In my article ‘Poor, Old and Ugly?’ in the August 2016 issue of History Today (and reproduced here with permission) I argue that women prosecuted for witchcraft in 16th and 17th century England were not usually the stereotypical old hags, living on the margins of society, that you find in folk tales. This stereotype was of course not peculiar to England. Authors in continental Europe, Scotland and colonial America made the same assumption. As in England, however, this was not generally borne out by the characteristics of real women prosecuted for witchcraft. Around a quarter of people accused of witchcraft were indeed men (only 10% in England), and the rest were by no means always elderly widows.
The discrepancy between the stereotype and reality has not been immediately obvious to historians because of the scarcity of information about the age of women accused of witchcraft. What there is, however, suggests a striking pattern. Elderly women were less likely to be prosecuted than those between the ages of 40 and 60 years old – see the figures below for Rothenburg ob der Tauber (a German Imperial City and its hinterland; these figures include women interrogated on suspicion of practising witchcraft, so these had not – yet – been formally prosecuted) and New England. John Demos points out that in New England ‘they were not old, either by their standards or by ours’, since old age was thought to start at 60 even in the 16th century. Similarly, in Lippe (Germany) it was women between 50 and 60 years old who were most likely to be prosecuted.
Around a half of those accused were over 50 years old in the Saar region (all lumped together as ‘elderly’, unfortunately) but the figures for those in their 40s (35% aged 40-45) and those under 40 years old (about 15%) are similar to those in New England (where 29% were in their 40s).
For England, we have few usable figures for age – which is why I used the proxies of ‘wife’ and ‘widow’ to represent respectively ‘not-so-old’ and ‘older’ in my article ‘Poor, Old and Ugly?’. Malcolm Gaskill pointed out that as many wives as widows were prosecuted in English cases, in his publications on age, gender and stereotypes (see below). In Scotland also, half of the accused were married at the time of their arrest (as in England, the age of the accused was rarely recorded). Christina Larner noted that
the stereotype of the ugly old woman certainly existed in Scotland, but there is little evidence connecting this stereotype with actual accused witches.
In Lorraine, about half the accused women were widows, so they may have been very slightly older than those in Rothenburg and New England (most of those in the former were wives, and 66% of female and male suspects in the latter were married). But Robin Briggs points out that suspicions and informal accusations usually started many years before a formal prosecution was initiated in most regions – often as many as 20 years earlier – when these women would have been in midlife. He paraphrases John Demos’ comments as follows:
midlife – roughly between the ages of forty and sixty – was the time when the exercise of power usually became central to personal experience. Wealth, prestige and responsibility all typically reached their highest point in these decades; while this was most obviously true for men, it was bound to affect women as well … if illegitimate and misused power was a key meaning of witchcraft, then it is not surprising to find this age group notably suspect. (p.264).
Similarly in Rothenburg, Alison Rowlands notes that accused women were often seen as more successful than their accusers, and it was feared that their success was due to supernatural forces.
Demos remarks that ‘midlife was associated, in theory and in fact, with power over others’. In an age when most economic activity centred on the household, women had important economic roles. In farming households, their responsibilities included keeping the dairy, pigs, poultry and a garden, spinning yarn and marketing; they also helped with the harvest. Tradesmen’s and merchants’ wives were generally partners with their husbands – to such an extent that a woman would usually be allowed to carry on the business after her husband died, while she remained unmarried. In this context a woman’s influence in the local community was perhaps at its greatest when she ceased childbearing. By this age having – perhaps – a household of children and young female servants (often just other people’s teenage girls) under her personal authority, she had many hands to help her with mundane tasks, and no longer had to cope with the competing demands of childbearing.
But perhaps the situation was not as simple as this suggests. The accused were usually older and poorer than their accusers, and the power relation was not clearcut. What David Sabean argues with respect to German cases – echoed to some extent by both Briggs and Demos – is that accusers did not dare make formal accusations when they felt most threatened by the suspect, and waited until she was beginning to decline in power before doing so. This may help explain why Anne Taylor in the Rye case (described in my article ‘Poor, Old and Ugly?’) was accused at only 30 years old – her accuser was the wife of the judge, so was in a more powerful position than Anne.
The declining power of accused women is emphasised by Lyndal Roper, who sees issues over motherhood as the key to witchcraft conflicts (as do several other writers, including Diane Purkiss and Deborah Willis). She says of Germany in general ‘what made a woman a plausible witch was intrinsically related to the ending of fertility rather than to the visible onset of old age’. The menopause was crucial. Roper considers that younger women were motivated to accuse post-menopausal women of witchcraft because the latter were perceived to envy the fertility and attractiveness of their younger counterparts. Many writers on the subject would, however, see this as only one of a range of issues that were involved in the cases that they describe. Whatever the motivation, however, it would seem that here too accused women became vulnerable to accusation when they were past their prime, but had not yet become elderly.
Briggs, Robin Witches and Neighbours: the social and cultural context of European witchcraft (1996), pp. 263-4, on Lorraine.
Demos, John Putnam Entertaining Satan: witchcraft and the culture of early New England (1982), pp. 11, 64-69. A quarter of accused witches were men. About 12 of the accused women had intitiated slander cases against their accusers, rather than being formally prosecuted (p.57). This could be seen as an earlier stage in the building up of a reputation as a witch, so the women were likely to have been younger than those who had been prosecuted.
Gaskill, Malcolm Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England (2000), pp. 47-50.
Gaskill, Malcolm ‘Witchcraft in early modern Kent: stereotypes and the background to accusations’, in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, ed. J. Barry, M. Hester and G. Roberts (1996), pp. 257-87.
Larner, Christina Enemies of God: the witch-hunt in Scotland (1981), pp. 96-7.
Roper, Lyndal Witch Craze: terror and fantasy in baroque Germany (2004), pp. 160-61, including statistics for the Saar region and Lippe, quoted from other works.
Rowlands, Alison ‘Stereotypes and statistics: old women and accusations of witchcraft in early-modern Europe’, in Power and Poverty: old age in the pre-industrial past, ed. S.R. Ottaway, L.A. Botelho and K. Kittredge (2002), pp.176-79 including statistics for Rothenburg.
Rowlands, Alison Witchcraft Narratives in Germany: Rothenburg 1561-1652 (2003), p.135, 170-71.
Sabean, David Power in the Blood: popular culture and village discourse in early modern Germany (1984), pp. 108-9.