History and Effects of Witchcraft Prejudice and Intolerance on Early Modern Women

Updated on March 23, 2018
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Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past or else be destined to repeat it.

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Gender played a very important role in the witch hunts that took place in Early-Modern Europe as well as in Salem. Carol Karlsen, pointed out that “between 1645 and 1647, several hundred people had been hanged in the wake of England’s most serious witchcraft outbreak. More than 90 percent of these English witches were women.” Although these statistics are one of the highest, a correlation was also seen in other countries during the heights of the witch hunts. Women were more often targeted than men because of the Early-Modern European views on women; specifically regarding their roles within society, the vulnerability of their soul, and an inability for some to fit into a male dominated society. Women also had a stricter view on sin during this time frame than men did; which led to higher confessions amongst women. It was not until women and men began to view sin similarly that witch hunts ended. Many of the impacts that occurred during this time frame, also occurred during the Salem Witch Trials as well.

Roles of Women During this Time-Frame

Women were often targeted due to their responsibilities surrounding tasks that dealt with the survival of the community, such as preparing food, being a midwife or lying in maid, and tending animals. It was believed that witches had considerable control over the health and life of others. Because these were all jobs that had the potential of going very wrong, women were often blamed when someone died or became sick. A midwife who delivered a deformed or stillborn child could very well become targeted. A mother may want to blame someone for their tragedy and since the midwife was present, they are subject to being accused of doing something supernatural to cause this.

Many "witches" were beheaded or hung.
Many "witches" were beheaded or hung. | Source

Women As Sexual Objects: Satan As Sexual Aggressor

Women were also targeted because Puritans believed that Satan assaulted the body through sexual transgressions. The fact that Satan and his imps were viewed as male influenced the idea that witches were usually women. The witch was often viewed as having had sex with the “devil’s imp,” and giving her body to Satan. Also, witches’ familiars were believed to have had “sucked at the breasts, [as well as]… latch onto any unusual markings or witch’s teat.” Suckling provided nourishment to their familiars and imps. Because women provided the nourishment for infants, this idea of suckling only reinforced the idea that witches were women. Suckling was believed to be used for sexual pleasure as well. Reis pointed out that men were not completely immune to these ideas of suckling and carnal pleasure, because “their bodies were searched during the trials, and the investigations occasionally found evidence of such activity,” although such findings were rare. As a result it was believed that men’s “bodies were more difficult and less tempting objects of the devil’s attacks.”

Ignorance about Anatomy

One characteristic that both men and women shared regarding the witch-hunts was the idea that their souls were feminine. Therefore, men's souls were viewed just as evil as women’s. In the eighteenth century, women's anatomy was perceived as identical to men’s except pointing inward. Consequently, they believed that “inwardness meant femaleness,” which was why the soul was believed to be feminine. Although this should cause men and women to be viewed as equally susceptible to sin, this was not the case. Puritans believed that the body protected the soul. If the body was strong, then the soul was better protected. Therefore, men who were created physically stronger were viewed to be less susceptible to Satan’s attacks.

Many women were burned alive, when they suspected them of witchcraft.
Many women were burned alive, when they suspected them of witchcraft. | Source

The Weaker Sex and Gender Bias

Females, as a whole, were considered easier targets for Satan due to being viewed as weaker than men physically, spiritually, and morally. Puritans “believed that Satan attacked the soul by assaulting the body.” “Not only was the body the path to the soul’s possession; it was the very expression of the devil’s attack.” As a result, their spiritual and moral selves were considered more vulnerable because of their weaker bodies, which left them more susceptible to the devils traps and Satan could more easily possess their souls. Although men’s bodies were seen as more difficult to tempt, this did not exempt all men. Even though witchcraft was not considered to be inherited, often people who were closely related to a previously accused witch were thought to be witches themselves; such as daughters, sisters, and even male relatives of the accused. In fact, Karlsen pointed out that, “nearly half the males [accused] were husbands, sons, or other male relatives of the accused women.” Still, these men were a minority.

