In the late middle ages, an increasing amount of people were under the impression that magic was wrong. The Church felt that there was an increase of opposition to their ways, as there were more heretical groups in action as well as numerous people dying due to the plague. In 1427, a friar by the name of Bernardino of Siena spoke of the perils of witchcraft and magic:
The friar spoke against various sins of pride, one of which was the use of charms and divination. When people use such things, he said, they are renouncing God and worshiping the Devil. Even counter magic is evil: anyone who knows how to break the force of charms knows also how to work them. When such people say they only wish to cure the sick, one should cry out “To the flames! To the flames!”… Anyone who knew of such witches and failed to report them to an inquisitor would be responsible on the Day of Judgment for this omission. 1
Accounts such as these were plentiful, and they spread like wild fire throughout Europe. The more people heard of witch trials, the more witches seemed to be feared and thusly the more trials seemed to occur. Also, the majority of those being persecuted as witches were women.
The reasons behind this trend are not entirely unclear. One explanation as to why so many women were persecuted was the popular idea that women were often the ones who used herbs and charms that aided in healing. Also, the misogynistic attitude of medieval Europe helped. Women were seen as weak in intellect and will power, which would mean they would be more likely to turn towards Devil worship and witchcraft for their own personal gain. This also meant they would be less able to resist allegations of witchcraft. Of course this would lead to the assumption that since so many women were seen as witches and practitioners of magic, they were the only ones who practiced it. However, there were also many men in Europe who practiced magic and witchcraft.
Although it was women who were stereotyped as the healers, many men were also healers. Early medieval monks studied medicine and gave medicinal assistance to those both within and outside of their monasteries. They also “would use mandrake for its mysterious curative powers, and they might also use charms to drive away the ‘elves’ that were causing sickness.”2 The thirteenth century brought about the rise of the University, where many men could learn medical theory and eventually become a licensed Physician. However, this medical theory was often based on medical manuals which were magical in origin.
With the introduction of the Arabic teachings, more men were inclined to study certain variations of magic, such as astrology, which would lead to the study of horoscopes and divination. The studying of horoscopes went hand in hand with medical studies, as heavenly bodies were thought to have an effect on those on earth, and many universities wouldn’t allow anyone to receive a degree in medicine without first passing a course in astrology. Alchemy was also an occult science with a foundation in philosophy from the East that many men studied extensively, in hopes of turning lead into a magical “cure-all” elixir, or gold.
Men were also known to practice more sinister or “evil” variations of magic, namely, necromancy. Necromancers were educated men, with at least a basic knowledge of Latin within the clerical world. Sometimes, a young priest may turn to the study of magic after the daily requirements of priesthood were seen to. Other times, a cleric would become an exorcist, and receive a book on exorcisms. Instead of using the book to exorcise demonic powers, he may go off course and use the book to invoke them instead. The only difference between an exorcist and a necromancer was their involvement with demonic forces. One tried to expel demons while the other tried to appease them and use them for their own means. However, both exorcists and necromancers “used the terms ‘exorcise,’ conjure’, and ‘adjure’ interchangeably.”3
A necromancer could do a variety of things to a person. He might afflict someone with a demon that could prevent a person from doing something (i.e., eating, sleeping, etc.) until they have done the bidding of the necromancer. A necromancer also had the ability to create illusions to take him someplace, like a boat or to entertain guests, perhaps with a banquet. He could raise and animate the dead, or make the living appear as dead. A necromancer could also learn secrets of the past, present and future by ways of divinatory necromancy. This way, a necromancer would be aware of events and things that were otherwise unknown, such as the fate of a sick friend or the identity of a thief.
Although both men and women practiced a variety of magic, it goes unnoticed that for the most part, men avoided the persecution otherwise suffered by women for practicing magic. In the 14th and 15th century, the amount of women being tried as witches was almost double the amount of men. In the following centuries, regardless of the obvious trend and monopoly on certain aspects of magic, more and more women were persecuted while more and more men escaped trial.
1. Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. United Kingdom, Cambridge University, 1989. 194-195.
2. Kieckhefer, 57-58
3. Kieckhefer, 166