Since at least the 1970s, academic histories of witches and witchcraft have enjoyed a rare level of visibility in popular culture. Feminist, literary, and historical scholarship about witches has shaped popular culture to such a degree that the discipline has become more about unlearning everything we thought we knew about witches. Though historians have continued to investigate and re-interpret witch history, the general public remains fixated on the compelling, feminist narrative of the vulnerable women hanged and burned at the stake for upsetting the patriarchy. While this part of the story can be true, especially in certain contexts, it’s only part of the story, and frankly, not even the most interesting part. Today we tackle male witches in early modern Eurasia and North America!

Transcript:

Written and researched by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Marissa: John Godfrey arrived in New England around 1640. One reason we know so much about him is that he was NOT an easy man to get along with. Godfrey never married, never settled in any one place for long, and, most astoundingly, he was involved in over 130 court cases in his lifetime. He sued others as plaintiff 89 times, appeared on 13 criminal indictments, and was himself sued about 30 times. Some of his criminal indictments were ordinary enough— cursing, public drunkenness, profaning the Sabbath, public smoking, defamation— painting the picture of a rough-and-tumble man who offended often. But several of the charges were much more serious. He was indicted on charges of witchcraft several times.

In 1659 Isabelle Holdred accused Godfrey of witchcraft after she was attacked by both a vision of a bull and an actual bull following an argument with him. Abraham Whitaker had similar suspicions. After his wife argued with Godfrey, his hogs were found dead. One young man, the son of a man named Remington who had recently denied Godfrey herding work, was maimed when his horse was attacked by ominous creatures on his ride home. Charley Brown and his wife testified that they saw a witch’s teat under Godfrey’s tongue when he yawned in Church.

Elizabeth: It seems clear that Godfrey was vulnerable to witchcraft accusations because of his constant instability, criminality, and disregard for authority. He crafted an image as an ungodly guy with his constant drunkenness and profanity. Villagers expressed relief whenever he left town, but the village was constantly steeped in anxiety about the possibility of him returning. It’s tempting to interpret Godfrey’s story as one of a difficult man who was victimized by his neighbors for standing out in a crowd. But Godfrey may have even identified as a witch.

At the very least, he used his reputation as a witch to his benefit. Godfrey threatened Charley Brown and his wife during a visit to their house. He chided them for not being generous with their beer and victuals and suggested that he had the power to kill people on sight. He told them that witches, when denied beer and victuals, had the power to access the beer through magical means. Several other villagers allegedly witnessed Godfrey’s ability to be in two places at the same time or travel at supernatural speed. This aspect of Godfrey’s witchcraft hung as a threat over the heads of everyone involved with him. When Godfrey lent Jonathan Singletary money and defaulted on the loan, Godfrey had Singletary imprisoned for debt. But while in prison, Singletary claimed that he was visited by a vision of Godfrey that attempted to threaten Singletary into paying.

Marissa: The fact that Godfrey was a man, that he had the status and resources to litigate in New England courts, and that he used his reputation as a witch to his advantage– these things fly in the face of everything we think we know about witchcraft in the early modern world. That’s because witchcraft media and witchcraft history have revolved around the female witch, making male witches nearly invisible.

Elizabeth: Since at least the 1970s, academic histories of witches and witchcraft have enjoyed a rare level of visibility in popular culture. Feminist, literary, and historical scholarship about witches has shaped popular culture to such a degree that the discipline has become more about unlearning everything we thought we knew about witches. Though historians have continued to investigate and re-interpret witch history, the general public remains fixated on the compelling, feminist narrative of the vulnerable women hanged and burned at the stake for upsetting the patriarchy.

Marissa: While this part of the story can be true, especially in certain contexts, it’s only part of the story, and frankly, not even the most interesting part. Today we tackle male witches in early modern Eurasia and North America!!!

I’m Marissa

I’m Elizabeth

Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Marissa: When you think of a witch, what do you see in your mind’s eye? An old crone? Wrinkly and hunched? Big, warty nose and straw-like hair? Some wicked witch of the west vibes?

What if I ask you to picture people who, in the early modern period, were vulnerable to witchcraft accusations? If this question pertained to any other historical demographic- debtors, divorcees, farmers, etc.- you may not have a quick and ready answer. But since the question is about witches, you likely have some ideas.

Hand Baldung Grien: Witches. Woodcut 1508. 

Woodcut of old women.
Hans Baldung Grien: Witches. Woodcut 1508. Public domain.

Your ordinary accused witch was probably an old woman, working for wages or living off the poor tax, living on the margins of her society. She might have been religiously unorthodox, ugly, unlikeable, or transgressing some boundary set in place for her by the patriarchy.

