The Scapegoat: Impotence and Witchcraft in the Middle Ages
By Jessica Carter
Waterloo Historical Review, Vol.8 (2016)
Abstract: This essay investigates the question of how women were used as scapegoats for male impotence during the Witch Craze. It analyzes the two medical treatises Trotula and the Secrets of Woman comparing and contrasting how each text prescribe treatments towards the female sex. The perceptions and ideals conveyed in these medical treatises provide an explanation as to why women were placed in a vulnerable position and targeted for threatening male masculinity.
Introduction: In Western Medieval Europe, a phenomenon occurred known as the Witch Craze which became prominent from 1450-1700 and reached its peak from 1550-1660. This period was marked by the popularity of witch-hunts, which were sanctioned by communities and most predominantly by the Inquisition. During the late Middle Ages, right up to the eighteenth century, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people were executed for witchcraft in Europe. This excludes the millions more that were tortured, persecuted and lived in constant fear of such horrendous acts.
Rising from this fear, a strong correlation between the female sex and the “occult” or “dark arts” of witchcraft was established. Women were targets and their feminine identity was strongly grafted into the fifteenth century stereotype of precarious women who renounced God, flew over Sabbaths to meet the Devil, held orgies, murdered babies and planned inflictions of magical harm on neighbours.
A particular feature of such infliction was male impotence. The issue of male impotence and sterility was by no means a new concept in the Middle Ages. Ancient Greek physicians, such as Galen, Aristotle and Dioscordies, discuss impotence in their medical treatises and tried to such cases. However, in the fifteenth century the tendency for male impotency to be projected onto women as the cause, emerged. How is it that women were held responsible for the innate biological issue of male impotence in the fifteenth century? Why during this time frame and why in particular women?