Not only were men’s bodies viewed as being able to fight off Satan’s attacks more readily, but men were also seen as being allowed to have certain female qualities. Women, on the other hand, were not allowed to possess masculine traits without being seen as odd and not fit easily within society. Reis explains this further:

Men were not required to adopt outwardly feminine traits and risk compromising their masculinity; but man’s soul, his inner self, could safely display female virtues. Passivity and receptivity to Christ’s advances resided in men’s’ (female) souls, but their bodies—and sense of themselves—remained masculine.

In other words, men could maintain their perception of masculinity, despite having a feminine soul. Their feminine soul allowed them to be submissive to Christ without appearing feminine to their neighbor. Women, in contrast, were not allowed to show masculine characteristics without being viewed negatively by society.

compliments of everystockphoto.com
compliments of everystockphoto.com

Witch Hunt and Gender: Outcasted Women

The women that were most likely to be accused were those who did not fit easily into society. Women during this time period were expected to be quiet, submissive, and under a male head of the household. Therefore, when a woman used coarse language or was self-sufficient she was seen as odd, which ultimately put her at higher risk of being accused. Also, because women were beginning to live longer, there was not yet a role that allowed older women to fit easily into society. Therefore, there was a large increase in the amount of witch accusations for those over the age of forty. Although women under forty might be accused, less than a quarter would face a trial. On the other hand, forty percent of women over the age of forty would face a trial and more than half of these women would become convicted. These statistics are believed to be a result of the fact that women over forty were no longer of childbearing age. Therefore, they did not have a specific purpose within society any longer.

Many of these women were also widowed, which meant they were no longer under the care of a man. Some of these widowed women were accused because they had inherited large sums of money or property when their husbands had passed away. They were then capable of supporting themselves financially, and many chose not to remarry even if they had the opportunity. These women, in particular, caused tensions amongst the core beliefs within the Puritan society. Puritan leaders felt that women owning land was a breaking up of their society by not having a male head of the house. The resulting tensions caused witchcraft accusations.

Young women played a different role in the witchcraft accusations. They also did not fit easily into society, especially within Salem. These young women felt oppressed and unheard. Reis points out that “these young women perhaps feared for their future, worrying that they would end up alone, with no one to establish their dowries and find them husbands.” Even though it started out with them experimenting with magic, they eventually began exhibiting signs of being possessed. The fits they would go into while being “possessed” allowed them to be able to act in ways their society prohibited and say things they normally never could. This allowed them to have at least some power within a society that repressed them. Pressures to blame someone for these possessions increased until “witches” were accused. Many times these young women had never met those that they named. Because they could more easily say a woman’s name than a man’s due to the patriarchal society, this further increased the likelihood that women were the ones on trial.

Source

Why Did People Believe Women Were More Apt To Follow Satan?

Another reason that women were more often executed for witchcraft was because women and men regarded sin differently. The differing ideas regarding sin contributed to how each sex confessed or denied witchcraft accusations, which affected the way a person was viewed and ultimately the outcome of a trial. Men more often viewed who they were as separate from the sins they had committed. Although they would repent of their sins, they did not internalize the minister’s message like women did. Women were more apt to view their sins as having been in obedience with Satan and against God, no matter how ordinary the sin may be. Alice Lake was a very good example of this. She had convinced herself “that her sexual transgression was enough to make her a witch. Although she had not signed an explicit compact with Satan… she had covenanted with him through the commission of sin.”

One reason that women confused sin with witchcraft is because they viewed themselves as inherently evil. It was their natural evilness that caused them to sin. Men, on the other hand, believed that their sin corrupted their soul; therefore, they could easily repent for their shortcomings and salvation. It is not surprising due to women’s belief in inherent evilness that “they could more easily imagine that other women were equally damned.” For that reason, women more easily accused other women of witchcraft. If accused of witchcraft, due to women’s “guilt over their perceived spiritual inadequacies, [they might]… confess to specific transgressions they apparently had not committed,” such as witchcraft.

Societies View On Women

Even the confessions themselves were perceived differently by the judges and magistrates as Karlsen pointed out. She states, although women and “men who confessed to witchcraft outside of the Salem outbreak were punished… most confessing women were taken at their word and executed, confessing men were almost all rebuked as liars.” Even amongst similar cases of the accused, the punishments were much more severe and long-lasting for a woman than for a man. Women were also more apt than men to be charged repeatedly once they were exonerated by the courts of a witchcraft accusation.

