Why Were Women So Accused of Being Witches in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries?


Why Were Women So Accused of Being Witches in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries?

Early modern Europe was the epicentre of many social, religious and economic changes. Against the backdrop of the Reformation and the Peasant Wars in the early sixteenth century, the belief in witches was rampant throughout mainland Europe. Women were the main targets of the European witch hunts. Regarding the thoughts and belief system of ordinary people between the fifteenth and eighteenth century, there are a number of reasons why women were targeted as witches. Church Doctrine along with some popular writers of the time incorporated a large amount of misogyny into their ideas. These ideas, that spread quickly with the aid of the printing press would have influenced much of the European population to believe that women were liabilities and often accessories to evil proceedings.

This misogynistic thinking would also have influenced the type of women who were accused of witchcraft during this period. Midwives and lay healers were suspected due to a new male-dominated profession and also the competition of other women in a male-dominated society. Older superstitions and beliefs that had been embedded in the psyche of both the laity and elite, show a strong sense of caution towards the power surrounded by the female sex. These superstitions stretch as far back as Ancient Rome. It is possible that the acknowledgement of the idea of female power evolved into fear with the emergence of Christianity and new faiths like Protestantism and Lutherism. Economic and social upheaval could also have contributed to the hysteria of the witch-hunts, especially during the 1520s when the Peasant Wars were taking place. All of these factors could have been outwardly portrayed in the chaos and the fear surrounding the witch-hunts. They could also have contributed to the reasons why so many women were accused of witchcraft at this time.


1. Church doctrine had a great deal to do with shaping the image of the nature and personalities of women in the minds of early modern Europeans. It was clear that, according to religious teachings, women were creatures who would entrap men and perform selfish and cunning deeds given the slightest opportunity. In France in the seventeenth century, male-dominated marriages were promoted by the Church, especially as sin was specifically linked to women, who were in need of harsh governance.

Schools dedicated to writers like Galen believed that women were in need of sexual intercourse more regularly than men as they would suffer from fits of collapsing, respiratory problems or even mental health issues. Galen’s ideas also included the belief that men were made of hot, dry matter and women of cold, wet matter. A man’s biological composition reflected his rational personality whereas a woman was naturally untrustworthy and weak. Such teachings were paramount to the beliefs of ordinary people in this period. Believing that women were, irrational, sneaky, weak and wanton set the perfect foundation for the stereotype of traits found in witches. Heinrich Institoris also promotes the belief that women lack self-control and direction:

‘They do this in goodness when they are ruled by a good spirit and as a result, they become excellent. They can also do this in evil when they are ruled by an evil spirit and as a result become very bad.’

The misogynistic suspicion that women were natural wrongdoers fit perfectly with the Institoris’ claim that the Devil sought women to become his partners more often than men. The Devil would have needed sexually immoral partners to promote evil in society and to cement the sexual pact between them.

There is also evidence to suggest that more serious deals were made like blood pacts. Elizabeth Francis’ witch trial in 1566 included an accusation that she was persuaded to ‘... renounce GOD and his words, and to geue of her bloudde to Sathan...’

Women were creatures that would cause the downfall of man if the opportunity arose. The urge to control and suppress feminine nature and sexuality was viewed as a necessity according to religion and early modern writers. The Papal Bull, 'Summis Desiderantes Affectibus' was issued by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. This could also have created the conviction in the minds of some Christians that the evils of witchcraft did exist and was admonished by the highest religious authority. Although most witch-trials took place in rural areas in Europe, the image of the typical witch, that possessed unquenchable carnal lust and inferior intellectual ability, was also promoted by upperclass intellectuals and not just clerical groups. Even at the court of Charles VI of France, there had been rumours that the King’s insanity was down to the sorcery of his sister-in-law, Valentina Visconti. The belief in witchcraft moved beyond theoretical superstitions to having influence in political agendas.

