Instant expert

March 31, 2006

Witchcraft and Masculinities in the Early Modern World, Essex University, Wivenhoe House, Colchester. April 21 to 23, 2006. Fees, £40 for full conference (£20 for postgraduate students). Full conference paclage, £216 including two nights' accomodation and food

What is it about? This conference, hosted by Essex University's history department, looks at the forgotten story of male witches. Despite the popular image of witches being female, up to a quarter of those people convicted of witchcraft were men. In the years between 1450 and 1750, up to 15,000 men across Europe were executed as witches. As an item on the agenda sums it up: "It's a case of 'not the usual suspects'."

Women's rites: Speakers will consider why male witches have previously had such little academic investigation. Among the theories under discussion will be that witchcraft has usually been studied in terms of male attitudes towards women - with the killing of witches being interpreted as a form of institutionalised misogyny. And if witch-hunting has been seen as a demonisation of aspects of femininity, then male witches don't really fit in this version of events. As such, "their presence among the victims of witch persecution has been played down by historians: either ignored entirely, dismissed as less relevant than that of women or treated as exceptional. This international conference seeks to redress the balance".

Salem of the century: The famous witch trials in 17th-century Massachusetts included male as well as female suspects. The witch- hunt led to the deaths of 19 of the accused, including an 80-year-old farmer, Giles Corey, who refused to enter a plea and was crushed to death with stones. His wife, another suspect, was hanged.

Witch guide: The conference is held in an area that was particularly zealous in its pursuit of witches. Matthew Hopkins operated in East Anglia as the "Witch- Finder Generall" during the Puritan ascendancy that followed the English Civil War. One of his early career successes came in a village near Colchester, when he overheard a group of women "chatting to the devil". His testimony resulted in 19 of the women being hanged. As if that weren't bad enough, his exploits were turned into a dodgy horror film starring Vincent Price.

That old black magic: The female image of witches switches between old hags and sultry temptresses, and there will also be discussion about the link between sexual anxiety and the "witch craze" that gripped the east of England in the 17th century. Were men projecting their suppressed sexual fears on to women and calling them witches? What did male witches look like? The conference will examine when the popular image of witches became so strongly associated with women.

Ergot argot: One of the theories for the behaviour that triggered waves of witch paranoia across Europe and colonial America is that witch-related "possession" was a form of ergot poisoning. Ergot, a fungus parasitic on grains, contains lysergic acid, from which LSD is synthesised. It can cause hallucinations and hysteria when consumed through contaminated bread. So when communities witnessed large numbers of people in the grip of strange and inexplicable behaviours, they called in the local witch-hunters, rather than the health and safety officials.

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