Feminism and the Witch Hunts of the Early Modern Period

I recently wrote about how fundamentally linked witches and feminism are. I alluded to a speech that I delivered in 2014. As a follow on from my previous post, here is that speech.

The topic that I will discuss today is a crime of historic significance. When I approached this topic, I found that there have been many such occurrences over the centuries. These included the various genocides, slave trade and famous serial killers – the likes of Jack the Ripper. Crimes of a varied nature have continued to plague history. Yet, I found that, each of these topics were either too broad or otherwise not very significant to me. I was searching for a topic with far reaching consequences…a topic that shaped our modern world. Then it struck me…we live in a world where women and men are, in most cases, living as equals. In a majority of modern families, both women and men hold down jobs and share household responsibilities. But this was not always the case. I began to question what triggered the transition between the traditional role of the woman and the modern woman. Feminism, as a movement, must have been spurred on by some occurrence. I then came across the writings of the witch-hunts in the early modern period. It is this topic that I will discuss this evening for its relevance in changing the course of history for women and men alike. 

A witch-hunt is a search for suspected witch or evidence of witchcraft. A witch in this context was thought to be a woman who manipulated nature, and more so people, usually in negative ways. Witchcraft would simply be defined as the practice of this art, or as it was then thought to be, an evil ritual. In any case these were often fuelled by moral panics and mass hysteria. The moral panics came about due to the belief that some malign conspiracy such as Jews and lepers, Jews and witches or Muslims, were attempting to destroy the Christian kingdoms through magick and poison. The hysteria was due to rapid social, economic, and religious transformations including the prevalence of epidemics and natural disasters throughout Europe. 

While witch-hunts have been prominent throughout history, I have chosen to explore the witch-hunts and subsequent trials that occurred between the 15th and 18th centuries. Interestingly enough, these hunts were targeted mainly against women. My argument is that essentially these hunts were a gendercide. A perfect substantiation of this is given by Steven Katz in his book The Holocaust in Historical Context. It reads as follows and I quote: “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of women…What else is women but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours? … Women are by nature instruments of Satan – they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation”. While it is evident that this quote is insulting to any woman, it should not be interpreted as an insult but rather as evidence that shows what people thought of women at that time. 

I have explored three basic questions. The first considers who the instigators of the witch-hunts in that century were. In conjunction with this, I will discuss possible motives behind these mass killings. Finally, I will discuss the implications of this gendercide on how it has shaped feminist history. 

Before a discussion of my three questions, I will offer a brief overview of the context in which these trials occurred. As mentioned earlier, I am looking at the period between the 15th and 18th centuries. Although we all mainly associate witch-trials with the world famous Salem witch-trials, contrary to popular belief, the witch-hunts were most prominent on the European continent. Most of the occurrences were estimated by author Ronald Hutton to have been in Germany with between 17 and 26 000 victims. Also top of the list were countries such as France, Switzerland, Poland, Scotland and Austria. The most famous of the German trials were the Trier, the Fulda, the Wurzburg and the Bamberg witch trials. 

It is difficult to pinpoint a specific person, group, or movement that was responsible for starting these mass killings. As with most moral panics, it is not easy to discern the culprits and motives. There are varying accounts and opinions about where the beliefs about witches and witchcraft began. My belief is that the culprits were various, as were their motives. The first of witchcraft as a crime were, interestingly enough, identified by legal codes and laws before being adopted by Christian missionaries. In some cases, it has even been noted that laws were revoked as a result of the Churches’ disbelief in witchcraft. They refused to admit that witches, who could challenge their beliefs, existed. It should be emphasised that the vast majority of witches were condemned by secular courts, with local courts especially renowned for their persecutory zeal. Men were exclusively the prosecutors, judges, jailers and executioners, of women and men alike, in Europe’s so-called emerging modern legal system. 

The Church’s revocation of the belief in witchcraft was itself re-evaluated and accepted by Pope Innocent XI. It was after this that the panic and belief in witchcraft, as a supposed threat, became prevalent and spread like wildfire. While it was widely believed that the main instigators were Catholic, estimated deaths were found to be more common in Protestant communities. Areas that were deeply rooted in Christian beliefs were, in fact, hardly affected by witch hunts. This is quite strange considering the supposed link between Satanism, witchcraft and the Bible. 

As with most moral panics, the actual reasons for the witch-hunts were far more complex than just the religious angle. This was the main interest of my research into this topic. It is my argument that the witch-hunts conducted were more closely linked to patriarchal reasons than religious ones. 