2. The reason why some of the elite class could also have spread the belief of female-dominated witchcraft was the presence of the ‘wise woman’ or lay healer in the rural community. Due to a revival in education in the thirteenth century, medical institutions and schools emerged. Typically, upperclass young men had the opportunity to practice medicine and achieve the training they needed to become professional physicians. However, the methods taught in these institutions differed from those used by the lay women healers. They were seen as dangerous, outlawed techniques used only to cause harm. These methods would probably have been feared due to the fact that they appeared to have been naturally acquired by these peasant women. The reason why nearly seventy-five percent of witch trials consisted of accusations against women in most European areas had a lot to do with the type of women accused. Not only were healers or ‘wise women’ targeted as witches but midwives, cooks and Widows were also seen as women to be cautious of. Midwifery was a mysterious and uncertain area in the early modern period. Many things could go wrong during the birth of a child and as helping with the delivery was a job dominated by women up until the eighteenth century it could have had serious repercussions on the midwife or lying-in servant. Particularly in Augsburg, crimes relating to newborns or new mothers seemed to be significant in witch-trials.

The theme of infanticide that was incorporated into the ideology of witchcraft was a common belief. The concept of witches using the flesh of dead infants to produce poisons was thought to be a main ideological fact in this period. In January 1669, Anna Ebler, a woman employed as a lying-in maid, was accused of murdering a new mother and bewitching the children.

Lying-in, as a pregnant mother-to-be was quite a confining process and often spent only in the company of other female friends. The lying-in maid would take up the duties of a mother to the newborn child in the aftermath of the birth. Sometimes the newborns could fall ill after the maid’s employment came to an end and this was often deduced as evil witchcraft. Becoming a mother is a sensitive time.

Any harm that might come to a child either before or after the birth could cause a woman to become embittered or confused. They might search for explanations regarding persons that had been in close proximity to herself and her child. Henry Institoris wrote a list in Malleus Maleficarum of the harm witches intended to do in society. It stated that witches destroyed women’s ability to reproduce and caused miscarriages.

It was believed that witches pressed down on pregnant mothers, to destroy the pregnancy and also only fed a person when they intended harm. This is why some cooks were suspected. In a typical European rural society, daily activities such as going to market, washing clothes and baking were community activities. Women possessed their own social hierarchy and it was possible that some women testified against each other during some of the trials were to show obedience to society.

Jealousies could also have been formed between some women due to what they perceived as nonconformity or lack of consideration for the rules.

In some cases, widows were also the targets of witchcraft accusations. A woman who lived in solitude without a husband to head the family might have been seen as threateningly independent or suspicious. Mediterranean wives, however, often married young and too much older men. They gained more authority in the family in middle-age when their older husbands died. However, in the European marriages where the spouses were of equal age, often resulted in a widow being a disadvantaged position.

3. Some external factors could be considered when looking at the witch-trials of early modern Europe. Germany, particularly southern Germany participated in large witch hunts in Wurzburg and Bamberg. In Wurzburg, domino effect accusations took place along with a town mayor or ‘burgomaster’ being accused in Bamberg. The 1520s in Germany seemed to be economically turbulent and chaotic. There was weak princely governance and this caused the rural population to challenge their overlords. This was known as the Peasant Wars. Crop failure was almost immediately linked to witchcraft and the crop failures of the 1520s, that became almost chronic in Franconia, could have seriously influenced the population into thinking they had a witch in their community. The tensions that spread through the southern German region at the end of 1523 were concentrated in Wurzburg and Bamberg. The financial pressures in Bamberg such as the addition of two new war levies, in 1519 in 1524, and a consecration tax in 1522 could have caused a breakdown in social order and triggered paranoia. These taxes also came around the same time of the crop failures in Franconia and the idea of supernatural causes might not have been so bizarre.

