The Weaker Sex

On May 4, 2009 the Daily Mail Newspaper in the United Kingdom carried the following article: ‘The remains of a 14th century teenager, believed to have been beheaded on charges of witchcraft and buried in unconsecrated ground, has been laid to rest in a proper funeral…700 years after her death. The girl, named Holly by archaeologists because her remains were found beneath a holly bush, had had her head laid at her side, a sign that she might have been suspected of witchcraft. […] the decapitation – which it was believed would deny eternal life – meant Holly was shamed’. About 80 percent of those once accused as witches were women. Women, unlike men, were believed to possess supernatural powers and, hence, were suspected of witchcraft more often than men were. Theology of the time assumed women were much weaker than men and therefore more likely to succumb to the devil. On sorcery, King James I of England wrote in his Daemonologie in 1597: ‘There are twentie women given to that craft, where there is one man’.79 

Traditionally through the ages, a magic aura was believed to surround women. Much of this can be attributed to the ignorance that has always surrounded female physiology – a physiology only now understood and accepted by most civilised societies. Horror, awe, and the stigma of uncleanness were characteristic reactions to menstrual flow, pregnancy, and childbirth. The Christian Church further strengthened this attitude. Archbishop Theodore’s seventh-century Penitential forbade women to enter a church or receive communion during their monthly periods, as well as pregnant women until forty days after childbirth.80 

Underlying the prevailing attitude towards women at the time was the position taken by the Church and by men in general. The fall of humankind in the Garden of Eden attributable to Eve permeated Western culture – Eve had become the focus of sin in the world. Being the daughters of Eve, women were therefore perceived as seducing even without trying. As women are receptive during sexual intercourse and can receive indefinitely, whether willingly or not, this generated the idea that women were insatiable and prone to leading men astray. St. Jerome (circa 340–420 CE) summed up the existing mindset: ‘…women’s love in general is accused of ever being insatiable; put it out and it bursts into flame; give it plenty, it is again in need; it enervates a man’s mind and engrosses all thought except for the passion which it feeds’.81 St. Paul’s ascetic views further strengthened the elements of misogyny. The church father, Tertullian (circa 160–235), himself married, also condemned sexuality as illicit and referred to women as ‘gateways to the Devil’.82  Other church fathers followed suit. Whereas St. Jerome was not even sure women were human, St. Augustine (354–386 CE) declared women were morally and mentally inferior to men and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) regarded women as a temptation to evil.83 The key archetypes of womankind at the time were the virtuous, immaculate Virgin, the pox-ridden prostitute and the witch.

Furthermore, it was propagated that women were to be feared as child bearers. Because they were traditionally viewed as deceptive, no man could be sure that the children he was raising were his own. It was thought that chaos would ensue if women were to have the fear of childbirth removed from them. Therefore, women had to regard sex with the utmost apprehension; it was joyless, nothing but a marital duty, and invariably led to suffering and even death in childbirth. In the sixteenth century Martin Luther bluntly expressed the views still popularly held at the time: ‘If women die in childbirth that does no harm. It is what they were made for’.84 The very fact that midwives knew how to alleviate the pain of birthing was considered a threat, coupled, with the fact that they kept their potions a secret, automatically surrounding them with a mysterious aura. Hence, the Malleus Maleficarum singled out especially midwives as deserving the worst possible treatment. 

Such unanimous misogynist declarations by the leading church fathers of the time spurned a scornful attitude towards women, evident in the sexual charges levelled against so-called witches. They were accused of wild orgies in which they were believed to copulate with their master, the devil, and with subordinate demons. They were also deemed solely responsible for causing impotence in men and sterility in women. 


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