It was stated by feminist Deborah Willis that some accounts portray and I quote, “the witch as a heroic proto-feminist resisting patriarchal oppression, and a wholly innocent victim of a male-authored reign of terror designed to keep women in their place’. I, personally, subscribe to this belief. There are many reasons why I believe in this theory about witch-hunts. First of all, a majority of the people killed in witch-hunts were women. Statistically, it has been estimated that 75 to 80% of the witches placed on trial were female. 

Many scholars have argued that it was the woman who seemed most independent from patriarchal norms – especially elderly ones living outside the parameters of the patriarchal family – who were most vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft. Women who lived above 50 – a strange phenomenon in those days – were accused of utilising witchcraft to stay alive. 

Interestingly enough, one of the tests to determine whether a woman was a witch was an unwillingness to cry when placed under torture. The campaign to eradicate women who refused to conform to the patriarchal way of life was further exasperated by men who encouraged women to turn against each other. Another reason that has been identified as contributing to women’s plight at that time was the fact that women were seen as inherently evil as opposed to men. Remember, Eve bit the apple first. Women were also seen as suspicious because of their roles as homemakers, a job which men considered left a lot of idle time to practice sorcery. Women who practised as nuns, midwives and herbalists were seen as breaking norms, and this put them at risk. 

The witch-trials of that age were very influential in the early studies of feminism. Feminist scholars have widely argued this period as being the catalyst for feminist movements. It was the subjugation of women and the many crimes against women that may have started making women take the necessary steps to get back their power and allowed them to get to where they stand today with regards to improved gender equality that is recognised and implemented as much as possible. This is the widespread significance that these heinous crimes have had on modern society. I personally thank each and every one of those women whose lives were sacrificed for our good. 

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova – A Fascinating Tale of Scholars, Vampires and History

The Historian

I have read and loved many books since I can remember learning to read. Yet, I have only read a few of those over and over again. These special books, enough to make me read them again, include the whole Harry Potter series, The Da Vinci Code, and, most recently, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

Today, I want to write about why the last book is special to me. It is a long book. And, it is undeniably boring. That reminds me, there is another book that I have just read, matching the same description. But, more on that later.

The Historian – An Excruciating Task

The Historian - Cover
The Historian – Cover

When I first read The Historian, I was at a point in my life where I was determined to rekindle my relationship with reading. To do this, I chose a tome of epic proportions – one that would give me many sleepless nights trying to get through it. The Historian promised Dan Brown proportions of marvellous plot and intricacies.

I was bitterly disappointed in many ways. This 720-page book did not take me many nights to finish. It took me a day. It was not full of exhilarating plot.  To top it off, the book was lengthy and boring.

At the time however, I did not see all of this. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was a perfect rekindling of my literary love affair. The beginning of more sleepless nights, fighting to finish books boring and exciting.

But as I read what I had learned to call my favourite book over and over, I also learned to call it the most excruciating read I ever had to face. It drew me in like an unwise fool each time I began to read in anew, only to spit me back out – lethargic, and wiser, telling myself that I would never subject myself to that torture.

The Historian – Undeniably, a Love Affair

You are most certainly confused by now. I have taken the time to write a lengthy blog post – a review – of a book which I called special. And, I am criticising that same book to unfettered ends.

You see, I have bittersweet thoughts about The Historian. I love it, but I also hate it.

Why do I love The Historian?

There are many things to love about The Historian. It presents a wide myriad of cities, towns, landscapes, and historical climates to the reader. Through Kostova’s brilliant prose, she displays erudition beyond compare. I have never seen another author understand what she has understood so intimately. This includes the cultures of almost every country in Europe, and Turkey, as well as the complex history of those regions from the early 15th century up until the Cold War. She also demonstrated a deep understanding of their foods, languages, and social tendencies. Undeniably brilliant, she has created a tapestry of history, culture, travel, scenic landscapes, monasteries, and let’s not forget, vampires.

So why do I hate The Historian?

But, that tapestry is not smooth and artistic as it seems. Beneath the beautiful prose and stellar description is a rotting that makes the tapestry hard to follow. The 720-page tome is laden with narration from various aspects. An unnamed girl. Her father. Her father’s advisor. And if memory serves me correctly, a few others. And the narration is sewn in quite jarringly through the plot. The reader is constantly switching between the narrators, their letters, descriptions of libraries and monasteries, and examinations of manuscripts.

