Witch Trials as Rituals of Violence and Social Control


Rituals of violence have filled vital roles in virtually all human societies. They can be spectacles or rites of passage. Or, as presented here, they can be a means of social control. While rituals of violence built around masculinity often provide opportunities for agency, Those focused on women were more frequently of a controlling nature, and attempted to deprive their subjects of agency.

The ritual of violence that will serve as the main example in this paper is witchcraft, and especially witch trials. These events can be viewed as either complex rituals or as a series of related rituals, but either perspective is applicable to this treatment. Witchcraft and witch trials will first be established as rituals of violence, and then considered in light of their connection with women. The relation of rituals of violence to agency will be explored, then tied to the use of rituals of violence as a means of gender-oriented social control.

Edward Muir has written a great deal on ritual, and the working definition used here will be taken from his work. Ritual will be defined as a “formalized, collective, institutionalized kind of repetitive action.”1 Rituals of violence are those rituals of which violence is an integral part. That is, with violent portions removed, the rituals would lose significant meaning.

In early modern Europe, witchcraft was generally a capital offense.2 It was also a legal exception, known as crimen exceptum, meaning that normal standards of proof and procedure did not apply.3 Outside crimen exceptum, legal standards across Europe became more rational and more prohibitive of torture as an interrogation tactic. This made the violence common in witch trials notable — it was not standard court procedure.

Ordeals to determine whether the accused was a witch were also not uncommon, including pricking all over the body of the accused in search of an insensible spot.4 It was also not unusual for the accused to be “swum” to see if they would float.5

In addition to the torture allowed in witch trials, the accused were frequently strip-searched for a witch’s mark, which was often described as resembling a nipple, and was understood to be where the witch’s familiar drank blood from her.6 The accused was forcibly undressed, usually by a group of respected women of the community.7

Following the trial, a convict would be violently executed, usually by hanging. This was in no way an unusual method of execution at the time, but it serves here as the final step in a ritual of control and violence.

Witch trials, then, are a societal ritual punctuated with and defined by violence. As a legal exception, witch trials allowed for and often included torture and ordeals. The accused were typically roughly strip-searched, and, more often than not, hung at the gallows.

That witchcraft was closely associated with the female sex can be partly attributed to the indirect nature of the violence or destruction attributed to witchcraft. Women were also frequently associated with poisoning, probably for the same reason: women were considered to be inherently weaker than men, and less prone to direct violence.8 In reality, significantly more men than women murdered with poison, though women who did murder were disproportionately likely to do so with poison. Linking women with crimes of indirect violence is strong evidence that there was a strong social pressure toward passivity in women; even when they were represented breaking the law and social norms, women did so in a passive manner.

Reginald Scot explicitly linked witchcraft with poisoning, and both with women.

As women in all ages have beene counted most apt to conceive witchcraft and the divels speciall instruments therin, and the onelie or cheefe practisers therof: so also it appeareth, that they have been the first inventers, and the greatest practisers of poisoning, and more naturallie addicted and given thereunto than men

This short excerpt has a lot of implications. Scot understands witchcraft to be nearly exclusive to women, and does not represent his assertion as controversial — nor does it appear to have been so. Scot further identifies the cause of women’s dominance in witchcraft and poisoning: they are “more naturallie addicted and given thereunto than men.” Women are inherently more predisposed to such acts of indirect violence. Furthermore, they become “addicted,” and their actions are therefore implied by Scot to be not fully under their own control.

Other writers of the period made this link more explicit. James VI of Scotland wrote:

The reason is easie: for as that sexe is frailer than men is, so it is easier to be intrapped in these grosse snares of the Devill, as was well proved to be true, by the Serpents deceiving of Eve at the beginning, which makes him the homelier with that sex ever since.

James IV reiterates Scot’s claim of the helplessness and implicit passivity of women, who become “intrapped in these grosse snares of the Devill,” turning over what agency they have to the devil and his machinations. James also makes it clear that women are morally frailer than men, and provides an explanation for that frailty: Eve was deceived in the beginning.

Referencing Eve to explain the early modern perception of women as witches was common, particularly among the educated classes. These thinkers formulated the idea of magic as an extension of contact with the devil, and thus exactly analogous with the mischief attributed to Eve.

