Witchcraft and Powerful Women Throughout the Middle Ages

Anna Nelson Bennett

Anna Nelson Bennett

“All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable,” caution Kramer and Sprenger, fifteenth-century Dominican inquisitors and authors of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, or ‘Hammer of Witches’, the definitive text on witchcraft to emerge from the late medieval period.

First published in Speyer, Germany, in 1486, the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ not only argues for the existence of satanic witchcraft but also asserts that refusal to believe in the real presence and power of witches is, in fact, heresy.

While this text made belief in the manifest evils of witchcraft an element of Catholic orthodoxy, for historians, the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ represents another marker of the witch craze in Europe: the demonisation of female sexuality and confluence in the popular imagination of unrestrained women and licentiousness or evil.

While the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ has been analysed for centuries as the most influential source for Catholic and Protestant witch-hunters alike, the text’s obsessive focus on female sexuality in relation to witchcraft, an overarching theme found in the majority of witchcraft literature from this period, is the issue that will be of greatest importance to the present study.

In spite of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ common interpretation as a document synonymous with the collective European stance on magical practices, the misogynistic vitriol exhibited by its Dominican authors was not always associated with witchcraft in the medieval world.

While women were known to be capable of both good and dark magic since ancient times, the depiction of witchcraft as an overwhelmingly feminine pursuit, and the further conflation of witchcraft and sorcery with religious heresy, was a development of the later Middle Ages.

Understanding the evolution of Church history, popular beliefs, and historical events that eventually led to the late medieval feminization of witchcraft allows us to more holistically examine the total impact of the witch craze.

Although the witchcraft cases presented here all took place during or after the fourteenth-century, popular belief in sorcery, witchcraft, and other magical practices had existed as a facet of everyday life since pre-Christian Europe.

As Peter Brown posits, sorcerers were viewed as legitimate intermediaries between mankind and the gods in many ancient polytheistic religions, and thus one of Christianity’s earliest missions was to delegitimize practitioners of magic in the late Roman Empire by associating their actions with Satanism.

As early Christians’ worship of an executed man smacked of necromancy to many Romans, their efforts no doubt attempted to distance Christianity from magic by openly condemning it. This explains the sudden upsurge of prosecution for sorcery in the fourth-century CE, following the Empire’s official toleration of Christianity during the reign of the Emperor Constantine.

At first, this purge was not directed more heavily toward one gender or another: both men and women had opportunities to practice sorcery and divination within ancient Roman polytheism and thus could be equally implicated in perpetuating pagan belief systems.

I argue, however, that the growing Church became more exclusively concerned with magical practices among women precisely because of its official toleration. Secretive house churches were often presided over by female heads of household, whose authority in the home automatically granted them leadership roles within Christianity.

Some early Christians, namely Gnostics, even took belief in female power within the religion a step further, asserting that because God made both male and female in His image, as stated in Genesis 1:27, the Creator was thus both masculine and feminine in nature. As house churches became obsolete in response to the new acceptance of Christianity within the Roman Empire and basilicas emerged as the preferred site for Christian worship assemblies, power within Christianity shifted from the domestic to the public sphere, thus restricting the agency of women within the religion significantly.

This created an environment in which, as Elaine Pagels has noted in reference to the suppression of the gnostic gospels, “men formed the legitimate body of the community, while women are allowed to participate only when they assimilate themselves to men.” As a result women who continued to join in the male-dominated public sphere, whether for religious or secular purposes, risked being targeted as dangerous elements aiming to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church and the patriarchal order that it promoted.

Evidence of the vulnerability of socially prominent women to witchcraft accusations in a Christian society can be found as early as fifth-century Alexandria. It was in this city circa 415 CE that the renowned female philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Hypatia, head of the Alexandrian Platonist school and daughter of the famed philosopher Theon Alexandricus, was accused of spreading pagan beliefs and practising sorcery and was subsequently flayed alive by a mob of angry Christian zealots.

Her violent death, perpetrated by a group of monks no less, illustrates the extreme insecurity that early ecclesiastics felt over highly visible women, especially those that controlled the dissemination of information to the educated elite.

The historian can likewise find corresponding episodes in which socially prominent women were accused of practising sorcery or witchcraft as the Germanic barbarian tribes of Europe were Christianised and established ruling dynasties throughout the early medieval period.

In his History of the Franks, for example, Gregory of Tours relates that political detractors plotted against Queen Faileuba, second consort of King Childebert II of the Merovingians (r. 575-595 CE), after she attended and participated in an important conference at Trier alongside her husband.

In order to convince the king to repudiate his wife, they accused her and the king’s mother, the formidable Queen Dowager Brunhild, of sorcery. Faileuba caught wind of this plot before it reached the ears of the king, however, and she and her mother-in-law intervened before the palace coup could be carried out.

Later, in tenth-century England, Queen Ælfthryth, the first English consort to be crowned and anointed alongside the king, was accused of witchcraft after she was implicated in the murder of her stepson.

She provided King Edgar with two sons, but the first died young, and Edgar subsequently passed over his younger, and rather unimpressive son, the future Æthelred the Unready, instead naming his illegitimate son Edward heir to the throne. Upon Edgar’s death, factionalism ensued over which son should inherit, an issue promptly solved in March 978 when Edward was murdered by a group of the queen dowager’s attendants upon his arrival at Corfe Castle.

The young king was immediately declared a martyr, and Ælfthryth vilified. The twelfth-century chronicle Liber Eliensis, or ‘Book of the Isle of Ely’, argues that Ælfthryth was, in fact, a witch who practised spells under an old tree in the New Forest and transformed into a horse; further, she had used her dark powers to bring about her stepson’s untimely death and the martyrdom of the first abbot of the Isle of Ely.