Elizabeth: One long-held kernel of historical wisdom that is no longer supported is the argument that male witches were accused in small numbers. The agreed-upon numbers state that 75-80% of people charged with witchcraft were female. As far as we know in absolute numbers, this is true. The legendary witch hysterias in Loudon (France), Trier, Fulda, and Würzburg (Germany), and the Basque Country alone account for a massive proportion of these women witches. During each of these European witch panics, thousands were accused, and hundreds executed. Though the Salem Witch Trials occupy a place of prime importance in witchcraft lore, their 200 accused and 19 executed account for only a small number of early modern witches. These infamous events may have been anomalies in the wider context of witch history, exceptions to the witch trial norm.

Marissa: In other words, this calculation of 75-80% is a very general one that sometimes obscures the fact that sex ratios of witchcraft trials varied wildly depending on time and space. For example, in Iceland, over 90% of accused witches were men while in Basel, Switzerland only 5% were men. And there are more areas with majority-male witch trials than you might think. In early modern Muscovy, the traditional figure is quite literally reversed. About 75-80% of people charged with witchcraft were men. We see similar numbers in Estonia, the region of Normandy in France, and Finland which was a part of Sweden until 1809. Though the percentages are not quite as high as in Muscovy and Iceland, still the majority of tried witches in parts of Germany, the Baltic and the French region of Burgundy were men.

Elizabeth: In central, Eastern, and Nordic Europe, especially areas on the peripheries, the gender landscape of witchcraft trials often looked entirely different than what we’re used to. A lot of historians, many of them looking for ways to explain away the inconvenient fact of male witches, argue that male witches were charged in large numbers only in areas where witchcraft was treated as pagan heresy rather than as maleficium. Maleficium, sometimes called “black magic” is witchcraft that is performed for the purposes of doing someone or something harm. The suggestion is that maleficium was the domain of women witches and that male witches specialized in something more akin to shamanism or sorcery.

Marissa: Areas with high proportions of male witches certainly do tend to overlap with areas where pagan heresy was a problem. Much of peripheral Europe was converted to Christianity quite late and therefore dealt with efforts to stamp out pagan heresy that continued into the modern period. But even a cursory review of witchcraft trials in areas like Finland, Iceland, and Muscovy challenges this idea. Finnish historian Marko Nenonen found that on the whole, Finnish witches facing charges for maleficium were more often men. Finnish women were more often brought on charges related to benevolent magic, such as love potions, or mystical charms. Based on his careful consideration of the stats, however, Nenonen argues that benevolent magic and maleficium were practiced equally by both men and women.

Elizabeth: Nesting within the category of maleficium is diabolical magic. Diabolical magic involves intimate interaction with devilish influences, either Satan himself, or evil demons. Anxieties about diabolical witchcraft do appear to be integral to Western European and colonial witchcraft trials in a way that they just aren’t in central, Eastern, and Nordic Europe. In her analysis of 200 witchcraft cases from early modern Muscovy, Valerie Kivelson found that the diabolical was almost entirely absent except in one, maybe two cases.

Theater of the World, or a New Atlas of Maps and Representations of All Regions, Joan Blaeu, 1645. Moscovia is Moscow and the vicinity

In the case of Finland, diabolical magic is also notably absent from the historical record. One small element of diabolical magic did appear in some Finnish witchcraft trials, those dealing with the nocturnal witches’ Sabbath. In Western Europe and colonial America, the witches’ Sabbath was a crucial venue for diabolical activities such as satanic baptisms, infant sacrifices, or “kissing the devil’s anus,” suckling Satan from your witches’ teat, or other carnal relations with the Devil.

Marissa: In Finland, Sabbath trials were rare, though it did experience a small spate of them in the late 17th century. Even then, Finnish witches’ Sabbaths seem to have been less diabolical than their Western counterparts. Historian Raisa Maria Toivo claims that instances of Finnish Sabbath trials were rare because, in contrast to Swedes, Finns rarely took stories of the diabolical seriously.

Much more common were witchcraft trials that channeled the pagan Finnish tradition of the tietäjä. Tietäjäs were semi-professional witches who lived during the 1600s, when Finnish witchcraft trials were at their peak. They are present but rare in 1600s witchcraft trials but tietäjäs came to dominate rural Finnish folklore for centuries after they purportedly roamed Finnish Sweden.  According to the lore, tietäjäs were itinerant witches or “cunning folk” who were recognized as gifted in the magical arts. They traveled from village to village performing magical rites for money. Though they were traditionally men, Finnish women could serve as tietäjäs too. Though tietäjäs were rare in 1600s trials records, the cultural functions they came to possess in subsequent centuries reflect the kinds of witchcraft that was most often debated in Finnish courts.

