Early Reflections on the Making of the Female Witch

Willem de Blécourt

Willem de Blécourt

One day in the early decades of the seventeenth-century, a farmhand and a shepherd in Rheden, a village north-east of Arnhem in the Dutch province of Gelderland, performed divination by sieve and shears. They let their contraption turn around while naming the women of Rheden one by one by their name and nickname. Whoever was named when the sieve turned and came to a full stop was proven to be able to bewitch. In this way, they discovered that every woman in the village qualified as a witch, with the exception of three. This caused quite a stir and the two men were heavily fined.

This brief event has come down to us in an account of fines, which is not the most usual source for studying early modern witchcraft. Together with witnesses’ depositions, the reports of trials against cunning folk and slander cases, entries of fines for slandering nevertheless contain a wealth of information that is vital for an understanding of the topic, especially its gendering.

The introductory example stems from one province of the Republic of the United Netherlands. It is not atypical, and other more or less similar cases can be found all over Europe right into the twentieth-century.

What is worth pointing out is that the incident occurred at a time when witch burnings had ceased in the Netherlands, while elsewhere, in nearby German lands and in the Spanish Netherlands, the pyres were still burning. But the absence of criminal prosecutions of maleficent witches in the Republic does not by itself explain the existence of slander fines and suits; by slander trials, people had in fact attempted to clear their name and to regain their honour right through the period of the prosecutions. There existed thus an underlying culture of witchcraft accusations whose importance has been seriously underestimated.

The example represents only one of a number of social constellations in which witchcraft accusations could occur. Nevertheless, it shows the normal reaction to bewitchments. To counteract a witchcraft spell, sufferers had to find a human cause, and the turning of the sieve and the shears was one of the trusted ways to do so. Most of the time the cause turned out to be female.

When witch-doctors were consulted as experts (they could be men as well as women), they may have mentioned “evil folk” in general, but in practice, they looked for women and any woman could qualify. The main question I will try to answer in this article is, why were women singled out as the perpetrators of bewitchments, both in everyday life and in criminal trials? I do not pretend to provide the final solution and can only contribute some considerations towards it. In the search for answers, I will assess recent witchcraft literature critically and refer to a few other archival examples from the Netherlands.

The Dutch case is of specific interest for a general discussion about witchcraft and gender not because it is exceptional or because it could be regarded as an “anomaly”, but rather because it fits neatly into the European patterns.

Robin Briggs has recently pointed to the reluctance of “many writers” to consider non-English material, which in his view has “encouraged an error of perspective” in the question of the numerical relation between witches and women.

These writers assume, according to Briggs, that the situation in England and New England, with its “overwhelming predominance of female suspects” and its “low rates of persecution”, was typical for the whole of Europe and the colonised parts of America, whereas the specific quantitative combination of women and trials was only to be found in countries like Hungary, Denmark and England.

Although ostensibly underlining the difference between the central and the peripheral areas of witch persecution, Briggs also indicates a common pattern that seems to apply to the Netherlands.

Olwen Hufton has observed the same kind of similarity between England and the Netherlands, for instance in respect of the lack of torture in both countries. This should have resulted in “a simpler, more prosaic witch; one who could not fly or mysteriously transport herself to a hidden place for a coven or witches’ sabbath”.

If one follows Christina Larner, however, “Holland” should be classified alongside Sweden, the Basque country and New England because of its “serious isolated outbreaks”. It shows that, regardless of whose portrayal most matches the past as we know it, “the Dutch variant” (as Gijswijt-Hofstra termed it) was not uncommon and is relevant to a debate with a much wider geographical scope. But before we can turn to more Dutch witchcraft material, we have to consider the theoretical implications of the gendering of witchcraft.

“Witchcraft was not sex-specific, but it was sex-related”, according to a much-quoted statement by Christina Larner. Since it is problematic in several ways, this can serve as a useful starting point for a discussion about witchcraft and gender.

To summarise: there are some inconsistencies in Larner’s thesis, and her conclusions are often quoted out of context. Both problems have contributed to an (intentional) misunderstanding between (predominantly male) witchcraft scholars and feminist witchcraft theorists, with the result that a feminist approach has not been sufficiently integrated into witchcraft research.

The central aim of this research is (or at least should be) to discover how the overall male hegemony and subsequently the subordination of women in European and North American society was (and sometimes still is) articulated through witchcraft discourse.

I will argue that this is less a matter of evidence than of interpretation. This is not to advocate writing history without archival substantiation. Feminist witchcraft theory would certainly profit from showing more awareness of the developments and failures in the empirical dimension of witchcraft research. But it is necessary to acknowledge the almost complete absence of any connection between arguments and evidence on both sides of the debate on women and witches. While the historical events staged in this debate may be irrefutable (discounting sheer nonsense, of course) and while interpretive positions may be of great value, together they often do not add up.

