‘Women’s Weeds’ Research Journal — Fun Fact: The rise of the female saint led to the hunt for the witch

This week’s ‘fun fact’ has to do with one of my favourite research subjects—witches. Research into the history of women in medicine will inevitably lead us back to the witch hunts. (And yes, there will be ongoing research into this particular flavour of persecution still to come… )

There were many factors that contributed to the witch panics that cycled in waves over a 300-year period from the 15th to the 18th century. I discussed several of these—such as climate change and severe economic depression—in a post I wrote two years ago: ‘Ice & Fire: How a Folk Demonology in the ‘Little Ice Age’ Led to the Witch Hunts of the 16th & 17th Centuries’

But this week I learned of a new factor I’ve had yet to come across in my research: the resurgence of the ‘goddess’ in the guise of the ‘saint’.

‘Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII’ by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1854

If you’d like to join me on the ideological assumption that Christianity was created to stamp out the millennia-strong pagan goddess figure and bring in an era of unquestioned patriarchy; then the emergence of female saints would be undermining its purpose. It was necessary, therefore, to quash the female supernatural as in league with the devil to quash female power as it found ways to assert itself through cracks in the supposed uniform wall of male dominion though Christianity.

And when I came across the data behind this, it was a lightbulb moment. How had I never seen this before?

Prior to the 13th century, female saints only amounted to less than 12% of the total number of saints. It is significant that in the centuries preceding the witch-hunts the proportion of female saints rose sharply, to a high in the 15th century of almost 28%. Female saints, moreover, according to Weinstein and Bell, were especially noted for their supernatural powers rather than for other functions of sainthood. (1)

Now, is this causation or just correlation? It’s probably time to look at what a ‘saint’ actually is. Like the witch, the saint is also a transgressor against female norms. The witch and the saint are mirror images of each other. Both the witch and the saint possess powers due to their close connection to the supernatural (one a closeness to the Devil, one a closeness to God). The creation of a saint is an interesting complication too, because they are always created in hindsight. Intra-religious skirmishes make today’s saint out of last year’s heretic—and what is a witch if not an extreme heretic?

The abilities of the saint and the witch were also strikingly similar. Both can fly or ‘levitate’, control natural forces, find lost objects, tell the future, affect others’ physical wellbeing, and in some cases have special relationships with animals and/or food. Both bore special marks on their bodies and appeared to be able to read minds. In the most highly charged area of activities, sexuality, the female saint and the witch appear as mirror opposites, the chaste, virginal saint opposed to the sexually insatiable witch. Yet, as it has often been pointed out, the descriptions of saintly visions of God are often highly eroticised and it has even been suggested that the image of the witches’ sabbath owes something to the sexualised visions of the late mediaeval mystics. (Whitney 1995 91-92) 

If both the saint and the witch might both protect and harm, the witch and the saint were also inversely related to each other in terms of gender. Christina Larner points out that about 80% of saints in the mediaeval and early modern periods were male and 20% were female; while about 80% of witches were female and 20% were male. (2)

The similarities of these two groups of ‘deviant’ females with access to the supernatural may be an important part of the witch-hunt puzzle. The saint is virginal and ethereal, not only because of her supposed virginity in life, but also in her untouchable incorporeality to us on Earth. She is of the heavens, not of flesh and blood. Elevating female saints to the sacred ranks of the Virgin Mary (as long as they were in the minority) was fine and provided good examples of selflessness for mortal women as they went about their submissive and godly lives. But the 16th and 17th centuries saw an increasingly strict hierarchical view of ‘woman’s place’ in society. Female saints began to be seen as perhaps too powerful role models for women; and suddenly there were many more of these powerful female saints about.

Now, the percentage of female saints growing from 12% to 28% is hardly a tidal-wave of female saint dominion; but as we have seen in many other demographic mock-panics of late, when the dominant group sees any jump in representation from the subjugated group, a even a quarter representation can suddenly feel like it’s ‘everywhere’. And this resurgence within Christianity of even part of the quashed feminine power of the pagan goddess had to be stamped out utterly. Women with access to the supernatural had to to demonised—quite literally—and ‘hail the goddess’ became ‘burn the witch’.

Sources and further reading…

(1) Whitney, Elspeth, ‘The Witch “She” / The Historian “He”: Gender and the historiography of the European Witch-Hunts’, Journal of Women’s History, Vol 7 Issue 3, 1995, p77-101. Journal.

(2) Larner, Christina, Witchcraft and Religion: The Politics of Popular Belief, (New York: Basil Blackwell) 1984. Book. 

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