Elizabeth: Finnish male witches were typically charged with participating in sacrificial offerings, preparing and hosting ritual meals, performing incantations, protective magic over livestock and pack animals, spoiling their neighbor’s milk, magical healing, or bewitching food or people. Most of these activities were aimed at making one’s farmstead more successful than one’s neighbors. This witchcraft was a far cry from the diabolical orgies and child-murders that dominated the early modern witch panics in Western Europe. But still, the idea that maleficium was not within the male domain does not hold up in many contexts. Finnish male witches used witchcraft regularly to harm their enemies and competitors. It might be more accurate to say that male witches were more common in areas where diabolical magic was less often practiced and prosecuted.

Marissa: So, does this mean that diabolical magic is gendered female? Maybe. Another argument deployed in the canon of witchcraft history to explain away male witches was that male witches were not accused of diabolical witchcraft, especially the sexual aspects of diabolical witchcraft. The idea is that only women were vulnerable to accusations of this particular genre of witchcraft because of their susceptible positions in the patriarchy.

There are several contexts where this holds true, especially in areas influenced by Eastern Orthodox rather than Roman Catholic Christianity. Let’s visit the case of Muscovy—early modern Russia. At first glance, Muscovy has all of the societal elements necessary for misogyny-fueled witch hunts. Like Western Europe, Muscovy had a strict patriarchal organization, a shared Judeo-Christian tradition, and, culturally, women were often associated with witchcraft. Women were considered to be Russian witches’ primary customers because they were often looking to resolve a dispute or illness in their families. Baba Iaga, a figure who dominated Russian folklore, was a female witch whose representation was strikingly similar to the old crones of Western Europe.

Elizabeth: Still, in Muscovy there was never any witch panics that targeted marginalized women. Not only that, but Russian women weren’t even particularly vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. As we said in the top of the show, 75-80% of witches tried in Muscovy were men. Moreover, when women were accused, their crimes rarely, if ever, included any diabolical elements such as congress with the devil or the cannibalization of babies. So why did the landscape of witch trials look so different in Russia?

Marissa: First, early modern Muscovy never experienced the intense patriarchal anxieties we see in early modern England and France. Russian gender norms were often repressive, but they were balanced by inheritance practices that favored women, protective legal codes, and an expectation that women would take active roles in household and estate management. In some ways, rigid social hierarchies outweighed gender hierarchies, in rural Muscovy especially. In other words, instead of the patriarchal panics we have identified in England and France, Muscovy experienced social panics of a different sort.

Elizabeth: Seventeenth-century Moscow was laser-focused on codifying the institution of serfdom and fixing urban populations to their towns of origin. Why? Taxes! The Muscovite state levied taxes on entire communities collectively, not on an individual or household basis. The community was charged with sharing the tax responsibility among themselves. If registered members of the community were free to leave, their share of the tax burden fell on the remaining villagers. For this reason, Muscovite villagers had a stake in reducing the geographic mobility of their neighbors.

In the 1640s, Muscovite townspeople rioted over the injustice perpetrated by tax-evaders and demanded that such folk be forcibly returned to their registered town to face their tax burden. For this reason, Russian witchcraft accusations disproportionately fell on itinerant folks, or various kinds of wanderers. Wanderers were overwhelmingly male. Women were typically enclosed in their homesteads and very rarely traveled. So, in Muscovy, the repression of women worked to PROTECT them from witchcraft accusations.

Marissa: We also have plenty of evidence that Muscovite intellectual culture worked to protect women from English-style witch hunts. The Eastern Orthodox faith placed great importance on emotionality and ritual and very little importance on “cognitive religion.” Emotionality, sensation, and “the flesh” bore none of the negative connotations that it came to bear in the West. There was no gendered taboo on emotion in Muscovy. Both men and women were expected to indulge in emotional displays of faith.

Scholars believe that a Latin commitment to cognitive religion inspired Western Europe’s absolute obsession with logic and reason. In Western Europe, a duality emerged in the early modern period; reason and logic were the domain of men; emotion and folly were the domain of women. This binary was reinforced by the writings of St. Augustine which became a cornerstone of the Roman Catholic Church. Augustine focused on the inheritance of Original Sin from Adam and Eve. And, of course, Eve was initially responsible for being seduced by a serpent to defy God. And then she brought poor Adam along for the ride. This reinforced the idea that women were weak and shitty and prone to sins of the flesh and the temptations of Satan. However, the Easter Orthodox Church rejected Augustine’s influence.

Burning of three witches in Baden, Switzerland (1585), by Johann Jakob Wick

Elizabeth: Historian Valerie Kivelson believes that this is why Muscovy never experience women-centric witch hunts revolving around the diabolical activities of the weaker sex. Because of their disinterest in the intellectual aspect of religion and emphasis on lived religion, Muscovites were apathetic toward the complex theological gymnastics that Western Europeans performed in Malleus Maleficarum. Muscovite witchcraft trials remained firmly grounded on the harmful repercussions of a witch’s magic and not the doctrinal SOURCE of their magic. Witches who performed harmful magic in Muscovy were rarely seen as individuals in concert with Satan or his demons.

