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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.