Da Vinci's Code

Professor Christopher Witcombe, Art History


The Backlash Against Women


EDITED EXCERPTS FROM: H. Diane Russell, Eva/Ave: Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1990), pages 147-148

Witches were considered patently evil during the Renaissance and baroque periods, or until about 1630. They were thought to be empowered by Satan to act as his agents, and hence they were strikingly dangerous adversaries of humans. While men could be witches and sometimes were indeed put on trial for being witches, women increasingly outnumbered them in this capacity during this period. At the end of the greatest period of persecution of witches, women accounted for about eighty percent of those accused. There were a number of reasons for this, but the most important was the belief that women were sexually insatiable and that Satan seduced them to his cause. Devils appeared to women as incubi to copulate with them (devils in female form, succubi, supposedly seduced the less-willing men). In many images of witches, especially those by Hans Baldung Grien, such as his chiaroscuro woodcut print The Witches Sabbath (1510), there are numerous phallic symbols as well as poses and gestures of the figures that are sexual in character.

Hans Baldung Grien
The Witches Sabbath, woodcut, 1510

In a study of witches in Gascony, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladune pointed to four principal "crimes" for which witches were held to be responsible. They could take away the strength of young men and sometimes went on to kill them. They could make men impotent, and hence they struck at the ability of humans to reproduce. They could destroy the crops of farmers by conjuring up such harmful natural phenomena as hailstorms. Finally, they were thought to increase their own material wealth by striking at the holdings of others. Witches were thought able to fly through the air in performing their evil acts; to achieve flight, they used unguents on themselves and their poles, ointments supposedly made of infants they had killed.

The persecution of witches began in the fifteenth century. Before that, sorcerers, as they would be more properly called, might be friendly or unfriendly, but they were not feared and hated. Even at the end of the sixteenth century there were friendly sorcerers in the Friuli region of Italy who were thought to fight bad sorcerers and thereby protect the fecundity of the soil. Yet these people themselves were eventually convinced by authorities that they were in fact witches.

Many reasons have been proposed for the emergence of witchcraft as a phenomenon during the Renaissance and baroque periods. Among them are devastating crop failures, the bubonic plague, and syphilis. Whatever the reasons, most scholars agree that the persecutors of witches were "sincerely" motivated. That is, they were not accusers, inquisitors, or judges who were deliberately looking for scapegoats, whatever particular incident of witchcraft might be involved. Rampant misogyny, nevertheless, was nearly constant, and a deep part of the craze for persecution.

In a study of Hans Baldung Grien's images of witches, it has been proposed that the artist himself saw these women as deluded in the following ways: that they only imagined they could fly, that they attended sabbaths, and that they copulated with devils. However, he also believed that these women were possessed by the Devil.