The case of Muscovy supports the argument that men weren’t charged with diabolical magic. But there, NO ONE was charged with diabolical magic so it’s hardly water-tight evidence. In fact, if you look at areas where anxieties about diabolical magic were high, men WERE being accused of diabolical magic. 

Marissa: One night in February 1578, a 29-year-old Bavarian man named Chonrad Stoeckhlin made a pact with his friend Jacob Walch that whichever of them died first would appear to the remaining one to tell them about the afterlife. Ironically, Walch died a week later. Soon after, Stoeckhlin claimed that Walch’s spirit appeared to him in the forest. Stoeckhlin repented his sins and was rewarded with visits from a soul guide who took him on spiritual journeys with other beings that Stoeckhlin called “phantoms of the night.” These activities were particularly comforting to Stoeckhlin who had experienced a lot of heartache during his lifetime. He and his wife had born 7 children but only 2 of them had grown to adulthood.

Elizabeth: Stoeckhlin had always had a minor reputation as a healer. He was a cow-herd and many cow-herds came to be de facto healers because of their experiences healing their herds. However, as Stoeckhlin’s spiritual journeys became known, villagers started to approach him for help with ailments they believed were caused by the witchcraft of others. Through this process, Stoeckhlin became a “witch-finder.” He was believed to have the power to name witches responsible for harmful magic and to undo their evil spells.

Marissa: One of his consultations, however, proved to be his undoing. In 1586, a horse-wrangler sought Stoeckhlin’s witch-finding services to discover who was behind a suspicious sequence of injuries he’d incurred as of late. Stoeckhlin named a woman named Anna Enzensbergerin who was arrested on no other evidence other than Stoeckhlin’s accusation. The authorities insisted that Stoeckhlin be brought in for questioning under torture. His intimate knowledge of the activities of witches was, understandably, suspicious to them.

When Stoeckhlin told the authorities about his soul guide and nocturnal spirit journeys with the phantoms of the night, the authorities were disturbed. They believed that only witches could themselves recognize witches on sight. Stoeckhlin had what authorities interpreted as the Devil’s mark. They interpreted his spirit journeys as part of a coven’s ritual nocturnal flight to the Sabbath where Stoeckhlin would have copulated with the Devil and demon lovers. The angel who Stoeckhlin referred to as his spirit guide was, to them, a “black sex devil,” a sure sign that Stoeckhlin had made a pact with Satan. And authorities were absolutely convinced that Stoeckhlin’s personal tragedies were further evidence. They believed that Stoeckhlin’s dead children had died so young because he had himself sacrificed them to the Devil or used their corpses to create witches’ salves. Stoeckhlin was burned at the stake in January 1587.

Elizabeth: Historians Lara Apps and Andrew Gow argue that Stoeckhlin’s story is so typical that it’s almost cliché. It bears all the hallmarks of Western European witch trials. EXCEPT he wasn’t a marginalized, old, poor woman. He was a 30-something married man in good social standing. His story suggests that his maleness did nothing to assuage the authorities’ perception of his witchiness. Of course, this doesn’t mean that women weren’t particularly vulnerable. All evidence suggests that in Western Europe, at least, they generally were. But it’s worth remembering that poverty and transgressive femininity were not the ONLY qualities that made someone vulnerable to witchcraft accusations at this time.

Marissa: Marginality is highly regional, or even local. Remember the case of Muscovy we mentioned a few minutes ago. Itinerancy, and by association, male-ness was a much more important factor in vulnerability to witchcraft accusations than poverty or aberrant womanhood. Stoeckhlin’s sex certainly didn’t make him MORE vulnerable to a witchcraft accusation but it certainly did nothing to save him from being burned at the stake either.

Stoeckhlin’s story evokes another argument that historians make to explain away male witches; the idea that male witches were accused primarily because they were related to female witches. This has been argued about the 6 men executed in Salem. For four of them this is true but the other two, John Willard and George Burroughs, don’t fit the mold at all. Burroughs, who had formerly served as the village’s minister, was portrayed as a powerful wizard, a male-witch stereotype we’ll talk about in a bit. But Willard was portrayed in the records as a garden variety witch who “suckled the apparitions of two black pigs as his breast” and performed various acts of maleficium that resulted in injury and death. Moreover, Willard was new to town and had no relation to any of the female accused.

Elizabeth: Though the man-witch-related-to-women-witch theory originated in the colonial American context, it is often applied carelessly to European contexts. Even famous and celebrated historians of the old guard have been found to be guilty of committing this historical gaffe. Three incredibly influential historians of witchcraft: Alan Macfarlane, Marianne Hester, and Joseph Klaits used Assize Records from Essex, England in order to shore up the argument that male witches were unintended casualties of misogynist witch-hunts.