Estimates of actual gender proportions in witch trials vary, but it is very clear that more than two-thirds of the accused and the convicted were women.9 These numbers were not consistent everywhere, but the exceptions were rare and often on the fringes of Europe.

Though a women’s honor was based primarily on her sexual purity, opportunities for violent agency in defense of honor did exist for women.10 Nose-slitting is perhaps the most clear-cut and widespread example. Especially around the turn of the sixteenth century, wives were known to disfigure the noses of their husbands’ lovers.11 One aspect of early modern culture highlighted by this custom is the symbolic importance of the body and its appearance. One way for a wife to exert agency was to remove honor from her husband’s mistress, and the most common way to do that was to disfigure the mistress’ face, especially her nose. The body, then, is also linked closely to women’s honor, just as it is linked with the honor of men.

However, there are two things that distinguish nose-slitting from the other violence covered in this paper. First, it is an example of woman-on-woman violence, other forms of which were documented in this period. What was extremely uncommon was woman-on-man violence. It was so uncommon that when it happened, it was often big news.12 Man-on-woman violence was very common; especially within the domestic sphere, men physically disciplined their wives with society’s blessing.13

Second, nose-slitting is not fully classifiable as a ritual. Of the avenues of female violence available in the early modern period, it appears to be the closest to ritual violence, being a repetitive action that was collectively pursued (though each case was individual, cases occurred throughout the culture). However, there was no formalization of the custom, and it was certainly not institutionalized.

The more highly formalized and institutionalized nature of other rituals of violence, like witch trials, indicate their relative importance to the society which formed and maintained them. Thus, we can see that early modern societies placed import on well established rituals that provided for agency and defense of honor for men through violence, like the formal duel, the popular duel, and the vendetta that preceded them.

It was not directly because of their sex that women were disproportionately accused and convicted of witchcraft. Rather, an accusation of witchcraft was only one of many social tools utilized to maintain the status quo by exerting pressure on those perceived to be stepping outside social norms. Because the expected roles for women were generally more restrictive than those for men, it is not surprising that more women than men were perceived to be flouting norms.

In addition, the population of Europe was growing, acceptable roles for women had been reduced, especially in protestant regions where convents had been abolished, and women outnumbered men. This resulted in a narrowing of acceptable social positions for women.

Not all women were equally vulnerable, however. Older women were more commonly accused;14 this can be explained as a form of social control. Older women were more likely to make small assertions of agency — saying what they thought — that flew in the face of expected female passivity.

This explanation of the higher numbers of older women accused is supported by Scot’s description of witches:

They are doting, scolds, mad, divelish;… so firme and steadfast in their opinions, as whosoever shall onelie have respect to the constancie of their words uttered would easilie beleeve they were true indeed.15

The women he describes are women who spoke their mind, were consistent, and, perhaps most telling, appeared strong in character.

Witchcraft was therefore linked with women because of their perceived passivity. In a seeming paradox, accusations of witchcraft were often leveled at women who did not properly fill their passive role. Considered generally, this behavior can be accurately viewed as a societal attempt to enforce order and the status quo. That these attempts were disproportionately leveled at women can be attributed both to increasing social restrictions placed on women and on the high proportion of women to men at the time.

1Edward Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 3.

2Christina Larner, “The Crime of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe,” in The Witchcraft Reader, ed. Darren Oldridge (New York: Routledge, 2002), 205.

3Larner, 205.

4George Ives, History of Penal Methods: Criminals, Witches, Lunatics (London: Stanley Paul & Co, 1914), 63.

5Ives, 63.

6Marianne Hester, “Patriarchal Reconstruction and Witch Hunting,” in The Witchcraft Reader, ed. Darren Oldridge (New York: Routledge, 2002), 280.

7Anne L. Barstow, Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts (San Francisco: Harper, 1995), 15

8Pieter Spierenburg, A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present (Malden, MA: Polity, 2008), 128.

9Barstow, 23-24.

10Spierenburg, 116.

11Spierenburg, 117-119.

12Spierenburg, 114-116. Emilie Breil allegedly fought a common duel with a man in 1760 in Geneva.

13Spierenburg, 133. Societal acceptance of this domestic violence generally decreased over the course of the early modern period, and saw drastic decline in the 18th century.

14Barstow, 27.

15Barstow, 27.


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