La differece of being woman

Research and Teaching of History

Area: Essays

Knowledge and PowersIsabel Pérez Molina.


During the Middle Ages, before the institutionalisation of the guilds, the municipal governments and the universities, women were involved in all fields; they were as well as peasants, teachers of diverse trades, settlers, abbesses, writers, and they also devoted themselves to different fields of human knowledge, amongst them those which would be included under the heading of “science”. A science that for women during this period was concentrated in the field of medicine. Women went beyond the limits imposed on them in the dominant gender models and became a problem for the feudal and patriarchal masculine elite.

As a reaction, from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a current of misogynist opinion passed amongst priests and learned men, privileged men, that was answered by women such as Christine de Pisan, giving rise to the so-called “querelle des femmes”.

During the Renaissance the misogynist current took hold, giving rise to a period of regression for women in all areas. It is also then when the battle for male control of knowledge, of science, became harsher, with the witch-hunt beginning at this time.

We are all witches. A social spectrum of witches

Any woman who enjoyed any kind of independence was likely to be considered a witch. The inquisitors believed that the women who remained outside of male control, on the margin of their guardianship through the family, or who kept themselves outside or on the edges of the feminine roles prescribed for them, were worrying elements of the established social order. Women alone, single women or widows, poor women, old women, foreign women, melancholic women, healing women, the spectrum could be varied.

The women without men, single women and widows, older than forty, could easily be considered to be witches, but many were also married, young... Foreign women could also be an easy target, given that as women and newcomers, they were the object of mistrust. Many witches were women who had or acted with independence, prepared to respond and defend themselves. In England women who knew how to swim were considered to be witches, since if they knew how to swim it was because the water rejected them.

Witches were in many cases women of peasant extraction and poor. This is true of the majority of the healing women, although there were also some from a comfortable social situation. The healers of poor and peasant extraction worked for the community, for the working classes. In general they were the only ones who attended to the poor.

On the other hand, another sector that suffered persecution during the witch-hunt was that of midwives. Many of the women accused of witchcraft were midwives. This can be explained by the fact that during the Middle and Modern Ages, there existed the general idea that birth had magical qualities, and that because of this, the midwives, on knowing the mysteries of birth, had special powers. The institutionalisation of medicine in the universities meant that obstetrics constituted the only area related to medicine and health that remained reserved for women, until that was also snatched from them in the nineteenth century. Women remained excluded from the practice of medicine, with the aforementioned exception, until the figure of the nurse appeared at the end of the nineteenth century, especially with Florence Nightingale. The nurse appears linked to the role of women as carers, completely subordinated to the doctors.

In Mary Daly’s opinion, in the history of witches and the witch hunt we should also take into account the existence of the remnants of what she calls “Old Religion”, pre-patriarchal and pre-Christian, of adoration of the Goddess, and that would be maintained by women. The Goddess evokes the feminine presence in society, the strong woman, independent and wise, who the witch-hunt would seek to destroy, dismembering and killing the Goddess.

The healers: transmitters of a popular medicine

A large number of the women who were condemned to death during the centuries of the hunting of witches were women who acted as healers in their communities.

Women had acted as healers for centuries, there being a long genealogy of healing women. In Europe they were responsible for the health of the community until the witch hunt began, being the knowers, transmitters and reviewers of an ancestral popular wisdom that was transmitted from mothers to daughters. In fact, for a number of learned men and women they are considered to be the first doctors and anatomists in the history of the West, as well as the first pharmacologists, with their cultures and collection of medicinal plants. They were the knowers of the secrets of empirical medicine.

Because of this they were known by the community as “wise women”. However, the institutions, fearful of their influence, called them “gossips”, before calling them witches.

Women knew the medicinal applications of many herbs and plants and knowledge of many of them was learned from generation to generation from times previous to the institutionalisation of Christianity. At the same time they discovered new formulas and applications through experimentation. People considered this knowledge to be a certain kind of magic, and likewise the leaders of the Christian churches and the state governors believed it. It appears that these women mixed their curing practices with old pre-Christian pagan rites. This magical patina that enveloped the knowledge of plants and the elaboration of creams and ointments seems to derive from those old religious rites. This was one of the factors that contributed to the consideration that there was a special relationship between these women and the body, with the healing of the body but also with the relationship between body and mind. There is documentary evidence of the practice of some witches scrubbing themselves with the ointments that they themselves made.

Sometimes, the inquisitors linked the use of ointments with witches’ supposed capacity for flying, as can be seen in a witchcraft trial in 1620 in Puigcerdà. The trial describes a kind of coven of witches in which one woman incites another named Jonga to take off her clothes and put an ointment on, and, on so doing, the latter flies out through the chimney.