Marissa: In Essex, twenty-three men were accused of witchcraft. Eleven of those twenty-three were “either married to an accused witch or appeared in a joint indictment with a woman.” But no one can tell from the records which member of the couple was charged first. Apps and Gow found one or two Essex couples who appear to fit the man-witch-related-to-women-witch theory. In these cases, the wives were charged in earlier Assize sessions but acquitted, only to be brought on charges later with their husbands. But most of the indictments contain no information as to whether it was husband or wife who first attracted suspicions.

Elizabeth: In fact, some cases resembled the theory but in reverse. In July 1560, John Samond of Essex was charged with bewitching (to death) Antony Graunte and Bridget Pecocke. His indictment does not stand out from those of the female witches. It reads:

“John Samond of Danbury…, beer-brewer, otherwise called John Smythe, is a common enchanter and witch as well of men as beasts … not having God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, by the devilish arts of enchantment and witchcraft, on 28 May, 1 Eliz. and diverse days and places as well before as afterwards, at Danbury aforesaid, of his malice aforethought, a certain [Antony] Graunte and Brigit Pecocke did bewitch and enchant, by reason of which the said Brigit … until 29 August next following did languish, on which day the said Brigit … died. And the said Antony Graunte … from the 28 May in the year above said until the 28 May next following did languish, on which day the said Antony … died.”

Marissa: Samond was acquitted of this particular charge but was brought up on witchcraft charges several more times over the next two decades. In 1572, Samond was again indicted, this time along with his wife Joan for bewitching to death two cows belonging to William Treasure. So, flying in the face of all conventional wisdom, Samond was definitely the first to fall under suspicion in this case. He was the one who was recognized as “a common enchanter and witch,” not his wife. In this case, it seems like Joan was the one who was an unintended casualty of HIS witchcraft. How many of the other Essex male witches have similar stories? We’re not sure. But this indictment of Samond’s suggests that it’s perhaps a little premature to assume that indictments of female witches caused the indictment of their male relations. It’s entirely possible, given the vague records, that it was the other way around in some or even all of the cases. 

Elizabeth: In the 1572 session, again, Samond was lucky and he and his wife were acquitted of the charges while the rest of the witches on trial in that session, all women, were not so lucky. Was this BECAUSE he was a man? This is unclear. In Essex at this time, only 22% of witches indicted were executed. So it’s possible Samond happened to be part of the lucky 78% in both instances. Samond’s next and final indictment flips the idea that he was favored because of his sex on its head. In 1587, Samond was again indicted on witchcraft charges for bewitching to death a man named Henry Hove as well as a cow. This time, Samond was found guilty and hanged. Two other people, both women, were indicted in the same Assize session with unrelated charges and both women were acquitted. Taking that particular Assize session on its own, it would appear that the male witch was at a disadvantage.

Marissa: Defining his data differently, focusing on witchcraft more generally and not diabolical maleficium only, historian E. J. Kent has found that in Essex, England, 75% of male witches were NOT accused alongside women. So, the data largely depend on how you ask the question. Perhaps most important to point out here is the fact that neither Stoeckhlin’s nor Samond’s cases suggest that maleness was incompatible with witchiness. Here lay one of the central problems of popular feminist histories of witchcraft- they do not make room for a stereotypical male witch despite the fact that we have plenty of evidence that male witches existed and that early modern folks saw no contradictions between maleness and witchiness.

Elizabeth: So many popular witchcraft histories focus on female witches and argue that women were the primary victims of witch accusations specifically BECAUSE they were women. But, at the same time, they are claiming that female witches were not particularly “feminine” women. In the words of historian Willem de Blécourt, they were witches because “they were accused of being non-women, of failing to adhere to the social norm of femininity.” They were old, unattractive, beyond child-bearing age and, horror of all horrors, they often made their own income OR relied on poor relief systems because they were unconnected to a male provider.

Marissa: But this construction completely disregards the fact that patriarchy can be demanding of, and damaging to, men. The great Caroline Walker Bynum puts it this way, “the study of gender is a study of how roles and possibilities are conceptualized; it is a study of one hundred percent, not of only fifty-one percent, of the human race.” What about the men who failed to live up to the social norm of masculinity? Patriarchy can be dangerous for women who defy gender norms, yes, but it can also be dangerous for men who do the same. Our point is that, yes, biological sex has little to do with whether one could be considered a witch in early modern Europe. Its gender, “the study of how roles and possibilities are conceptualized,” that was so often an important factor in early modern witch trials.

