Witchcraft and Gender in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period

Content Warning: Mentions of abuse and sexual assault

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

I will note that I discuss the medieval and Early Modern period in this essay.

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, the perception of magic and how it was used went through many different iterations, especially in regard to women and men. Generally speaking, different types of magic were used, or mostly used, exclusively by either men or by women. Some of these types of magic were more accessible to both genders, thus both genders were more likely to use them. (Please note I use the phrase “both genders” here as in medieval times the concept of being non-binary did not exist and the medieval concept of gender, while occasionally flexible, was still determined by one’s sex (Salisbury 81).) Crimes concerning the use of magic were also prescribed to different genders. How society perceived the ways men and women used magic is placed upon on misogynistic ideas that we simply cannot ignore.

During the Middle Ages, the existence of magic was well known amongst the general European population, including men, women, laity and the clergy. While “Christian writers associated magic very strongly with demons” (Rider 29), in secular society magic was comfortably intertwined with science as well as with religion (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 1). Richard Kieckhefer goes on to point out that “magic is a crossing-point where religion converges with science”. This is especially true when one takes into consideration the relationship between medicine and cunning-folk in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Smallwood 21). I will go into further detail about that later. However, the relationship between medicine and magic is also prominently seen in impotence magic, particularly in the eleventh century.

Impotence magic in the early Middle Ages was seen as a major problem for men and women alike, especially when it came to marriage. If a couple could not consummate their marriage, then that would be a perfectly valid reason for annulment (Rider 29). This put a lot of pressure on both parties, especially the woman. In one case documented by the medieval writer Hincmar of Rheims, a man who had been bewitched by his disapproving mother-in-law to be impotent, threatened to murder his wife unless the bishop granted him an annulment (Rider 32). Luckily for the man’s wife the bishop “recognized the work of the Devil” (Rider 32) and cured the man’s impotence through “penance and ‘ecclesiastical medicine’” (Rider 33). This story shows that even though women could be feared due to their use of magic, they still lacked agency over their lives due to masculine control. It also reminds the reader that men were willing to punish women who had not used magic against them if it meant they could break the charm causing them the inconvenience.

 

Harley MS 2965 f.37r charm against poison
A Charm Against Poison | Harley MS 2965 f.37r | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog

 

As previously mentioned, the relationship between magic and medicine was already intertwined in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with cunning-folk. However, to fully understand that relationship, it is important to know that while ‘“cunning’ men and women were regularly prosecuted for using charms,” they were not considered to be witches (Smallwood 21), at least in the earlier Middle Ages. But by the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Church had already considered cunning-folk and their folk magic to be demonic (Broedel 36). Before 1400 they were considered to be healers who used charms as medicine for “those who could not afford or appreciate the real thing” (Smallwood 21). These charms “had for the most part been orally passed down for many generations” (Smallwood 21) and amongst both genders. How “the secrets of healing” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) were passed down varied. Sometimes women could only tell them to other women or men could only tell them to other men. In certain areas, the gender of the person receiving the knowledge had to alternate every time the information was passed down (Kieckhefer Magic in the Middle Ages, 59). And even though cunning-folk “had a mercenary interest in not passing on the knowledge [about their magic] to potential clients” (Smallwood 21), this did not mean that the extent of their knowledge was kept secret.

One case where the knowledge was not kept secret was with the career, trial, and execution of Matteuccia Francisci, who also combined folk magic, medicine, and witchcraft. Matteuccia Francisci “was a well-known folk healer and magician, who specialized in…magical remedies [and] counseling for battered wives” (Broedel 37). She was so famous and sought after that “clients came to her, sometimes from out of town” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages60). Now, while she sounds like she would be an upstanding and respected member of her community, “a large number of people” (Broedel 37) that the records refer to as ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) accused her of witchcraft. Given that Matteuccia was a woman who helped abused wives, it makes one wonder if these ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) were actually the abusive husbands who wanted to get rid of the woman who was taking away their control. After all, what better way to prevent their wives from getting help then to get rid of the powerful woman helping them? This is especially true when you take into consideration Matteuccia specialized in love magic (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59), which is the equivalent of a modern date rape drug. Even so, people did not exactly appreciate having the tables turned on them. It did not help Matteuccia Francisci’s case that some of the magic she used required dubious ingredients, such as “a bone from an unbaptized baby” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) and some of her magic transferred ailments from one person over to a completely innocent passerby (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59).

