What’s at Stake: An Analysis of the Witch.

Rachel Kelsall. 16 December 2016.

Witches are defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “A woman thought to have magic powers, especially evil ones, popularly depicted as wearing a black cloak and pointed hat and flying on a broomstick.” Or “A follower or practitioner of Wicca or of modern witchcraft.” However, it is also acknowledged that informally a ‘witch’ could refer to “An ugly or unpleasant woman”. This misogynistic link is largely considered the reason behind the widespread persecution of ‘witches’ in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, as well as prejudices against those living in poverty. 
Witches are a common aspect of media, Lipscomb describes their presence “in fairy tales, fantasy and satire” where they appear repeatedly as “a versatile synonym for evil and transgression.” (Lipscomb, 2015). This reinforcement of women, especially women whose lives do not involve men, as being inherently distrustful and alien has a damaging effect. Although it must be acknowledged that men were also targets of witch hunts in the past, with around 20% of people tried for witchcraft in Britain being men. The difference between men and women being victims of witch hunts in the past however is that men no longer face these comparisons as public perception of a ‘witch’ has since shifted to an exclusively female label. The male counterpart, the ‘wizard’, instead has much more positive connotations.
The phrase ‘crazy cat lady’ has clear links to the ‘witch’, as it often describes an unsocial woman surrounded by animals. The link between witches and animals, especially cats can be linked to the first major witchcraft trial recorded in England, in this 1566 trial the accused Agnes Waterhouse ‘confessed’ to giving her blood to a white spotted cat that was named Satan who was the likeness of the Devil. It must however be stressed that many confessions of witches during these trials were the result of extreme torture.
Marginalised women were much more likely to be accused of witchcraft, this includes women who were elderly spinsters or widows who lived alone. This focus on the women who was alone gives insight into the patriarchal narrative of witches. And can be linked to modern day opinions and beliefs on women who live independently. These are the belief that a woman who lives independently without relying on a man is somehow unnatural and the belief that a woman who lives this way must be bitter and envious of others. These beliefs are presented often through subtle implications and the persistence of these beliefs, although they are not still a matter of life and death for these women, show just one way in which laws and mass beliefs in the past can still influence public opinion is subtle ways.
Witchcraft accusations also disproportionally affected poor members of society, with begging being the base of many of these accusations. Those who begged were often accused of hexing those who had not helped them. One of the most famous cases of this type of accusation is Alison Device, whose accusation was the beginning of the Pendle Witch case. When a man refused to provide her with a pin upon her asking she was accused of witchcraft when he soon after died of a stroke. The use of witchcraft accusations to remove beggars and other poor members of society shows a clear prejudice against these people.


The History and Heritage Accommodation Guide: Witches in Britain

History Extra: A Brief History of Witches by Suzannah Lipscomb

Further Reading:

The History and Heritage Accommodation Guide: The Pendle Witches

Smithsonian: A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials