Woman hating during the 16th and 17th centuries was far from being a new phenomenon - it was rooted deep in the male psyche where it had been since primitive man. Woman hating, according to anthropological studies, stems from an innate fear which is still now evident among most pre-literate societies. Part of this fear stems from the life-bearing and menstruating capacities of women which to men indicated strange and mysterious powers1 in the opposite sex.
In pre-literate societies, these fears were institutionalised in a myriad of cultural taboos and religious sanctions which prohibited women from participating in many human activities for a great proportion of their lives2.
As child-bearers women were to be feared by men. Only by exhibiting total control over the lives and bodies of his women can a man be sure that his children are his own3. This point was raised by Homer, the "father" of western literature, in his Odyssey when Telemachus, upon being asked by Pallas Athene whether or not he was the son of Odysseus, replied:
This same point was raised again by an English monk/poet of the eleventh century, Alexander Neckham, who wrote that often a man was deceived into raising children which his wife had conceived by a "worthless" lover5.
In the sexual act itself, too, women are to be feared. Woman during sex is receptive, not potent and can receive indefinitely, whether willingly and pleasurably or not and this has generated the myth of woman as insatiable. Castration and loss of potency were symbolised by intercourse because the loss of control over the penis reinforced the impression of feminine power and masculine weakness6. Men believed that women, through this insatiability, would either lead men astray, highlight their own incapacities, or deceive them (with the full implications of deception already mentioned above) and these three fears were later to become evident in the allegations made against witches, ie. that they satisfied their lusts in orgies and with demons at regular "sabbats" (paternal uncertainty again) and that they could cause impotence in men7.
To the ancient Greeks the sexual act itself was fraught with anxieties for men who equated passion with sin, women with temptation, and orgasm with death and their misogyny was expressed through elaborate stories and mythologies which explained away the origin of all manners of evil as being directly caused by Pandora, the mythological first woman created by Zeus:
Pandora was "blessed" with "sensual appeal which causes black corrupting passion", "the mind of a bitch and a thievish nature", a "talent for lying speech and gifts to be the ruin of men who work for a living" 9 These "gifts" were in the form of "benefits" and "gloomy afflictions" 10. contained in a "jar" of which Pandora was to lift the lid, allowing all gloomy afflictions to beset mankind while all the benefits flew straight back to heaven, except for one - hope. The "jar" was the death bringer and symbolised the female sex. This symbol was recognised for what it was at the time and was still recognised as such by renaissance artists11.
Aristotle, philosopher rather than poet, took a more "scientific" view and posited that women were imperfectly human, a failure in the process of conception, and this view influenced Roman thought which in turn influenced the early apostolic church12.
The Judaic mythology of the Fall was destined to be transmitted through the Judeo-Christian heritage and thus to permeate all Western culture and it is through this mythology that misogyny is transformed and its magical heritage disguised by an ethical rationalisation13.
From the apostolic church onwards Christianity, influenced by Graeco-Roman as well as Judaic traditions, contained the elements of misogyny which were furthered by St Paul and an increasingly ascetic view of sex14. Augustine followed Aristotle in his belief that women were morally and mentally inferior to men, their bodies being an obstacle to exercise of reason, and Aquinas followed Augustine and such men sew woman as a temptation - easily tempted into evil15. Some of the church fathers, including St. Jerome could not agree on whether or not women were completely human.
Perfection in woman was epitomised by the Virgin Mary, herself having been totally separated from her sexuality and made eternally Virgin. Mythologies were created and gospels redacted to prove that Mary, even after giving birth to Jesus, was still virgo intacta and that the "brothers" of Christ referred to in the gospels were really cousins.
By the fifteenth century, a large proportion of the academic clergy had lost touch with real women. The already redacted bible was searched for proof of the lower status women and proof was found in such passages as "the head of every man is Christ and the head of the woman is the man"16. The female sex was simplified into the ideal - virgin (Mary) and her opposite or reverse image and this image was the witch, the servant of Satan.
