Date: 09 Jan 1998
Well, I'm finally back after a long vacation (and longer flu...). And I thought it might be interesting to look at some of the explainations given for why the Burning Times occurred. I'll tell you at the start that no one knows the answer to that question. There isn't going to be any post like "Why #10: The Real Reason It All Happened". <g> Instead I'll present the different theories and critique their strengths and weaknesses.
The most common explaination in popular history is misogyny. Feminist authors claim that Witch-hunting was woman-hunting, and that the Burning Times were a direct attack on women who refused to comply with the sex-role stereotypes of their times. Witches were strong women: argumentative, opinionated, independent, unmarried. They were powerful, either in terms of wealth or knowledge (as with village wise women). The patriarchy was threatened by this power and sought to destroy it by labelling these women Witches and devil-worshippers.
Supporters of this theory offer the following evidence: 1) The vast majority of Witches were women: 75% - 80% overall. This means that women were three to four times more likely to be accused of Witchcraft than men were. 2) Witch trials and Witch hunting manuals are virulently misogynist. 3) Lots of examples of strong women who got accused of Witchcraft. Many Witches did indeed violate the norms of female behavior.
Despite this, very few historians believe that misogyny caused the Burning Times. Because if you turn the theory on its head and make predictions based on it, it doesn't hold water.
If the Burning Times were caused by misogyny, there are a few things we'd expect to see: 1) Almost all Witches should be women, in all times and places. 2) Witch hunting and misogyny should correlate. The more sexist a culture was, the more it should hunt Witches. 3) The beginning and end of the Burning Times should relate to misogyny.
None of these predictions are true. First, not all Witches were women. There were several times and places where roughly equal numbers of men and women were killed, and even one (Iceland) were men were 20 times more likely to be accused than women. The reason the overall statistics are so skewed is because the regions that killed the most Witches killed many more women than men. If Witch hunting was caused by misogyny, how do you explain Iceland, where 95% of Witches were men? The answer is, you don't. Supporters of this theory, like Anne Llewellyn Barstow, simply ignore counter-evidence. Barstow for instance claims that Iceland didn't have a "real" Witch hunt, even though it killed more Witches than Russia, Ireland, and Portugal combined (all areas that Barstow says had "real" hunts).
Second, there's no connection between misogyny and the intensity of Witch hunting. Witch hunting was sporadic. In Germany, one town would kill hundreds while its neighboring city killed none. There's no link between a country's sexism and the number of Witches it killed. Both Russia and Germany were noteably sexist. Russia killed 10 Witches, Germany 25,000. Ireland and Scotland were closely related cultures, yet Scotland killed approximately 500 times as many Witches. When you map out where the trials occurred, one clear pattern emerges: Witch trials concentrate along borders, especially the borders between countries which have different religions. For example, Lorraine (along the French/Swiss/German border) killed 10 times as many Witches as Paris. But there's no reason to believe that border-dwellers are more sexist than center-dwellers.
Finally, the beginning and end of the Burning Times don't correlate to any noticeable shifts in women's rights. Witch-hunting gradually increased in the 14th and 15th century, with the first large trials appearing in the 15th. But the panics and crazes, the things we think of when we imagine the Burning Times, arose in the 16h and 17th centuries. Their timing matches the religious warfare of the Reformation very closely, but not much else.
Because of this, most historians do not believe that misogyny caused the Burning Times. Yet gender clearly did play a role in the trials -- after all, women *were* far more likely to be accused. If misogyny didn't cause the trials, how do we explain the gender of Witches, the misogyny of the manuals, and the large number of female Witches who defied the norms of female behavior?
Many scholars blame the gender percentages on power: women, especially poor women, were the weakest members of society. The ones least capable of defending themselves from charges of Witchcraft. But this seems to assume a malign intelligence behind the trials, that people deliberately picked victims who were likely to lose. From what we can tell, people genuinely believed in Witches. They accused the people they believed had harmed them, not just anybody they thought they could get away with attacking. And for some reason, they suspected women more commonly than men.
Why? Perhaps because women *were* Witches more commonly than men were. Women and Witchcraft have been linked for millenia. Pagan Roman authors commented on the fact that "women are naturally Witches, men thieves." The earliest law codes from both the Celts and the Germans single out women as being the most likely Witches. If you look at medieval legends and stories, most Witches are women. Medieval Christians noted that women, not men, tended to pass on Pagan "superstitions". So women and Witchcraft were linked long before the Burning Times, even at a time when most people didn't consider Witchcraft a bad thing. Thus it's possible that misogyny colored the statistics rather than causing them. People accused more women than men because they assumed that women were more likely to be Witches. The Church disliked Witchcraft, therefore it trotted out misogynist explainations to account for the gender discrepancies in the trials.
(Incidentally, yes this theory does account for the Iceland anomaly. Iceland had two types of traditional magick: seidhr, a public shamanic form of ritual generally practiced by women, and galdur, a private rune magick largely the domain of men. After the arrival of Christianity, seidhr died out (since it was a public, group ritual). Thus when the Burning Times arrived, most Icelandic "Witches" were in fact men.)
The evidence from the Witch hunting manuals supports this theory. Gender does not play a large role in most of them. Yes, they contain shockingly misogynist statements. But none of them spend a great deal of time discussing the link between women and Witchcraft. Most dedicate a couple paragraphs or one chapter to the subject. Gender is an aside, not a focus.
Moreover most authors bring up gender when they try to explain trial results. The authors note that trials "prove" that women are Witches more often than men. And then they attempt to explain this by trotting out misogynist explainations. As historians have noted, the authors seem as puzzled by the gender discrepancies as we are.
The connection between gender and Witchcraft is very complex. Simplistic explainations (Witch hunting is woman hunting) can't account for the evidence. Gender may not have caused the Burning Times, but it certainly colored every aspect of the trials. And its a subject that rewards detailed, unbiased research.