I think that a few men, but many more women were convicted of using magic in Europe mostly during the years in between 1400 and 1800 and I think it became much more prevalent after the Protestant Reformation.

Was the majority of people killed women?

If so, Why?

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    Possibly because it was considered more believable at the time that a woman would give herself to the devil or that the devil would be more attracted to a female. Also worth noting that the accusers were in many cases also female, so possibly rivalry came into it too. Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 20:01
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    Depends on which country/region. Read Keith Thomas' History of Witchcraft in England, and a few works on the German witch craze, then ask again.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 21:45
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    The focus on women wasn't really invented by those who were hunting for witches. It simply reflected the fact that women are much more likely to do things that are normally called witchcraft, usually by the women themselves. It's normal that such things are widespread among females - it's like a "variation of cooking" which is also mostly done by women in most households. Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 5:52
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    Most cultures assume that if a man had a grudge, he would take overt action. Women's ability to take overt action was restricted by constraints on their political and martial aspirations. (most women were not able to participate politically and there were impediments to martial training). The assumption therefore is that women had to take covert action - which leaves them open to criticisms of witchcraft. This is a comment rather than an answer because I'm uncomfortable with the scope of my generalizations.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 12:27
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    @MarkC.Wallace I think that's an excellent point. Men had violence and political alliances to rely on. Women, no less mean-spirited than men, were presumed to have had to rely on other "powers" to exact their vengeance. I'm sure not a few women themselves believed they could use a supernatural shortcut. Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 14:25

5 Answers 5


Extracts from Kayla Theresa Natrella's Witchcraft and Women: A Historiography of Witchcraft as Gender History mentioned in rougon's answer:

Main claims:

Jules Michelet:

sorceresses filled the role of midwives in every country, and were the only healers for women, because no woman in that period would have consulted or trusted a male physician

Ehrenreich and English:

correlation between the rise of the European medical profession and the persecution of female healers: “for as the number of more or less qualified practitioners rose, so they became more anxious to exclude rivals.”


women were feared as sources of disorder and as sexual beings in a patriarchal society. Barstow saw the sexual themes in demonological texts as proof that man’s fear of women as sexual beings was the underlying rationale for the witch persecutions

she introduces the distinction between sex-related (an act which is predominantly associated with one sex) and sex-specific acts (an act which can only be performed by one sex). She argues that witchcraft is sex-related and suggests that women were more prone to suspicion because men considered the feminine nature to be malicious, sensual, evil, and irrational.

men viewed women’s “life-bearing and menstruating capacities” as mysterious and dangerous, especially if uncontrolled (by men)

Joseph Klaits:

the witch craze’s slaughter of women was the result of the spread of woman-hatred in the spiritually reformed elites

[He] attributes sadism and the appeal of sexuality and violence, to the treatment of accused witches during the witch persecutions

Stuart Clark and Robin Briggs:

the society was one dominated by polarized binary thought. As such, if men are associated with positive attributes, then women must be associated with their negative counterparts. If God is the embodiment of good and the Devil, His polar opposite, then, accordingly, men are innately closer to God and women to the Devil. This is even supported by Eve’s original sin in “Genesis” of the Bible.


wars of religion, disease, and bad harvests due to the “little ice age” already strongly impacted demographics and resources and inspired fear and greater protection of fertility. Furthermore, in such a society, motherhood was the pinnacle of the woman’s life and the ultimate show of success. Since social status correlated so closely with reproductive potential, old women who were past child-bearing years were hated and their barrenness and sexuality regarded with revulsion.

The witch killed babies, ground their corpses into powder, and used that powder to enhance her power. She was the anti-mother.


failure to conceive or carry a fetus to term, as well as masculine impotency, would have been blamed on witchcraft. Since witches attacked women’s abilities to become mothers, then women would naturally have been among the accusers. These witches represented women’s deeply embedded fears and received the blame for inexplicable loss of life, illness, infertility, poor harvest, etc.


women often were illiterate, men would inscribe the depositions that they submitted and may have intervened in the content

the good housewife carefully managed, conserved, and protected the household goods. A woman who infringed upon another woman’s territory was more vulnerable to suspicion of witchcraft, especially if misfortune befell the family.

Early claims written off as "discredited" by the paper:

Margaret Murray:

European witches were the remains of a pre-Christian fertility cult which congregated in covens of thirteen
[...] witches were members of a pre-Christian agrarian cult which influenced the theory that the witch hunt was the Church’s effort completely to eradicate the pagan religion and its worshipper

Mary Daly:

the intent [of European witch hunts] was to break down and destroy strong women, to dis-member and kill the Goddess, the divine spark of be-ing in women” and to “purify society of the existence and of the potential existence of such women.


This is a really good question, although it may end up being a bit broad. What do you mean by "witch hunting years"? While one may be able to deduce consistent trends across witch hunts, one can't be specific, as you could argue that the reasons behind different periods and places that saw an uptick in witch trials had different reasons. Some historians argue that it is general pyschological misogyny based on a mistrust of women, some that it is the patriarchal power structure keeping women from getting out of line, and there are plenty of other explanations out there.

A good overview of how historians have seen it can be seen in this article.

This paper brings in a more class-based dimension to the argument. Both have lots of references and citations for other sources.

If you have access to academic databases, here's a scholarly article.

