Between 1560 and 1760, a hundred thousand people were put to death on charges of witchcraft.
It was the second-largest mass killing not directly tied to war in western history. And 80% of the victims were women. What happened? Why then? Why women?
These are the questions addressed in Anne Lewellyn Barstow's _Witchcraze_.
This book has the distinction of being the first feminist analysis of the witch persecution -- a significant and much-ignored chapter of early modern history.
I consider this book to be both an important contribution, but with major shortcomings. The fact that 80% of the witches executed were women seems to cry for a gender analysis, and by pointing this out, Barstow opens the door for future scholarship along these lines. However, at less than 180 pages, _Witchcraze_ doesn't really pass the "weight test." I shall return to this in a moment.
The strengths of Barstow's work are fourfold. First is the issue of numbers. The 16th and 17th centuries were not periods of scrupulous record-keeping, and any analysis of long-term events is a combination of digging through obscure documents, endless cross-referencing, and educated guesswork. The fruit of these labors is a number -- 80,000 women killed by the various states of Europe over a period of two hundred years -- that can be looked to with confidence. This may seem picky, but the question of numbers is vital if serious scholarship is to be done on this subject. Wildly inaccurate claims (such as Dworkin's nine million) do not make the issue more pressing, they only trivialize it.
80,000 murdered innocent women, Barstow says, is quite enough. Hard numbers like these make a for a far stronger case that gender was an issue in the Burning Time.
_Witchcraze_ also offers us a glimpse into the witch trials in a way I've not seen before. By sifting through hundreds of trial records, Barstow has come up with a few well-detailed "typical" examples. By recounting these events, we can learn not only *that* a thing happened, but *how* it happened. No real understanding of the dynamics of the witch hysteria can be had without knowledge of what actually took place. The events themselves, and not their results, are the only hope of finding out *why*.
On somewhat narrower terms, Barstow shores up her claim for the need of a gender analysis of the persecutions with two items that (according to her) are missing in the earlier literature on the subject. The first is the much higher incidence of violence used against women than against men in the investigations and trials. The second, more disturbing point, is the sexual nature of that violence.
Though the witch trials are too complex to explained away by a single cause, that secular courts began to use the techniques of the Inquisition in the sixteenth century is a fact that cannot be underestimated.
Torture accompanied every aspect of the witch craze, and without the checks that the Church imposed on its own Inquisitors.
As a result, large number of women (and it was almost always women), were tortured to death before they stood trial, and sexual torture became a favorite tool of witch hunters and prosecutors.
In light of these practices, it seems quite obvious that more than bad luck was working against women here.
However, while Barstow makes a compelling start on a gender analysis of the witch craze, it is not carried through in a satisfying manner. In my opinion, the book is missing two crucial issues.
The first is a placement of the craze in a larger historical context. It will probably be impossible to ever say "the witch craze happened because...", but an examination of the period concerned might make the events more intelligible.
And perhaps more importantly, any thorough analysis of the witch hunts *must* examine the power relationships between men and women both prior to and after the period of persecution.
On the first point, the witch trials did not happen in a vacuum. They happened in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a period of great confusion and upheaval. The first thing to note about the period is that from 1555 to 1648, something like thirty separate wars were fought in Europe, including the Thirty Years War, which left large portions of Germany with over 50% of its population killed. The witch killings took place against a backdrop of violence that was not to be matched until our own century.
Far more significantly, it is this period that marks the rise of the modern European states. The continent-wide invention of the nation-state did much more than change maps. It radically shifted the network of power relations for all Europeans. The very nature of power was being reinvented during this period, and with it, the techniques of its application.
This becomes significant to the witch trials in the following way: Barstow mentions several times that 'witchcraft' was, by and large, the projection of the diabolical fantasies of an urban elite on the folk-religious practices of the rural peasantry.
While Barstow passes over this idea rather quickly, I think it is essential to our understanding of what happened. It is important to keep in mind that the Christianity practiced in the 16th century countryside bore little relation to what we see today. In fact, most of rural Europe hadn't even been converted as late as the 10th century (our word "pagan" comes from the Latin pagus, meaning "countryside." To late medieval Europeans, "pagan" probably had less of a religious meaning and was closer to a modern word like "redneck.").
As a result of the fairly novel practices of Christianity and the highly adaptive techniques of the early modern missionaries, it is hardly surprising that many practices of the earlier faiths survived into the 17th century. We know that most rural villiages had someone adept in these practices, which involved divining, healing, and midwifery, and that this person was usually a woman.
We can also be fairly certain (particularly when we read Cotton Mather defining all "wise-women" as witches) that these Eurpean curanderas ran deeply afoul of of their new central governments when urban priests and magistrates became convinced that their practices were actually Satanism.
The salient fact here is that widespread persecution of wise-women and wizards could not have happened until power had been reorganized into its modern, national, top-down form. The creation of the nation-state created not only monolithic central authorities, but numerous means of access for that authority to reach into the lives of individuals. It is no coincidence that at this time we see the first widespread and strictly enforced law regarding religious and sexual conduct. The witch craze can be seen as a test lab for modern power structures.
This idea is reinforced by a simultaneous event which Barstow ignores.
The seventeenth century is also the period of the Great Confinement. Throughout the mid-1600s, there was a movement all over Europe to confine its insane, its criminals, and its poor (that these groups were not distinguished at the time is a fascinating subject for another time). This trend reached its formal commencement with the foundation of the Hopital General in Paris in 1656, but it is a feature of all early modern European states. For the first time in European history, people were segmented by institutional power on a large scale. This event is like a compass, pointing at the new forms of power, their direction, and their extent. In the first great homogenization of western culture, it is not so surprising that the curious and antiquated practices of powerless peasants were ruthlessly wiped out.
But what does all this mean for women specifically?
This is an area which needs far greater elaboration. To situate the Burning Time in a larger history of women in Europe, it wll first be necessary to examine the roles and relations of women in the century prior to the craze.
For instance, we know that in the 15th and early 16th centuries, women enjoyed a legal status and employment level not matched until the second half of the 20th century (I use "enjoyed" here *very* loosely).
Beginning in the mid 1500s, we see a widespread passage of laws forcing women into unemployment and gradually stripping them of their few legal protections. It is this sort of information that must be gathered and analyzed in light of the witch persecutions.
But perhaps more significantly, we must look at how the artifacts of the Burning Time have carried forward.
Barstow repeatedly asserts that an analysis of the persecutions is relevant to our understanding of the status of contemporary women, but she does not follow through on this claim. While it is almost certain that the witch hunts damaged women as a class in ways that persist into our own century, mere assertion on this point is not enough. It is this last issue that I feel will yield the most fertile areas for future scholarship. When a geneaology of gender and power is finally assembled, I have little doubt that the witch craze will be one of its fundamental pivot points.
While sketchy and at times poorly organized, _Witchcraze_ is a book I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of women or the history of power.
It is also a book I would wholeheartedly push into the hands of anyone who thinks violence against women is either new or insignificant. The outrages of the sixteenth century have left a legacy, and an understanding of those times may well open eyes on our own.
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