Think of a witch. Any witch. I’m willing to bet you’ve imagined some hideous old crone, bent over a cauldron with black pointy hat perched on her head and a black cat skulking about nearby (or a pretty teenager with a wisecracking cat like in the seminal ’90s programme, Sabrina the Teenage Witch). The image of the dangerous female sorcerer has been ingrained in western culture since the Early Modern witch craze in Europe, and the later panics about witchcraft in America. But harmful magic was not always gendered in this way. Our current preconceptions and ideas really began to take shape in the middle ages, specifically the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. During this time magic was certainly not the sole preserve of women; in fact, certain forms of sorcery such as necromancy were distinctly masculine affairs. The magical imbalance between the genders has never been about who was practicing magic, but how that magic was represented. Here I aim to tell you how narratives around magic were used to demonise women in a way that continues to have an impact on ideas of gender today.

First off, a definition of the term “witch”. By the fifteenth century, a witch was not just a person who practiced magic. She also indulged in specific activities which defined her from the common-or-garden wise person: her magic was used mostly to harm, and was acquired by renouncing God and worshipping the Devil. Witches held meetings called Sabbats, sacrificed children, held orgies, left their bodies and flew at night, were accompanied by “familiars”, had a third nipple somewhere, and, if Monty Python are to be believed, weighed less than ducks. They were also not individual magicians, but part of an organised, secret group which committed the most heinous crimes against Christians (though there is, of course, no evidence of such an organised conspiracy). Similarly, though “witchcraft” was first used as a synonym for magic, later it only referred to the specific malicious action of witches. This definition only emerged in the later middle ages, as we shall see, but has had a fearsome grip on the Western imagination ever since.

Though condemned by the Catholic Church, magic and superstition was part of life in the middle ages. Some practitioners went unnoticed, and some were prosecuted. Patterns of belief and understanding magic developed during the era, as new knowledge from Arabic learning entered Europe, and theologians rethought how demonic and natural magic worked. Natural magic is that which exists in the world as an element of God’s creation, such as metals’ natural magnetic properties, while demonic magic was worked by demons who were instructed by the sorcerer. Natural magic was generally seen as ok, as it used elements God had created – but this becomes a more complicated view when you start to argue that God created demons too. Demons are always bad. Do not ask them to help you.

“Dancing Witches” and demons at a Sabbat. Woodcut from an
18th Century chap-book, held by Ashmolean library

In a recent masters thesis, an esteemed, intelligent and highly attractive researcher – all right, me – examined church court records between 1363 and c.1520 for instances of magic being prosecuted as a crime. I analysed this corpus of 47 cases thematically, looking specifically at gender, changing purposes behind the practices, and how this linked in to the church’s growing concern with heresy and general unorthodox beliefs infringing on “approved” Christian practices. It is worth noting that the majority of these cases were brought to trial not primarily because of the magical element, but because the accused failed to uphold their side of an agreement, or otherwise wronged the prosecutor. Most interestingly, however, is the split between men and women performing certain kinds of magic. Perhaps you would expect more women than men, but my results showed an almost 50:50 split; it was in the types of magic practiced that showed different gender ratios.

Many cases in my study concerned “helpful” magic – people healing, or helping to find lost or stolen goods. Almost equal numbers of men and women took part in these activities, though overall men were called on more often to help others, with women acting more often for themselves. However, when it comes to magic intended to cause harm, impotence, or persuade someone to love another, only women were accused. It could be that male sorcerers doing this kind of magic were simply not caught as often, but the predominance of women here has also been found in similar studies by other academics (see the references below if interested). There was also an overall increase in women being prosecuted for magic: in the fourteenth century, only men were put on trial, but the end of the fifteenth century, there was a small majority of female defendants instead.[1]

Interestingly, only men dealt in the most dangerous form of magic: necromancy. This was originally defined as communicating with the dead to help prophesise the future, but later meant any communing with demons or the dead. Necromantic practices and rituals, such as creating wax figures, chanting Latin spells and drawing symbols, could only be done by those who could read the instructions as set down in books such as The Key of Solomon; and who was the only group trained in Latin and with access to books at the time? Men, specifically churchmen, whom historian Richard Kieckhefer has nicknamed “the clerical underworld”, which I feel would also make a good band name.

In short, though men indulged in the worse crime of summoning demons, women were still very much associated with harmful magic, usually through cursing. Perhaps this was seen as the only way a woman could promise some form of retribution if slighted: she could probably not physically fight back, or have much power to prosecute. You can see the elements of stereotypical witchcraft starting to appear here: fear of emasculation, uncontrollable women, and the demonic influence; but the fully-fledged witch in England still does not appear properly until the Early Modern period.

The term “wychecraft” is first used in Britain in 1499, but on the continent it appeared as a concept much earlier. Schisms within the Catholic Church and the appearance of different heretical ideas led the authorities to become increasingly concerned with what unorthodox and potentially threatening practices the “ordinary people” knew. In 1326 Pope John XII first gave inquisitors powers to investigate magic, under their general jurisdiction over anything heretical, but it is not until the fifteenth century that there is any hint of organised witch hunts in Europe. The majority of medieval trials began with an accusation against someone, but the inquisitorial method (turning up in an area and asking, “hey, seen any magic lately/got a grudge against anyone?”) became more popular amongst the authorities during this period, and allowed for faster uncovering of crimes. Contrary to popular belief, however, it was not a method developed just for rooting out heresy, and the “Inquisition” was not an organised medieval CIA based in Rome. Instead, men were appointed inquisitors for a certain area, with jurisdiction to investigate rumour of anything heretical.[2] The zeal and methods of these individuals varied.

