Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

A difficulty here was that men attended witches’ sabbats, and men were not infrequently denounced as the cause of witchcraft especially when the denouncing was done by a sexually frustrated woman, as in the case of the denouncing of the Cure Grandier at Loudun. Nevertheless, the idea that witches were predominantly women was sedulously fostered — the “Malleus” devotes a whole chapter to discussing why this is — and with such success that to this day the word “witch” at once suggests a woman rather than a man.

It also followed logically that, if the good mother, the Virgin, was already the patroness of fertility, the witch must be against fertility: this accounts for the stress on this point by Kramer and Sprenger. Similarly, as the Virgin was the type of compassion, the witch must be devoted to heartlessly destructive activities.

But before the Church could bring about this revolution, it was necessary for it to retreat very far from the position attained in earlier days, when it had maintained the position that witchcraft was a superstition. In 785 the Synod of Paderborn had ordered death for anyone who should put any person to death for being a witch. Charlemagne confirmed this ruling, and the Canon Episcopi ordered bishops to combat belief in witchcraft and to excommunicate anyone who persisted in such belief. An Irish Council had ruled,

“Whoever, deceived by the Devil, believes in the fashion of the heathen that anyone can be a witch and burns her on this account is to undergo punishment by death.”

The Synod of Treves, in 1310, said:

“Let no woman allege that she rides through the night with Diana or Herodias, for it is an illusion of the Demon.”

John of Salisbury, Archbishop of Canterbury in the twelfth century, came even nearer to the modern view when he said that

“some falsely believed that what they suffered in imagination . . . and because of their own fault was real and eternal” — not a bad description of psychogenic illness — and added, “We must not forget that those to whom this happens are poor women or simple and credulous people.”