Was gender a causal factor in the witch hunts? The question of causality is in some ways binary, and historians have aligned themselves affirming gender as a causal factor or denying it; but few historians are monocausal, and their answers to this question are far more cautious and nuanced. While this is a straightforward question, it has no simple answers. In posing the question at all, historians implicitly state the obvious: that the majority of those accused of witchcraft were female. If femaleness was a causal factor, how do we explain the fact that there were witches to be found among men? Conversely, if femininity was not a causal factor, why were so many witches women? Is class as important as gender, and if so, does class encompass gender? Certainly, from the raw data alone, the association between gender and witchcraft can be demonstrated, but correlation is not always causation, and we must examine the relationship between gender and the process of accusing a witch, especially the degree to which one informs the other, before we can understand causation. By scrutinizing the historiographical notion of gender as a causal factor, I intend to demonstrate that masculinity and femininity are both integrally important to understanding witchcraft, but only under certain social conditions within the larger configuration of class.
In his landmark work Europe’s Inner Demons, Norman Cohn integrates common and elite ideas of gender and convincingly argues that the archetype of a witch as a woman cut across class boundaries. However, according to Cohn, the reason that elites perpetuated this stereotype was because it was already so instilled in the peasant mentality that identifying women rather than men was expected. The problem with this argument lies in the fact that Cohn never explicitly states whether he regards class or gender as more important. Clearly, for the accused, femininity would be a great hindrance whether it conformed to the ideas of the peasant community or the elites in charge of prosecution.The question we must ask is which informed the other? Were the majority of witches women because elites were already persecuting mostly women or were women being persecuted by elites because the lower classes expected this? This is a very difficult question to answer. On the one hand, Cohn is at least partially incorrect when he asserts that an elite prosecutor, for whom the conspiratorial and subversive acts of witches were of the utmost importance, was equally likely to deem a male or female a witch. Misogynistic elements permeate the Malleus Maleficarum and other witch hunting manuals, and educated authorities were armed with a tradition of medical knowledge, religious beliefs, and cultural assumptions that denigrated women as lesser than men in most ways. On the other hand, as elites became more involved with trials, their ideology of misogyny surely corroborated and reinforced already held beliefs. If the average peasant had already come to the conclusion that a witch was more likely to be female than male, he did so concurrently with authorities. It is unclear the degree to which class informed ideas about gender primarily because both upper and lower classes seem to have held similar ideas in the first place.
Perhaps we should rephrase our original question. Undoubtedly, gender is a contributing factor in understanding witchcraft, so we might instead ask how gender affected witchcraft and whether other forces overwhelmed it. Christina Larner judiciously answers the question of feminine causality in both affirming and dissenting terms. She claims that gender was a causal factor as evidenced by the fact that women made up the vast preponderance of witches but that it was not a direct or even the most important factor because they were persecuted for being witches, not women. In Larner’s own terminology, determining who was a witch was “sex-related” but not “sex-specific” though she reminds us that early modern peasants and elites usually had women in mind. Larner explicitly states, in “Who Were the Witches?” that witch-hunting was woman-hunting or at least the hunting “of women who [did] not fulfill the male view of how women ought to conduct themselves.” However, she seems to answer the titular question of her essay “Was Witch-Hunting Woman-Hunting?” in the negative or at least renders the question moot, since the former incorporated the latter. All roses are flowers but not all flowers are roses. For Larner, women-hunting was always conducted under the auspices of witch-hunting.
Just as witch-hunting subsumes women-hunting, so too can class act as categorical architecture within which to position gender as a causal factor. Diane Purkiss asserts that the theory that witch-hunting was entirely the result of patriarchal dominance over women has been overblown by radical feminists of the twentieth century in their efforts to imbue their contemporary ideological struggles with historical antecedents. Purkiss maintains that most witches were executed not because they were women but because they were among the weakest of the lower classes. True, early in the witch hunts, upper class women such as Dame Alice Kytler had been accused and when witch hunts became particularly pervasive in one locale, persecutions tended to stride higher up the social ladder, but by and large, these were exceptions. Most women accused of witchcraft were very poor. It is no coincidence that in his encounter with witches, the devil often promised women monetary rewards and financial gain. And, in regards to the relationship between class and gender, it is telling that women accused of witchcraft were often not poor of their own accord but simply because they were married to poor men . Their poverty was a result of their class not their gender.