4. However, there could be another reason as to why so many women were persecuted of witchcraft. The images of unbridled feminine sexuality, the suspicion of midwives, widows, female lay-healers and agricultural failure were factors of the belief that witches did exist in early modern society. An old belief in powerful female deities or creatures that coexisted with the inhabitants of the ancient world could also have helped to form the opinion that women possessed natural power. However, this power was viewed as unnatural and evil over time. The word ‘lamiae’ comes from a reference to a mythical Queen of Libya who was the consort of Zeus, who targeted children on account of the death of her own babies. Another belief stems from the myth of a ‘wild hunt’ with the Roman Goddess of fertility Diana when lay women would join her at night. The images of dominant women figures that originated from a polytheistic religion evidently did not sit well in a period of religious reform. There are some formidable images of creatures called ‘strix’ or ‘strigae’ in Roman mythology whom the Roman poet, Ovid, believed resembled old women. It was believed that the ‘strix’ would search for vulnerable babies and that men who suffered from impotence, were being affected by a Strix.

Germanic tribes also seemed to have a fear of mythical cannibalistic women or ‘Lex Salica’ in the sixth century. It was clear that a primal fear of evil, dangerous and nocturnal women showed itself to be evident amongst European communities long before the witch-hunting period began. However, any portrayal of women with alleged power or supernatural status was eventually convicted as nefarious. There had been a Sicilian belief of beautiful ladies whose main traits were that of independence and the protection of households. However, this ideology began to change around the thirteenth century. Some women felt that they themselves could attach their spirits with those of the ‘Ladies of the Night’ and enquiries were held in Milan from 1384 to 1390 for women who felt that they followed these ladies at night time or joined Diana on a ‘wild hunt.’ Another Goddess, Herodias, was also worshipped in the polytheistic Roman religion alongside Diana. She was the Moon Goddess and was also associated with the dark danger and feminine cannibalism.


These myths and peasant beliefs made up part of the fabric of the European psyche when it came to the view of women. The powerful, supernatural women like Diana and Herodias were not to be trusted as they were pagan deities and inspired women to go on evil midnight errands. The Sicilian belief of the ‘Ladies of the Night’ was soon quelled and corrupted by the new theory that these ladies were in fact demons in disguise.

There are many factors to examine when asking why so many women were persecuted during the early modern witch-hunts. Teachings and writings of the Church and other clerics, such as Henry Institoris and Jacob Sprenger, were key components of shaping the attitudes of some Europeans in the early modern period. They honed in on the ideas of male dominance and superiority and also set down some solid witchcraft ideology. This ideology also produced discriminatory attitudes against some women with honest careers, particularly midwives and lay-women healers. Since infanticide was a deed that was widely believed to have been performed by witches to please Satan, lying-in servants were often suspected during their employment.

‘Wise women’ were seen to have been suspicious due to their alleged healing talents, obtained without formal education. Due to promoting male control in society, one could argue that some women were inclined to compete with each other to be seen as the most obedient. This could have led to jealousy and blossoming rumours among the female community and resulted in serious implications for some women. Economic difficulty could also be seen as a significant element when dealing with the reasons why most rural German communities suspected witchcraft. The harsh financial situations of the 1520s in Germany caused the downfall of some German rural communities as a result of weak governance. However, despite this crop failure also seemed to be a feature of this period. Crop failure and bad harvests were associated with witchcraft and this unrest increased the paranoia, particularly in Wurzburg and Bamberg where most of the turbulence was situated.

Lastly, old myths and superstitions concerning powerful women, whether seen as good or evil, could also be argued as a key component of shaping the European opinion of female- dominated witchcraft. The beliefs of old tribes and communities in Germania and Ancient Rome could have left their mark on the later lay population of Europe. It could be argued that these factors are key elements concerning the reasons behind why so many women were accused of witchcraft in the early modern period.

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Katie-Rose Coughlan

I am a history student and a literature enthusiast. I love to write and constantly stray from topic to topic, whether it's history, politics, poetry or everyday life.

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