Elizabeth: The historical record is filled with examples of male witches whose undoing can be attributed to their failure to achieve masculine standards of conduct. For example, in Finland in 1693, two men accused each other of witchcraft in a protracted case that vacillated in and out of the Finnish court system for 5 years. Heikki Janckari and Risto Olavinpoika accused each other of bewitching to death a young male relative. On the face of it, Risto was at a disadvantage in this stand-off. He had a reputation for being a witch who was known to spoil the brew of a local burger, and to use magic to stop the spread of a cattle infection, and to increase crop yield. In the 1680s, Risto had been tried for witchcraft and would be tried again after this court battle with Heikki. So, if anyone was going to be successfully prosecuted as a witch, most people would have put their money on Risto.

Marissa: However, Risto had some very important factors on his side. Between his first witchcraft accusation and the one with Heikki, Risto had acquired and rehabilitated a repossessed farmstead. By 1693, he was a successful and respected farmer with a wife and adult children. In court, Risto was able to portray himself as a paragon of Finnish masculinity. He refrained from visiting the court, implying he had too much work to do, and sent his adult son as his proxy. During the case, Risto accused Heikki of theft. Heikki’s formal statement attempted to implicate Risto in the theft. Apparently Heikki had stolen some goods from villagers and stored them at Risto’s farm. But Risto and his son mobilized the villagers who testified that Risto notified the villagers that the stolen items were in his possession so that he could return them.

In court, Risto’s image was pristine. He had an adult son who competently did his father’s bidding in court. He had a successful farm and family life. He had the support of the villagers who resented Heikki for his theft and appreciated Risto for returning the items. Even the grandparents of the young male relative Risto was supposed to have killed were on his side by the end of the proceedings. The court lost interest in pursuing the charges against Risto, suggesting that some men were able to marshal their achievement of a masculine archetype in order to neutralize the threat of witchcraft accusations. But at the same time, Risto was able to maintain his reputation as a witch despite the court’s interest in pursuing indictments on him.

Elizabeth: Heikki was an entirely different story. Heikki was married to the sister of the dead, bewitched male relative. He owned nothing in his own right and moved in with his wife and in-laws. He appears to have been a thoroughly unpleasant character. His in-laws took such a disliking to him that they were looking to marry another daughter to a man who might inherit the farmstead in lieu of Heikki. They had no desire to entrust their family’s legacy to him. Heikki didn’t take this well. He physically assaulted his in-laws and tried to destroy their other daughter’s marriage prospects by spreading the word that she was a slut. To add insult to injury, Heikki was a shitty father. Plenty of folks could attest to that.

In court, Heikki’s qualities were perceived as grave failures of masculinity. He was the son-in-law and father from hell. He didn’t own a farmstead and his future prospects looked poor because of his inability to master his emotions. He inspired precisely zero loyalty among his neighbors and family. To his Finnish peers, Heikki was a poor excuse for a man. All of the momentum that the court had lost in their pursuit of Risto was redirected toward Heikki. In order to save Heikki from certain execution, his grandfather-in-law begged the court for leniency on three separate occasions. It was this intervention by an old, established patriarch that spared Heikki from conviction. While Risto’s masculine credentials allowed him to practice witchcraft in relative security and peace, Heikki’s lack thereof almost resulted in his execution as a witch.  

Marissa: Gender may also have influenced the kind of magic witches practiced and the types of witchcraft that they were accused of. Historian Lyndal Roper, who was studying the German witch hunts in Augsburg, found that male and female witches specialized in gendered types of sorcery. Men, more often literate, used written spells and “exotic bodily relics derived from criminals.” Women more often used spoken spells and “the natural magical properties of the body.” (whatever that means?)

Elizabeth: In areas where literacy rates were gendered and gender norms were strictly enforced, there were certainly differences between how male and female witches manifest themselves in the historical record. Historian E. J. Kent has argued that in Essex, England and New England, there was what one might refer to as a male witch archetype—a kind of male witch who appeared time and again in the records but has generally remained invisible in witchcraft studies because of the discipline’s intense feminist slant. Ironically, this male witch archetype actually strengthens the arguments that feminist scholars have made about the patriarchy. This makes their invisibility all the more perplexing.

Kent has found that English male witches were statistically wealthier, had broader networks, and were more “bookish” than female witches of the same period. In the 1600s, witch-hunter John Stearne argued that one might identify a witch because they were often “addicted to the reading and studie of dangerous books,” because “curiosity of knowledge, if reason and Arte faile, will… move men to seeke help of a Spirit… to draw them into a pit of Magick, Sorcery, and Witchcraft.” All of Stearne’s examples to illustrate his point were male witches.

Marissa: But in many cases, these gendered differences collapse in on themselves if you look at witchcraft with a broader geographical and cultural lens. For example, Sarah’s episode earlier in the series describes how early modern women’s penchant for healing inspired Second Wave Feminists to draw a dubious connection between midwifery and witchcraft. Early historians also tended to associate women’s work, brewing, healing, childbirth, etc. with sorcery and witchcraft. To be sure, as our episode on brewsters and witchcraft has shown, some medieval and early modern folks made these connections themselves. But just as often, they were inferred by historians and applied uncritically across all of Europe.

