On the Non-existence of Woman Hatred

June 8, 2012

Title page from the seventh edition of Malleus Maleficarum, printed in 1520.

I’ve been reading a long excerpt from the Malleus Maleficarum this past month. If the name sounds familiar to you, but you can’t quite place it, this was the prime resource manual used during the European witch persecutions. Written by two Dominican inquisitors, it became, as Charles Kors and Edward Peters say in their introduction, “the first encyclopedia of witch beliefs…constantly cited in support of those beliefs by Catholics and Protestants down to the eighteenth century.” Its usefulness for pagans today is limited. How much direct knowledge of witchcraft (outside of the courtroom or the torture chamber) either cleric had cannot be known, as this is a question that would not occur to most historians. The breadth of the authors’ theological knowledge, their familiarity with prior writings on the topic, and their understanding of various legal theories come across clearly. These two men took themselves very seriously. Reading their arguments it is easy to see how hard it would be for an accused witch to defend herself.

The Hammer of the Witches, as the book is also called in English, is essential reading for witchcraft students who reference legal, scholarly or ecclesiastic documents of the time, not because it has much credible information in itself, but because it delineates the stereotyped confessions that interrogators sought to coerce from their victims. In other words, it lays out the witchcraft belief that should probably be discarded, at least where it appears after 1487 when the book was published. I do not mean to infer that ecclesiastic writing on witchcraft prior to 1487 was sound, but this is the point where the distortion becomes re-distorted. Think of a stained glass filter imposed on an inverted black-and-white photograph.

I read the entire Malleus in the mid 1990’s (you can find the book in any mid-sized public library) and the thing that struck me most about it was the intense misogyny. It made me quite ill. The default male pronoun is not used here, and the hypothetical witch is almost always a “she.” The most emphatic condemnation is reserved for the village midwives, who in those days were the herbal doctors for ordinary people. They “surpass all other witches in their crimes” while at the same time “there is scarcely any tiny hamlet in which at least one is not to be found.” There is a long rigamarole averring that not only evil-doing witches, but witches who heal or break evil spells, are guilty of heresy and subject to prosecution. And the text is littered with remarks such as “Women also have weak memories; and it is natural vice in them not to be disciplined, but to follow their impulses without any sense of what is due” or (citing Seneca) “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil” or “through this defect [bent rib from Adam] she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”

But the authors of Malleus are not woman-haters, as they take pains to establish, and this is why I wanted to discuss the book. They freely admit that “When they are governed by good spirit, they are most excellent in virtue” and “they have brought beatitude to men, and have saved nations, lands and cities” and even “by faith led nations and kingdoms away from the worship of idols to the Christian religion.” The problem is that “they are more credulous, and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them” and “since they are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.” The problem is not women per se, but the weakness of the flesh, since “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.”

The association of witchcraft with women did not exist in a theoretical vacuum. In places where witch hunts were most severe, eighty percent or more of those executed were women. While it is speculated that many of these women were marginal, vulnerable and powerless, Malleus makes clear that the Inquisition was attempting to target the most rebellious women, those women who clung to superstitions and rejected Church authority.

Even when systematic assault on women is at its most severe (widespread torture and execution under false charges), it is never framed as an attack on women. It is an attack on some commonly acknowledged evil (“carnal lust” or “the Devils’ corruption”) or an exultation of an ideal sentiment (“noble womanhood”). We do not live in enlightened times when women are no longer considered contemptible by the majority of people, because that time of outright popular contempt never existed.

This lesson from the witch hunts is relevant to the current assault on women’s rights, an assault most obvious coming from the Christian Right, but which is actually happening across religious and political ideologies. The slogans used are “religious freedom” or “free speech” or “pro-sex” or “the 99%” or even “equality”–sentiments no reasonable person can disagree with. But we have to look deeper, and examine what the actions and proposals being hidden beneath these flags mean for women. This what the slogan “Never again the Burning Times” really means: resisting systematic attacks on women’s freedom committed under the guise of accepted values.