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The Witch as “She”/The Historian as “He”

By Elspeth Whitney

Gender is a central issue to the European witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The connection of women to the Devil in the witch-hunts is an attempt to enclose women not controlled by men.

The European witch-hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is one of those events, like the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, which is so complex and resonant that its historiography has almost become a field in itself. Once dismissed as an inexplicable outbreak of mass hysteria unworthy of serious scholarly attention, the witch-hunt is now more often seen as a central event in the formation of early modern Europe which illuminates larger social and cultural issues. Since Hugh Trevor-Roper inaugurated contemporary scholarship on the subject in 1967, the hunt has come to provide for many scholars a useful focus for analysis of, among other things, the shifting interactions of high and popular culture, the emergence of the modern state or a more “individualistic” ethos, the expansion of bureaucratic elites and the impact of newly empowered “experts,” the magistrate and the priest, on village life. Curiously, however, there has been relatively little attention paid as yet to exploring the relationship between the witch-hunts and issues relating to gender, in particular the question of why witches were women. Although discussions of this topic have recently (since the late 1980s) become more common, this area of inquiry and others related to gender and the hunts remain surprisingly undeveloped. In the present essay I would like to examine the current state of scholarship on gender and the hunts and suggest some directions for further work.

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(H/T Chas S. Clifton)

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