Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders The Gendered Motives behind Witchcraft Speculation

Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, accusations of witchcraft were extremely common. After 1500, accusing women of practicing witchcraft became more prevalent than the earlier practice of accusing men of paganism. Nearly 80% of all people accused, tortured, and executed in the name of witchcraft were women. A number of factors contributed to this gender-biased form of persecution, including religion and social expectations.

As the religious climate changed from pagan-inflected theology to Puritanical Christianity, attitudes changed sharply about what roles women were allowed to occupy. In many pagan religions, women assumed leading positions in ceremonies and often acted as high priestesses. Paganism gave women power in their communities; they were valued and influential figures in European society.

However, Christianity called for women become subservient in both the private and the public spheres. Already forced to defer to their husbands in matters of the home, women were also banned from holding prominent positions in the Church. Therefore, any woman looking to provide religious guidance or advice was seen as a threat. It was believed that such an outspoken woman received her power and advice from pagan traditions because Christian traditions forbade women from being too knowledgeable about the Bible.

Anna Frith touches on the subject of expected gender roles in Year of Wonders when she discusses how a widowed woman like herself should not learn too much about plants and disease. Her ideas stem from the Early Modern notion that women were not allowed to practice medicine, at least beyond midwifery. And medical care was just one of many functions that women were banned from performing. Dabbling in alchemy and apothecary was, to many Christians, a sure sign that a woman was a witch. In sharp contrast, men were encouraged to experiment with plants and chemicals without fear of being seen as threats to society.

Entrenchment in gender roles also caused women to adhere to certain stereotypes. Women were praised for being meek, submissive, and chaste. Being too attractive or too flirtatious with men was also grounds for being accused of witchcraft; both men and women believed that such attractive women placed men under love spells in order to catch men’s attention. Similarly, a woman who broke free of expected gender roles and chose to live a secluded single lifestyle was seen as dangerous.

It is important to note that religion and society were inextricable in the world Brooks describes. In the case of gendered witchcraft accusations, Christian values determined how society viewed women and the roles women occupied. Yet while many had religious motivations for accusing women of witchcraft, others saw these women as a danger to the community. Blaming an attractive woman for bewitching a man and thus leading him to commit adultery was a much easier excuse than for the man to admit that he had voluntarily cheated on his spouse. If a woman caused such extreme fear in a community, she could be judged and threatened with execution by a biased and zealous crowd. Unfortunately, using witchcraft trials became a highly effective way of intimidating women into submission.