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Agency in Accusation :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

Agency in Accusation

Kelly Douma

History 229

Professor M. Brock

November 21, 2014

“Agency in Accusation”

            Questions of gender and sexuality consistently arise in the context of historical witchcraft study.  The blaring fact that nearly 80% of all accused witches were female begs inquiry into the conscious or subconscious purpose of the witch trials as a misogynist ploy.  However, the witch-hunts are a multifaceted issue and cannot be refined to a simple point of women-hating.  The reality of the witch trials was a combination of many tensions within pre-modern society that led to widespread trials attempting to eradicate a supposed threat in the community. In the Holy Roman Empire, where the trials were the most concentrated and violent, there is an even further difference between the amount of male and female witches. In some areas this reached nearly 95% women. More interesting, perhaps, is the structure of the trials, which involved not only large amounts of executed, but previously unmatched levels of accusations. The witch trials, particularly in the Holy Roman Empire, were comprised primarily of both female accusers and accused.  By accusing other women during the trials, women embraced what little agency they could within a strong patriarchal structure; the trials cannot be seen as a “gendercide” because this was not a purposeful attempt to destroy all women, but rather part of the continual struggle of relegating women to their place within the patriarchal structure.

Eichstätt in Southern Germany is an ideal case to analyze the predicament of women during the witch trials.  During the pre-modern era, the prince-bishopric of Eichstätt was a sparsely populated area fairly separated from any larger cities.  Unlike many of the other large centers of the German witch craze like Wurzburg or Bamberg, Eichstätt was not located along a major trading route.  Rather it was a disparate principality in a situation that created the perfect storm for a witch trial. The area had been home to a scattering of witchcraft trials during the late 16th century, but nothing so great as to attract major attention.  The majority of accusations took place from 1617-1631. Directly before this period, the prince-bishop Johann Christoph von Westerstetten and his family were split in the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism in the Thirty Years War.[i] The confessional status of the region changed about four times immediately before the time of the trials.  The War also led to increased famine and unusually cold temperatures resulted in a crop failure at the turn of the century.[ii]  Perhaps,  most interesting, von Westerstetten had previously been the Prince-Provost in Ellwangen, where he was present for the sermons of Jesuit defender Jacob Gretser.[iii] Gretser was known as the “sledge-hammer of the Jesuits against the Protestant foes.”[iv] This myriad of social and religious tensions, as well as previous instances of witch trials, provided the ideal situation to facilitate a mass witch-hunt.

In total, from the years 1617-1631, 240 people were accused of witchcraft in Eichstätt.  182 of these were arrested and 175 of those were executed.[v]  Many factors about the Eichstätt trials differ from the other sensationalistic trials in Germany.  The first of these is the length of the trials.  On average, about thirteen people were executed per year resulting from witch trials.  This fourteen year period of trials, extreme in length and consistency of number of arrested, is reasoned partially because the town did not have a proper jail in which to contain the accused witches and therefore could not process the arrests as quickly.[vi]  Originally, the accused witches were related to one of those in past cases during the late sixteenth century, usually a mother or aunt.[vii] These were primarily women from the craft merchant class, not the typical lower or marginal groups.[viii]  This complicates the issue of accusations, because they cannot be blamed simply on targeting marginal groups.  Rather, historian Jonathan Durrant, who published an in depth study of the trials in Eichstätt, argues that the accusations stemmed in part from a series of relationships throughout the town, not unlike the competing factions identified in the Salem Witch Trials.[ix]

Finally, and possibly most interesting to the discussion of gender in the trials, 90% of the accused and executed persons in Eichstätt were female.  Furthermore, a significant proportion (<80%) of men accused were never arrested on their charges of witchcraft.[x]  These few men who were accused were often related to women who had already been accused and executed as confirmed witches.[xi]  Even if women did speak up and accuse men under torture, they were not brought to the same penalty as the women.  Therefore, although men sat as the judge and prosecution during the trials, the vast majority of the accusers and the accused were female.  This visible image of the men ruling over frantic women only begins to delve into the patriarchal structure  that women were required to navigate during this time.

