Again the lack of evidence somewhat hampers the determination
of who were the main victims of accusations of witchcraft.
But some general attributes can be determined.
One of the most well-documented characterisitics of
persons accused of witchcraft is sex. Most were female.
In most areas of Europe about 75% of those accused were
Although women were the main victims, men were also
accused. There were certain instances when were as likely
as women to be accused of maleficium. The first of these
were cases of witchcraft that had links to heresy. The
other was when the crime involved political sorcery.
It was not uncommon for men to use ritual magic to advance
political careers. The final instance in which men were
accused was when the hunts got out of control. In these
circumstances the normal sterotype broke down when indiscriminate
accusations were made. Thus, men became more likely
to be named.
There were several reasons that women tended to be
more susceptable to accusations to men, most of these
related to current attitudes to women and the places
and roles they held within society.
Firstly, women were suspected because they were believed
to be morally weaker than men. They were therefore more
likely to succumb to the temptations of the Devil. This
idea had its roots in the earliest of Christian teachings.
Secondly, the idea that women were more carnal and
sexually indulgent than men was also common. It was
not until several centuries later that the idea of woman
as sexually passive was to develop. This idea of women
as sexual creatures was especially common amongst clerics,
particularly monks. In relation to the charge of witchcraft
this aspect is important was women were often thought
to have made the pact with the Devil as the result of
sexual temptation and they often took part in sexual
activity as part of the pact.
Thirdly, women, especially those from the lower sections
of society were seen as having the opportunity to commit
harmful acts. They were the cooks who worked with herbs,
the healers who used herbs and ointments as their cures.
The other most vulnerable group were the midwives.
The main reason they were susceptable was that they
were easily blamed for the death of infants. In a period
of very high infant mortality and also occasional infanticide,
to charge the midwife with causing the death of the
child through magical means was both functional and
plausible. It also offered the greiving family a target
Once accused of maleficia, demonological theory, which
was more important to the judges, could easily be employed.
Witches needed unbaptized babies so they could sacrifice
them to the Devil, feast on them and use the remains
in potions. As midwives, they were in the perfect positions
to procure these infants.
The final reason for the number of women accused was
that they were weaker in every way. They did not have
the physical or political power to defend themselves.
As such, they were thought more likely to resort to
magic to help themselves. Which also meant that once
accused they had less to defend themselves with.
There are a number of reasons why witches tended to
be old. Firstly, witches tended to be prosecuted after
many years of suspicion. This tended to keep the age
up. Also, they tended to be wise women and healers,
titles which by definition involved age. A further explanation
lies in the fact that older people, especially those
who were senile, exhibited eccentric or anti-social
behaviour that made people uncomfortable and tended
to invite accusations. A final reason was that older
people were less physically powerful and therefore more
likely to resort to magic to defend themselves or to
Underlying the depiction of the old, sexually varocious
was a deep male fear of sexually experienced, independent
women. This is partly the reason that old widows were
particularly susceptable to charges of witchcraft.
There is no definate trend related to the marital status
of witches when accused of witchcraft. However, the
percentage of unmarried (widowed or never married) was
higher than the percentage of those married.
Among the unmarried the widow was most likely to be
accused. In a partiarchal society, a women who was not
under the control of a husband or father was a source
of concern. The other cause for fear was that the number
of unmarried women was increasing. These women were
often considered a burden on society.
For those who were married, there were two main sources
of accusations. Firstly, from conflicts with spouse
and children. One of the attractions of witchcraft accusations
were that they allowed the expression of otherwise sociall
unacceptable feelings, for example of a child against
The second cause was when friction occured over property,
often belonging to the husband. Although married women
had no independent wealth or property, they often worked
alongside their husbands. They therefore, often found
themselves involved in disputes over rents, labour or
even possession of land.
Social and Economic Status
We can be fairly certain that most prosecuted from
witchcraft came from the lower levels of society. Many
accused lived at subsistance level and often had to
resort to begging to survive. They were the least able
to defend themselves. Being dependent on the community
also meant that they generated feelings of guilt and
Some economic changes in this period also made matters
worse. The hunts occured at a time when the level of
poverty was becoming more severe and more widespread.
This was partly due to an increase in population.
While these economic changes made people more likely
to contemplate using magic to protect themselves, it
also made people more likely to make accusations. As
more people feared the economic decline, they became
least tolerant in their dealings with the poor. Accusations
against the poor were a way of maintaining their own
Accused witches often demonstrated certain behavioural
traits that made them more susceptable to witchcraft
Witches were often the village scold, the person who
often had harsh words for people, who may have cursed
alot. They were not people who others enjoyed having
Secondly, witches were oftne old and may have exhibited
signs of senility. They were often cranky and hard to
get along with. It could also explain why witches were
considered to be mentally unbalanced. Also many accused
witches admitted to running the wild with Diana, goddess
of the moon. These delusions may have been due to a
Another characteristic of witches was their reputation
for forms of religious and moral deviance. Any past
transgressions in these areas may have made them more
susceptable to charges of witchcraft. While most were
certainly not hardened criminals, some had been named
in ecclesiastical courts for offences such as non-attendence
of church, Sabbath-breaking fornication and even adultery.
Some male witches had been suspected of homosexuality.
Levack, Brian "The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe"
(London: Longman, 1987)
Hart, Roger "Witchcraft" (London: Wayland Publishers,
Maple, Eric "Witchcraft" (London: Octopus Books,
Britannica Online "Occultism: Witchcraft: Witchcraft
in Historical Cultures: Western Christendom" - http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=macro/5004/71/47.html
My aim in this section of my site is to provide some
of the current academic thinking in relation to this
period and the events that occured. If you would like
to contribute or make a comment, feel free to contact