★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe
Alison Rowlands (Editor)
Ebook, aprox. 270 pages
Men and masculinities are still inadequately incorporated into the historiography of early modern witch trials, despite the fact that 20-25% of all accused ‘witches’ were male. This book redresses this imbalance by making men the focus of the gender analysis and also covers the issue of regional variation in the gendering of witch persecution.
Some of you may have heard about that TV show, American Horror Story: Coven. You may have noticed the uprising of girls in their 20s who really identified with the show and its characters, and chose it as a good way to tell the world... you know what, when I was younger, I wanted to be a witch too.
Now, I am one of these girls. And Coven was particularly valuable to me, because it proved that witches are still very much relevant - when I was younger, I'd watch Bewitched on TV, religiously, every single night. I'd watch Sabrina The Teenage Witch. I'd watch Charmed too, but at the time I think it was a little too grown-up for me. There were lots of witches on TV (and movies!) in the 90s. Remember The Craft? Practical Magic? Willow, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer? I grew up with these girls, these women, these witches, but all of a sudden... they vanished. And then Coven brought them back.
My mind immediately jumped into writing mode. I wanted to write my own witch story, and I had very particular ideas about what I wanted it to be - namely, I wanted it to include boys, not as warlocks or wizards... but as witches. Witches mixing herbs in the kitchen, witches dancing naked in the moonlight, witches petting black cats while a storm roars outside. Because you see, when fictional men get magical powers, they don't do any of these things (think The Covenant), and I want them to. I want to invite them into these stories, and I want to see how they play by the rules already in place. Do they accept them? Do they fight them? Do they try to make these environments about them? What happens when you take the century-old archetype of the witch - a woman, usually ambitious, who doesn't fit in, a little asocial, perhaps even full on antisocial, - and get a man to play the role?
That was my question, and lo and behold, I discovered this book - actually a collection of academic articles -, the title of which seemed quite useful to help me answer it. The use of "witchcraft and masculinities" immediately made me think of a book that would take on, not only the sex of the people tried as witches, but their gender, and the social roles associated with that gender.
Right on the first few pages, though, I realised this book had a very clear agenda - present an alternative to the feminist perspective, which states witch hunts were, to put it simply, a misogynistic institution. I don't see a problem with this in theory, but in practise, what happened was I ended up subjecting myself to 270 pages of historians bending over backwards to come up with explanations based on, to point out the most egregious article of the bunch, one case of a tried man.
Some affirmations were so ridiculous that I had to take note. Here's my favorite:
Contrary to their alleged special hatred of women, however, the witch-finders were, as most men of their age, neither misogynists nor philogynists.
Well, clearly they weren't philogynists, but can you really say they weren't... misogynists? Because I can't even say that about 21st century men. In my eyes, there's no redemption for a book that tackles an issue as gendered as witchcraft, acknowledges that the great majority of the accused (and tried, and condemned) were women, without presenting a reasonable explanation as to why, and then states this sort of thing. I have actually summarized the book for all interested, here:
Listen we know this society was pretty sexist, and we know men made all the decisions, and we know women were more vulnerable to this kind of social persecution, and we know it was widely believed that women, being the weaker sex, would be the Devil's first choices when it came to corrupting innocent human souls, BUT THE FACT THAT WOMEN MADE UP THE MAJORITY OF THE ACCUSED HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS.
Long story short, I was really disappointed with this volume. For once, it feels very scattered - the articles focus on different places and times, and there is no apparent connection between them (if we exclude "male witches" and "nope nope nope no feminism here"). The book keeps telling me that, in some parts of Europe, men made up the majority of the accused witches, but it didn't actually made me understand why - a major flaw, since this seems to be the book's main argument for the insufficiency of the feminist perspective. Last, but not least, I didn't like the tone of a few of the articles - calling a woman a "whore" in academic texts, really? How about "prostitute", or "sex worker"?
I still want to read a good, academic book about male witches. But I'd prefer one that doesn't disregard thousands of dead women across Europe to ask but what about the men. I'd prefer one that explores the cases of accused male witches inside the framework of feminist theory, instead of one that uses them as evidence that said theory is biased and insufficient. Surely, the world can do better than that.
This particularly snarky review has been brought to you by Pure Unadulterated Anger. You are welcome. Let's go rewatch Charmed.