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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 1996
  • Online publication date: July 2010

11 - Patriarchal reconstruction and witch hunting

Summary

One of the most consistent yet least understood aspects of the early modern witch hunts is how accusation and persecution for witchcraft came to be largely directed against women, throughout Europe and the so-called New World. In an attempt to question why the greater proportion of those accused of witchcraft were women, this chapter seeks to move beyond Keith Thomas' analysis in Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) and also beyond the dichotomy of ‘sex-related versus sex-specific’ set up by Christina Larner's work. Focusing mainly on English material, it argues that in our quest to understand the phenomenon of the witch hunts we have to see male–female conflictual relations as an integral part of the process of accusation and persecution. The accusation of women was not merely a reflection of an age-old stereotype, nor merely the by-product of a patriarchal society; the witch hunts were a part of, and one example of, the ongoing mechanisms for social control of women within a general context of social change and the reconstruction of a patriarchal society. It is generally recognised that Europe in the early modern period experienced a variety of major changes in terms of demography, ideology, economy, religions and political systems. Levack has rightly pointed out that change is not a feature unique to this period, and that ‘change’ alone cannot explain the witch hunts at this time.