Clerical Conceptions of Magic and the Stereotype of the Female Witch
By Matthew Alexander Moebius
Oshkosh Scholar, Vol.6 (2011)
Abstract: Working from the foundation laid by leading historians of medieval witchcraft — most notably Richard Kieckhefer, Norman Cohn, Michael Bailey, and Hans Peter Broedel — this study examines the conceptual development of a predominantly feminine witchcraft stereotype as understood within the perceptions of the educated clerical elite. The theories of these historians, each approaching the study of witchcraft in different ways and addressing mostly separate aspects of the phenomenon, are reconciled with one another and tied together in hitherto unarticulated ways to form a single, cohesive narrative of the emergence of the idea of the exclusively female witch. The gradual evolution of clerical conceptions of magic shifted in the later Middle Ages from a masculine conception to a more gender-neutral one, opening the door to feminization. The construction of the witches’ sabbat, influenced by largely feminine pagan mythological motifs, pushed the idea in the direction of a female conception. Finally, influential writings dominated by aggressively misogynistic ideology finalized the association between women and witchcraft.
In the last four decades, the historical work done on late medieval witchcraft has been extensive. This scholarship has found the general topic of witchcraft to be one of immeasurable complexity, and therefore, the general approach of historians of medieval witchcraft has been to narrow their individual studies. Historians Richard Kieckhefer and Norman Cohn have done foundational work on the conceptual development of witchcraft. Kieckhefer’s early work produced detailed analyses of trial records, including inquisitorial interrogations and witness testimonies, with the ultimate goal of uncovering how witchcraft was perceived by the common populace. Cohn’s study of the relationship between witchcraft mythology and ideas associated with earlier heretical groups is still heavily relied upon by current witchcraft historians. Much excellent work has also been done by recent historians, notably Michael D. Bailey and Hans Peter Broedel. Bailey’s work has emphasized the role of the evolution of general conceptions of magic throughout the Middle Ages in contributing to the creation of a defined system of witchcraft mythology in the fifteenth century. Broedel’s primary focus has been on the influential 1487 anti-witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum, and on the various elements that make up the construction of witchcraft represented therein.
One of the specific aspects of witchcraft that has seen considerable attention in recent years is its relationship to gender. Both Bailey and Broedel have made admirable contributions to uncovering the historical development of a feminine witch concept. Bailey’s theories of the feminization of the witchcraft concept tie in with his larger ideas on the evolution of clerical conceptions of magic. Broedel has discussed at length the influence of feminine mythological motifs taken from pagan traditions. Each present compelling ideas, but in each case the specificity of the scope of their arguments has limited the overall effectiveness of their conclusions. This study builds on the foundations laid by these historians’ theories. It will draw not only on these recent studies of witchcraft and gender, but also on the general scholarship of witchcraft mythology. Combined with clues from the primary sources, the threads of these historical arguments will be woven together into a more cumulative view of the gender associations of medieval witchcraft.