Women accused of being witches burnt at the stake in Derenburg in 1555. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

During Halloween, witches resurface alongside other frightening figures summoned for the occasion. However, unlike pumpkins, zombies, and other poltergeists, witches have never entirely left the public consciousness in recent years.

Presented as women persecuted for being women, in the line of work by philosopher Silvia Federici and Mona Chollet, witches have long permeated the public discourse. The feminist activist and writer Lindy West or French deputy Sandrine Rousseau have, for instance, signed opinion columns associating this figure with their political demands. The repression of witchcraft is used as a metaphor for the female condition subject to patriarchal hegemony.

Historians are warier of throwing generalisations on the subject, despite recognising the misogynistic motivations underlying these accusations and the reality of the tens of thousands of women persecuted and killed for the crime of witchcraft.

So, what are we talking about when we mention “witches”? To provide an answer requires us to look at the question through three distinct but complementary angles. First, the actual persecution of individuals accused of witchcraft. Second, the latter’s symbolic dimension, a cultural construct that has developed over the centuries and is still active today. Third, the current phenomenon of individuals identifying as “witches,” especially followers of neo-pagan movements.

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The repression of witchcraft: a historical fact

From Antiquity, the Middle Ages retained memories of rigorous Roman and imperial legislation against magicians and magic, with death penalties for those carrying out harmful magic. Inherited from these conceptions, Christian Medieval times organized a campaign against all forms of pagan remnants, including magical and divinatory practices, idol worship, and more, which the Church encompassed as superstitions.

The first witchcraft trials appear in historical sources as early as the early 13th century, notably in Northern Italy. They became increasingly frequent due to a change in perception.

In fact, witchcraft was gradually considered a more serious crime. From the 1280s, it tended to be assimilated to heresy within a broader movement. At the same time, the Church initiated a large project to combat all heresies, in a context of political crisis and the assertion of papal power. It established a specific institution for this project, the Inquisition.

In this new paradigm, witchcraft explicitly involved a pact with the devil and the invocation of demons. As a result, the accused faced the punishment reserved for heretics: burning at the stake. A key moment in this new definition was the promulgation, in 1326, of the papal bull “Super illius specula” by Pope John XXII (1316-1334). Witchcraft was seen as a tangible threat to Christian society.

To combat it, the Church was not alone. Secular authorities – kings, lords, and cities – and their justice systems also participated in the repression.

The trials became more frequent in Europe and multiplied until the end of the 15th century, though it was not a mass phenomenon.

Although associated in the collective imagination with the Middle Ages, the “witch hunts” truly began in the early modern period.

Quantifying the repression of witchcraft is complex. Source preservation is incomplete, and their study is not exhaustive. Nevertheless, a consensus emerges. In Europe, between the 13th and 18th centuries, the number of witchcraft trials is estimated to range from 100,000 to 120,000 individuals, resulting in 30,000 to 50,000 executions.

Between 1550 and 1650, 80 to 85% of the accused were women

Among the accused individuals, women feature predominantly.

The latter had diverse profiles. Contrary to common belief, studies of the trials reveal that they were not exclusively marginalized women, elderly, single, or widowed, with individuals from all social categories appearing before the courts, including those well-integrated and prosperous.

No one was immune to accusations of witchcraft, often resulting from denunciations that could stem from rumors or tensions.

Initially, the judicial machinery was not specifically directed against them, but persecution focused on accused women from the late Middle Ages throughout the early modern period.

While in the medieval period, women and men were equally affected by this criminalization – with regional particularities sometimes observed – between 1560 and 1750, 80 to 85% of those prosecuted were women.

To understand this evolution, we must delve into the innovative concept of the Sabbath, upon which the witch hunts relied. This imagery, constructed in the 15th century, ostensibly included both men and women. However, from the beginning, as indicated by historians Martine Ostorero and Catherine Chêne, it disseminated seeds of misogyny that would amplify later, in a period marked by the intense circulation of stereotypes against women. In this paradigm, women, considered weaker, were more likely to succumb to the devil than men.

First and foremost, it is the belief in the reality of their pact with demons that led these women, as well as men and children, to face legal prosecution, with about half of them likely to be condemned, often to death.

From repression to myth

Several developments marked the end of the trials and initiated the decriminalization of witchcraft (such as the 1682 edict of the Parliament of Paris and the Witchcraft Act of 1736). In Europe, Anna Göldi was the last person executed for witchcraft in 1734 in Glaris, Switzerland.

