Women in History Wednesdays: Witches

By Rocco Graziano

In honor of Halloween, what could be a more fitting topic than witches? Witches manifest in the folklore and superstitions of many cultures throughout the world, often in vastly different forms. Some may be a force of good, some of evil; some may be beautiful, while others may be horrifying. Yet, at the heart of all tales of witchcraft lies one common trait: power, often specifically feminine power. Witch trials and the mass hysteria that surrounded them were often a reaction against women who were “otherized” in society, and reflect of fear of female power and agency.

The modern conception of witch trials found their start in Early Modern Europe. At the time, the social chaos of the Reformation and the physical destruction of the Wars of Religion had devastated the continent. The fabric of European society had been torn asunder, and many were left without a place in the world. The patriarchal social structure of the time demanded women be under the authority of a man until widowhood, and were expected to marry and procreate. However, the dissolution of convents and high death toll of the religious wars resulted, for the first time, in a large population of unmarried women. Most communities saw their percentage of unmarried women jump from less than 10% to over 30%. This subset of women was viewed as “the Other”, without a place in society. The societal fear that resulted from this large group of independent women contributed to rise in accusations of witchcraft; around 85% of those accused were women, most being unmarried or widowed. The major power behind the witch trials was the Catholic Church, and it used religious justification for its persecutions. Drawing on the tale of Adam and Eve, the Church pointed to women as being instruments of the Devil from the start, with French magistrate Nicholas Remigius saying, “The Devil uses them so, because he knows that women love carnal pleasures, and he means to bind them to his allegiance by such agreeable provocations."

As society evolved, so did the notion of “the Other”, and it came to encompass different groups. As European powers began to colonize the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries, they enslaved and persecuted the indigenous peoples of the area, with indigenous Americans becoming “the Other” in the colonial Americas. The well-known 1692 Salem Witch Trials exemplify the reaction to “the Others” in Salem at the time. The first woman accused was Tituba, the indigenous South American slave of Puritan minister Samuel Parris. The accusations laid against her reflect the Puritan discomfort with unfamiliar people and customs within their society. The accusations of witchcraft against her were, of course, baseless but have their origins in her sharing of stories and traditions of her people. The Puritan discomfort with “the Other” reacted against this introduction of unfamiliar practices, naming it evil and sentencing Tituba to death as a witch.

At their core, witch trials were a reaction against female independence and unfamiliarity. Those which society decides it had no place for were named as witches, with the understanding that those who were not part of the in-group must be evil. I leave on this spooky Halloween night with a enjoyable video, where a modern-day witch examines the portrayal of witches on film.


Michele Dale