The long and underappreciated history of male witches - and the countries where more men were prosecuted for witchcraft
Double, double, toil, and trouble: fire burn, and cauldron bubble. The figure of the witch looms large in our cultural subconscious. She stalks our folklore and fairy tales, eating children, and cursing the good. She haunts our horror films and fright nights, cooing over caldrons, and flying to the Sabbat. She can be a good witch, a white witch, or the devil’s disciple. She is archetypal. She is legend. She is a she. From the ‘weird sisters’ of Macbeth to the Grand High Witch of Roald Dahl, and the wizarding world of Harry Potter, the gendering of the witch seems absolute. Witches are women. Except when they’re not, of course. The male witch has a very long and underappreciated history indeed. Fiction is one thing, but the mythology of the witch can also spill over into what we think of as historical fact. So entrenched is the belief that witches are women that radical feminist Mary Daly once called the witch hunts that swept across early modern Europe a ‘woman’s holocaust’. But, the history of the witch trials is far more complex. Not only were many thousands of men tried and executed as witches, but in countries like Normandy, Estonia, Burgundy, Russia and Iceland, more men than women were prosecuted for witchcraft. Even Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s infamously misogynistic witch-hunting manual, the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ (1486) acknowledges the existence of male witches. Although Kramer and Springer believed "a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men", they still devote an entire section to three types of witchcraft practised by men, the most important of which was magical archery (shooting at crucifixes and that type of thing.)
In Iceland, between 1625 and 1685, 92 per cent of those prosecuted for witchcraft were men, the most infamous trial being that of a father and son named Jón Jónsson in 1655, known as the Kirkjuból witch trial. When the Reverend Jón Magnússon began waking in the night to the sensation of cats and mice crawling over his feet, of a dog with red hot claws pinning his body to the bed, he had no doubt that he had been bewitched. What was more, Magnússon was certain he knew who was behind his torment. When his night terrors began, the older Jón Jónsson, while drunk, had admitted he had sent a spirit to taunt the reverend. Magnússon became convinced that the father and son were cursing him because a few weeks earlier he had been forced to reprimand the younger Jónsson for punching a woman in church. This was all the evidence Magnússon needed that the Jónssons were out to get him and he took his case to the sheriff in Súðavík. Magnússon claimed the Jón Jónssons were possessed by the devil and called upon various members of his family to testify to his suffering. The father and son were ordered to publicly swear an oath to God that they had never colluded with the devil and that they would renounce any further acts of witchcraft. Initially, everyone was happy with the ruling, but when Magnússon’s night terrors continued the Jón Jónssons were brought back to trial. Unable to produce enough witnesses to testify to their innocence, the Jónssons were thrown in jail and after seven months they were willing to confess their crimes. Not only did they confess to tormenting Magnússon in his sleep, but also to keeping a book of spells, killing cattle, poisoning beer, and creating ‘Fretrúnir’, or fart runes – a powerful curse that causes its victim to fart uncontrollably. For their crimes, both men were burned at the stake on April 10, 1656. Overall, between 1625 and 1683, around 130 people were brought before Icelandic courts accused of witchcraft. Of that 130, 21 were executed – 20 men and one woman.
In Russia, approximately 75 per cent of those accused of witchcraft were men. Explanations for this vary from Russian Orthodox Christianity’s interpretation of witchcraft to the influence of Viking colonisation, but when historian Valerie A. Kivelson analysed 250 Russian witchcraft trails she found that a significant subset of the accused were itinerants known as the ‘guliashchie liudi’, or ‘wandering people’; minstrels, monks, seasonal labourers, peddlers, freed slaves, and so forth. Although women could be wanderers as well, men were far more likely to roam the country looking for work and it seems that this social subset were heavily stigmatised and therefore more closely associated with witchcraft than any other. Between 1564 and 1660, over 70 per cent of the 380 known witchcraft defendants in Rouen, Normandy were men. In Normandy, the archetypical witch was not an old woman or a wanderer, but a shepherd. In fact, nearly half the men accused of witchcraft in the Pays de Caux region of Normandy were shepherds (28 out of 59). As late as 1703, the Rouen Parliament sentenced three shepherds to be burned to death for "having broken down a church door at night and carried off some Hosts from the tabernacle as well as holy water from the baptismal fonts". Why shepherds? No one is quite sure, but it is thought that their association with the wolves that hunt their flocks and the long nights spent out in the wilds had something to do with it.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not), clergymen account for around 10 per cent of those tried for witchcraft in 17th century Normandy, and at least six priests were executed in Rouen between 1598 and 1647. In Britain, around 80 per cent of those accused of witchcraft were women, but on 27 August 1645, we also executed a priest. The Reverend John Lowes of Brandeston, Suffolk was 80-years-old when his parishioners had him arrested for witchcraft. A cantankerous and deeply unpopular preacher, this wasn’t the first time Lowes had fallen foul of his neighbours’ anger, but it was the first time he had come under the authority of the self-styled ‘Witch Finder General’, Matthew Hopkins. In just two short years, Hopkins is believed to have overseen the arrest and execution of 300 people on trumped-up charges of witchcraft. He was paid handsomely for every witch he uncovered, and although torture was illegal, Hopkins was prepared to break the law to secure a confession.
Records tell us that Hopkins "kept [Lowes] awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath… till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did". Unable to make him confess to witchcraft, Hopkins took Lowes to Framlingham Castle to be ‘swum’ in the moat. It was believed that water would reject a witch as unclean, so they would float. If the victim sank, they were innocent and quite probably dead. How many times Lowes was dunked into the water is not known, but it was this that broke him, and he confessed to having made a pact with the devil, to sinking ships, and to "many other heinous, wicked, and accursed acts, but the help of six imps". Lowes was one of 18 people who were executed for witchcraft at Bury St. Edmund on the same day. There is no denying that, generally speaking, far more women than men were accused of witchcraft, but this does not mean that we should overlook the many thousands of men who were also called a witch. What it meant to be a witch is far more complicated than gender alone. Our ancestors lived in a world of superstition and magic, and to them, there was no denying the existence of the male witch. They were very real indeed.