Witchcraft and the Patriarchal System
There will always be a debate on whether the witchcraft trials in Europe and England caused or were caused by the low position of women in society. This debate can and will continue to rage, but one fact remains: the majority of those convicted of witchcraft were female. You may want to argue that women were accused because they were already vulnerable to accusations due to their weak position economically, socially and politically in their communities. There exactly lies the question. To achieve total patriarchal control, women had to be seen as the opposite of good. Males had to prove their superiority, in order to both establish and retain the patriarchal system. One way of achieving this goal was through medicine and religion.
In this article a key area will be discussed, namely women’s contribution to the health care of their society, on the one hand, and how it was eroded by male dominance, on the other hand. The power of healing and ultimately the power over life and death, mad or sane, fertile or infertile, was taken away from women in England long before the 16th and 17th Century. Like all key areas of society, a monopoly was formed and controlled by males. Women were barred from legal, political and medical institutions. The practice of medicine not only divides genders, but also the socio-economic groups. As medicine progressed, a clear division was formed between male practioners, who treated the wealthy and powerful, and women, who treated the masses.
A simple cycle was introduced: anyone practicing medicine without training would be classed as a witch. Therefore, only males could practice medicine, because only males could enter education. Women could not enter education, because they were only women. The patriarchal system argued that women were not intelligent enough to study and that those who practiced medicine were witches. Thus the cycle continued; it could count on the support of the male ruling elite and the churches. The churches, both protestant and catholic, considered women as a threat: sexually, politically and socially. It was a threat that, according to the church, had to be contained and controlled by all the institutions that constructed society. Indeed it was the church who controlled the universities and it was the priest who had to accompany all medical professionals, as only the priest could receive the soul.
Society however needed woman healers. There was no other help for the sick. The church preached a better life and the qualified medicine professionals would only heal the wealthy. However, a woman healer by her sheer existence understood that she would always face the possibility of conviction as a witch. Her charms – which were not controlled by the church – would be deemed as magic and evil. The practical nature of her healing and independence from prayer placed her directly in opposition to the church.
Without the presence of women healers, there would have been little if no progression in medicine during these centuries. It was the women who used empiricalist methods to test herbs and treatments. It was the women who passed on their knowledge to the next generation of women, enabling tested methods to be used centuries after their first discovery.
Up until the 18th century, witchcraft was a common feature of the western world. Clusters of witchcraft trials would appear at times when the society experienced social, political and economic pressure. In Europe, under the Holy Roman law, those accused of witchcraft would be tortured, cross examined and burned to death. In England from the 16th century, witchcraft was considered a crime requiring a clear legal procedure, with a court, a judge and a legal hanging. Whether in Europe or in England, the 11th or 16th century, one predominant factor remained: the majority of the victims were women who practiced or were thought to have practiced medicine.
Summers,M. (1926.) The Geography of Witchcraft London: Routledge.
Levack,B.P. (2001.) New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic, and Demonology New York: Routledge.
I have always been told this is true, it’s nice to see citations to back it up a bit.