Women during the 12th and 13th centuries played a major roll in the heretical movements of the Cathars and Waldensians and this could be seen as a rebellion against the Roman church's image of women. Catharism, for example, encouraged women to assume an active religious role, contrasting with strict Catholic application of St. Paul's dictum that women must remain silent in church17. The witch image of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries developed from the heretic image of the 12th to fifteenth centuries formed by the fantastic and malignant minds of a sexually repressed and celibate clergy.
Thus ideas of women as being inferior to men, as objects of insatiable lust who were prone to evil, were developed over millennia - they were part of the social and religious lives of a literate clergy: culture based and inherent and spread to the illiterate via the pulpit and via religious theatre. The Renaissance, ie. the revival of classical literature and philosophies, aided by the invention of printing, renewed anti-feminist ideas which spread among the literate elite as well as playing an enormous part in creating the witch image18.
Misogynistic ideas received a additional boost by the Reformation and the invention of printing which furthered the spread of anti-woman ideas through the translations of the bible and the writings of the Church Fathers into the vernacular and its ready availability among the literate. The well known passage "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live19. now put an entirely new slant on the original Latin neutral "maleficos" - in English, French and German the translation or the connotation was directly feminine20. The closing down of the convents and the abolition of the confessional put the female solely under the control of husband or father21.
The Black Death of the fourteenth century had killed far more men than women leaving an imbalance and larger numbers of single women and the arrival in Europe of syphilis at the end of the fifteenth century also added to the idea that witchcraft could cause disease. The major epidemics of syphilis in Europe co-incided largely with the witch-crazes during the 16th and 17th centuries and Stanislav Andreski has postulated that the disease itself was largely responsible for the persecution of women as witches, and even claims that syphilis, in its advanced form, could cause the physical characteristics of the witch image (old and ugly)22. The main argument to his thesis, however, that witchhunting coincided geographically as well as chronologically with the syphilis epidemics and that areas in which malaria was common (malaria being a cure for and a preventative of syphilis) is flawed by the fact that both witchhunting and malaria were rampant in the Fens district of England at the same time. On the other hand, the spread of syphilis did add to concerns over moral control.
A prominent feature of all branches of reforming Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, was the evangelical impulse23. The reformers awoke a campaign against superstition, vestigial paganism and "magic" which led to an increase in witchcraft prosecutions24. The process of Christianisation of Europe received a tremendous boost from the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation and the more refined forms of Christianity produced by these reformers can be seen not only as "autonomous belief systems but also as validating ideologies"25. They validated moral unity, moral control, and, by extension, law and order consciousness which in turn linked with state formation26. The good citizen was now equated with the good Christian. This definition of "good citizen/Christian" also created the deviant and among those deviants were witches. In this way, old misogynistic ideas interacted with the new religious, political and social processes27. One example is the fact that in Scotland in the 1560s, adultery and incest were made capital offences, coinciding with Parliament's legislation against witchcraft 28.
The witch-image had taken centuries to evolve along side a rising concern with the power of Satan in the world - a concern renewed by the Reformation - but the new preoccupation with the sexual nature of the witches' relationship with Satan was the feature that most clearly differentiated the witch stereotype of the 16th and 17th centuries from that of earlier and smaller witch hunts29. Although maleficia was not a gender specific crime, the image of the witch had, since classical antiquity, been female. This sexually powerful and menacing witch was nearly always a female. The new stereotype reflected the religious and secular authorities' concern with religious and moral "deviants" in strife-torn Reformation Europe. The idea that these particular deviants who trafficked with Satan were usually female is hardly surprising - it was the transformation of ancient, conventional misogyny of the past into a new and more deadly set of prejudices. The witch craze's slaughter of women was a result of the spread these misogynistic ideas in the spiritually reformed elites and it's application in the reformers' campaigns against folk religion30.