The witches-healers used analgesics, sedatives and digestive medicines, as well as other preparations to relieve the pains of childbirth, in spite of the opposing position of the Church, being that due to original sin women should give birth with pain. They used belladonna to stop the contractions of the womb in the case of possible miscarriage and some sources point to an English witch as the discoverer of digitalis, which is used nowadays to treat coronary diseases. These wise women also advised women upon birth-control methods and carried out abortions. In fact, Paracelsus, considered the “father of modern medicine”, stated in the sixteenth century that he had learned everything he knew from witches. With the witch hunt, part of this knowledge was lost.

However, the sources that have been studied until now suggest that they established networks and used to meet to exchange knowledge on medicinal herbs at the same time as they set themselves up as mediators for the spreading of different kinds of news, feeding relationships between women. It is possible that these networks were related to the peasant rebellions of the time, helping to spread them.

Witchcraft and the professionalisation of medicine

From the twelfth century on the universities appear linked to the Church, which meant that disciplines such as medicine and law were taught within the framework of this institution, beginning a process of institutionalisation and professionalisation that, according to Michel Foucault, was going to have as its final aim the legitimatisation of the social order established from the sectors of power. The control of the sources of knowledge by the men of the dominant social classes was necessary. The disciplines were developed under the inspection of the Church, within the limits delineated by the Christian faith. In fact, jurists and doctors collaborated and had their own role in the witch-hunt, giving it a legal framework or acting as advisors in the tribunals.

All those who did not have a qualification were prohibited from practising medicine, which meant that the right to practise medicine as healers was taken away from women since they had no access to the universities. After generations of acting as healers, the women that had practised all their lives found then that they were prohibited from exercising their work. However, for the prohibition to be more effective it was necessary to eradicate its influence in the community, to put an end to the respect that they enjoyed amongst the people. It was also necessary to put an end to the competences of these women, who could question the capacity of the professionals who were graduating from the universities.

The men professionals, coming from well-off families, fought against the possible competition of the healing women, receiving the support of the privileged social classes, who realised the importance of controlling the sources of knowledge, given that medicine was one of the main disciplines that the Church and the state had a special interest in controlling. The institutional organisation of medicine was important in this process of control of the sources of knowledge, due to the prestige and the reputation it brought with it, but, above all, because it meant the controlling of decisions on life and death, on madness and non madness, etc. Women were of course excluded from this elitist circle.

The first women healers tried were educated women who worked for clients from the same social extraction, that is, for the privileged social classes. In the thirteenth century the University of Paris accused Jacqueline Felicie of illegally practising medicine. Nobody doubted her capacity or professionalism but rather on the contrary, it was used against her, because she dared to heal others as a woman, questioning the competence of the doctors and showing that she was able to cure cases that the doctors had given up on.

In fact, the knowledge that the doctors learned in the universities of the time was very little. It was limited basically to the works of Galen and the body of Hippocratic medicine, with all their associated pre-conceptions. They received no kind of practical teaching nor anything that might question Christian orthodoxy. In this context, blood-letting was the most common practice, particularly for wounds. Superstition was also present in the form of religious rites, prayers, or the practice of magic formulas, apart from which the doctors needed the advice of the priest and could not treat those who had not made their confession.

The theory according to which the creation of the universities brought with it a positive evolution and progress in which popular superstition was substituted by science, is, at least, arguable. It would be nearer the truth to say that the new “professionals” imposed their “superiority” by force on to those that bothered them and could challenge them. For the historians Pina Cavallo and Milagros Rivera, a relationship exists between the changes for the control of science and the social relationships between the genders, at the same time that these changes coincide with the toughening of the persecution of witches. This connection is made clear in the distinction between natural magic, a pre-modern form of science and that is appropriated by men, and black magic, underground and persecuted, and which defined that which women practised.

Some academics suggest that the Church had other reasons for wanting to limit the role of the women healers. For example, there were witches-healers who advised people to control their consumption of sugar, since they had detected illnesses related to such consumption. However, for the Church, which had interests in the sugar industry, it was in its interest for consumption to increase, not the other way round.

Once the professionals like Jacqueline stopped being a problem, it was the turn of the women of the lower social classes. These latter were the main victims of the witch-hunt.

History of a gynocide

To understand the meaning of the witch-hunt, the explanation of the competence of the healers, the professionalisation of medicine or the institutionalisation and control of science by the established power is not sufficient. The witch-hunt was a conscious act of gynocide by the elites of power that fed on a renewed misogyny that took hold from the fourteenth century. This misogyny was fed by the Church under the influence of the texts of Thomas Aquinas; it materialised in France in the fifteenth century and spread through Europe.

