better financial ground. For example, of the forty-nine witches accused at the Essex Assizes between 1560 and 1680, twenty-three had husbands that were laborers, while only four had yeomen as husbands. On the other hand, only six victims were laborers or the wives or property of laborers, while sixteen of the victims came from the yeoman class and one was a gentlemen. The average victims were craftsmen of varying types would have who stood above the laborers on the social ladder.

Macfarlane and Larner support that this kind of correlation was evident in England and Scotland, respectively. However, Larner contends that in England the witches “were absolutely at the bottom of the social heap. They were the wives or widows of wage laborers; they were on the poor law; they were beggars.” Macfarlane’s quotes of contemporary sources do indeed sometimes describe witches as beggars. However, the term “beggar” is very vague. One can just as easily beg bread from a neighbor as a vagrant can beg in the marketplace. Furthermore, contemporary sources are dangerously stereotypical. It must be remembered that the stereotypical witch was also an ugly old hag, although there is no evidence to suggest that this mirrored reality in any way.

This is not to say that the charge of witchcraft was trumped up against these unfortunates in an attempt to relieve the community of unwanted baggage. Instead, when the system started to crack, people attacked those cracks. Sometimes it was a conscious attack. Lords and officials strived to bring order to unruly villages through a variety of normal means, with varying degrees of success. But sometimes these attacks were unconscious. When witchcraft seemed afoot and the minds of all were already debating on how the village poor were to be provided for, it is not so unnatural for the train of thought to leap from one track to the other.

And with all of its promises of gains, witchcraft could certainly be appealing when one’s plate is empty. Furthermore, it is hardly unreasonable to suspect a poor neighbor might become jealous of her more fortunate neighbors, especially if they had refused to give her any food. (Women might be seen in the same light, suspected of wanting to wield the same amount of power as men.) All of this made it that much easier to suspect the poor.

Furthermore, the poorer members of a community were the less influential and therefore easier to prosecute. This is not to suggest that the accusers looked for a scapegoat who could be found guilty, although it did happen sometimes, especially in Scotland in the bouts of mass persecutions. Instead, it shows the natural tendency to bother prosecuting only when a guilty verdict is likely: trying witches was expensive. Furthermore, making an accusation draws attention and possible reprisals toward the accuser. A more prosperous and influential member of society could enact more severe repercussions than a beggar or poor woman if found innocent, and the same person would be more likely to have influential friends to do the same if the verdict did come back as guilty.

As just touched on, the search for scapegoats does appear to have been evident to some extant in Scotland, although not nearly to the degree as in places on the Continent. If these Scottish witches were not scapegoats, they were at the very least victims of panics in which large numbers of people were tried and executed. Many of these witches had little reputation for witchcraft before their arrest, and during these panics the numbers of accused men dropped to nearly zero. So again, while the witch-hunt was not a woman-hunt, gender certainly had to be a factor.

In England, however, witches almost always had to build up a reputation spanning years before they were prosecuted. No doubt this contributed to the high number of elderly witches. The most likely age for an accused witch in Essex, for example, was between fifty and seventy years. Also, the old caused the same problems as the poor. They were yet more neighbors unable to provide for themselves and depending on others who had little they could afford to share.

Widows in particular found themselves suspected of witchcraft. Part of this might very well stem from other aspects of them: they were usually old, quite often poor, and, of course, always female. Specifically, they were women who didn’t quite fit into the system. They were independent, as opposed to being kept by a father or husband.

That the accusations of witchcraft most commonly sprang from disagreements between witch and victim hammers home the idea of the social forces as work. The usual scenario was one in which the witch went away angry. Perhaps the neighbor refused to keep her chickens from wandering into the witch’s yard. More often, though, the neighbor refused to provide extra food or seed to the witch or loan her a needed item. (And again, women would find themselves more affected by this than men. It was the women, after all, who borrowed and lent the most.[10]) Quite often, the witch verbally wished some ill-fortune upon the neighbor. Soon after, a tragedy did strike the victim. These were rarely extraordinary events in themselves: a sudden death, disease to family or livestock, spoiled milk or beer, or the burning of the barn. But the witch’s spite was remembered and witchcraft became suspected.

This did much more than explain away the unfortunate incident. In this age there was a new emphasis on personal piety.

Whenever conscientious people sinned, whenever they failed to adhere to the demanding standards of behavior that were being so loudly proclaimed, or whenever they experienced doubts about their own sanctity, they had to deal with what could be profound feelings of guilt and moral unworthiness…when people experienced this type of guilt, they naturally sought to relieve it in any way possible, and one of the methods frequently employed was to transfer it to another person.

But it was more that just feelings of guilt that needed to be put aside. There was a very real danger in the minds of these people in failing in any social failing, including the duty of giving charity:

Physical afflictions were the punishment for social deviation and men might well tremble when they heard a widow’s curse, backed, as it was said to be in the Bible, by God’s power.But by suggesting that the widow was a witch the power of the old sanctions to neighborly behavior, especially cursing, was broken…[A]n accusation of witchcraft was a clever way of reversing the guilt, of transferring it from the person who had failed in his social obligation under the old standard to the person who had made him fail.