Ironically, cunning-folk did not just strictly use magic in their medical treatments. Their use of magic was intertwined with the Catholic Christian faith as well. Folk magic “borrowed from Catholic practices” (Davies 36) and one man, Henry Clegate of Headcorn, had even been taught to do magic by the local priest (Davies 36). Owen Davies goes on to point out that the Reformation furthered the belief that cunning-folk were practicing demonic witchcraft and not regular magic, due to the elements of Catholicism that were thought of to be magical. It did not help that during the Middle Ages a chunk of “diocesan priests, men and boys in minor orders, monks, and friars” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages155) practiced the demonic art of necromancy. Necromancy was one type of magic that was mostly practiced by men, clergymen especially. Due to the fact they were able to gain access to this knowledge rather easily through written texts and necromancy required “some degree of learning in Latin and familiarity with ritual practices” (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20).

 

Harley MS 1526 f.5r demons monks reading
Demons and Monks | Harley MS 1526 f.5r | Source: The British Library

 

Another form of magic that was practiced by men was the art of exorcism. Exorcists were not always clergymen and they certainly “did not have the same standing in the Catholic church” (Ferber 577) as those who were ordained. The art of exorcism was not a widespread phenomenon either. For example, during the Reformation, exorcisms in France were seen as extremely creditable while in Spain and Italy it was not (Barry 20). It should be noted that during this time, French Catholicism “faced strong Protestant competition” (Barry 20) and the Catholic and Protestant faiths had very different views on witchcraft, thus on exorcisms. The Catholic Church wanted to seek “help for the witch” while Protestants “prosecuted [the witches] with comparable vigour” (Williams 81). However, whether or not exorcism was actually demonic magic, regular magic, or simply a miracle of God was hotly debated (Ferber). Either way, “many exorcists became subject to condemnation, derision, and regulation” (Ferber 575-576).

Male exorcists were not the only ones whose powers were debated about whether they were holy or demonic. One such phenomenon was ‘“positive possession”’ (Ferber 582) that afflicted mainly women. These women were thought of to be holy, yet to be possessed by demons. Needless to say, they toed the line when it came to being “seen as either the direct agents or the deluded victims of the Prince of the World, the devil” (Ferber 583). However, in the case of the mass possessions of nuns in the early modern period, it could be argued that the devil possessing these women was simply proof of how virtuous they truly were. According to Moshe Sluhovsky, it was thought that if the devil considered a group of nuns to be too good and holy, he would possess them as a way of soiling their purity. After all, if the nuns were “feared by Satan [they] therefore must be approved by God” (Sluhovsky 1394).

This is not to say that mass possessions, especially mass possessions of nuns, were considered to be the result of witchcraft. In fact, mass possessions happened a noticeable amount in both the Middle Ages and the early modern period amongst many different demographics (Sluhovsky 1381-1382). However, in a religious Christian setting, mass possessions of nuns in convents happened a significant amount more, especially when compared to mass possessions of monks (Sluhovsky 1381). Mass possessions of nuns eventually became such a common occurrence in the early modern period that writers started simply listing when and where the possessions occurred instead of including any further detail (Sluhovsky 1385).

