The pages of human history include many great episodes, some of which may seem quite strange to the modern reader. In an era when scientific activity was not prioritized or encouraged, obscurantism and belief in imaginary scenarios were recognized among social attitudes. For this reason, scientists who proposed ideas contrary to church pillars were burned at the stake, as were women who were regarded as witches.
What caused a particular woman to be classified as a witch is a matter of historical and sociological debate, but it is clear that in this sense, bias and slander were a frequent practice not regulated by law. As a result, several tens of thousands of European women were burned as witches throughout time. This essay aims to explore the problem in-depth and to try to identify those aspects of women’s nature that caused society to regard them as witches.
Women’s rights have not been seriously criticized by the academic and social communities for millennia since the agenda has never created opportunities for discussion. Women were often seen as complementary to the intelligent, hard-working man who was supposed to provide for the family and advance progress. Thus, a woman was a helpful wife, a caring mother, or a low-skilled laborer, but when a woman tried to achieve results in activities unclassical for her gender, it was ridiculed (Clay 101). Strong women, however, have always existed: women’s opposition has resisted gender discrimination, promoted emancipation, and contributed to progress.
Amanda Foreman discusses this in The Ascent of Woman, showing that women’s history is nonlinear and cannot be viewed strictly in a one-dimensional plane of enslavement and recognition (DCD). In particular, Foreman tells us that women authored seminal works of historical value or were literally sacred in times of active agricultural development (Clay 215). In other words, women’s role in human history has not been unambiguous; but instead, they have been able to excel in different eras, though not always easily. Moreover, it is precisely the permissibility of such a scenario, in which women find themselves on the same level as men, that created the horizon for the misperception of women.
During the Middle Ages, the social role of women was somewhat suppressed. This was due primarily to the dominant agenda of medieval European communities: church foundations were paramount, so any deviation from Christian ideas was regarded as heresy and atheist, punishable by church laws. It was with this period that the image of the ugly female witch flying on a broom became deeply ingrained in public history. The unlikeliness of this image has an obvious origin: in the Middle Ages, witches were illegal, so public propaganda tried to portray them in a frightening, unassuming way so as not to create sympathy from contemporaries. Witches were often credited with committing anti-human acts, whether killing babies or using curses during gatherings called a coven. However, the main question is still not what precisely a female witch was in medieval European cities, but why she was regarded as a witch; in other words, what exactly made a particular woman a witch.
The main reason for such accusations has always been to transcend the social roles to which a woman was supposed to belong. For the ecclesiastical polity, there are particular laws and reforms, deviation from which is not standard practice, but on the contrary, is punishable by law. Whether or not magic actually existed and whether such women — or feminine men — could control the elements and cast curses, it was always enough to classify an individual as a witch by the standards of the era (Brauner 13; Nider 8).
Interestingly, it was women who were perceived as witches, whereas men, for a number of reasons, could not be regarded as such and thus were not burned at the stake as punishment for witchcraft. This was primarily due to the fact that men were traditionally the more educated and capable members of society, and therefore it was assumed that men could not be exposed to demonic forces, unlike weak-willed women (Pisan 4). Thus, education and the resulting accessibility to knowledge were essential predictors for classifying women as witches. However, there are other factors for categorizing women as witches.
Another interesting reason as to precisely what female traits made them be regarded as witches is scripture. Suffice it to recall that it is the Bible that is the key book defining the order and rules of Christian communities (Theologiae 2). According to the Bible, Eve, as an extension of Adam’s soul, first entered into sin by eating the forbidden fruit. The approximation of these ideas to the topic under discussion allows us to conclude that women were evaluated as more vulnerable and willing to sin, and probably for that reason, too, women were seen as more susceptible to the sin of witchcraft (Mackay 7). In other words, the medieval European woman was regarded as a lustful and vicious divine creature who was most likely to become a witch, in contrast to the pure, almost holy man. Not only education and the Christian agenda, however, were the primary reasons for defining female witches.
Witch women were often referred to as those who possessed a particular beauty. Although, in general, the concept of beauty is something subjective and unmeasurable, beautiful people are not hard to spot. When European priests were at the head of the church, the Inquisition became a wholly subjective and prejudicial exercise. Only men in cassocks and with Bibles in their hands determined whether a woman was a witch and, if so, subjected her to an act of public burning. In developing this context, it is evident that beauty was then measured strictly by the priest’s perception — if the woman appeared beautiful enough, it was often the reason for her being classed as a worshipper of heresy.
It is noteworthy that red hair and freckles were often singled out among the appearance patterns as an obvious sign of witches. In this case, red hair was associated with hellfire, which meant that such a woman was perceived as something demonic. In addition, it is interesting to point out that many men were always interested in different-sex relationships with women, and incredibly the most beautiful of them. In case a woman possessed enough power, she could refuse a man, which created reasons for interpersonal conflicts (Pisan 5). In other words, a woman could be perceived as a witch if she refused a man.
In conclusion, it is worth emphasizing that the role of women in social history has not been unambiguous. To strictly point out that women were suppressed by the male community and could in no way transcend the rigid limits of pressure is wrong. Few women over the centuries have been able to excel and leave a mark on history. On the other hand, the significance of women has not always been under pressure: depending on the civilization, women may have been holy and revered. However, when the Christian community reached its apogee in medieval Europe, the role of women visibly changed.
It is essential to make some generalizations to notice which women, in general, might have been perceived as witches by the practice of medieval European Christianity. First and foremost are women such as the character Marguerite from the world-famous book The Master and Marguerite: Marguerite is strong in spirit, she knows exactly what she wants, and she knows how to get it. If a woman had enough knowledge to be on the same level or even higher than men, this caused a resonance among the male community: why suddenly could a woman be better than a man. In this case, women were under pressure from the Christian community accusing them of witchcraft.
In addition, the woman may have been beautiful and confident enough to refuse an overbearing man: because of this conflict, a stigma was created against the woman. One way to resolve conflicts among such men was to oppress the woman and classify her as a witch. Thus, the role of women in the medieval Christian community was ambiguous: although women continued to strengthen their role in human history, religious patriarchy prevented it. The above-mentioned attributes became the reason that such a woman was perceived as a witch, although by modern standards, she was a confident, strong, and independent person, encouraged by society.
The Ascent of Woman. Directed by DCD, performance by Amanda Foreman, Acorn TV, 2015.
Brauner, Sigrid. “Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews.” The Construction of the Witch in Early Modern Germany, edited by Robert H. Brown, University of Massachusetts Press Amherst, 1995, pp. 13-20.
Clay, Catherine. “The Atlantic World 1492-1750: Speaking for.” Envisioning Women in World History: Prehistory-1500, edited by Catherine Clay, Paul Chandrika, and Christine Senecal, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009, pp. 77-103.
Clay, Catherine. “Western Europe in the Central and Late Middle Ages (1050-1500 C.E.).” Envisioning Women in World History: Prehistory-1500, edited by Catherine Clay, Paul Chandrika, and Christine Senecal, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009, pp. 183-234.
Mackay, Christopher S. The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Nider, Johannes. Formicarius. 1437.
Pisan, Christine de. The Book of the City of Ladies. Persea, 1982.
Theologiae, Summa. “Summa Theologica.” Structure, vol. 4, 1938, pp. 1-3.