As said previously, this renewed misogyny would be accompanied by, at the beginning of the Modern Age, a backwards step for women in all aspects of their lives, coinciding with the Renaissance. The chronology of the witch-hunt coincides with these changes. Theologians and inquisitors stated “where there are many women, there are many witches”.

Diverse studies have recognised that the witch-hunt was a phenomenon that was basically political, more than religious or any other kind, and that it appears linked to a process of cultural standardisation which was in turn linked to the expansion of the power of the state. It is not by chance that the greater part of the people tried and condemned were women. The witch-hunt was not simply an explosion of collective hysteria that looked for a scapegoat in witches –although naturally the powers-that-be also took advantage of this aspect to redirect people’s unhappiness away from social causes that might incite revolt, at the same time as getting rid of disturbing elements-, but rather a conscious persecution promoted and directed against the women that, because of their wisdom, because of their independence or simply because of their not fitting inside the limits set for them, questioned with their lives the social body itself; a social body that, in the words of Mary Daly, represented the mystical body of Christ, fundamentally privileged and patriarchal, at a moment when there was an increase in the control of “wisdom”, defining it inside official limits.

The witch-hunt lasted from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, reaching its greatest intensity during the sixteenth century and, above all, the first half of the seventeenth. Until the end of the fifteenth century the punishments for witchcraft were light, generally consisting of fines. It was the coincidence of the bull of Pope Innocence VIII and the publication in 1486 of the Malleus Malleficarum or “Witches’ Hammer”, written by the German Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer (or Henri Institoris) and Jakob Sprenger, that began the wheel of death. The introduction of the printing press helped the spreading of this inquisitors’ manual.

The inquisitors, with their patriarchal vision, could not accept that women had wisdom or power, so they declared that the power of witches was not their own, but rather came from the sexual act with the devil. The sexual perversion of the inquisitors manifested itself as such in the trials, where their sexual fantasies with obscene details were made apparent, describing the sexual act between the witch and the devil. When the women acted in a rational way it was because they were acting as tools of the devil, given that they already belonged on the devil’s side. This could refer to the networks that existed between women and was used to make them give away the names of their neighbours, friends, etc.

Witchcraft was considered to be a "crimen exceptum", that is, a special crime, different to the rest. In the sixteenth century the difference between good witches (many of them healers) and bad ones disappeared totally. The inquisitors claimed that the good ones were worse than the bad ones. People such as Jean Bodin contributed to this; with his demonology he contributed to the rekindling of the witch-hunt at the end of the sixteenth century. Witches had fewer rights than the other prisoners and the trials were practically always accompanied by torture. Suspicion was enough to condemn to death.

Of each of the accused the inquisitors asked for another name, which set off a cycle of death and barbarity. Anyone could denounce, and once the first witch was denounced, the cycle was begun. What is more, in this “crime” the inquisitors used children, particularly little girls, who were pressurised into testifying against their mothers. A time came, around the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the accusations were out of control. Anyone could be accused, even the wives of the officials and inquisitors, even the accusers themselves. The only way to prevent this was to stop the whole process. Thus, the same authorities that fed the cycle of deaths began to deny and discredit the accusations of witchcraft.

The magnitude of the massacre is difficult to determine, given the void that still exists with regard to the subject in spite of the many existing studies, the reticence in accepting some studies carried out by women and the tendency of male researchers to avoid the question or treat it over-cautiously. The most conservative guesses suggest some 200.000 people executed during this period. G. R. Quaife gives an estimation of around a million people and Matilda Joslyn Gage had already in 1893 made an estimation of 9 million, an estimation that Mary Daly would support. The proportion of women ranges from 80 to 100 %, depending on the time and place.

Geographically, the witch-hunt began in the mountains of Germany and Italy, expanding rapidly afterwards inside and outside these countries, to France, England, the North of Europe, and Spain. In Germany, France and Belgium, the persecution was more brutal than in other countries. Although there do not seem to be many differences between Catholic and Protestant countries, it is estimated that the persecution was harsher in the protestant countries. In Spain, for example, the inquisitors concentrated more on certain religious heresies, such as the “iluminados”, being less likely to believe in witchcraft, in spite of the fact that the Spanish inquisitors also found themselves embroiled in the witch-hunt at its highest point, at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth.

So, in Spain the persecution was less keen than in other European countries, given that the Spanish Inquisition acted with more precaution in this kind of trial. However, during the height of the witch-hunt the number of executions rose noticeably, although without reaching the severity of other countries. Contrary to the rest of Europe, the Spanish Inquisition maintained a more sceptical position with respect to witchcraft. It was necessary to have proof and confession alone was not enough, since, according to the Inquisition itself, torture or the fear of it, as well as directed questions could cause the declaration of what had in fact never happened. The time for torture was limited to an hour, while in Germany it could last from a day and a night, up to four days and four nights.

