This article features in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

The study of the persecution of witches is not a new idea – the almost morbid fascination with women’s persecution in the form of witch trials has permeated our imaginations for decades. Indeed, the image of the witch has long been a figure of literature and art: from folkloric tales, to modern day films. Yet beneath the comical and exaggerated depictions in popular media and children’s literature lies a very real history, with arguably quite disturbing ties to medieval Christianity and the persecution of women more generally.

The witch trials of the Middle Ages did not solely focus on women. However, the persecution of fringe groups, though equally as horrific, can be explained through the simple fact that they were not Christian. Specifically targeting just over half of the population is much more difficult to explain away. The turmoil Europe faced towards the start of the witch hunts led to an unusual set of circumstances that culminated in the campaign against women. The religious wars, revolts, disease, and more made it easy for the populace to turn their fear and hatred towards witches once the seed of persecution had been planted.

In order for Christianity to triumph, the church leaders had to come up with an idea to convert pagans across the world. This involved throwing any belief that was not Christian into the realm of the kingdom of Satan. This, in turn, contributed to the way the devil was depicted in medieval art. Without a standardised image, the devil took on attributes from pagan gods such as cloven feet, horns, and a quasi-animal form. We can see these features in Pan/Faunus of the Greek/Roman pantheon, as well as in the Celtic god Cernunnos.
Consider then, the witch confessions. Despite their ambiguous nature – often given under the influence of torture, or through the suggestion of Inquisitors or judges – there were references to worshipping a horned god. It is natural that a Christian Inquisitor would take this image and focus on the elements now associated with the devil. Suddenly, women with even vague pagan ties were easily associated with devil worship: one of the main characteristics of a witch.

Yet there is another reason that women in particular came to be associated with the devil. Women had, for a long time, been closely linked with nature. They knew the medicinal qualities plants had to offer, and had been seen as magical healers prior to the spread of Christianity. The church did not take issue with the belief in magic itself, but it was the fact that magical miracles were being performed by the laity, specifically women, that became a problem. Folk medicine was almost exclusively practiced by women. The apparent opposition of “white” and “black”, good and bad, magic did not yet exist within folk practices. Instead, it was Christianity that divided magic up. The church’s need to be the dominant force in society created a binary opposition within women’s healing magic, then took the positive side for itself. Miracles had to be done in the name of God, thus these women must have been creating evil. Women’s long standing place in society, and her connection to nature, had been severed, and she had been placed in league with the devil. 

Even in the heavens, women had been thrust out of their traditional place by men. Pagan gods replaced matriarchal goddesses, and later even they were replaced by a singular Christian God. It is not surprising then, that long standing misogyny found its way into the method of the demonisation of women. In a patriarchal society, no woman could be dominant; even evil had to be headed by a man. Enter Satan, and witches’ “confessions” alluding to the worship of a horned beast.

Some have argued that the Christian Church revered women, and point to the Cult of the Virgin Mary as evidence. Yet the idolised status of Mary simply serves as further evidence for the total destruction of the idea of woman. Mary was the “perfect” woman: she was pure, free from sin, and the most-holy mother of Jesus. Nothing about her depiction is reminiscent of real women – she had been removed from humanity and placed on a pedestal that told real women they were inherently sinful.

The church turned the idea of a woman into two opposing sides. Mary acted as one half of the binary. If she was the pure soul, the witch was the evil body. Sexual desire, menstruation, power, and personal freedom were sinful and improper. Quietness, subordination, and motherhood were the ideal. Woman’s very nature became taboo. Mary became a desexualised spiritual woman, reduced solely to her ability to produce children (and even this in a sinless, sexless way). The witch was her exact opposite: the childless, lust-driven creature of evil.

By Eleanor Maher