"Because she would not be governed": Medieval women, power, and the politicization of witchcraft

Anna Nelson Bennett, University of Rhode Island

Abstract

Statement of the Problem: ^ Since the mid-twentieth century, scholarship on European witchcraft has proved critical in understanding the relationship between gender, sexuality, and power in pre-modern Western society. For medieval and early modern people, accusations of heresy and witchcraft served to reinstate control over elements of society that were perceived as dangerous or dissident to the established order. While advances in the study of witchcraft have greatly informed the fields of history and anthropology, such scholarship has up until this point largely focused on witch hunts targeting women of the lower classes. Further study concerning the use of witchcraft charges as a political tool aimed at socially prominent women is needed to better inform scholarly understanding of the full breadth of the European witch craze. This thesis will specifically examine a multitude of cases spanning the early Middle Ages through the early modern period, roughly the fifth through eighteenth centuries, involving women in positions of social visibility and power, who were attacked with witchcraft accusations as a means of removing them from a seemingly unnatural gender role. ^ Methodology or Procedures: ^ This thesis utilizes a diverse range of medieval documents, especially witchcraft treatises, as a means of exploring the evolution of European witchcraft throughout the medieval period, culminating in the late medieval feminization of the institution of witchcraft. In order to establish politically motivated witchcraft charges against powerful women as a repeating pattern throughout medieval and early modern history, this study assumes a sweeping perspective, taking note of similar cases occurred both chronologically and geographically separate from one another. Subsequently, the source material upon which this thesis relies is quite diverse. Infamous inquisitors' guides such as the Formicarius by Johannes Nider and the Malleus Maleficarum by Kramer and Sprenger provide the theoretical foundation upon which such witchcraft charges were built, and similarly allow me to explain the belief system in place that allowed witchcraft accusations against prominent women to succeed. ^ Moving on from this foundational literature, this study explores a variety of primary sources documenting specific instances of witchcraft accusations leveled at socially influential women. These will include, to name a few, the claims of witchcraft aimed at the Anglo-Saxon Queen Ælfthryth in the twelfth-century chronicle Liber Eilensis, the recording of the sorcery trial of Dame Alice Kyteler in fourteenth-century Ireland, and the court proceedings for treason and witchcraft brought against Joan of Arc in fifteenth-century Burgundy and Queen Anne Boleyn in 1530s England. Examining the implications of witchcraft accusations on powerful women will broaden and bolster scholarship on the European witchcraft movement by illustrating both how these cases fit into the larger fabric of medieval society, and how they maintained or impacted the social hierarchy and its prescribed gender roles. ^ Findings: ^ This study illustrates a pattern of politically motivated witchcraft accusations throughout the medieval and early modern period informed by a single, ever-expanding lexicon supporting the idea of feminized witchcraft. Unlike much previous scholarship on European witchcraft, this thesis demonstrates that socially prominent women, for a myriad of reasons ranging from the scrutiny given to their sexual conduct to their contested foothold in both the domestic and public spheres, were just as susceptible to accusations of sorcery and witchcraft as their lower-class counterparts. The case studies presented here also demonstrate a pattern of naming women as witches in an attempt to delegitimize their agency in the male-dominated arenas of governance, religion, warfare, and commerce. Because this method successfully defamed and destroyed numerous powerful women throughout the Middle Ages, the inherent characteristics of the witch became intertwined with unrestrained women, creating an environment that allowed political detractors to slander women for witch-like crimes, without ever invoking that particular label. This finding demands further study on the relationship between powerful women and claims of deviant behavior as an essential aspect of pre-modern women's social history.^

Subject Area

Women's Studies|History, Medieval

Recommended Citation

Anna Nelson Bennett, ""Because she would not be governed": Medieval women, power, and the politicization of witchcraft" (2015). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI1586016.
http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dissertations/AAI1586016

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