Now decriminalized, the phenomenon became an object of study and fascination. Jules Michelet’s “Satanism and Witchcraft” (1862) was a significant turning point in the rehabilitation of the character. By emphasizing its symbolic and mythical dimension in the national historical discourse, the witch was no longer just a creation of the Church and the State to justify their power. It became an embodiment of the people, to which it attributed a particular genius and its revolt against the oppressions of the Middle Ages.

Simultaneously, a new approach to witchcraft emerged, focusing on its folkloric elements. Some authors, like the Brothers Grimm, sought to demonstrate the connections between witchcraft and ancient pagan beliefs. Their works contributed to the circulation of the witch figure in mainstream culture, leading to her “re-enchantment”.

Witches and paganism

At the turn of the 20th century, Alphonse Montague Summers suggested that witches were members of a secret organization hostile to the Church and the State, pursuing pagan cults predating Christianity. He is primarily responsible for the translation of the “Malleus Maleficarum,” a treatise by the Dominican Heinrich Kramer composed between 1486-1487, in which he called for the fight against the heresy of witches, giving new relevance to its content and his misogynistic theories, to which he adhered.

In 1921, Margaret Alice Murray proposed new and controversial interpretations of the paganism of witches.

In “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe” (1921), she posited the continuous existence of an ancient fertility cult dedicated to the goddess Diana, whose practices had been extended by the witches. She further proposed that the cult was found throughout Europe in witch sects (covens). In 1931, in “God of Witches,” she argued that this cult paid homage to a “horned god,” demonized in the Middle Ages, and that witches had been persecuted, after these covens were discovered around 1450 since they formed an underground resistance against the Church and the State.

Her theories are the basis for neo-pagan movements like Wicca. The followers of this religion call themselves witches. Initiated in the UK by Gerald Gardner, drawing inspiration from Murray’s work, Wicca is part of a broader contemporary pagan movement that claims to be a reactivation of a pre-Christian culture.

The number of practitioners of this religion is a topic of intense debate, but it is estimated that there could be around 1.5 million “Witches” or Wiccans in the United States.

Witches and Feminism

As early as the late 19th century, in the first wave of feminism, the famous American author and suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage saw witches as symbols of science repressed by obscurantism and the Church.

Within the women’s liberation movement, Murray’s work inspired a Witches Liberation Movement that gave rise to numerous feminist groups in the United States, particularly in New York, starting from October 1968.

By proposing to rehabilitate the term “witch” through the deconstruction of negative stereotypes associated with the term, the movement reinterpreted it as a symbol of female resistance.

In American circles, in 1973, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, journalists and writers, published “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers”, presenting a controversial theory. They argued that women had been persecuted as witches because their accumulated knowledge threatened the male-dominated medical establishment, particularly their understanding of the female body. While it is true that medical professions became male-dominated at the end of the Middle Ages, there is no evidence of a correlation between women’s knowledge and their prosecution for witchcraft. Historian David Harley even speaks of a “myth” of the witch-midwife.

At the same time, in Italy, activist movements advocating for the legalization of abortion and engaged in the “Unione Donne Italiane,” an Italian feminist association founded in 1944, drew inspiration from Michelet’s vision. Their slogan was “Tremate, tremate le streghe sono tornate” (Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned).

Emerging from these struggles, sociologist Leopoldina Fortunati and philosopher Silvia Federici proposed a new reading of Karl Marx to explain the emergence of capitalism. According to them, the birth of this system necessarily involved the accumulation of capital, made possible by the systematic dispossession of women by men, taking their unpaid labor, their bodies, their means of production, and reproduction. In other words, for these authors, capitalism could not have developed without the control of female bodies. The institutionalization of rape, prostitution, and witch hunts would have been manifestations of the systematic subjugation of women by men and the appropriation of their labor.

In this perspective, Françoise d'Eaubonne, a prominent figure in the French women’s liberation movement and ecofeminism, considered the witch hunts as a “centuries-long war against women” in her work “Le sexocide des sorcières” (in English: “"The sexocide of witches”)

Highly publicized, the figure of the witch has definitively entered everyday language as an essential symbol of female empowerment.

Thus, there is a clear gap between the historical understanding of a repression phenomenon and the interpretations that have invoked the witch figure since the 19th century.

These reinvestments, while not without approximations or anachronisms, possess value, both symbolically and analytically. They reflect current concerns, political, social, and cultural.

As the French feminist journal “Sorcières” (“Witches”) announced as early as 1975, they express the fight for women’s rights.The Conversation

Maxime Gelly-Perbellini, Doctorant en histoire du Moyen Âge, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.