Just in the material we’ve discussed today you can see that it’s difficult to confirm gendered “types” of witchcraft. In Finland and Muscovy, men were disproportionately accused of witchcraft despite the fact that healers were both men and women in those cultures.

Elizabeth: However, it would be inaccurate to argue that male and female witches had similar experiences in the early modern world. All evidence suggests this was NOT the case. For example, in 1607, Englishman Nicholas Stockdale became embroiled in a legal battle with the villagers of Brancaster, Norfolk. Stockdale was seeking redress from the Star Chamber for the hardships he and his family had suffered when the villagers accused him of witchcraft. Stockdale had been dragged to several Assize Court Sessions on witchcraft indictments between 1600 and 1607. They were all dismissed for lack of evidence. At the root of these accusations lay a complex network of land disputes between Stockdale and his male neighbors. He had been in chronic conflict with them for decades over the use of his land and his disinterest in maintaining local customs. Kent makes the point that in this case, Stockdale was accused because he was socially embedded and had such a strong, complex social network, that chronic conflict stimulated suspicions of him whenever a villager’s wife died, or their sheep were killed.

Marissa: It seems unlikely that if Stockdale was a female witch that he’d have had the resources and social capital to fight these witchcraft charges and seek redress from the Star Chamber after years of judicial abuse. This is true and suggests that female witches were at a disadvantage in the English legal system. However, it’s also worth pointing out that if Stockdale hadn’t been male and living up to all of his masculine duties such as land ownership and communal authority, then he never would have been accused of witchcraft in the first place. Remember George Burroughs, the male witch was who executed in Salem, he was a local authority, the village’s minister. Perhaps this was the case with him as well and his prominent position in the community, rather than his poverty and marginality, is what stimulated the accusations against him.

Elizabeth: This was definitely the case with John Lowes of Brandeston. Lowes was a highly educated vicar who earned a position in Brandeston in Suffolk around 1600. Lowes immediately became entangled in disputes with his neighbors and parishioners. By 1616, Lowes, like Stockdale, sought redress from the Star Chamber for what he described as 15 years of harassment by the Brandeston villagers. He was imprisoned and indicted on witchcraft charges, none of which appeared to stick.

The Brandeston villagers were beside themselves with this vicar who they claimed was a “turbulent spirit” who bewitched several villagers to death, bewitched livestock, aided and abetted a known murderer, and preached irregular doctrine. Though the accusations of the Brandeston villagers yielded no results in the 16-teens, Lowes would see the inside of a court room time and again. At the age of 80, Lowes was swept up in a spate of witch trials in East Anglia. He was tortured in the mote of castle Framlingham and questioned by famous witch-hunters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. Under duress, Lowes confessed to provoking his familiars into wrecking ships with magic storms, preaching diabolical sermons as part of his covenant with the devil, and using his diabolical charm to evade the witchcraft charges from the Brandeston villagers. He was hanged on Michaelmas (September 29) 1645.

Marissa: There were many historical reasons why the charges against Lowes stuck the second time. It was during the English Civil War when there were intense protests against clerical standards. King Charles I and the English Parliament were ensconced in a brutal Civil War. The Parliamentary Committee of Plundered Ministers was created to try and remove problematic clergy who sided with the King. There had been several pamphlets that were circulated widely that spread rumors about Lowes’s irregularity as a minister. They portrayed him as an ambitious man who abused institutional power. There was a strain of anti-elitism that came out in Lowes’s trial. Kent writes “it indicates a popular concern with men who could wield words as weapons, to harry their less educated, less expert fellows, to exploit their ignorance for personal gain.”

A painting in the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, condemning witchcraft and traditional folk magic
A painting in the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, condemning witchcraft and traditional folk magic.

Elizabeth: So perhaps masculinity in England carried its own risk apart from the risks faced by women witches. But what about New England? Kent found that male witches in New England were much more likely to be related to female witches and that they were more likely to be middle to lower class, rather than fancy and powerful like Stockdale and Lowes in Old England. This difference has led many historians to argue that male witches in New England were feminized by their accusers in order to better fit them into the New England witch-mold. Here, again, we see that issue that we spoke about a few minutes ago. If you focus so much on the feminine that you exclude the masculine, you’re missing half of why the patriarchy functions the way it does.

Marissa: Our last example illustrates this well. Hugh Parsons was an English sawyer and brickmaker living in Springfield, Massachusetts, who was accused of witchcraft by several folks between 1650 and 1652. In attempts to explain away the appearance of a male witch in New England, historians have argued that since witchcraft = bad and the feminine=bad, then Hugh Parsons MUST have been feminized somehow. They argued that Hugh Parsons “used feminized speech codes of the scold, failed to assume masculine prerogatives, and wielded the weapons of the weak.” The idea is that it was Parsons’ feminine behaviors that made him vulnerable to witchcraft accusations because feminine=bad, marginal, vulnerable, WITCHY.

