War against Women?: A Historiographical Debate

Throughout the last decades, Europe has witnessed an unprecedented enthusiasm around the early modern witch-hunts. Alongside sociologists, historians have desperately tried to understand the causes of this dramatic phenomenon. One defining aspect debated across different national historiographies came to be the gender of the victims. Estimations report that around 80 percent were women, and only 20 percent were men, in Europe (Goodare, 267). Unsurprisingly, this alarming disparity has been interpreted as an expression of early modern societies’ misogynistic nature and patriarchal repression over women. However, this conclusion comes from intense historiographical developments between the 1970s and 1990s, and is not consensual in the historical community. For a long time, historians explained witch-hunting with economic, political, and wider social arguments, while this feminist interpretation only started to flourish in Scotland during the 1980s before spreading throughout the rest of Europe. Even though this new approach found fertile grounds in many European historiographies, the French one stayed reluctant towards it. Its historians maintained that witch-hunts were primarily a catharsis of political, economic, and social tensions rather than an open war on women. This article examines and compares the Scottish and French historiographies between the 1970s and 1990s. Exploring the historiographical evolutions in these decades grants a great introduction to the two distinctive visions of the witch-hunts that continue to foster debates to this day.

Off for the Sabbath. William Mortensen. 1927.

It was not until the 1980s that Scottish historiography started to emerge. Before that, historians were almost exclusively focused on England and, except for a few anthropological studies, did not show any interest in either Scotland or gender studies. It was only at the dawn of the 1980s that, in an article, Hugh MacLachlan and J.K. Swales sought to explain the astonishing numbers of female victims in the Scottish trials. Unfortunately, the two scholars remained cautious in their judgment as they concluded that ‘it would be dangerous to assume that the preponderance of female suspects in the particular case of witchcraft trials necessarily reflects anti-feminism’ (Swales & MacLachlan, 154). The study of witch-hunts had to wait for Christinal Larner to see gender being erected as a main component in the prosecutions. In 1981, she published an analysis of the Scottish witch-prosecutions that combined a thorough knowledge of historical scholarship within a convincing sociological framework, which finally defined gender as the essential theme in the tragic events. Even though political and social interpretations were still strong themes throughout her argumentation, Larner was the first to openly suggest that witch-hunting was ‘to some degree a synonym for women-hunting’ (Larner, 1981, 3). Her work affirmed that women were undeniably more susceptible to being accused of witchcraft than men because of their social expectations and the pre-existing stereotypical conception of a witch. In early modern days, a witch was ‘an assertive woman refusing to submit to social expectations such as requiring or giving love, not nurturing men or children, nor caring for the weak’ (Larner, 1984, 84). Thus, any woman not meeting social expectations was a threat to the hegemony of the patriarchal social order and could be accused of witchcraft. Historians had long denied the sex-related dimension of the trials based on the fact that women themselves were accusing each other. Larner retorted that these statements reflected a failure to understand early modern society and the influence of the patriarchy on women (Larner, 1984, 86). According to her discourse, the patriarchy encouraged women to turn against each other. Women were dependent for their livelihood on the goodwill of men and, therefore, they not only conformed but also attacked those who, by their nonconformity, threatened ‘the security of conformist women’ (Larner, 1984, 86). Some of her ideas echoed previous historiographical works, but her interpretation stepped out from the traditional and conventional Scottish, English, and French historiographical boundaries. Katherine Hodgkin further suggested that witchcraft studies used to be primarily ‘dominated by men, and, as a rule, men with little interest of gender as an analytical category' (Hodgkin, 183). Larner represented a wind of change in a male-dominated subject.

From then, Scotland witnessed a multitude of assessments on the role of gender in its witch-trials. Elspeth Whitney - in a retrospective historiographical article written in 1995 - recognized Larner’s major contribution to the field but deplored that she had ‘stopped short in making gender a central element in her analysis’ (Whitney, 80). In 1992, Marianne Hester corrected this and finally defined gender as the centre of her witchcraft analysis. Hester was particularly critical of Larner’s concept of ‘sex-related’ rather than ‘sex-specific.’ In short, Larner determined that witch-trials were undeniably gender-related, but that one should not limit witch-hunting strictly to a large-scale woman-hunt, as this would narrow a range of questions about it (Larner, 1984, 87). She instead stressed the need to understand why women were more vulnerable to witchcraft prosecutions, how they constituted a threat to the patriarchal order, and why it stopped in 1700. Her conclusions asserted that witch-hunting was not entrenched in the exclusive prosecution of women. Hester criticized this thought and retorted that Larner should have extended her analysis beyond, and ‘unite the different parts of her argument regarding the witch-hunts as social control’ (Whitney, 113). For Hester, there were no doubts that heterosexuality constituted ‘a political institution whereby male sexuality, constructed as the primary sexuality, serves as social control of women in the interest of men’ (Hester, 77). In this context, the hunts were part of a continuum of conflictual male-female relations, which only finished when the patriarchy had successfully ‘reconstructed femininity as passive and helpless rather than powerful and menacing’ (Hodgkin, 187). Hester was not alone when adhering to this radical perspective. In 1994, Anne Llewellyn Barstow released an even more provocative assessment that described the hunts as "sexual terrorism", and emphasized the pain, sexual sadism, mutilation, and torture to which accused women were subjected. Both emphasized that, while witches were almost always women, they were invariably tried, judged, examined, and executed by men.

Strange Shadows (Shadows and Substance). Gertrude Abercrombie. 1950.

