Women weren’t only ones executed: book
National Post (Canada), Oct. 30, 2002
EDMONTON – Two Canadian academics have set out to overturn the hoary stereotype of the female witch, arguing thousands of men who were executed for witchcraft in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries have been forgotten amid a tide of feminist research.
In a book to be published in January, historians Andrew Gow and Lara Apps say male witches have been marginalized as researchers focus almost exclusively on the persecution of women accused in Europe’s notorious witch trials.
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Fully 25% of the estimated 60,000 witches executed between 1450 and 1750 were men, they say in Male Witches in Early Modern Europe, a 220-page text to be published by Manchester University Press.
In some regions, men made up the majority of those prosecuted for crimes ranging from laying curses on crops to causing miscarriages, they note.
Mr. Gow, a history professor at the University of Alberta, says the omission belittles the suffering of those men, and has fuelled popular conceptions of witches as gnarled women in pointy hats.
“We’re interested in setting the historical record right,” Mr. Gow said. “We want to produce a balanced and equitable picture of events that have been enormously important in academic history in the last 20 years, and also in popular culture.
“Look at Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Look at Bewitched and other popular TV depictions of witches and witchcraft. They all revolve around women exclusively.
“This is all malarkey, because it’s all based on an extremely partial and very misleading understanding of witchcraft that was produced for ideological reasons.”
Mr. Gow and Ms. Apps stressed they are not trying to invalidate feminist studies, or suggest male witches are more important. “They’re not,” said Mr. Gow. “But that’s not a reason for them to be written out of the story.”
Instead, they hope to foster a clearer understanding of the witch hunts and the social context in which they took place.
The duo began researching the topic in earnest a few years ago, after Ms. Apps noticed the use of a male-gender noun for witch in a centuries-old Latin text. The book, Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), was written in 1487 by Dominican inquisitors in Germany.
Further study of treatises, trial records and indictments from the epoch — including a collection kept by the County of Essex in England — showed similar masculine usages, along with references to individual male witches by name.
The texts suggest males charged with witchcraft endured the same horrors modern scholars have attributed to the rampant misogyny of their accusers, said Ms. Apps, who holds a master’s degree in history from the University of Alberta.
“What we found was that men and women tended to be accused of the same sorts of crimes,” she said. “In areas where torture was used, both men and women were tortured. Both men and women were liable to be executed.
“Both would be stripped naked and searched for the Devil’s mark, or pricked for insensitive spots, that kind of thing.”
Mr. Gow believes the research carries profound implications for witchcraft scholars, as it calls into question assumptions about the accusers’ motivations, suggesting people suffered from a much more complex set of anxieties than simple fear of women.
“It makes it much harder to maintain the standard, stereotypical narrative of unrelieved misogyny, of blind ignorance, superstition and woman-hating,” he said. “I think what we’ve shown, among other things, is that witch-hunting is not woman-hunting.
“I don’t think any one who takes our research seriously can continue to argue the same way about what witch-hunting tells us about those societies.”