Here's a lighter list-style article from Huffington Post.

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    The first article which you claim to be "a good overview of how historians have seen it" makes the outrageous claim that 9 million witches were killed, when wikipedia lists multiple sources estimating about 50 thousand. And thus uninformed hysteria continues... Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 3:42
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    If that is in there, good point. I don't even see how such a figure could be arrived at with such fragmentary data! However, the article is a good overview of the different arguments of how historians have theorized the reason for the gender disparity in witch trials. I don't see the hysteria you are mentioning, but this surely is a topic that has been exaggerated by some.
    – rougon
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 3:45
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    @AleksandrDubinsky I cannot find that the article actually claims that 9 million witches were killed. It does state that estimates amounting to that number "led early feminists [...] to wonder," if the witch-hunt was an intentional woman hunt. It does not cite the source of this alleged claims. - But I only skimmed the text and did a few quick searches, so I might have missed something. - So yes, the text is rather bad, scientifically, but not necessarily outright wrong. There might have been those claims. Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 6:50

Wikipedia has biographies of many victims of witch trials. I would suggest to study them rather to rely on often biased essays about feminism, communism, or whatnot. I wish I had the time to compile some statistics, but it seems to me that the accusers were often the same gender as the accused (of which were more than a few men, contrary to your assumptions), and much younger. Most were married (contrary to my own assumptions prior to researching this), but were often on their second or third marriage. I don't believe misogyny had much to do with it. If I had to pick an -ism, it would be ageism. Very often, the accusers had personal animosity or business interests against the accused.

I would venture to say that the primary reason witches were women was simple cultural momentum. Once the meme started (and the real question is how it started), it simply continued. For example, modern, professional fortune tellers are stereotypically women. It's not because fortune tellers are hated or that men don't want to make money. Cultural momentum.

It is hard to draw universal conclusions, of course. In Salem, in particular, all the accusers were young girls who had worked themselves up into a froth against some old woman they didn't like. Elsewhere, there were often real fortune tellers/con-artists/prostitutes being burned. But a large chunk of witches were actually netted in after another "witch" "ratted them out" under torture. The prisoner would name women, men, anyone they thought the executioner would like to hear.

But ultimately, we need to face the gender difference that women are, at least today in Western society, more superstitious than men. For example, take the Reiki Association whose members are listed online. (I am linking to this list for scholarly reasons, not to harass or intimidate anyone.) Reiki was created by men. The Reiki Association was founded by a man. But most of the listed Reiki masters are women. User Mark C. Wallace pointed out that men could solve disagreements with violence or politics, while women could not. Therefore, women tried to use magic to exact their vengeance. Just maybe, more of the "magic-users" (and there were plenty of people who tried to use magic) actually were women. (This would cover the fraction of witch trial victims against whom were leveled somewhat truthful allegations. A fraction, as explained above, that was larger in some periods/places but much smaller in others.)

  • 5
    I don't think that we should throw out historical inquiries in favor of Wikipedia biographies and a nebulous concept like "cultural momentum." Likewise, there is not evidence that suggests that women are (or have been) more superstitious than men. Especially when we're talking about the whole of Early Modern history.
    – rougon
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 15:03
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    I think it's nebulous because I don't know what you mean by "culture," much less how you measure "momentum."
    – rougon
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 15:17
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    "But ultimately, we need to face the gender difference that women are, at least today in Western society, more superstitious than men." Is this type of analysis really a historical analysis?
    – user151841
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 16:30
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    This answer is nothing but speculation.
    – ajd
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 0:13
  • @AlexanderDunlap I think the final paragraph on how the woman witch meme started is mostly speculation, but the observations about who the accused and accusers were, is not. Reading the biographies and the articles they link to paints a picture that is at odds with common feminist-centric and equally speculative explanations that were unnecessarily cited by the other people answering. If a real historian comes here to give a detailed and fair picture, I'll delete my whole answer. Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 0:48

Prof Brian A Paclav (King's College, Wilkes-Barre) writes ("Witch Hunts in Europe from 1400 to 1800" ):

The majority of accused and executed were female, yet also old, living alone (whether widowed or spinster), and poor.

Women had lower social standing, were less influential, and therefore could be more easily scapegoated. (Sadly, still have, are, and can be).

Humanity has a long tradition of finding scapegoats for society's ills among those without the power to strike back: the poor, the disadvantaged, those on the fringes without protection. Women (particularly unmarried/widowed), the disabled, the mentally ill, immigrants, even children.

Deborah Hyde, a specialist in the history of supernatural belief and who has studied European and African witch hunts, concluded in an article about Nigeria's witch children.:

paranoia and scapegoating ... are the primary features of a witch hunt, things which come from the social and economic circumstances at large


I do genealogy and discovered several ancestors who were accused as witches, including a man, so I have done a fair amount of research on it. Most of my knowledge is of 17th America--Hartford and Salem. A lot of it has to do with the Puritans' belief in the devil--he was active in their everyday world and women were more susceptible to his charms. Add that to high infant mortality, crop failures, Indian uprisings, etc. and you have scapegoating--someone's to blame. Yes, more older women, a few rich women, a few men were accused. Some references: http://mentalfloss.com/article/55276/17-signs-youd-qualify-witch-1692 https://www.cga.ct.gov/2006/rpt/2006-R-0718.htm

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