Thus we have misogynistic ideas present in the attitudes of ascetic academics, celibate inquisitors and syphilitic demonologists but how far these ideas penetrated into other areas of society is unknown31. For a large part of the sixteenth century, for example, females held position of utmost power in various parts of Europe. Isabella reigned jointly with her husband, Ferdinand in Spain, England was ruled by 2 queens, Mary then Elizabeth for fifty years, in Scotland Mary of Guise was regent for 9 years followed by her daughter Mary as queen, while France was ruled, as "regent" by Catherine de Medici for around 16 years32.
The largest majority of accused witches were women - the typical witch, whether in England or Europe, was elderly, and alone33. Midelfort claims that the proportion of women remaining single rose from about 5% to 15% or even 20% from the 15th to the 16th century34. As has already been mentioned, the abolition of convents in Protestant countries and the reduction even in Catholic countries, after the death of the father led to many women being outside traditional male control. At village level this change undoubtedly provoked social problems and affected social attitudes.
The creation or destruction of a woman's reputation, although originally a gendered concept, was something in which women were full participants35. Reputation meant power and one of the concerns of witchcraft at village level was getting power over a victim. This "emerged from a battle between women for control of ... feminine space"36 - a woman's way of fighting was with words and many accusers at village level were women. The undutiful daughter, the sexually aggressive woman, the elderly or ugly could be open to suspicion as.
In conclusion, the reasons that misogyny took the particular form of witch-hunting during the 16th & 17th centuries was due to the spread of Protestant evangelism which introduced the systematic mythology of the inquisition into countries with hitherto had been aware of only disconnected superstitions of the backwoods. Lutheran preachers brought the witch-craze into various parts of Germany and on into Denmark. Calvinist missionaries took it to Transylvania, Switzerland and Scotland. In both Scotland and England witch laws were introduced following pressure from the "Marian exiles" - those same clergymen who had learned from Calvin or other reformers in Switzerland and Germany. The evangelism was continued by the Catholic counter-reformers wherever they went thus the revival of the witch craze in the 16th century was a product of both Protestantism and Catholicism and the struggle between the two as well as the resulting unstable political climate37. The witch-craze was a consequence of this renewed ideological struggle.
On a village level, social and religious upheaval
as a result of the religious wars caused added pressures to those pressures
already created by a rise in the single female population and the struggle
for dominance and power in female society, economic pressures causing resentment
against the beggar, "scape-goating" after personal or widespread misfortune,
the spread of disease and the accompanying climate of fear all contributed
to the accusations.
DWORKIN, Andrea, Woman Hating, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1974
HAYS, H.R. ,The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil, Methuen & Co, London, 1966
HOAK, D. "Witch Hunting and Women in the Art of the Renaissance", History Today, Feb. 1991
HOLMES, C., "Popular Culture? Witches, Magistrates and Divines in Early Modern England", in S. Kaplan, (ed.) Understanding Popular Culture
HOMER, The Odyssey, Book I, v. 216, Translated by E.V. Rieu, Penguin, Hammondsworth, 1971
KLAITS, J. Servants of Satan - the Age of the Witch Hunts, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1985
LARNER, Christine, Enemies of God: The Witch-hunt in Scotland, Chatto & Windus, London, 1981
LEVACK, B., The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe, Longman, London & New York, 1987
MIDELFORT, H.C.E., Witchhunting in Southwestern Germany 1562-1694, Stanford University Press, 1972
MONTER, E.W., Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, Cornell University Press, Ithaca & London, 1976
NICHOLS, D. "The Devil in Renaissance France", History Today, 30 (Nov. 1980)
ORTNER, S.B., "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?" in M. Rosaldo & L. Lamphere (eds) Women, Culture & Society,
QUAIFE, G.R. Godly Zeal & Furious Rage, Croom & Helm, London, 1987
SAWYER, R.C. "'Strangely Handled in all Her Lyms' Witchcraft and Healing in Jacobean England", Journal of Social History, xxii, 1988-9
SHARPE, J.A., "Witchcraft and Women in Seventeenth-century England: Some Northern Evidence", Continuity and Change, (vi), 1991
TREVOR-ROPER, H.R., The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Penguin, London, 1967
WILLIAMS, S.R. Riding the Nigtmare - Women and Witchcraft, Athenum, New York, 1978