Source

Evolving Gender Stereotypes

During the eighteenth century, ideas regarding gender and sin evolved. When combined with the scientific revolution, witch-hunts became less prevalent until they stopped altogether. One of the profoundest changes was a decreased emphasis on Satan. Instead, there became an increased focus on fearing God. Instead of Satan possessing their bodies for sin, God would punish them. Also, they began to feel that they were not battling Satan, but their own selves. This shows a shift in both the way that women and men viewed sin. Their views became more similar; therefore, neither sex was being persecuted more than the other. Reis also points out that “even women—who perhaps still perceived the devil’s threats more palpably than men—were able to select Christ.” This shift in ideas was most likely due to the scientific revolutions focus on “enlightened” and “rational” thinking.

Oppressed Finding Their Place

Men and women who had previously felt oppressed found roles within society. The Victorian woman was no longer considered inherently evil but encouraged to “spread their moral influence as the ‘mothers of civilization’” for their husbands who worked in the sinful world. Young people were also more capable of providing for themselves, because they were being encouraged to find their independence. Adolescent girls in particular had new social outlets. They no longer felt the suffocating pressures that society had placed on them during the seventeenth century and earlier. Even women who were no longer of child bearing age had a changed role within society. They were now responsible for educating the boys who would soon be the heads of their own households. These women no longer were viewed as a hindrance on society, but necessary citizens. All these people who were stressed within the community now found a comfortable place within society. As tensions dissipated, so did accusations.

Although some men were definitely victimized during the witch-hunts, these hunts were largely due to prejudices against women, especially those women who did not fit neatly inside of the patriarchal society of the seventeenth century. This vast victimization of witches is important to be studied today, because it brings attention to those who are unfairly treated. Although majority of people in today’s modern society do not believe that witches ever existed, they still place blame and oppress certain individuals and groups. It is important for each society to be aware of who are the modern day witches amongst them. This realization is not meant to persecute these people, but to protect the victims from being harmed either emotionally or physically. All people should be valued regardless of belief, race, or income status.

Bibliography

Karlsen, Carol. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England.( New York: Cornell University Press, 1999).

Questions & Answers

    © 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz

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      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        11 months ago from United States

        That is a very keen observation. I am unsure if all areas were the same as far as pregnancy being something that would cause them to spare their lives, but I do know that some places did spare the life of the mother who was pregnant. A pregnancy out of wedlock though, could also trigger accusations as many times it was the sins of the person that caused them to be targeted.

      • profile image

        Burning pregnant witches ? 

        11 months ago

        The black and white image near the title The Weaker Sex shows a baby appearing to come from the flames. Having seen this artwork before I wondered if one of the alleged witches was pregnant and being burned caused her to miscarry. A horrible thought, but then films like The Crucible would have you believe that once they learned an alleged witch was pregnant they spared her from the stake, this artwork seems to indicate otherwise.

      • profile image

        Megan 

        13 months ago

        Very good article about the sexism during the witch trials. Many connections can be made with "The Crucible".

      • profile image

        Bigbig Ginge 

        14 months ago

        All of the information that I have seen today was really good for my GCSE question for my History lesson so thanks for all this good information.

      • profile image

        Marj 

        16 months ago

        Michelle I want to include your article in my citation if you don't mind to give me your last name to be able to provide a proper citation in my essay.

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        3 years ago from United States

        THanks!

      • Vic Dillinger profile image

        Vic Dillinger 

        3 years ago

        EXCELLENT overview of gender issues re: witch hunting. And good for you for not dumbing it down.

      • Kukata Kali profile image

        Kukata Kali 

        4 years ago

        Loved this expression!! Awesome Hub. Voted up~

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        5 years ago from United States

        This was written for a college audience. I do have other articles for children.

      • profile image

        peter 

        5 years ago

        it would have been better if you made it easier for us kids to read :L

      • profile image

        mike 

        5 years ago

        can some one please answwer this question for me ... why the number of witchcraft accusation increased in the sixteenth and seventeeth century ? thank you

      • profile image

        bottle pop 

        5 years ago

        good

      • profile image

        martellawintek 

        5 years ago

        hi dennis if your still hanging around this is the site

        and some info , just give them a call ,say martells said you would get him sorted

      • profile image

        A Number of Students 

        5 years ago

        Thank you, helped a lot with our project!

