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Stereotype of Female Witches

Categories: GenderStereotypes

Despite the stereotype of a witch being that of an older woman, many younger women were accused, some as young as 8 or 9. Sebald, the author of Witch children’ one of the only books which focuses solely on children during the European witch craze. One of the places, where children were most persecuted for the crime of witchcraft was Wurzburg, where between 1627 and 1629 over 25% of the witches executed were children. In Germany it was believed that witchcraft was passed from mother to offspring or even from godmother to child.

One of the most horrific examples of this was in Neisse in 1651 where the executioner built an oven and in one year, he had executed 42 women and girls including children as young as 2 or 4 years of age . However older woman who fitted the caricature of old, unattractive and disliked were accused more than younger women because it was thought that older women would try and convert young virgins into sexual deviance. Kraemer states that elderly woman cause these ‘silly, young girls’ to practice magic.

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For instance, Kraemer claimed that two witches in Ravensburg confessed that the Devil had instructed them to ‘convert’ as many ‘holy virgins and widows’ as possible. Women were also attacked because of their diminishing role in society. An old woman was deemed according to A. Bastow ‘an ideal scapegoat: to expendable to be missed, too weak to fight back, too poor to matter.’ Although the people in Walpurga’s village depended on her for healing, they were also happy for her to be the scapegoat for their bad luck.

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She was an easy target for their lies because she had no man no defend her in court, possessed a power that everyone believed she could quite easily kill with, was poor and a widow. Overall, the older women were accused because they lived at the margins of society which meant that many people deemed them untrustworthy.

Elite ideas filled with misogyny had a considerable influence on the witch hunts, provoking debates between Historians that they were responsible for the war on women. The Malleus Malleficarum (Hammer of Witches) considerably contributed to this war on women, as the manuscripts were full of misogyny. This primary resource, first published in 1487, was the standard medieval demonological treatise and therefore a credible resource for this essay as it was instrumental in the accusation process; greatly influencing secular magistrates across Europe who were responsible for the majority of the executions of so called witches, and remained in print throughout the early modern period. It is commonly argued to have been written by Dominican monks Heinrich Kraemer and Jacob Sprenger, however the authoritiship is vexed; Behringer and Jerouschek have argued persuasively that the Malleus was wholly written by Sprenger. Levack similarly argues that Jacob Sprenger was identified as the co-author of the work, however the extent to how much of a role he played, if any, is unclear. In any event each Historian has agreed that Kraemer was its principal author.

The misogyny can be seen clearly through the title, Maleficus, which came into common vocabulary in the ‘fourth century CE’ according to Lara Apps and Andrew Gow, who denote that it was ‘used in the medieval and early modern periods to refer to a person who had committed evil deeds by means of magic.’ Kraemer and Sprenger have chosen to use the feminine plural derivation of the Latin masculine noun Maleficus and therefore assert that all witches are female. Especially since in Latin, groups containing both males and females, even when there are more female than male in the group, are represented by the masculine plural. This fact has been referred to by many feminist historians, however what they have failed to mention in their books is that Kraemer and Sprenger refer to both masculine and feminine derivations of maleficius throughout their treatise, a fact that Apps and Gow have mentioned in their book Male witches in early modern Europe’ which aims to make not just male witches visible ‘ but also the historiographical politics that exclude them as historical subjects’. According to Apps and Gow in the very first line of the treatise which reads; (H. Insitorius, J. Sprenger 1487)

Kraemer and Sprenger have chosen to use the masculine ‘maleficos’ rather than the feminine ‘maleficia’. Lara Apps and Andrew Gow present in their book Male witches in Early Modern Europe’ an important counterpoint to the myriad of Historians books which have focused on the Early modern European Witch-hunts which have infrequently discussed he phenomenon of male witches. In this act they call attention to possible distortions and omissions that have disfigured historical studies of witchcraft, while warning the readers to consider the political dimensions of witchcraft before they take an argument as concrete fact because every historian will have an agenda. They point out that Male witches have been systematically excluded from consideration by these modern scholars, and through this argument they challenge the rigid binary’ interpretations of scholars. Instead they prescribe the possible argument that gender boundaries were flexible and most of the male witches was that they were ‘feminized’ in gender. Through this argument they present the possibility that Witch trials while not sex specific, were gender specific.

In their work they especially criticise the research and recordings of Stuart Clark, Lyndal Roper and Anne Barstow which they stress is and incomplete assessment of the hunts. While they criticise recent historians for there tendency to project modern ideas and values onto historical figures. However, their book has provoked criticism for its slightly basic line of argument which although tackles a complex manner, does not go into the topic in enough detail to gain the accolade of divulging the argument in a complex manner. Rather the study devotes most of its attention to philosophical questions, such as why were most witches women?’ which in itself Is an important question to address. However, since it lacks developmental material this book is more of an introduction to the topic. Moreover, other criticism has stemmed from their utilization of primary sources for primary research.

When scanning the bibliography, it has presented an extensive use of translations and modern reproductions of the books rather than the original material itself. Most particular critics have noted the use of the regulated translation of del Rios Disquisitionum Magicarum’, 1599-1601, by P. G. Maxwell-Stuart published in 2000 which although a good translation, is marred by the fact that it is incomplete. Therefore, this presents the issue that Apps and Gow’s research methods were lazy and only touched the surface of the primary resources they mentioned in book. Although despite this criticism it is very important to note that this book was the first books to focus on male witches, while hundreds of books had been written on female witches. They dealt with a very significant topic and reflected their findings in a highly comprehensive way.

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Stereotype of Female Witches. (2020, May 24). Retrieved from

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