A predominate patriarchal society has existed in Europe since antiquity.  The over-arching rule of men over women is not a new concept in the face of the witch trials, but a renewed zeal of this relegation may have inspired further tension that allowed them to occur.  According to Lyndal Roper, Germany experienced a crisis of gender in the early modern period.[xii]  Naturally, the Reformation was a source of great distress that led to the Thirty Years War, famine, and crop loss culminating in the death of up to a third of the population.  The long-lasting effects of Protestantism on gendered society are also reflected in the witch craze that hit Germany around the turn of the seventeenth century.  Many historians have argued that the Reformation led a resurgence of the patriarchal mode in Germany and evidence strongly supports this claim.  The elimination of the high clergy and the new ideology of grace by faith alone led to a new persecution of prostitution, which has previously been a vice even enjoyed by members of the Church.  By demonizing sex workers, feminine traits in general took on a new sense of sinfulness and seduction, viewing women as naturally prone temptresses.[xiii] Marriage was also more heavily emphasized as requirements of celibacy for the clergy were lifted.  All men were to see it as their Christian duty to marry women and serve as the godly head of the family, while the wife remained subordinate.[xiv] Finally, Protestantism did not include the notion of the monastery or convent; women no longer had this outlet to remain single in a socially acceptable manner.  Rather, marriage was now an absolute requirement for functioning in society.  Even though Eichstätt was Catholic at the time of the trials, the frequent confessional switches in principalities led to the dissemination of these ideas throughout the German states, regardless of confessional status at the time.

This reassertion of the patriarchy reformed the image of a godly woman; she was dependent on her husband and adored him as a representation of her Christian God.  Women were to be controlled and subjugated.  In this way, specifically in Eichstätt, the witch of this era became less a matter of maleficium accusation and those professing moral failure. As Durrant says, “[the witch’s] primary crime was the renunciation of God as her master; her malevolent acts were of secondary importance, expressing her devotion to her new spiritual lord, the Devil, rather than being motivated by real social conflicts.”[xv] Rather than focusing on the maleficium and addressing the negative action directly, the majority of questions during the trial attempted to decipher the moral state of the accused: the last time she went to church, her marital status, and her allegiance to God.[xvi][xvii][xviii] women’s conformity to the patriarchy was embedded in every facet of her life. By flouting the necessary requirements of society she risked accusation and almost certain execution as a witch.  Another example comes in the case of Katharina Henot.  Henot was accused of witchcraft in Cologne in 1626, where she had previously been the first woman to hold the position of post-master.[xix]  She was single and found support through her independent job and wealthy family.  This independence was very atypical of women in early modern Europe and her witchcraft accusation can be seen as an attempt to stifle her unfeminine profession.  Although she did not confess or accuse other women, she was still burned at the stake in 1628.  It was unusual to flout the judicial procedure that required a confession and Henot was posthumously exonerated of her crime in 2012. The cases of Tempel Anneke and Katharine Henot can be seen as an attempt to return women to their proper place in the patriarchal structure.

Within any confining structure, people will attempt to find their own power within the hierarchy.  Accusing others as witches can be seen as a mean of finding agency in a society that made it difficult to feel proud of being a woman.  In this society, all women were relegated to a status beneath that of men.  Married men were seen as the epitome of the patriarchal power; unmarried young men were often described using feminine adjectives to associate their status as being closer to female, lower than that of other men who had proved their masculinity through sexuality.  Women could not hope to find increased status above that of men; they were required to climb on the backs of other women in order to achieve positive self-esteem. In this way, accusations can be seen as an attempt to find a voice and react as much as possible within the realm of the patriarchy.  Many of these accusations stemmed from an accused witch herself when confronted with torture.  One witch named forty one different women during her trial in order to find some relief from the torture being forced upon her.[xx] This type of woman against woman accusation can also be seen in Eichstatt.  Two accused witches, Haubner and Weber, had reportedly never shared any type of animosity prior to the trials.  Yet when it was time for Haubner to step forward to confession, she stated that she was innocent but forced to commit maleficium by Weber.[xxi] This can be seen as a frantic attempt to place another woman under more persecution and analysis than her to escape death at the stake.  However, these tactics very rarely worked.  In this, accusation can be seen as an attempt at agency, but is more like accommodating resistance, in which a woman fights as much as possible within the bounds of her power.

One of the most obvious options for an accused witch would seem to be accusing men.  This would flout the established patriarchy while at the same time breaking down the stereotype of the female witch. However, while some women accused men, these very rarely worked in their favor.  Very few men were actually arrested in Eichstätt, even if they had been accused.[xxii]  As said above in the discussion of patriarchy, the majority of witchcraft accusations had their roots in flouting the authority of men which related to breaking religious law.  It was more difficult to accuse men of these crimes, since they did not have the stigma of being sexually promiscuous, insatiable, or naturally evil as women did. Books such as the Malleus Maleficarum and the Carolina provided a text used to identify witches and process their trials; both of these focused on the feeble mindedness of women.  Because the cumulative concept of the witch was, at this point, already well established, accusing men was not as appealing. Accusing men was often a dead end.  The men who were accused, arrested, and actually executed were primarily those related to previously accused witches, and thus had a direct connection to where they had acquired their connection with the Devil.[xxiii]  Rather than being directly persuaded by the Devil, most men pled guilty to giving in to the temptation that a witch forced upon them.[xxiv]

