October, October, Beware of Witchcraft

Gender anxiety conveyed through witch trials in the 1600s


“A man was walking along one day and looking for a witch, he believed his penis was used for Maleficien and it was stolen. When he found the witch, he asked, ‘Please, please, can I have my penis back?’ And she said, ‘Alright, keep walking ahead and you will see a bird nest. Take any birds you want, just don’t take the large one, because it belongs to the High Priest.’”

It was one of the stories noted in the book Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer regarding witchcraft and how to hunt them down.

Broomsticks, murmuring in Latin, pacts with the Devil, boiling potions, and dirty robes- all obvious signs of a witch in the Middle Ages on European continent. It surely was a difficult time for women who lived in poverty and of course, made some enemies in the neighborhood.

Sarah Eckert is a Ph.D. candidate in History of Early Christianity from Claremont Graduate University. On Monday, October 3, she brought to the students of Gender in Science 3860 her sophisticated knowledge in the phenomena of witch trials and delivered an intriguing presentation on witchcraft imagery and women sexuality.

Eckert helped the students familiarize with the subject through a painting of Henry Fuseli in 1783, with three elder women in hood facing the side in linear motion. The title was obvious enough, “The Three Witches”. This image was a widely accepted perception on witches in the Middle Ages: old women in hoods with long triangular noses and rough skin, who made a pact with the Devil. However, were the witches really who they were perceived to be?

“By definition, a witch is someone who practices Maleficien- harmful magic, they were usually women of lower class who suffered some kind of disfranchisement in the society,” said Eckert. “Thousands of women were sentenced to death by fire at witch trials.”

Any innocent women who disobeyed the Church or a powerful individual, or were simply suspected by their neighbors, could be accused of doing witchcraft. Trials with mother and daughter prosecuted together also existed.

Sabbath- witches’ annual meeting, was a common belief in the 1600s where witches ate babies, covered themselves in blood, and had sex with the Devil. However, most scholars nowadays agree that Sabbath was only a fantasy instead of actual historical occurrence, according to Eckert. The vivid images of Sabbath were mostly deluded and made up by prosecuted women under torture.

“If you were prosecuted of committing witchcraft, the goal was to confess as soon as possible to eliminate the amount of torture and pain they will put you through,” said Eckert. “So the Sabbath was very likely a product of intense torture- tell them what they want to hear so you could get off the interrogation. And on wild accounts, they would make up extremely specific details.”

There was no distinction between sex for pleasure and sex for reproduction purpose. The idea that scared the ruling people was female out of control; it was the demonization of female sexuality, according to Eckert. The imagery of witches was the opposite of an ideal woman, who cared for children, stayed at home properly, and practiced abstinence.

The first theorist on witchcraft was Heinrich Kramer. His book, Malleus Maleficarum, became the judge’s manual for witch trials. It described in details and defined what counted as witchcraft, and Kramer was the first to indicate that witches were specifically women. One common belief was that women were more acceptable to Devil’s charms than men.

“Scholars have said that you hear a lot of gender anxiety in Kramer’s book,” said Eckert. “Although Kramer never said himself that they were quite worried about women, you could hear it in his tone and his text.”

Somehow the male penis had always been a major concern when it comes to female sexuality, that it would be compromised if women abandoned abstinence. The sex discourse inherited from such practices could still been witnessed today.

The witch trials and witchcraft eventually died down in the Enlightenment Era, because the existence of Devil was challenged and doubted. And if the belief of Devil was shaken, witchcraft could no longer be committed.

“Witchcraft was a stereotype- it was an assumption applied to people who generally did not fit in society,” said Eckert. “It was a manifestation of gender anxiety during that time and a test of human nature. Whenever we feel threatened by something we don’t know, our first implication is to take it down. I think the message here is, don’t judge a book by its cover, or else it will lead to a witch hunt.”

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