Furthermore, accusations of witchcraft “could be a reason for terminating a relationship which had become intolerable or an excuse for ill-treating or quarrelling with an inferior.”

Another trait likely to get one branded a witch was a foul temperament.

Those who were boastful, illiterate, miserable, lustful, and leading a “lewd and naughty kind of life”, melancholy–all were likely to be witches. Above all, there were thought to be the type of person who went round begging and those who had vicious tongues, Witches were people of “ill natures, of a wicked disposition, and spitefully malicious”; “malicious people, full of revenge, having hearts swolne with rancour”. They were scolds and peevish.

This goes well with the practice of witchcraft. Witchcraft was used, after all, for revenge, and anyone wishing serious ill to befall another is certainly not the kindest of people.

There are many opponents to the theory of social strains being a cause of the persecutions. Even Macfarlane, who helped introduce the idea, “has now rejected the idea that there were important changes in social structure at the beginning of the witch-hunt.” However, the fact remains that the witch-hunts vanished at about the same time that “commercial, less personal norms of behavior” were accepted.

Yet it is dangerous to too strongly focus on any possible interplay between social stresses and the witchcraft persecutions. After all, countries are always under one kind of stress or another. There have always been widows, and there have always been lapses in charity. High wheat prices and bad harvest years do not correspond to increases in accusations. Women and the poor have most definitely constituted the low end of the chain of command.

Furthermore, should the accusation of witchcraft have been a reaction to various social problems, then it would have made sense that witches would have had other undesirable traits in common–criminal records, for instance. Yet of the 20 suspected witches of three villages focused on by Macfarlane, only 3 had been previously accused of other offense. And of the 108 people suspected of sexual offenses (the offense stereotypically associated with witchcraft) in the same villages, only one was also accused of witchcraft. “When people suspected witchcraft they did not automatically select the most notorious prostitutes or criminals in the neighborhood as likely witches.”

As touched on already, most witches had a reputation for years before any action against them was considered. It might be wondered in the twentieth century, whose people for the most part consider witchcraft to be nonsense, how these reputations could form if the community were not looking for things to blame on the person in question. If nothing else, it would seem logical that after the first gossip had spread the supposed witch would make doubly sure to appear God-fearing and lacking in whatever traits were indicating her demonic tendencies.

In actuality, however, the opposite was often true. Some women encouraged such suspicions, openly threatening to hex uncooperative neighbors and wishing ill-fortune upon them, their family, or their possessions. They called upon the Devil to injure their enemies.

It is possible that they felt such a reputation gave them power. Villagers would be hesitant about upsetting the supposed witch for fear of the consequences. Many of these women probably even came to believe the stories told about them. After all, even in this “enlightened” twentieth century there are people who believe that they can manipulate supernatural forces. How much easier was it to convince someone in the sixteenth century, a time when everyone believed in the reality of witchcraft, that she could work magic, especially in the light of some misfortune befalling someone she had just felt ill toward?

Witchcraft was also a way “out” for women.

In situations of domestic stress and tension in which men resort to violence, women use witchcraft…Women may turn to cursing to give vent to aggression or exercise power. They may fantasize about the Devil to bring colour to their lives.

And while it is impossible to know how many confessions were actually given without torture, it does appear that a number of witches willingly and in sound mind confessed once arrested, especially in England, where a confession from torture was not admissible.

Prosecutions in Scotland, however, appear distinctively more arbitrary. The Scots, like people on the Continent, not only sought out practitioners of witchcraft, but those who had specifically renounced their baptism and given themselves over to Satan through the Demonic Pact. Believing witchcraft to be in evidence after a coincidental misfortune is one thing: one could see the spoiled milk or burnt barn or diseased animal, remember a neighbors curse, and come to the conclusion of witchcraft. The idea of the Demonic Pact, often accused without any suspicion or accusation of the use of witchcraft, seems a much more arbitrary accusation.

The idea of diabolism was mostly an upper class one and usually only was dealt with in a persecution initiated by a member of this class or when judicial torture procured a confession of such. The lower classes were much more interested in the harm caused by witches than in the state of the witch’s soul. Because of this, because in England confession under torture was inadmissible and because most prosecutions came from below, English witchcraft cases almost never dealt with the Demonic pact.

The causes of the witch-persecutions are still unclear to historians. That it occurred in a period of significant unrest and change is probably not coincidental, but it is incredibly oversimplifying to claim any one-to-one correspondence. Along those same lines, the witch-hunt should not be seen as a campaign against women, the poor, or the old, although all of these factors did have an effect on who was likely to be accused. Even when the prosecutions appear arbitrary, it was because the accusers were desperate to find and destroy the witches, not because the charges were invented to rid the community of unwanteds. This is especially the case in England, where years of reputation were usually necessary, where confessions did not come from torture, and where the crime was not merely ideological–having sold one’s soul to the Devil–but a practical one in which the results of the witch’s crime were physical and tangible. Above all, the witch-persecution was a campaign against witches.



Amussen, Susan Dwyer. An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England. London: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Larner, Christina. Enemies of God: The Witch-hunt in Scotland, London: Basil Blackwell, 1981.

Levack, Brian P. The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe. Longman, 1987.

Macfarlane, Alan. Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.