By outlining my argument in terms of an opposition between male research and female thinking, I am taking an extreme position. Especially in the context of the recent upsurge in serious archival research by women witchcraft scholars, the opposition is as much a distortion of the whole field of historical witchcraft studies as, for instance, the view that men are more interested in the judicial aspects of witch trials and their links to the economy and state formation, whereas women pay more attention to socially sympathetic micro-history.

Larner’s work is one of those instances that contradict the latter divide. The explanation for this could be simple, however. As some feminists would claim, she may have been too much influenced by “androcentric methods of analysis”. Notwithstanding these reservations, I want to maintain the opposition, since the theoretical feminist approach is the most marked distinction between male and female witchcraft researchers.

At the end of her book, after having contemplated the “sex-specific” elements of the trials, Larner found the differences between witch hunting and women hunting more significant than their similarities; “the link is indirect and the two cannot be completely identified”.

Since the notion of women hunting is rather ahistorical (no society hunted women per se), the stress on witch-hunts as witch hunts seems to be reasonable and avoids the hodiecentrism that lurks so much in present-day feminist writing.

For the equation of witch hunting with women hunting ultimately negates witchcraft; it originated from the disbelief in witchcraft. If witchcraft was a nonexistent crime and witch trials the “massive killing of innocent people”, the argument goes, then the reasons for accusations and prosecutions must lie elsewhere, preferably in the gender of the people so falsely suspected. If, on the other hand, it is accepted that witchcraft was a reality for those involved, then gender can easily become a tautology.

Although the question “Is witch hunting woman hunting?” seems an obvious one to ask, by separating gender from crime it confuses rather than clarifies understanding.

Behind Larner’s differentiation lies another one between the witch stereotype and witch “hunting”. While she found the stereotype defined by femaleness, she considered the practice of criminal prosecution to be concentrated on witches and not on women. Thus the latter was only “sex-related”. As she phrased it herself: “Witches were hunted in the first place as witches”.

This contrast between actual witches and stereotypical women is artificial. The power of stereotypes, witch stereotypes included, lies chiefly in their application. As part of people’s repertoires, they only make sense when they are made manifest when they are situated in particular circumstances. In spite of all the stress, Larner put on the indigenous “rationality” of witchcraft, at this particular point she failed to recognise the priority of praxis. In Marianne Hester’s words: “What Larner does not allow for, however, is the material implication of such beliefs”. It is therefore essential to look at the production of historical witches and to take into account the different types of settings in which women (and men) were turned into witches.

If the witch–woman opposition is recognised as a historian’s construct, it can subsequently be abandoned. The alternative has also been offered by Larner when she remarked that “all women are potential witches”. This line of thought seems much more fruitful to pursue although Larner herself hesitated to follow it to its radical conclusion.

The question why so many women were accused of witchcraft should thus be rephrased as a question: What transformed a woman from a potential into an actual witch, into “the stereotypical opposite of the good wife”? As this opposition implied not merely bad wives, but irredeemable, anomalous women, the question should finally run as follows: When and how was a woman turned into her contrast, into a non-woman?

Feminist witchcraft theory provides an important part of the answer, but it is often criticised for having neglected archival sources. Feminist historians are by no means missing from this chorus of disapproval. “Much of this work has not relied on empirical evidence”, Olwen Hufton conceded.

This is particularly serious because it has provided the opponents with an excuse for ridiculing feminist theories or for ignoring gender issues altogether. It is indeed frustrating to read Anne Barstow referring to having “searched the European records” when there is no indication that she ever visited an archive.

It is also true that Hester’s bold assertions are only based on published source material. Diane Purkiss, to mention another example, even scorns serial research. And there is also the predicament that none of the three authors is a historian in the first place. But, I would argue, lack of primary research is only half the story. After all, Merry Wiesner as well as Olwen Hufton, both historians of considerable reputation, based their overviews also on the selected secondary material, neglecting, for instance, German publications in the process.

The reception of Larner’s work, to which I will return below, shows that historical evidence mainly served to illustrate preordained positions anyhow. As a reviewer remarked about Hester’s book: it “will offend male historians with its seemingly global attack on the ‘male supremacist society’ and the ‘male sexuality’, which are seen as means of controlling women sexually in the interest of men”.

For some witchcraft researchers, to accept patriarchy in the past seems tantamount to accepting that it continues today. Would that imperil their own identity?

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