There is an attempt amongst feminist historians to label the witch trials a gendercide, an attempt to completely wipe out the entire female gender.  The patriarchal structure of the Church led to the formulation of demonological treatises such as the Malleus Maleficarum and the Carolina that detail women’s likelihood to be servants of the devil.However, the witch hunts cannot be seen as a gendercide because they were not explicitly formed with the intent to eliminate the female population.  Although the demonological texts frequently stated that women were feeble-minded and more susceptible to temptation than their male counterparts, they were not cited as the cause of evil.  The focus of the witch trials was not to destroy women specifically; rather, clergyman and inquisitors aimed to root out the evil that led to women’s temptation.  By punishing the people who were victims to the Devil’s ploy, they hoped to strengthen the ability of the population to resist temptation. In the same way that women were said to be weaker and open to the Devil’s temptation, they were also to be loved, cared for, and protected because they were images of purity and holiness.  The patriarchal structure worked in both ways.  There existed a dichotomy between women as either the loving wife or contemptible shrew.[xxv]  Because this second code of chivalry and benevolent sexism existed, there is no reason to believe that the witch hunts were a gendercide.

A second reason for this is because women were the primary people making accusations of witch craft.  A system driven partly by women cannot be seen as attempting to eliminate all women. Although women used the system of accusation, they cannot be seen as attempting to eliminate their own gender.   Rather, as discussed above, this must be seen as a bargain within a patriarchal society that did not allow them much agency.[xxvi]  A gendercide would constitute a systematic undertaking to eliminate all women.  Although it did lead to the deaths of many women, and more women than it did men, the witch hunts were not a specific attack on women.  Rather, it must be seen as a religious undertaking by an entire society to root out the spiritual problems which plagued them.

The witch hunts occurred during a time in which women had very little agency.  Because of this, they were forced to find and seize power whenever they could.  Women who were accused of witch craft had very few options left to them; they had typically already flouted societal norms and knew the odds were against them.  As such, one of the only tools left to them was accusation of others in the hopes of relieving the pressure of their sentence.  Because men did not conform as well to the societal image of witch, they were often very difficult to accuse and bring to trial.  Rather, women accused other women, driving the trials onward until their eventual end.  Accusing other women can be seen as grasping at agency and self-preservation.  Although victims of the witch trials were 80% women, they cannot be seen as gendercide because gender elimination was not their goal. Rather in a society where enough necessities were uncertain, such as crop harvest, confessional status, and leadership, the societal norms could be upheld.  By viewing the witch trials as punishing women who overstepped their place in society, they can be seen, not as a gendercide, but rather part of the ongoing struggle of women against a patriarchal society.



[i] Jonathan Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society in Early Modern Germany (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2007)  11

[ii] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society 15

[iii] Behringer, Wolfgang, Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria: Popular Magic, Religious Zealotry, and Reason of the State in Early Modern Europe. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 225.

[iv] Behringer, Witchcraft Persecutions, 224.

[v] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society 20

[vi] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society, 22

[vii] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society 23

[viii] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society 45

[ix] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society 69

[x] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society 45, 63

[xi] Lyndal Roper, Witch Craze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 31.

[xii] Roper, Witch Craze 37

[xiii] Roper, Witch Craze 41

[xiv] Roper, Witch Craze 40

[xv] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender, and Society 50.

[xvi] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender, and Society 47

[xvii] Morton, Peter A. The Trial of Temple Anneke (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006) xiv.

[xviii] Morton, The Trial of Tempel Anneke, 8.

[xix] Becker, Thomas. “Henot, Katharina: Köln (Reichsstadt). historicum.net December 12, 1999. https://www.historicum.net/themen/hexenforschung/lexikon/personen/art/Henot_Katharin/html/artikel/1606/ca/d7b6277f5a17314b17a7c625ca365dd3/

[xx] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender, and Society 46

[xxi] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender, and Society 109-110.

[xxii] Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender, and Society. 45.

[xxiii] Appa, Laura and Andrew Gow, Male Witches in early Modern Europe. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003) 45.

[xxiv] App and Gow, Male Witches, 52.

[xxv] Brauner, Sigrid, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995).

[xxvi] Wunder, Heide, “Gender Norms and their Enforcement in Early Modern Germany,” Gender Relations in Germany History (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997) 39-56.

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