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        6 years ago from United States

        I'm now curious about the Secret Commonwealth. I might have to look into and read that.

      • graceomalley profile image

        graceomalley 

        6 years ago

        Great hub, excellent research. One often thinks of the idealized image of the Victorian woman being a heavy burden for a real person to bear, but fitting it into the historical context that this followed a time when women were just generally under a cloud for being inherently evil and weak, the Victorians make more sense. They were attempting to balance the scales really. Western society has lurched about in how to view women i think - they're the root of evil! They control us! No they're weaklings! Wait, they're spotless angels! Unless they've fallen - then they're sub-human!

        Personally, I think any human carrys many 'archetypes' - an individual can function as the mother, the seductress, the Angel in the House, the companion - freedom to move between archetypes while staying true to oneself is the mark of a healthy individual. Society, of course, has its own ideas and can't keep up sometimes.

        I read recently "The Secret Commonwealth" by Scottish minister Robert Kirk. It was written in the late 17th century, and is about faeries and their ways. Kirk was concerned that faerie "seers" not be confused with witches. He veiwed witches as in leaugue with the devil, but people who interacted with faeries simply had a natural gift. The faeries, kirk believed, were not opposed to God the way Satan was, so there was a magical world that Christians could operate in without compromising their souls. An interesting historical veiwpoint - not a common one. I think most lumped witches, faeries and demons together as all bad.

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        Yes, it's amazing how many times I've edited these hubs. :) LOL. :)

      • Ddraigcoch profile image

        Emma 

        7 years ago from UK

        I guess if it is such a common fact to us that research Witchcraft. We forget it is not so widely known. I will be editing mine for years to come for thoroughness Angela, lol. I still loved reading this hub though x

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        Thanks for the great compliment. :)

      • Mandapandor profile image

        Mandapandor 

        7 years ago from Richmond, Ky

        Good hub. Thanks!

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        Very true. Did I forget to include those very basic facts in my article. I guess, I should set this one aside for editing for thoroughness, thanks for bringing up these very important facts about the witchhunts.

      • Ddraigcoch profile image

        Emma 

        7 years ago from UK

        A great hub with facts that are not always widely known out side of the Witchcraft community.

        Also apart from Women with money not marrying annoying the men of the time. Accusations of witchcraft was a good way of gaining the money and lands to the crown if a woman was killed as a witch.

        Witch trials were also abused for petty arguments between villagers. Many people killed after being accused of witchcraft where hardly ever practising witches.

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        Thanks. :)

      • Silver Fish profile image

        Silver Fish 

        7 years ago from Edinburgh Scotland

        Great hub.

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        Your welcome, I really found it interesting, and I love doing research!

      • 4elements profile image

        4elements 

        7 years ago

        I think your research skills are off the charts. Good research leads to more understanding. Thank you for thew time you put into this hub. Blessed be!

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        8 years ago from United States

        Actually, it was the strict religious viewpoints at the time. Puritan and Catholic religions during this time period were probably the strictest. Women were not allowed to own anything, except in some cases during widowhood, but even then, it was looked down upon. I believe the witch hunts, actually brought some of the prejudices of women to light although it would be another three hundred years before women really began making strides in that area.

      • starvagrant profile image

        starvagrant 

        8 years ago from Missouri

        Great read. Don't get too many hubs that cite their sources which is refreshing. I'm curious as to why women had such restricted roles during these times. What really changed viewpoints to Victorian ideas, which stopped the hunts? Perhaps I should explore your sources.

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        8 years ago from United States

        Thanks... I'm such a good when it comes to research. I love doing it! I read and read and read. I would rather read a nonfiction book than a fiction almost any day... Although I am a huge fan of books for 9-12 year olds! I guess it shows my maturity level. :)

      • GarnetBird profile image

        Gloria Siess 

        8 years ago from Wrightwood, California

        Good solid, researched HUB!

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        8 years ago from United States

        Thank you!

      • Michael Shane profile image

        Michael Shane 

        8 years ago from Gadsden, Alabama

        Great hub!

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