And while the plot was undeniably motivating – or maybe it was just the challenge of reaching its resolution that motivated me – even when the reading got rough as I stumbled through the beautiful yet discordant descriptions, it came to a crashing halt when the villain, Dracula, was revealed to be no more than an ****SPOILER ALERT**** irritated librarian.

Kostova had kept me reading through the entire tome, enduring the seemingly repeated descriptions of places and things, and somehow keeping track of the complex plot, all in the hope that the resolution would be as exciting as the book description promised. Instead, I was met with a disappointing anticlimax followed by another lengthy resolution.

Was The Historian worth it?

So was The Historian worth it? Was the excruciating read something I would endure once again. Oh yes!

I will always return to The Historian, because even though I know its end, and I suffer through the intricate plot (which I have come to know, almost), it never fails to surprise me with just how masterfully crafted it is.  It is a marvel how Kostova has created such a masterpiece whose only failings are its complexity of plot and anti-climatic resolution.

I do not see myself as someone who only reads for pleasure. Rather, I read to broaden my mind, to learn. And The Historian taught me. It gave me exactly what I had secretly been looking for. A story of the past, moulded into a story of the present, with history, travel, food, and culture intertwined in it. It is certainly not a fast paced read, but I was somehow excited by its boring nature.

I would definitely call it a travel guide. But its a damn good one at that. And, if one is to read a travel guide, why not read one that will expose you to the countries’ places, food, language, and culture while telling a story. Even if that story has a disappointing end.

Kostova has undoubtedly created something that is hard to rival. It has various major flaws, but I am only writing about them here because I must. I do not even think about them when I return to the book.

So, as with any literary novel, many will hate The Historian, but I am sure, that in time, it will be remembered as an unrivalled piece of art.

Vlad the Impaler (Dracula) – the Man who Guarded Europe against the Ottomans

Vlad Tepes Portrait

The Legend of Count Dracula

We’ve all heard of the magnificent tales surrounding Count Dracula, Transylvania and vampires. Most of us have even watched the countless actors portraying him. From Bela Lugosi, to Gary Oldman, to Luke Evans.

The Man Behind the Legend

Vlad Tepes (Dracula) - Nuremberg Pamphlet
Vlad Tepes – Nuremberg Pamphlet, 1488

But few are familiar with the real man behind the legend. This man, although was what one would call a ‘Dracula’, was no Count. Rather, he was the fascinating voivode (prince) of a place called Wallachia (not Transylvania as the popular legends and even animated movies continue to perpetuate).

Regardless of his history, Vlad III went by many names. And, few people understand the subtleties of a sobriquet (a nickname of sorts), and a title. As such, history remembers this gruesome man in many forms. Simply, he was Vlad. Adding to that was his title – Tepes (meaning the Impaler). He even went as Drakulya in his lifetime. But that is where the fact stops and the fiction starts.

In reality, the erroneous name Vlad Dracul, Vlad Dracula, or just Dracula is derived from his father’s sobriquet. His father, Vlad II, was a member of the Order of the Dragon.  Founded by the King of Hungary in 1408, this Order would serve as the legion of Christianity. Its goal was primarily to protect Christians against the Ottoman Empire. Thus Vlad II became known as Vlad Dracula (Dracula meaning dragon) for his association in the Order.

Dracula – the Thorn in the Side of the Ottomans

This is where the confusion is probably from. Vlad III was both the son of Vlad II (the real Dracula) and his successor in the fight against the Ottomans.

Under his rule, Vlad II had placed Wallachia under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. For complex reasons, Vlad III fell into Ottoman captivity, and Vlad II offered homage to the Ottomans. This homage would later continue.

Whatever the reasons, Vlad III eventually returned home, and after complex machinations, ascended to power in Wallachia. This rule of his would not be undisturbed. At times he was the voivode and at other times he wasn’t.

While voivode at some point, Vlad III decided to part with the practice of paying homage to the Ottomans. This led to a complex war characterised by Vlad’s habit of impaling the Ottoman Army on pikes by the thousands.

Here is a chilling image of impalement- just imagine an army of them outside Vlad’s capital at Targoviste:

Example of Impalement done by Dracula

Quite literally, Vlad became a thorn in the side for the Ottomans. A formidable safeguard of the vast Christian expanse of Europe. Impenetrable by the Ottomans in Vlad’s lifetime.

From that, the Legend was Born

Vlad’s chilling practice of impalement is probably what caused the legend to rise. Both blood thirsty, and cold hearted, like the vampire, it would make a convincing tale that has continued to captivate audiences for over a century.

Read my next post on just how compelling a story Dracula helped create.