With only a handful of weeks remaining until the big A-level History exam – Popular Culture and the Witchcraze – the chief focus has been spent on revision on the interpretation questions (based on two extracts) and thematic questions (your typical essay questions, but with a twist that needs the response organised over three themes for synthesis). There are some clear question areas that would be incredibly welcomed (the importance of religion, the differences in regional variations, and even the role of the judiciary), and debates that would be best avoided (yes, i’m talking about you “Popular Culture”!!).

Having spent the afternoon marking a pile of thematic essays, I thought I would break free in order to give an overview. The question under consideration focuses on the role of women in the early modern period and how they relate to witch persecution/trials:

‘The European witch hunts were primarily a war against women.’ How far do you agree with this view?

It is an intriguing debate, mainly because it allows the student to engage with various feminist interpretations. They have highlighted a ‘gender crisis’ of this period, and how women threatened the patriarchal order; the response of the male dominated elites was severe: scapegoating women and killing off any who dare challenge their authority. James Sharp comments on the rise of these interpretations:


‘Women were now consciously involved in a struggle to improve their political, economic and social position and sought to construct a history of oppression which would help inform their consciousness in their on-going struggle. The women accused and burnt as witches seemed to provide powerful evidence for man’s inhumanity to women.’

Of course, there is plenty of evidence to support such assertions and interpretations. For example, the elites of the early modern period promoted the view of the female witch stereotype: that a witch would be most likely to be a female, and someone unmarried (for a married women could be controlled by the husband). Kramer’s infamous The Hammer of the Witches from 1486 highlights this view, with the quote ‘When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil thoughts’ clearly showing his position as to the value of women. Obviously, the religious link stretches back throughout history, especially in terms of Christianity: it was Eve who tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit that led to their expulsion from Eden. Women were stereotyped as rebels who would easily succumb to sexual temptation, leading to the many accounts of sabbat orgies in the forest with the Devil and his minions, confirming the notion of the diabolical pact. Although, it could be debated as to how widespread such demonological beliefs actually were throughout Europe in this period: the British Isles clearly wasn’t as affected (with minimal evidence of the belief in the diabolical pact mentioned), and the peasantry were mostly illiterate. Therefore, the illiterate masses were unable to directly engage in such literature, although such ideas could be disseminated by the clergy.

It is far more likely that women were attacked due to their prominence in social and economic roles. For example, they were midwives and childminders, which could easily lead to accusations of witchcraft if a child were to die (which was much more likely in the 1500s-1600s due to the high rate of child mortality). Furthermore, they were also cooks, which could lead to accusations of poisoning and making others ill. Therefore, such an interpretation fits in more with the idea of a functional response: of local communities scapegoating a figure in order to cleanse their anger. Furthermore, women were the most vulnerable in the community: those accused and persecuted were often older and widowed, without anyone to come to their defence. Such older women failed to serve a key purpose or role within a village setting, and could be seen as being a burden on others.

In terms of answering the question – in accordance with OCR guidelines – the three key themes that could be used as criteria in order to judge the debate could easily present themselves as:

  1. Role of religion (demonological literature)
  2. Socio-economic roles
  3. Political/judicial roles

In this manner the student could treat the question as three mini debates: analyse and evaluate the significance of events/examples in each of the three themes, before concluding by providing judgement on each of them. It would be a confident student that determines that it was a ‘war on women’ in terms of a grand conspiracy, however, there is ample evidence to show that women were heavily targeted (in England, the rate was as high as 90%). However, the feminist interpretations are intriguing but not ultimately convincing: there are far too many examples of areas in which men were persecuted above women (such as Iceland and Russia). In this manner, it is more reasonable to view women being persecuted not as a conspiracy, but rather due to their position in society and their economic roles.