16 November 2009


Alison Rowlands. (ed.). Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

There are two popular modern conceptions about the witchcraft trials of the early modern period, the idea that they were a sort of gender war launched by patriarchal males against women, and a older idea that they represented the hangover from medieval superstition.
This book explicitly challenges the former, and serves to remind us even more clearly how false the latter is.

The problem with the sex war and radical feminist interpretations of witchcraft is that, as Alison Rowlands points out in her introductory paper, about 20-25% of the victims of the witchcraft trials were men, and in some places they were a majority. It is this anomaly of male witches, which a group of scholars meeting at the University of Exeter in April 2006 addressed, and the papers in this collection are based on those given there.

Much of the discussion will be of great interest to academics in the fields of fields of the history of the family, ideas about magic, gender studies, sociology of deviance etc., but perhaps what the lay audience would want is some deep insight into the nature of persecutionary outbreaks.

There are no grand conclusions, no one formula to explain male witches, but there are a number of hints and recurring themes. Some groups of men might, certainly in some places, be vulnerable; shepherds and herdsmen for example, perhaps because they were seen as needing magical knowledge to care for their flocks, or perhaps because they were regarded as outsiders, living for much of the year in the wilderness beyond the village with their animals. Also suspected of possessing magical knowledge were the blacksmiths, masters of the magic of fire and metal, forgers of the sword and the ploughshare. (One might even argue that in a sense they give birth to these implements of life and death and in some way partake of women's charisma of childbirth).

A broader theme is the one which really shows how wrong popular ideas of 'medieval superstition' is that the rise of witchcraft accusations is deeply linked to processes of modernisation, on one hand, the increased sexual puritanism and drive for behavioural and ideological purity in both the Reformed Churches, and the post-Council of Trent Counter Reformation Catholic Church, or the other a move away from ideas of masculinity based on physical violence and honour culture to one based on dignity, self restraint and the rule of law. Those men accused were often those whose sexual promiscuity or aggression meant that they were running foul of this twin processes of modernisation; men who failed to live up to the expectation of being new model fathers of new model families. They represented groups on the margins of society (the rogues, the mob, the abyss, the rough working class, the underclass) that threatened its order. Far from being its antithesis, then perhaps the witchcraft persecutions are the precursors of Newtonian physics, inclosures and rational recreation

If there is an overarching theme it is perhaps this idea of creating the perfect, hermetically sealed, neat and tidy society of the pure and elect, and the witches represent all those things - women, animal keepers, fire masters, the rough, wild and erotic in general - who are seen as far too close to wild nature and its raw forces of creation and destruction. This can be seen very clearly where men are denounced as werewolves, the idea that men can fall out of the human, ordered world and become assimilated into the realm of wild nature in its most ravenous, predatory and destructive form.

Human beings, being material creatures in a material world can, however, can never create the perfect republic of virtue or become idealised New Model (Christian, Soviet, Islamic or whatever) People. The tighter and the more claustrophobic society becomes, the more invidious and ubiquitous its enemies will be seen. The witches are no longer wild women, rough men and semi-outsiders, they are everyone, no-one is safe from suspicion. There are places like Bamberg where the elites turn on themselves and whole streets were decimated or parts of the Rhineland where the witch hunters themselves are denounced not just as witches, but as the secret leaders of the enemy.

It becomes pointless at this point to ask why some are denounced and others are not, for that is a rational question, and the world of reason and of rational reasons is unimaginably far behind. This is the world of the great purge and the great terror. In this extremity people will denounce the friends, family and neighbours because it would require too much thought and too much mental energy to think beyond them to more distant targets.

And the question of who are the witches, who have secretly hated, lusted, envied, dreamed of vengeance or of a better life, quarrelled and raged, is easily answered, it was, is and always will be, all and everyone. -- Peter Rogerson.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous23.11.09

    So, 75% of the accused witches were female? If there were a handful of cases where men were the majority, then the exception proves the rule. They were frequently husbands and sons of the accused. All this conjecture is obfuscating historical facts.