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The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages

The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages

By Michael D. Bailey

Essays in Medieval Studies, Volume 19 (2002)

Introduction: The figure of the witch first appeared in Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages. That is, while all the separate components of witchcraft—harmful sorcery or maleficium, diabolism, heretical cultic activity, and elements drawn from common folklore, such as ideas of nocturnal flight—were widely believed to exist throughout much of the medieval period, only in the fifteenth century did these components merge into the single concept of satanic witchcraft. Also in the fifteenth century an aspect of witchcraft emerged that, to many modern minds at least, is perhaps the most striking and compelling element of the stereotype—the pronounced association of witchcraft with women rather than with men. This connection was developed most completely and ruthlessly in what is now by far the most famous late-medieval text dealing with witchcraft, the witch-hunting manual Malleus maleficarum, written by the Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Kramer in 1486. In this profoundly misogynist work, Kramer linked witchcraft entirely to what he regarded as women’s spiritual weakness and their natural proclivity for evil. Above all, he linked witchcraft to supposedly uncontrolled female sexuality, famously concluding that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.” Yet the idea of the female witch was not new to Kramer. Throughout the fifteenth century, the number of women tried for sorcery and witchcraft was significantly higher than the number of men, and the special association of witchcraft with women appeared in authoritative literature fully fifty years before the publication of the Malleus. In his Formicarius, written around 1437, the Dominican theologian and religious reformer Johannes Nider was the first clerical authority to argue that women were more prone to become witches than were men. In fact, his treatment of this issue was extremely influential on the later Malleus, and Kramer incorporated whole sections of Nider’s text virtually verbatim into his own more expansive analysis of female proclivity for evil.

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