Women: Witnesses and Witches (review)

by Jenny Gibbons

"Women: Witnesses and Witches" by Clive Holmes. Past and Present #140 (1993), pp. 45-78.

Prejudice Alert! Clive was my tutor at Cornell before he moved to Oxford, so, you know, I'm not 100% unbiased. <g>

This is a really wonderful survey (really! <g>) of the role gender played in English Witchcraft trials. Rather than spouting stereotypes or snatching at simple answers, Clive reveals that the relationship between gender and Witchcraft was far more complex than most people realize.

Let me give you a couple examples. After 1590, the number of women testifying against Witches rose dramatically, until most witnesses were women. Some scholars have therefore argued that trials were "obviously" not related to gender, since women accused Witches as frequently as men. Clive shows that we shouldn't be so quick to rule out gender dynamics. Yes, the majority of witnesses were women -- but that's because after 1590, the courts began to demand a different type of evidence. In the early trials, a Witch could be convicted because she'd damaged property. Men, who owned the property, made up the majority of witnesses. After 1590 courts began to demand evidence that a Witch had killed or sickened someone. Since women tended the ill and dying, they had to provide most of the evidence. Men still initiated most trials, and so we still need to investigate the sexual dynamics here in more detail.

Another example: many feminist writers comment on the misogyny of the Witch hunting manuals and argue that because of this misogyny, most Witches were women. Clive argues -- convincingly -- that the exact opposite is true. Women were associated with Witchcraft long before the manuals. We have much more evidence of women using magick and counter-magick. When Witch hunters began persecuting Witches, they were puzzled by the fact that most of the Witches they encountered were women. So, because of their sexism, they concocted misogynist "explanations" for this gender imbalance. But the connection between women and Witchcraft is much older than the misogyny of Witch-hunting manuals, extending back to a time when it wasn't a bad thing to be a Witch.

These are just a taste of the insightful, well-researched points in this article. It's a joy to read because Clive emphasizes the importance of gender, yet avoids stereotyping and stays solidly rooted in facts and evidence.