Class, it must be noted, was more than merely the separation between the elite authorities and the peasants. Social distinction existed within peasant communities and the relative lack of midwife accusations is another piece of evidence to support the notion that witch-hunting was women-hunting only within the confines of the lowest stratum of the peasant class. Jane Davidson has proffered ample evidence that women who were involved in healing practices were not culled from their communities as witches based on gender or occupation but, as upstanding citizens, they were largely immune from persecutions and even participated in the legal prosecution of witches. Cohn believed—perhaps understandably given the earliness of his contributions to modern witchcraft historiography—that midwives figured into the category of the accused, but Purkiss, Briggs, and Davidson, among others, have dismantled the myth that midwives were ever regularly accused of witchcraft. They have also attacked the idea that the witchcraze was an attempt by masculine medical authorities to keep women out of the profession of healing. Davidson denounces this theory by providing the example of Johann Weyer, an educated elite physician, who actually chided less educated (lower class?) physicians for resorting to witchcraft as an explanation for their medical mysteries. Nevertheless, to be fair, Weyer was a noted skeptic of witchcraft to begin with. This relationship in itself can be taken as evidence that class distinction, even among the elites, was important in regards to witchcraft accusation. Larner subscribes to the theory of masculine medical dominance in part, observing that in Scotland, laws were passed limiting the authority of midwives in medical matters, but she is careful to note that the major change in the status of midwives did not take place until well after the major witch hunts were over.
During the height of the witch hunts, midwives actually colluded with the authorities and aided in the search for the witch’s mark on the body of the accused at the behest of the male prosecutors whose Christian sensibilities prohibited them from doing so. By their very participation, midwives seem to contravene the idea that with-hunting was women-hunting, although, as Clive Holmes has argued, these women may have been purposefully reinforcing their conformity to the legal process by participating as witnesses. In either case, their social standing saved them and their gender did not condemn them.
The difference between gender and class may best be examined through the lens of the legal system. Larner claims that legal responsibility shifted from men to women during the early modern era. Whereas women were once the legal responsibility of their fathers and husbands, the new Protestant ethic of personal accountability made women more susceptible to direct attacks in court. E.J. Kent contends that the legal system worked better for males, and they tended to utilize the courts more often to resolve their disagreements. The male sphere of influence, even among lower classes, was much broader than females because their economic sphere extended beyond the household. For example, as Holmes documents, witnesses in witchcraft cases dealing with property were more likely to be men whereas those dealing with personal illness or death were more likely to be women. He also argues that, in spite of the fact that women participated in the process of identifying a witch, witch-hunting can certainly still be construed as woman-hunting because males were in control of this process the entire time. Arguably, it was mostly elite, wealthy men in charge of this process; lower class males simply used the system to their advantage.
Without a doubt, gender played a substantial role in the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact, it may have played the most important role, but gender seems to have exerted itself as a direct causal factor primarily within the environs of the peasant class from which most witches were to be found. Elite and peasant conceptions of a witch may have been poles apart in most ways, but both tended to agree that a witch was more likely to be female. Historians have often remarked that elite prosecutors of witches developed their own feedback loop of expectation from witch confessions that reinforced already held beliefs. Some modern historians seem to have developed a feedback loop of their own, claiming that witch- hunting was woman-hunting because so many witches were women while simultaneously asserting that so many witches were women because women conformed to the feminine stereotype of a witch. Misogyny was a reality in early modern Europe, as was poverty. If gender were the sole or even most important causal factor, we would expect to see far more elite women being persecuted as witches. As a “sex-related” but not “sex-specific” crime, witchcraft corresponded to culturally inculcated archetypes of the non-virtuous woman, but encompassed a broad enough subset of crimes to include males as well. The fact that the vast majority of these men and women emerged from the peasant class goes a long way towards explaining the incorporation of ideas about gender within ideas about class.