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Male Witches in Early Contemporary Europe Witch-Hunting

Male Witches in Early Contemporary Europe Witch-Hunting
© Photograph by Lyubov Shipaeva

The ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, or ‘Hammer of Witches’, is the best-known early modern work on witchcraft, infamous for its misogynist statements about women and for its argument that most witches were women. With very few exceptions, modern scholars have taken a one-dimensional view of this treatise, citing it almost exclusively to illustrate the inherent misogyny of witch-hunting. Indeed, very few other treatises are ever cited; thus, in many studies, the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ has come to represent “the” demonological position on women and witches. It is, therefore, an appropriate starting point for an examination of attitudes toward gender and witchcraft.

The Latin word “maleficus”, and its feminine variant “malefica”, came into common use in the fourth-century CE and were used widely in the medieval and early modern periods to denote a person who committed evil deeds by means of magic. Maleficus/malefica is often translated as “witch”. In the title ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, the fact that the word Maleficarum is a feminine plural noun would seem to suggest that the authors, Dominican Inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, believed that all witches were female. In Latin, groups containing both males and females conventionally are represented by the masculine plural, even if there are more females than males in the group.

The feminine plural implies an absence of males from a group; therefore, the use of the feminine in the title ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ suggests that all witches are female.

In the text itself, however, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger use both masculine and feminine forms of maleficus. Indeed, the first line of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ reads “Utrum asserere maleficos esse sit a deo [sic] catholicum quod eius oppositum pertinaciter defendere omnino sit hereticum.” (Whether it is so very orthodox to insist that there are witches, given that maintaining the opposite of this obstinately is wholly heretical?) Where one would expect the authors to use the feminine accusative plural maleficas, they use the masculine maleficos. Furthermore, there are many other references to malefici (masculine plural) as well as to maleficae (feminine plural), sometimes within the same sections of text. In several instances, the text refers plainly to male witches both as specific individuals and as a group. At first glance, it seems amazing that Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, notorious to modern scholars as the primary authors of the “witches as women” paradigm, would write about witches in the masculine at all, let alone in their opening lines.

Almost nothing has been published on this topic in academic treatments of gender and witchcraft, demonology, or the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ itself. Indeed, male witches, in general, are hardly to be found in witchcraft historiography, despite the ubiquity of gender (or rather, sex) as an issue in the study of witch-hunting and ideas about witches. There is a kind of hole at the centre of witchcraft studies, to borrow an image from Robin Briggs, into which male witches and learned discourse about them have disappeared. This absence is especially striking in the work of Stuart Clark, who, in an otherwise masterly analysis of early modern demonology, suggests that witchcraft theorists were incapable of conceptualising male witches. This blind spot in witchcraft historiography requires attention.

Of course, the historiographical gap is a common trope with which to introduce a historical study. But research ought to do more than add a little plaster to existing structures. In order to offer a real contribution, it ought to confront and challenge those structures. In the case of this project, this means confronting a historiography committed to causal explanation and to a polarised, essentialising view of gender and its relationship to witch-hunting and ideas about witches. It also means engaging with a strongly politicised discourse about witches: inside the academy and without, the female witch is a potent symbol of women’s oppression by men and, rather paradoxically, of women’s power.

The overtly political dimension to the study of witches in early modern Europe demands a high level of consciousness and reflexivity regarding language, representation, and meaning. Our goal in this article is to make what is hidden visible: not only male witches themselves but also the historiographical structures and politics that exclude them as historical subjects. This may seem threatening to some readers, especially to those with a heavy investment in representing witches as essentially female, or in claiming the study of early modern witches as women’s history. We disagree with these viewpoints, but we consider our work also to be a feminist history, in Joan Wallach Scott’s sense: “Feminist history […] [is] not just an attempt to correct or supplement an incomplete record of the past but a way of critically understanding how history operates as a site of the production of gender knowledge.” Though as historians we are clearly in one important (professional) sense insiders, we also consider our perspectives to be those of outsiders, and in the interest of transparency, we should like to point out that an atheist and a Jew have relatively little personal investment in Christian approaches to witchcraft. Our ideological and professional investments are, we trust, clearly enough articulated over the course of the book.

Our concentration on male subjects may appear to subvert the feminist project of constructing women as historical subjects or to diminish the importance of the female witch. We prefer to think of it as a logical application of a relational concept of gender, in which men and women are defined and constructed in terms of one another. Andrea Cornwall and Nancy Lindisfarne have criticised the relational concept of gender on the basis that it is too narrow to admit of possibilities other than simple male-female difference. We agree with this view, and our understanding of gender incorporates those possibilities, including hierarchical differentiation within genders. The relational concept, nevertheless, is the core of our concept of gender. With this understanding of gender and its historical construction, male witches are neither irrelevant nor a threat; they are necessary components of a complex phenomenon. Any endeavour to understand the relationship between gender and witchcraft has to take male witches into account and explain how they “fit” within the gendered framework of early modern ideas about witches; without them, we are ignoring one half of the gender relationship and, necessarily, limiting our knowledge about both men and women in early modern Europe. As Caroline Walker Bynum has put it, “the study of gender is a study of how roles and possibilities are conceptualized; it is a study of one hundred percent, not of only fifty-one percent, of the human race.”

Willem de Blécourt has articulated a useful gender-based approach to witchcraft and witchcraft accusations in his article ‘The making of the female witch: Reflections on witchcraft and gender in the early modern period’. He argues that witches were “made” locally, except when demonic influence was adduced (as in the “witch-panics”); and suggests that “[a] witchcraft accusation […] articulated the crossing of male-designated boundaries rather than being restricted to a specific female space”. This suggestion sees gender as embedded in and structuring social relations, rather than as a free-floating “concept”. Steve Hindle uses gender in the same functional rather than reified way in his article on gossip, gender and authority in early modern England. In both instances, the category “gender” contributes to the historical examination of women and men, female and male spheres, and their interactions with one another.




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