Contours of the Withcraze in Germany


After years of being downgraded to esoteric and folkloric studies, European witchcraft is starting to emerge as a significant chapter in early contemporary history.  Particularly, the persecutions of 16th and 17th centuries have become subject of scholarly thought.  Gender is a core issue to European witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries and the link of females to the devil in witch hunts is an effort to enclose that women are most involved in practicising witchcraft against their friends and neighbors than men. Several authors have interpreted witch craze and use of sorcery against family and neighbors is linked to age and economic status of the victims accused of practicing witchcraft (Levack, 2006).

Robin Briggs

Gender is evidently central in some manner to witch hunts because more than 80 percent of victims were females.  The testimonies of executions, trials, demonologies, literature, art, chronicles and folklore points to asserted the anticipation that witches were women, who were usually old and often old.  However,   Robin Briggs claims that witchcraft was neither age nor gender specific and even in his personal approximate that 25 percent of the individuals executed were men still amounts a ratio of one man to three women.

Briggs argues that the witch hunters themselves were quoted saying that females were fifty or ten times more probably to be witches than males, but they were merely wrong on these facts.  To a certain extent their prejudice was a vital force in the shaping of the results of the trials, and this made them more likely to attempt and convict females.  Women were not only tried, but their proportions amid those executed were even greater. There were exemptions to this universal rule, in regions where witchcraft executions were comparatively low, such as Finland and Iceland (Briggs, 1996).

Other exemptions occurred in several of the most immense  witch hunts in Germany, but also the scheme of accusation started with stereotypical women witches , usually poor and old and spread to entail more males and higher class individuals. Additionally, a luger portion of males who went to stake were connected to previously accused wives, mothers or other female relative. Briggs writes that for the general populace and prosecutors, the stereotype of the old female as a witch had only an insignificant purchase on their minds.

Briggs rejects the age factor on ground that executions usually go back to decades when witches were younger. Briggs is determined to lessen the far reaching shifts that the mass hounds wrought on the standing of the woman.  He proclaims the ages 40 to 60 to be periods of responsibility, wealth and prestige.  Briggs personal discussions of Winningen trials in mid 1600s  displays that men rivalries at times resulted to accusation of their wives, other than the contending fellow men ,  particularly in Denmark and Germany.  He explains that the greater vulnerability of old and poor women to witchcraft accusations was because women tended to get engaged in quarrels of their husbands (Marwick, 1998).


Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas

Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane suggested that accusations of witchcraft acted as a channeling scheme for economic stress, particularly the erosion of conventional charitable practices in the village and the subsequent displacement of attitudes towards the most marginal and poorest members   of the society.   They also considered that tensions amid popular and elite culture reflected a dynamic amid a male dominated formal culture and a female dominated folk and family culture. The village conflicts and practices of sorcery were exclusively considered from the perspective of social and class satisfaction.

Keith Thomas, for instance, asserts that witches were usually females, particularly widows, not since the trials portrayed a battle amid the sexes, but because the economic dependence of the women resulting from a decline   in traditional manorial support of elderly in the society.  In the same way, Macfarlane asserts that witches were often women but concluded that there seems to be no any marked sexual aspect in Essex witchcraft since women were also to some extent likely to be victims (Karlsen, 1998).

Other authors have in the same way as Macfarlane and Thomas painted a gender neutral picture of witch hunting and witch beliefs or merely ignored gender altogether.   Richard Kiechefer, whose work on witchcraft did a lot to disentangle elite and popular notions  of witchcraft, takes minute note of sex beyond stating that approximately two thirds of the  people accused  of practicing witchcraft during the time from 1300-1500 were females.  The monumental and sensitive study of Basque witchcraft by Gustav Henningsen cites witchcrafts as wizards but not females in the index and analyses his data by age and not by sex.

He illustrates two groups of individuals as normally charged of being witches. The first group is composed of the weakest members of the society, including cripples, widows, beggars, orphans and very old people. The second group is composed of those individuals who had rejected the ethical order of the community, the envious, fawning, aggressive, thieving, promiscuous, spiteful and odd individuals who were in all ways unattractive. However, Henningsen does not take note of gender implications. Similarly, Norman Cohn cites that peasants who usually accused females, rather than males, of maleficia were merely following the old age , indeed a typical image of witch as a woman singling out individual females because they were ugly, bad tempered or ugly.

Erik Midelfort

The work of Midelfort focused on dynamics of trials as extending circles of panic, catching up both local populace and magistrates in a fury of condemnations.  He made a significant observation by illustrating that in trials he studied, people outside the old hag stereotype as witch, that is, young women, men, the wealthy and children were charged during the biggest of the hunts whereby the panic dynamics took on their personal inner momentum.  He also looked at demographic shift as a probable factor in witch hunts, citing the existence of comparatively huge figures of unmarried females as a reasonable explanation of witch hunts (Levack, 2006).

However, he somehow lamely winds up that females also seemed to aggravate somehow on an immense misogyny sometimes and claims that females attracted to themselves a scapegoating scheme which led to their extensive executions.  Similarly, Geoffrey Robert Quaife who dedicated two chapters of work  to the topic of sex, misogyny and gender in his study of the witch trials, suggested that gender  wasn’t the most significant constituent in witch hunts, or possibly not a an aspect at all.  He cited misogyny was the pessimistic side of a male’s attitude to the female and in numerous cases didn’t dominate.  Older females were charged with witchcraft because of their economic susceptibility and since they were predisposed to depression, senility, or both.


The study of Carol Karlsen on witchcraft in colonial England, admirably illustrates both the way witch hunts were entrenched in the specific cultural scene of particular communities and the compliance of the misogynistic attitudes to differing cultural atmospheres. According to Karlsen, the cause of witchcraft accusations in New England was the trepidation of psychologically and economically independent females who threatened in numerous manners to upset the male control of the social order and property, particularly the women who wanted to inherit property   because their husbands did not have sons and brothers (Walker, 2000).

These females were furthermore perceived by the society as being discontent; implying that they were refusing to recognize their place within the social hierarchy and this discontent subsequently brought in its awake the associated sins of envy, pride, anger, seductiveness, lying and maliciousness.  Forced to rebuff that idea that females were inherently more evil than males by the stress Puritanism placed on priesthood of every believer, Puritan males similarly harbored a great suspicion of females as potentially able and willing to interrupt moral and social order, a hostility that is only partly solved by formulation of the role of women as that of chaste, helpmate, deferential and submissive to male heads of society and family.  Therefore, witchcraft accusations and trials were imposed on women in order to suppress their rise in the society and to prevent them from taking male roles.


From the above discussion, it is evident that authors display women being mainly involved in witch hunts particularly, the old and poor women.  Witchcraft accusations were used as channeling schemes for economic distress, because old females were seen as being poor as a result of erosion of customary charitable practices which lead to psychological and economic independent of females who threatened to upset the male control of property and social order. Therefore, women were accused of practicing sorcery so as to suppress their capability of taking male roles in their communities. The binding of women to witch was an attempt to enclose women because they were distrusted and feared that they could lead to moral and social order.

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