While the queen dowager’s reputation suffered amongst the nobility and English people as a result of her role in Edward’s death, her son Æthelred’s position as the new king protected her from suffering more serious consequences, and she retired peacefully to a convent for the remainder of her life.

A central theme can be taken from these early examples of female witchcraft persecution. For centuries after the emergence of Christianity, sorcery and witchcraft, although viewed with increasing concern by the clergy, were maintained to be superstitious relics of pagan times. Many laypeople did not necessarily agree with this interpretation, however, and throughout the common population, beliefs in the efficacy of magic continued to coexist alongside developing Church doctrine.

In spite of the pre-Christian, polytheistic roots of many of the magic rituals that permeated early and central medieval Europe, the underlying belief that these practices still carried real weight and could deliver tangible results to the participant threatened the primacy of Christianity.

If magic, especially dark magic in the form of witchcraft, was pagan and thus unreal, and yet in some cases appeared to work, then people might think that perhaps it was actually the Christian religion that lacked real power and legitimacy.

Medieval clerics understood that average people might make this connection and subsequently doubt Christianity’s utility in their lives, and thus began to describe witchcraft not simply as a barbarous vestige of paganism, but as a machination of the devil.

Around the turn of the tenth century Regino, Abbot of Prüm wrote that “certain wicked women won over by the devil and seduced by illusions and hallucinations of demons believe and indeed state openly that they ride out at night with Diana, the pagan goddess…. If only they were destroyed by their own lack of faith! But no. Instead, they drag down many others into their own state of impiety. For they believe that a thing divine both in nature and power can exist apart from the one true God. The clergy ought to preach that these are only demonic fancies they put into their heads, not by God, but by the evil spirit. In this way, Satan, who can take the shape of an angel, once he has tangled up some woman’s wits, leads her astray in her dreams, so that the victim believes that what happened only in her imagination actually took place in the body.”

The abbot’s observation contains similar references to pagan beliefs as are present in the previously mentioned cases. He asserts that while these women believe they, in fact, fly at night with Diana, this is simply a figment of their overactive imaginations and sinful natures. It is his placement of Satan in this explanation of witchcraft that marks a change in the Christian approach to magical practices.

The abbot’s definition illustrates the divergence between sorcery and witchcraft: while sorcery implied a manipulation of magic and the use of otherworldly spirits for earthly ends, witchcraft indicated the practice of magic with an implicit reliance on the devil for power.

Ironically, the acknowledgement of witchcraft as an active tool of Satan, in turn, granted it a measure of legitimacy that the outdated pagan label did not carry. Pagan beliefs in themselves conveyed very little weight, because according to Christian doctrine, gods and goddesses such as Diana simply did not exist.

The devil, however, was a real and threatening menace to Christians everywhere, implying that his role in the propagation of witchcraft and dark magic could cause palpable harm. Indeed, as Jeffrey Burton Russell has argued, when Christianity assimilated with Mediterranean paganism, the new religion in some ways aided in the development of witchcraft as a separate and more pervasive entity than ancient sorcery.

Clerics told people that the old gods they continued to worship were false idols, figments of the mind-controlled by demons. Instead of deterring many people from their polytheistic traditions, it instead transferred the beliefs and loyalties of many from pagan divinities to demonic powers, thus spreading the popularity and practice of witchcraft in the early medieval period.

Because many of the old gods were worshipped at household shrines, nascent forms of demonology and witchcraft also became a fixture of the domestic sphere. This arguably exposed more women than men to witchcraft in its earliest form, as the burgeoning popularity of Christianity as a state-sanctioned religion in the late Roman Empire restricted female participation and promoted their seclusion in the home.

As Martha Rampton points out, the Church’s restrictions on female participation in religious life only increased throughout the early medieval period, culminating in the lessening of opportunities for women to join in the monastic movement under the Carolingians during the tenth-century. As a result magic rituals possibly seemed to offer women greater chance for agency than the severely limited functions available to them in the Church.

Clerics took note of this gender discrepancy, even if they did not see the Church’s role in promoting it. Abbot Regino of Prüm’s writings on witchcraft, as well as the preceding early medieval cases of prominent women attacked as witches, demonstrate that medieval male concern with witchcraft as a threatening custom most often practiced by women manifested itself long before the late medieval period.

Working in the first decade of the eleventh century, Bishop Burchard of Worms built upon Regino’s earlier argument by attempting to disprove the efficacy of magic rituals associated with women. The seventieth canon of his Corrector urges his audience not to believe in the powers of women “deceived by the devil,” who claim to “ride on certain beasts on special nights” with the “witch Hulda,” a goddess revered by pre-Christian Germanic peoples.

Burchard’s portrayal of women and witchcraft bears a striking resemblance to Regino of Prüm’s earlier description of female magic as both pagan in origin, devil-inspired, and ultimately impotent. This implies that medieval clerics, from the early stages of Christianity to the fifteenth century and beyond, saw in women particular attributes that they felt made the female sex more susceptible to witchcraft.

Implicit in Regino and Burchard’s writings is the belief in the female tendency to gullibly accept backward, pagan superstitions as truth.

As witchcraft was purported to be a remnant of pagan superstition in Europe, popular theories concerning the mental inferiority of women slowly began to form an implicit connection that the female sex would be more likely to fall into the snares of dark magic and witchcraft.

Despite these early medieval foundations of feminized witchcraft, however, for hundreds of years witchcraft, persecution remained sporadic at most. Many clergymen preached against witchcraft and other forms of magic practices while simultaneously holding a set of conventionally misogynistic beliefs about the inferiority and corruptibility of women, and yet did not ever make the two interdependent.

In other words, throughout the early and central Middle Ages, women were seen as more likely than men to practise witchcraft, but the identity of the witch figure was not yet described as innately feminine.

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