Witchcraft and Gender in the Early Modern World

Course Number
GSWS 528 940
Course Code
Course Key
Primary Program
Course Description
From the 15th century through the 18th century, social tensions erupted in Europe and the Atlantic colonies in the witch craze, a period when intense cultural concern over witchcraft was expressed through religious treatises and sermons, popular literature such as pamphlets and broadsides, legal accusations, trials, and, in some cases, executions. Although the number of people executed during the witch-hunts is a matter of scholarly debate, their importance in understanding early modern beliefs and responses to social tensions is clear. In this class, we will explore historians' understandings of the causes underlying this cultural phenomenon. With special attention to gender, social position, and religious belief, we will join academic debates about the causes of these persecutions. We will also read some primary sources from the medieval through the early modern periods, including trial transcripts, sermons, and pamphlets. Were women the main target of witchcraft accusations and executions, and if so, was misogyny their most important cause? What role did sexual norms and beliefs have in the way that accusations were framed? Were there different patterns of accusations and executions across time and region, and if so, what social and cultural factors might explain them? In what ways were witchcraft accusations an effort to control marginal people in local communities, particularly in regard to gender, socio-economic position, and age? How might religious developments and conflicts have influenced elite and popular ideas about witchcraft? What challenges do historians face in analyzing primary sources about witchcraft and witchcraft trials? Through in class discussions and threaded discussion forums on primary sources, students will learn about the challenges involved in interpreting sources including treatises, trial transcripts, pamphlets, and images.