Feminist interpretations of the Early Modern witch trials

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Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, various feminist interpretations of the witch trials have been made and published. One of the earliest individuals to do so was the American Matilda Joslyn Gage, a writer who was deeply involved in the first-wave feminist movement for women's suffrage. In 1893, she published the book Woman, Church and State, which was "written in a tearing hurry and in time snatched from a political activism which left no space for original research."[1] Likely influenced by the works of Jules Michelet about the Witch-Cult, she claimed that the witches persecuted in the Early Modern period were pagan priestesses adhering to an ancient religion venerating a Great Goddess. She also repeated the erroneous statement, taken from the works of several German authors, that nine million people had been killed in the witch hunt.[1]

In 1973, two American second-wave feminists, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, published an extended pamphlet in which they put forward the idea that the women persecuted had been the traditional healers and midwives of the community who were being deliberately eliminated by the male medical establishment.[2] This theory disregarded the fact that the majority of those persecuted were neither healers nor midwives and that in various parts of Europe these individuals were commonly among those encouraging the persecutions.[3] Although they had initially self-published the work, they received such a positive response that the Feminist Press took over publication, and the work then began worldwide distribution, being translated into French, Spanish, German, Hebrew, Danish and Japanese.[4]

Other feminist historians have rejected this interpretation of events; historian Diane Purkiss described it as "not politically helpful" because it constantly portrays women as "helpless victims of patriarchy" and thus does not aid them in contemporary feminist struggles.[5] She also condemned it for factual inaccuracy by highlighting that radical feminists adhering to it ignore the historicity of their claims, instead promoting it because it is perceived as authorising the continued struggle against patriarchal society.[6] She asserted that many radical feminists nonetheless clung to it because of its "mythic significance" and firmly delineated structure between the oppressor and the oppressed.[3]

"Nine million women"[edit]

A figure of nine million victims (or "nine million women" killed) in the European witch-hunts is an influential popular myth in 20th-century feminism and neopaganism. The nine million figure is ultimately due to Gottfried Christian Voigt. The history of this estimate was researched by Behringer (1998).[7]

Voigt published it in a 1784 article, writing in the context of the Age of Enlightenment, wishing to emphasize the importance of education in rooting out superstition and a relapse into the witch-craze which had subsided less than a lifetime ago in his day. He was criticizing Voltaire's estimate of "several hundred thousand" as too low. Voigt based his estimate on twenty cases recorded over fifty years in the archives Quedlinburg, Germany. Based on records of the 29 year period 1569 to 1589, he estimated about 40 executions in this period, and extrapolated to about 133 executions per century.[8] Voigt then extrapolated this number to the entire population of Europe, arriving at "858,454 per century" and for an assumed 11 centuries of witch-hunts at "9,442,994 people" in total.[9] Voigt's number was rounded off to nine million by Gustav Roskoff in his 1869 Geschichte des Teufels ("History of the Devil"). It was subsequently repeated by various German and English historians, notably the 19th-century women's rights campaigner Matilda Joslyn Gage[10][11] by Margaret Murray (1921), and notoriously in Nazi propaganda, which in the 1930s used witches as a symbol of northern völkisch culture, as opposed to Mediterranean or "Semitic" Christianity. The 1935 Der christliche Hexenwahn ("The Christian Witch Craze") claimed that the witch-hunts were a Christian, and thus ultimately Jewish, attempt to exterminate "Aryan womanhood". The survey of judicial records taken by Himmler's Hexen-Sonderkommando within the SS has proven useful for modern estimates of the number of victims.[12] Mathilde Ludendorff in her 1934 Christliche Grausamkeit an Deutschen Frauen ("Christian cruelty against German women") also repeated the figure of nine million victims.[13]

Curiously, not only the nine million estimate of Voigt's has proven influential, but his estimate of "133 Quedlinburg executions per century" also has an involved history, appearing as the claim that 133 witches being burnt in the year 1589 alone in Geschichte der Hexenprozesse (1880, revised 1910), and even as a mass-execution of 133 witches on a single day in Quedlinburg in Gustav Roskoff, Geschichte des Teufels (1869, p. 304). Reference to this supposed mass-execution as factual was made as late as 2006 in the third edition of Brian P. Levack's The Witch Hunt in Modern Europe (p. 24). Reference to an alleged execution of 133 witches in Osnabrück as factual appears as late as 2007 in John Michael Cooper, Mendelssohn, Goethe, and the Walpurgis night: the heathen muse in European culture, 1700–1850 (p. 15).[14]

Apparently, Voigt's estimate of the "average number of executions per century in Quedlinburg" happened to coincide with the number of victims in a spurious report of a singular mass execution in a single day in Osnabrück distributed in the late 1580s. References to this supposed mass execution as factual is also found in 19th-century literature, sometimes together with the claim that the four prettiest of those condemned were lifted out of the flames and carried away through the air before they were burned.[15] Finally, Roskoff (1869) seems to have mixed up "133 executions on a day in Osnabrück" with "133 executions per century in Quedlinburg" to arrive at "133 executions on a day in Quedlinburg". The Osnabrück report seems to originate with a flyer first distributed in 1588, claiming an execution of 133 witches on a single day in "this year". The flyer was later reprinted, in 1589 and during the 1590s, with the reported event always kept as occurring in "this year". This sensationalist headline perhaps reflects the historical mass execution in Osnabrück of 121 witches during the summer of 1583 (in the course of about five months, not on a single day), the highest number of executions by far recorded for any year in this city (Pohl 1990)[16]


  1. ^ a b Hutton 1999. p. 141.
  2. ^ Purkiss 1996, pp. 19–20; Hutton 1999, p. 342.
  3. ^ a b Purkiss 1996, p. 8.
  4. ^ Ehrenreich and English 2010. pp. 12–13.
  5. ^ Purkiss 1996, p. 17.
  6. ^ Purkiss 1996, pp. 11, 16.
  7. ^ Hutton, Ronald. Triumph of the Moon. p. 141. ; (German) Behringer, Wolfgang: Neun Millionen Hexen. Enstehung, Tradition und Kritik eines populären Mythos, in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 49. 1987, pp. 664–685, extensive summary on [1]
  8. ^ Nach diesem Verhältnis würden in jedem Jahrhundert in Quedlinburg 133 Personen als Hexen verbrannt worden seyn. [2][3]
  9. ^ [4]Behringer (1998)
  10. ^ Gage, Matilda Joslyn (1893). Woman, Church and State. 
  11. ^ Poole, Robert (ed.) (2003) The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-6204-7. p. 192.
  12. ^ the records of the survey were re-discovered in Poland by German historian Gerhard Schormann in 1981
  13. ^ Michael David Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe pp. 236–238
  14. ^ Cooper cites Annemarie Dross, Die erste Walpurgisnacht: Hexenverfolgung in Deutschland (1978), p. 171 and Soldan, Heppe and Bauer, Die Geschichte der Hexenprozesse (1900, revised edition of Soldan's 1843 work), vol. 1, p. 514.
  15. ^ Wilhelm Havemann, Geschichte der Lande Braunschweig und Lüneburg für Schule und Haus, 1838, 86f.
  16. ^ an inscription in the Osnabrück Marienkirche dated 1591 records 121 witches burned in 1583, compared to a total of 44 over the period of 1584 to 1590. Sabine Wehking, Die Inschriften der Stadt Osnabrück, Wiesbaden 1988, 135–141 (Nr. 162).