Although it seems that there were more cases of witchcraft in some regions than others, witches could be found anywhere, especially in rural areas. It seems that the concentration of witches would be related to the abundance of medicinal herbs in the area and the persistence or not of religious rites prior to Christianity. The Basque Country is where there were the most convictions. In 1610 the witches of Zugarramurdi were sentenced. Other relevant trials are those of Toledo and Granada. In 1655 40 people were executed in Valencia, 31 of which were women. Galicia was also considered the territory of witches, the meigas. In Catalonia, between 1616 and 1619, 300 women were sent to the gallows. Within the Catalan principality some towns were known for the existence of witches; notable amongst them being Caldes de Montbui, Vallgorguina, Terrassa, Ullastret and Girona. Some reminders have lasted, or lasted until a relatively short time ago, like the toponymy of “Pla de les bruixes” (Witches Plain), or the palm leaf that was tied to the balcony to frighten away bad spirits.

The trial of Blanca Bardiera

The trial of Blanca Bardiera is not an inquisitorial trial but rather involves the local courts. In the case of Catalonia the persecution of witchcraft by the local authorities seems to have been more intense than by the Inquisition. However, the local tribunals were more ready to accept proof that would generally be unacceptable in law, although we have already seen that this was common in the witchcraft trials in general.

Blanca Bardiera was a poor woman, who worked at various rural tasks, such as the grape harvest, and weeding, and was at times also employed in domestic service or as a washerwoman. Her age seems unclear, although from reading the text it would seem to suggest that she must have been between her mid-thirties and beginning of her forties. She was married, but her husband remains absent during the whole trial, only appearing to stand bail when she was given conditional freedom. Blanca faces the trial alone, without the supposed support and protection of marriage. Added to this, she is a foreigner, French, emigrating to Sant Feliu de Llobregat during one of the waves of French immigration to Catalonia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with all the problems of integration and xenophobia associated with the migratory movements involving the poor.

Although during the trial Blanca denies the accusations, it seems obvious from the declarations of the witnesses that she knew some curative recipes, from which we cannot deduce that she was a healer, although we do not know if she had been so in France. A woman witness attributes to her a cure thanks to some thyme soups prepared by her. Many women knew homemade remedies that formed part of popular wisdom, distributed by healers, transmitted from mothers to daughters and between neighbours or relatives.

Blanca was also a woman who answered back, known for her quarrels with a neighbour, Maciana, who accused her of having caused the death of her daughter of 16 or 17 months old.

The trial began on 27th November with the questioning of ten witnesses. The following day Blanca was detained in prison, making a statement on 5th December, where she denied all the accusations. The prosecutor asked for the approval of the application of torture, which was authorised but was not in the end applied; it appears that the local authority did not consider it necessary in this case. In this Blanca was lucky, given that witchcraft trials were usually accompanied by torture. Also on the plus side was the fact that she had four witnesses who testified in her favour. The sixteen witnesses for the prosecution accuse her of bringing about the death of babies, of predicting and/or causing the illnesses or death of other people and of making potions and curing with thyme soups. A reading of the trial shows the high level of infant mortality of the time and that behind the death of some of those babies there was found not only illnesses but negligence and abuse for which it was easy to blame someone from outside the family. The defence witnesses make manifest the goodness of the accused towards others. In total twelve women and four men were questioned by the prosecutors and three women and a man by the defence. Eight of the witnesses for the prosecution and one for the defence were French.

At the end of the trial Blanca left in freedom on bail. She probably fled Sant Feliu to settle in another place where she was not known. Certainly many other witches will have acted in the same way. If she had the possibility of becoming integrated and the rumours of her previous trial did not catch up with her, she would perhaps survive without too many problems.

Teaching suggestions

Look at the bar charts on the witchcraft trials in the tribunal of the Inquisition of Barcelona during the seventeenth century, comparing men and women by age. What gender differences can be deduced?

From the linear graph on the evolution of the witchcraft trials in the tribunal of the Inquisition of Barcelona in the seventeenth century and from the text, explain the history of the witchcraft trials and the gynocide that this implies.

Map of the witches of Catalonia.

Map of the witches of Catalonia.

Two midwives attend to Saint Ana. One of them is preparing the bath for María.

Two midwives attend to Saint Ana. One of them is preparing the bath for María.

Three witches of Chelmsford, England, sent to the gallows

Three witches of Chelmsford, England, sent to the gallows





The goddess represents the strong woman, whose authority is recognised.

The goddess represents the strong woman, whose authority is recognised.

© 2004-2008 Duoda, Women Research Center. University of Barcelona. All rights reserved. Credits. Legal note.

Related Essays
  1. 1. Trial of Blanca Bardiera for Witchcraft, Anonym.