The first organised witch-trials emerged in the Western Alps in the late 1420s, and spread to Northern Italy, Switzerland and southern Germany, leading to the Council of Basel in 1431-37. This church council standardised the stereotype of the satanic witch, and delegates who attended, returned to their native areas to spread the word, and hunt for witches themselves. From this, fear of demonic magic spread across Europe through pamphlets and guide books instructing churchmen in what they should preach against and how to conduct confessions. The recent invention of the printing press helped these texts circulate widely, along with other fictional tales of witches. There were also books written by churchmen to help others identify witches; the most famous of these is probably the Malleus Maleficarum, or, “The Hammer of the Witches”. This was written by a vociferous witch-hunter Heinrich Kramer in 1487, and it appeared in at least thirteen editions by 1520 (and was revived for even more editions in the late sixteenth century). Kramer’s popular book is extremely misogynist to modern eyes. Indeed, historians widely credit this text as the work which established witchcraft as a gendered crime. For the first time, witches are identified as primarily female; furthermore, all women are prone to indulging in witchcraft because “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in woman insatiable.”[3] Many of the crimes Kramer details are sexual in nature. A Freudian psychologist could no doubt have a field day with the charge that witches can steal a man’s penis and keep it in a box, where it wanders around happily eating grain.

“Witches on broomsticks” from 1451 (one of earliest images of witches on
brooms) French MS of “Le Champion des Dames”. Paris, Bibliothèque
nationale de France, MS. Fr. 12476, fol. 105v.

Many, many other scholars have investigated the sexism inherent in the history of witchcraft, a large topic which, alas, I cannot do justice to here (again see the end references for more information if interested). It suffices to say that, somewhere along the line, the fear of necromancers wreaking havoc with demons was transferred to women. Though the learned magician or warlock continued to be feared, it was not with such intensity as it had been in the earlier middle ages. Perhaps the learned men writing the treatises against witches were not as afraid of other learned men as they were of women with their wild emotions. These threatening women could cause them problems, or destroy the essence of their manliness, without having to be very educated. Theologians argued that women did not need to read manuals to make demons submit to their will like the necromancers. Instead, women merely performed rituals which acted as signals to the demons, who would work the magic for them. As women were the weaker sex, they were more susceptible to the advances of a demon and easily seduced into worshiping them.

However, England was not gripped by the same fear that haunted the continent. It is not entirely clear why, for though there were many of the same fears of harm and heresy in this country, and links with our European neighbours no doubt introduced information about witchcraft into the country, there is no similar evidence of mass trials and published works. The first anti-witchcraft law in England was passed by Henry VIII in 1542, and was the first to set the death penalty for offenders. Elizabeth I passed another law in 1563 which only ordered death when harm had been caused. It wasn’t until James VI of Scotland became James I of England that actions against witches increased. James became fearful of witchcraft after being caught in storms while travelling to Denmark in 1590, and personally intervened in the North Berwick Trials of the same year. He became obsessed, setting up commissions to investigate suspects (recommending the use of torture) and writing his book, Daemonologie on the threat of witchcraft in 1597. He considered himself an expert on the subject. The three witches in Macbeth were written to reflect the monarch’s belief in the malicious supernatural, and indeed, Shakespeare adapted many quotes and rituals for the play direct from James’ book. The Weird Sisters’ appearance in popular culture helped cement the stereotypically imagined witch as a crone prophesising over a cauldron.

At roughly the same time on the continent, witch trials really peaked between 1580 and 1630. The largest trials occurred notably in the Basque, Wurzberg, Bamberg and Trier, with estimates suggesting that over 3000 people may have been executed during these four events alone. Throughout the whole medieval and Early Modern periods, it appears that Germany was the most affected by the witch-fear.

Soon, trials became more sporadic as skepticism grew, but the fear of female magic practitioners has continued up to the present day. Recent groups have reclaimed the name as a force for good, by identifying themselves as white- or hedge-witches, who practice magic for helpful and benevolent ends, much like many of the women who appeared in my thesis mentioned above. But still the idea of the hook nosed evil-doer persists. She is a striking feature of many a good story, and the witch shows no sign of loosening her grip on popular imagination any time soon.


Further Reading:

Michael Bailey, Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy and Reform in the Late Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State Uni Press, 2003).

Marianne Hester, “Patriarchal Reconstruction and Witch Hunting” in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief (CUP, 1996).

Karen Jones and Michael Zell, “’The Divels Special Instruments’: Women and Witchcraft Before the Great Witch-Hunt”, Social History 30, no. 1 (2005), 45-63. A study of 95 magic cases in Canterbury between 1396 and 1543.

P.G. Maxwell Stewart, The British Witch: The Biography (Amberley, 2014) takes the history of the witch through history, up to the modern era.

Catherine Rider, Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages (OUP, 2006). All you need to know about causing and remedying impotence.

Catherine Rider, Magic and Religion in Medieval England (Reaktion Books, 2012) looks at the church’s response to magic, and the recording of practices.


[1] Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (CUP, 2000), 187.

[2] Henry Ansgar Kelly, “Inquisition and the Prosecution of Heresy: Misconceptions and Abuses” in Inquisitions and Other Trial Procedures in the Medieval West (Ashgate, 2001), 446.

[3] Heinrich Kramer, Malleus Maleficarum trans. Montague Summers (Dover, 1971), 47.