French historiography was, paradoxically, the first to suggest the sexual dimension of the witch-hunts. In 1976, E. William Monter investigated the witch trials in the Jura region. His research led him to identify the need to ‘examine the sexual side of witchcraft accusations as a primary line of investigation by itself’ (Monter, 1976, 119). Economic and political dimensions were essential aspects of the study, but Monter had the merit to assert that ‘compared to sex, poverty and other factors appeared to seem secondary’ (Monter, 1976, 119). He claimed that witchcraft accusations could be understood as 'a projection of patriarchal social fears onto atypical women, those who lived apart from the direct male control of husband and fathers’ (Monter, 1976, 124). In 1979, Robert Muchembled also noticed an overwhelming number of female witches and victims. Muchembled strongly blamed the church’s influence and denounced a ‘sexual repression’ and a natural ferocious opposition against women which defined early modern French society. Ultimately, this study pointed to the patriarchy as responsible for these prosecutions as it asserted that: ‘These so-called servants of the devil are frequently widows, meaning women who are beyond patriarchy control’ (Muchembled, 135). A few months later, Jean Delumeau further blamed the inherent anti-feminist nature of French society which was rooted in traditional European and French religious backgrounds.

If French historical studies seemed to have been inclined to a new interpretation, these publications had little in common with those of the British. Muchembled’s comments on the potential role of gender in the prosecutions remained brief and limited. His main interest resided in wider social issues, as his key argument in understanding witchcraft in early modern France was ‘the acculturation of the masses by the elites’ (Pearl, 12-13). In short, this concept explained that witchcraft prosecutions were primarily a tool that enabled the elites to label popular culture as evil and diabolical, in an attempt to control it through preaching and legal repression. Larner also discussed the role of the elites in Scotland, as she stated that ‘witch-hunting was an activity fostered by the ruling’, yet her argument was not imposing such antagonism between the two social classes (Larner, 1981, 1). For her, it remained a consequence of ‘the development of centralization and bureaucratization of the modern-state system' (Whitney, 81). Muchembled was not convinced by the gender dimension of the prosecutions, but was not hostile to it either. That cannot be said about Stuart Clark and Robin Briggs. In 1991, both strictly contested the idea of ‘women-hunting’ as they argued that women were not condemned because of their gender but for wider social and cultural reasons. Clarke sustained that French demonologists and judges sentenced innocent women based on the belief that they truly were witches and were not ‘particularly concerned with the question of why witches were women’ (Whitney, 81). Establishing his arguments on the research of Alfred Soman, Briggs defended that witchcraft in France seemed to present ‘no obvious link at all with gender’ (Briggs, 1991, 441). However, neither of these two historians denied the gender issue. Briggs recognized that his own findings in Lorraine could not be ‘regarded as a safer guide to general patterns’, and that ‘gender did play a crucial role in witchcraft, but we will only understand this properly as part of the whole system, within which many other forces operated’ (Briggs, 2002, 228).

Although French historiography seemed hostile to gender interpretations, some of its research contributed, in an unexpected manner, to the ongoing debates. Indeed, French studies were among the first to raise awareness on the unfortunate case of male witches. In 1997, Monter dedicated an article on these unfortunate victims in Normandy. While Barstow and Hester described the hunts as a repressive instrument solely against women, Monter suggested that most of the judgments were rarely severe and, more importantly, demonstrated that the sorcery crime was remarkably masculinized in that region. He reported that the archetypal witch in Normandy was ‘not an old woman, but a shepherd who might be either an old man or a teenager.’ (Monter, 1997, 563). Briggs also mentioned the presence of male witches in France with a case study of Lorraine. Both studies recognized that France was an exception, but they nonetheless pointed out that these regions could not be ignored. Normandy, for instance, was not a remote region and had fully participated in the witch-hunting era during the confessional century. Moreover, France had not been spared by the misogynistic mentality of the time, as the kingdom had been the birthplace of some of the most virulent anti-feminist pamphlets. Despite all of these factors, France seemed to remain relatively neutral on the profile of its victims.

The Incantation. Dara Scully. 2021

Overall, French and Scottish historiographies demonstrated significant divergences in terms of argumentation, approach, and interest in the subject. Very few French scholars mentioned gender in their studies, and most of the French historiography came from the research of American and British academics. There are no clear answers explaining such disinterest, only suppositions. In 2016, Françoise Thébaud denounced the cultural and social academic traditions in France, which ‘long expressed its reserves, even hostility toward the history of women’ (Thébaud, 41). However, it is also possible to argue that the French witch-hunt's experience was simply different from the Scottish one, and therefore gender was not such an obvious nor attractive subject at first sight for French scholars. While, in France, many regions indicated an equivalent number of victims between these two genders, Scotland’s statistics clearly underlined a disparity and a predominance of female victims. That would also explain why Scottish male witches were only properly assessed later, in the 2000s, with historians such as Julian Goodare. In the end, the debates that took place in the 1970s and 1990s continue to foster questions and a consensus is yet to be established. These decades ultimately concluded that gender was a non-negligible factor, but that witch-hunting was also something more than simply a war against women.


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Pearl, J. L. (1999). The Crime of Crimes: Demonology and Politics in France 1560-1620. Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

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Thébaud, F. (2018). The History of Women and Gender: French perspectives on the last twenty years. Women's History Review, 27(1), 41-47.

Whitney, E. (1995). The Witch "She"/The Historian "He": Gender and the Historiography of the European Witch-Hunts. In Journal of Women's History, 7(3), 77-101.

Image Sources:

Abercrombie, Gertrude. Strange Shadows (Shadows and Substance). 1950. Oil on canvas. https://n.pr/3Be4gTT

Mortensen, William. Off for the Sabbath. 1927. Manipulated photography. https://bit.ly/3gD9mzA

Scully, Dara. The Incantation. 2021. Photography. https://bit.ly/34Ree1s

Author Photo

Benoit Gaume

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