But more recently, historians have sought to adjust this approach. This has led to the interpretation that it was Parson’s masculinity and failings within that code of masculine conduct that contributed to his downfall. And that doesn’t mean he was womanly, rather that he was a man but a bad one. Parsons was a gainfully employed and married man. One event that appears to have stimulated the allegations of his neighbors was the death of one of his children. Parsons’ own wife accused him of bewitching their baby son to death so that his wife wouldn’t have to tend to the infant and her labor could be freed up for the harvest. His primary accuser was his wife Mary who testified that her husband was abusive and murderous.

Elizabeth: This accusation fit well with the town’s perception of Parsons as greedy and obsessed with “lucre and gain.” His neighbors argued that Parsons used witchcraft to enrich himself at his family’s and neighbors’ expense. He was accused of enchanting their household objects and farming tools to hamper their productivity and bewitching several townspeople’s children to death. Twenty-eight men and fourteen women testified against him in his witchcraft trial, in a town with only 39 households. They portrayed him as an unfit father, husband, and greedy, disorderly man. They claimed he spent many nights away from home, sleeping in the fields and disappearing for days at a time, usually before some dastardly incident that befell his neighbors. One neighbor charged with informing Parsons of his son’s death claimed that Parsons exhibited no grief and even smoked a pipe of tobacco before returning home. As a businessman, Parsons often resorted to threats and exploitation of his neighbors, hurling abuse at them when deals did not go his way. His threats often preceded the visitation of disastrous events on the objects of his ire.

Marissa: So in Parsons’ case, it seems he was never associated with feminine qualities per se. He was judged according to a masculine code of conduct. Most damning to him were his inability to properly govern his household. His wife turned on him, purportedly as a result of his abuse. He murdered two of his infant sons, and every one of his family’s dysfunctions was on public display. Neighbors worried that his patriarchal disorder would spread to other households as Parsons interacted with the community, seeking profit and revenge. His reputation as a businessman: dishonest, irate, and unfair, went against te masculine ideals of fair, plain dealing and masculine restraint.

These are all masculine anxieties and anxieties about masculinity. And, far from an attack on a marginal, powerless figure, this is an attack on someone who held a powerful (albeit negative) hold over the Springfield community. He was a threat BECAUSE of his male-ness, not in spite of it. Scholars have generally just accepted female witches as the RULE and done what they could to explain away the male exceptions. Instead of looking at the varied and ranging evidence as a whole and crafting an interpretation that accommodates it all.

Elizabeth: As we suggested earlier, part of the reason for this is the popular success of witchcraft scholarship. Once scholarship becomes a part of popular imagination, subsequent corrections, nuances, and qualifications made by academics rarely reach the same level of popularity as the original story. This situation is aggravated by both the fact that witch history holds such an important place in the feminist canon. One scholar even went so far as to call the early modern witch scares “a women’s holocaust.”

We have to get used to the idea that all can be true at the same time. Western Europe, home of the revered principle of reason, with all the patriarchal anxieties, and associations of the feminine with uncontrolled sexuality and original sin, those factors DID combine to create an environment hostile to women who either lived on the margins or strained village economies. But that isn’t the WHOLE story because men, even powerful men, were still vulnerable to witchcraft accusations for entirely different reasons.

Marissa: The only thing we can say for sure is that folks who threatened the status quo, strained political and economic systems, and failed to live up to the standards (gendered, social, whatever) set for them by their peers—these people are all vulnerable to witchcraft accusations whether they considered themselves to be witches or not.

Show Notes

Blécourt, Willem de. 2000. “The Making of the Female Witch: Reflections on Witchcraft and Gender in the Early Modern Period”. Gender & History (Print). 287-309.

Gow, Andrew, and Lara Apps. Male witches in early modern Europe. Manchester University Press, 2003.

Kent, E. J. 2005. “Masculinity and Male Witches in Old and New England, 1593-1680”. HISTORY WORKSHOP JOURNAL. 60, no. 1: 69-92.

Kivelson, Valerie A. 2003. “Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia”. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 45, no. 3: 606-631.

Morgan, S., Kenneth Austin, and Ronald Hutton. Perspectives on Male Witches in Early Modern England. Thesis (Ph.D.)–University of Bristol, 2019, 2019. 

Rowlands, Alison. Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Schulte, Rolf, and Linda Froome-Döring. Man As Witch: Male Witches in Central Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.

Toivo, Raisa Maria. 2013. “Male Witches and Masculinity in Early Modern Finnish Witchcraft Trials”. Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. 137-152.


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