By the end of the Middle Ages, accusations of witchcraft were being made mostly against women. A new study finds another reason why this was the case in early modern England.
This bias towards women is often attributed to misogyny as well as economic hard times. Now, Philippa Carter of the University of Cambridge argues that the types of employment open to women at the time came with a much higher risk of facing allegations of witchcraft, or maleficium.
In a study published in the journal Gender & History, Carter uses the casebooks of Richard Napier – an astrologer who treated clients in Jacobean England using star-charts and elixirs – to analyse links between witchcraft accusations and the occupations of those under suspicion.
Most of the jobs involved healthcare or childcare, food preparation, dairy production or livestock care, all of which left women exposed to charges of magical sabotage when death, disease or spoilage caused their clients suffering and financial loss.
“Natural processes of decay were viewed as ‘corruption’. Corrupt blood made wounds rankle and corrupt milk made foul cheese,” said Carter, who is an Asssistant Professor and Fellow of Sidney Sussex College. “Women’s work saw them become the first line of defence against corruption, and this put them at risk of being labelled as witches when their efforts failed.”
Moreover, women often worked several jobs, usually in the heart of their communities – criss-crossing between homes, bakehouses, wells, marketplaces – rather than off in fields or workshops.
“The frequency of social contact in female occupations increased the chance of becoming embroiled in the rifts or misunderstandings that often underpinned suspicions of witchcraft,” said Carter. “Many accusations stemmed from simply being present around the time of another’s misfortune.”
“Women often combined multiple income streams, working in several households to make ends meet: watching children, preparing food, treating invalids. They worked not just in one high-risk sector, but in many at once. It stacked the odds against them.”
As part of a decade-long project at University of Cambridge, over 80,000 of the case notes scribbled down by the astrologer-doctors Richard Napier and Simon Forman were catalogued and digitised.
Napier serviced the physical and mental health needs of ordinary people from the area surrounding his Buckinghamshire practice, taking reams of personal notes on the woes of his clients. His records reveal everyday attitudes to magic in the decades before the English Civil War.
“While complaints ranged from heartbreak to toothache, many came to Napier with concerns of having been bewitched by a neighbour,” said Carter. “Clients used Napier as a sounding board for these fears, asking him for confirmation from the stars or for amulets to protect them against harm.”
“Most studies of English witchcraft are based on judicial records, often pre-trial interrogations, by which point execution was a real possibility. Napier’s records are less engineered. He seems to have kept these notes only for his own reference,” Carter adds. “The astrologer’s services were accessible to the average person. People might visit him to stress-test their theories or look for magical solutions, rather than attempt a risky lawsuit. Napier’s notes allow us access to witchcraft beliefs at a grassroots level, as suspicions bubbled up in England’s villages.”
Carter was able to use the now-digitised casebooks to trawl through his notes for suspected bewitchments, which made up only 2.5% of Napier’s total casefiles. Between 1597 and 1634, Napier recorded 1,714 witchcraft accusations. The majority of both accusers and suspects were women, although the ratio of female suspects was far higher.
Some 802 clients identified the suspected witches by name, and 130 of these contained some detail about the suspect’s work. Six types of work featured regularly across the 130 cases: food services, healthcare, childcare, household management, animal husbandry, and dairying. Such forms of labour were either regularly or almost exclusively the domain of women.
Dairy was symbolically tied to women as “milk-producers”. Carter found 17 cases of magical spoliation of dairy, and 16 involved women only. For example, Alice Gray suspected her neighbours when cheese began to “rise up in bunches like biles [boils] &… heave & wax bitter”. Failures in brewing and baking were also attributed to female witchcraft.
Women often managed food supplies – a power that bred suspicion. Many tales of tit-for-tat maleficium in Napier’s notes derived from spurned requests for food. “Women were both distributers and procurers of food, and failed food exchanges could seed suspicions,” said Carter.
One potential witch, Joan Gill, gained her reputation after her husband consumed milk she had been saving, and the spoon he supped it with lodged itself in his mouth overnight.
Not just denying others food but also supplying it could end in accusation. Nine out of ten suspects who sold food were women, with 25 accusations resulting from a bout of sickness after being fed.
Many women practised as local healers, or “cunning folk”, but this too was a risky occupation: suspicions arose when treatments failed. One male customer, troubled with “a great sorenes [in] his privy [private] partes”, told Napier a female healer had “wewitched him” after he sought a second opinion.
Some of the riskiest work was in what we now call “caring professions”, still dominated by women today: midwifery, attending to the sick or elderly, childminding, and so on. For example, thirteen suspects had cared for the accuser in her childbed.
Infant mortality was high, and the prospect of losing a child often motivated allegations. Over 13% of all recorded witchcraft accusations naming a suspect involved a victim under the age of 12.
Loss of sheep and cattle was also a common cause of accusation. Just over half of livestock workers at the time were women. This parity can be seen in accusers (28 men and 28 women) but not suspects (15 men and 91 women). “Napier’s casebooks suggest that disputes between men over livestock could get deflected onto women,” said Carter.
“An early modern housewife was responsible for managing the health of livestock as well as humans; she made the poultices and syrups used to treat both. When an animal sickened strangely, this could be interpreted as a malefic abuse of her healing skills.”
“Gendered divisions of labour contributed to the predominance of female witchcraft suspects,” added Carter. “In times of crisis, lingering suspicions could erupt as mass denunciations. England’s mid-17th-century witch trials saw hundreds of women executed within the space of three years.
“Every Halloween we are reminded that the stereotypical witch is a woman. Historically, the riskiness of ‘women’s work’ may be part of the reason why.”
“Work, Gender and Witchcraft in Early Modern England,” by Philippa Carter is published in Gender & History. Click here to read it.
Top Images: Hanging of witches depicted in the 17th century. British Library 523.b.27 page 107