Now, it should be recognized what the politics of the convents were like when the mass possessions occurred. Some convents were rather relaxed when it came to the living conditions for the nuns. However, some of these convents went through rather strict reforms, causing the nuns and their families to verbally protest their new living conditions (Sluhovsky 1392). Some of these reforms included “excessive mortification” and a priest who “forbade [his nuns] to eat anything but turnips throughout the [Lenten] fast” (Sluhovsky 1391). Naturally, the upper members of the clergy did not listen to the nuns or their concerns. It was only after the reforms were put in place, mass possessions of nuns happened. I suspect in actuality the possessions were not the result of Satan being angry at the nuns’ holiness; instead, it was a way for the nuns to protest the restrictive reforms as well as an opportunity to act out in the only way that could be considered safe. After all, if a demon was causing the nuns to misbehave, they could not be blamed or punished for trying to blow off some steam.

However, in the case of the nuns of St. Catherine, I do not think this to be the case. The agency of the nuns did not please someone for it was recorded that “only after the devil increased his attacks on the nuns…that the recalcitrant nuns surrendered their arrogance, accepted the reform, and [the devil] disappeared” (Sluhovsky 1390). This statement has a lot of unfortunate implications. It makes one wonder if it was not actually the devil tormenting the nuns, but the clergy who limited the nuns’ ‘“unrestricted freedom”’ in an attempt to control their behavior through fear (Sluhovsky 1390). If so, this would not be the only case where men used fear to control women they considered to be misbehaving.

 

Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r nun and demon drowning
A Demon Drowning a Nun | Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r | Source: The British Library

 

Throughout the early modern period accusations of and trials for witchcraft slowly focused more and more on badly behaved women. It was an excellent way to control women, especially when one takes into consideration that while both men and women practiced magic, women were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for the crime of witchcraft (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20). In contrast, men were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for heresy (Broedel 47). It should also be noted that of the women accused of witchcraft, more often than not, it was women who were considered undesirable to society. Women in this category included women in poverty, older women, and women who were either suspected of having or confirmed to be infected with syphilis (Ross). These three categories were undesirable in different ways, however, the last two had some overlap.

Eric B. Ross argues that dementia from syphilis was a contributing factor in older women’s strange behavior that led them to be accused of witchcraft. While this may or may not be true, I argue that their strange behavior could have also been a result of regular dementia and other age-related cognitive diseases. Older women “who were accused of witchcraft…were described as miserable, lewd, and generally antisocial” (Ross 336). Anyone who has ever visited an elderly relative suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s can safely confirm this description matches the cognitive diseases. It also does not help that when women are older they are no longer considered beautiful, therefore they are considered worthless and a burden.

Overall, while magic was a liberating tool for women or men who felt trapped in their living situation, it was a dangerous one that came with many risks. The risks were especially high for women in the early modern period. Whether it was being possessed by demons proving your holiness, creating love magic, causing impotence, or seeing into the future, someone would eventually be threatened by your abilities. Their fear of your power could very likely cause your downfall.

 

 

Sources:

Barry, Jonathan. “Introduction: Keith Thomas and the Problem of Witchcraft.” Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, edited by Jonathan Barry et al., Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 1–45.

Broedel, Hans Peter. “Fifteenth-Century Witch Beliefs.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 32–49.

Davies, Owen. Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History. Hambledon Continuum, 2003.

Ferber, Sarah. “Demonic Possession, Exorcism, and Witchcraft.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 575–592.

Kieckhefer, Richard. “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 13–31.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Rider, Catherine. “Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages.” Oxford Scholarship Online, 2006, pp. 31–52.

Ross, Eric B. “Syphilis, Misogyny, and Witchcraft in 16th Century Europe.” Current Anthropology , vol. 36, no. 2, Apr. 1995, pp. 333–337.

Salisbury, Joyce E. “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 81–99.

Sluhovsky, Moshe. “The Devil in the Convent.” The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 5, Dec. 2002, pp. 1379–1411., doi:10.1086/532851.

Smallwood, T.M. “The Transmission of Charms in English, Medieval and Modern.” Charms and Charming in Europe, edited by Jonathan Roper, Palgrave McMillan, 2004.

Williams, Gerhild Scholz. “Demonologies.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 69–82.