A History of Witches

The truth behind history's most infamous women

When you picture a modern witch, what do you see? Likely, a woman on a broomstick with a pointy hat. This pan-cultural model of a female witch spans back to around the 16th century, when 80% of those accused of witchcraft were women. The suffragette Matilda Joselyn Gage theorised that the persecution was more so centred around misogyny, and the repression of women. In this, many recent historians agree. Though there was a genuine fear of witchcraft, there was definitely a gender bias.

An example of said bias can be found in the notable ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ by Henry Kramer. It’s even in the title! Kramer used the Latin feminine ‘maleficarum’ instead of the more common ‘maleficorum’ that could be used for both genders. Kramer’s popular treatise is important in that it both reflected, and impacted perceptions of witches at the time. The title shows that people generally assumed witches were female.

In fact, Kramer highlights and justifies the persecution of mostly women, stating that they ‘can not know moderation in vice’, so are more receptive to the devils attempts. This narrative is continuous throughout, shaping a witch to be a lust filled woman who commits sexual discrepancies for the devil. This led to the consideration of whether the stereotype of a witch was just simply a woman who didn’t fit the religious and social ideal.

A prominent case to support this theory is the persecution of Elizabeth Sawyer, that was later adapted into the play The Witch of Edmonton. Jeffrey B. Russell, in his A History of Witchcraft, describes her as “a physically weak, socially isolated, financially destitute and legally powerless old woman could offer only the deterrent of her spells”, and this is exactly the depiction witch hunters created of her. Sawyer was, according to sources, a rude elderly woman, who had many enemies in her village. As such, she definitely deviated from the ideal religious woman: youthful, gracious, submissive, and dedicated to God.

But does that make her a witch? Probably not. This is just one of many cases wherein a woman not fitting into the ideals of the time was deemed a witch and sets the scene for how those persecuted were scoped out.

Witches in the early-modern era were persecuted for being more assertive than was wanted; more volatile, and more confident. This idea still has current implications.

Hilary Clinton was depicted as a modern-day witch during the 2016 elections, with opponents calling her ‘the wicked witch of the west’. This led to a questioning of why assertive, powerful women were deemed ‘witches’ insultingly.

However, there has also been a mass reclaiming of the word in a feminist context, with many women labelling themselves witches and practicing tarot and using crystals. This shows that the previous persecution for assertive, confident, and powerful women, is being opposed by said women, who call themselves witches proudly, and refute the harsh associations with the word ‘witch’.