Making the path steeper: Feminist, Freudian and psychological slants on witchcraft history

Dave Evans

My title hints that these perspectives have at least partially hindered progress in our understanding of witches in history. In this article I examine psychoanalysis, feminism and psychology, making a clear distinction between psychology and the psychoanalysis constructed by Freud because his system is unique and largely separate from the mainstream. As with other converted academic essays on this site, the stringent referencing has been removed for reasons of space; if you need the citations in detail drop me an email and you can have the original word file. 

How is it that a clinical method- psychoanalysis can be used for historic purposes? There is not space here for a detailed examination of Freud. However it is necessary to cover the underlying theory to understand how it may be focused upon a historical document, rather than a live patient. In the consulting room, psychoanalysis functions by the patient expressing random thoughts (called ‘free association’) to uncover unarticulated and clinically relevant material from the ‘unconscious’ mind. Because of its psychic incompatibility with conscious thought this component is normally hidden. This term, Psychic, is used throughout the essay in the meaning of ‘pertaining to the self, or mind’ rather than the ‘mystical powers’ interpretation Problems in this process, such as stuttering, indicate the importance of the material struggling to be expressed. This was stolen by Freud from the Early Modern ‘proof of guilt’ notion where the truth ‘stops the throat’; e.g. in Macbeth- “wherefore could I not pronounce ‘Amen?’ I had most need of blessing and ‘Amen’ stuck in my throat”. 

Unlike his former colleagues Charcot and Breuer, Freud concluded that the central source of resisted material was sexual. Using ‘evidence’ from literature and myth Freud interpreted that source in terms of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, and the various familial intertwinings in Shakespeare. He believed that such tales must relate to an historic and thus globally hereditary event that must be recapitulated in order to develop. Recapitulation is the formerly very important ‘scientific’ notion of evolutionary recapitulation, where each race and individual goes through stages of development, and the theory is now happily discredited E.g. the recapitulist view is that since Negroid races resemble monkeys more than European races, then Negroes must be further down the evolutionary scale, and thus can be treated as animals. Meanwhile, back in the 21st century... 

This universality was believed to lie in the desire of every male child to sleep with his mother and remove the obstacle to the realization of that wish, his father. This ‘Oedipus complex’ presents the child with a critical problem, such an unrealisable desire invoking an imagined response on the part of the father- an implicit threat of castration. The phallocentricity was accentuated by an assumption of ‘penis envy’ in the already (symbolically) castrated female; plus an additional Electra complex (again derived from mythology) for girls. 

Freud himself extended his model to various spheres, including witchcraft, where he saw trial records as empirical clinical evidence of hysteria. Others have used Freudian ideas to analyse film, UFOs, architecture and literature. Whether this is remotely valid in any field is debatable. Documents (or buildings, or films, or flying saucers) cannot ‘free-associate’ (but, tellingly; those examining them can) and when applied by an untrained ‘psychoanalyst’, e.g. the historian Lyndal Roper, the method must be viewed as profoundly suspect; it’s like trying to do archaeology with semtex while blindfolded. 

Since the process relies upon introspection it is problematic how limited and biased historical records can be treated as modern clinical notes would be; given the doubts as to their veracity, accuracy, lack of inherent bias by the scribes, leading questions and pure fabrication often involved. That many witchcraft accusations at the time were full of lurid and objectively unlikely sexual fantasies is something, which does need to be psychologically addressed, but psychoanalysis is not the correct tool for this. Roper makes a comparison between an elective and (hopefully) educated modern-day choice to enter some form of psychotherapy and perhaps suffer occasional, but healing, psychic pain on the hoped-for road to recovery versus arrest and physical torture of the 16th century witch with the very likely prospect of death to follow. This would seem both offensive to witches and modern patients; only serving to obscure a highly emotive area. 

Were these the only problems with an otherwise credible method of enquiry then they could perhaps be surmounted. However there have been numerous attacks on Freud from within his own profession, which fill several books. In brief, Freudian analysis seems to be an edifice founded on sand; and it is worthless. 

Freud produced a universal theory of child and adult sexuality while dealing with a very limited sample of Viennese adults and never treating a child. It is worth repeating that for emphasis. FREUD NEVER TREATED A CHILD. This would be magnitudes worse than propounding a theory of French history based on hearsay, without ever reading a book on France. Freud also uncovered and then hid evidence of childhood abuse suffered by his adult clients; while incidentally failing to treat it; since their symptoms of being sexually abused by adults also fitted his Oedipus-Electra model. To recognise and treat their real conditions would have weakened his theoretical work, and negated his fame. Real-life cases with Oedipal symptoms, which were not due to Freud’s mythic theories, would have given an alternative view to what was supposed to be a universal and exclusive theory. 

Such cruel arrogance in a supposed medical professional today would probably result in a jail term and furore in the press. There is considerable academic and personal vitriol in historical circles against Margaret Murray for some rather selective and suspect data manipulation (see separate essay), however by comparison; Freud’s crimes are astronomical in scope and effect. At the risk of labouring my Anti-Freudism- autism, under Freud, was blamed on poor emotional connection to the child by the parents during early infancy; leading to generations of very guilt-stricken and psychologically-damaged families; who felt they ‘should have done better’. Nowadays autism is seen by many scientists as very localised neural damage; and nothing to do with concepts of emotionality or blame.

Anthropologically it is neither a universal nor eternal theory, as Freud claimed, otherwise all non-Western civilisations would be pathologised by his model. Hmmm…. The Oedipus complex has been viewed as a metaphor for the deeper struggle between natural desire of individuals and cultural authority of a group or nation, but this is still a convoluted attempt to fit a ‘square peg’ model to ‘round hole’ data… a metaphor that Freudians would have a field day with, by the way… Freud simply stole many of his ideas from mythology, later citing these myths as ‘proof’ of the universality and eternal nature of his discoveries.

During his theoretical period, which was much of his working life (he treated very small numbers of patients; his theories coming from a non-empirical ‘thought-experiments’ and introspection; arguably influenced by the cocaine and other mind-altering drugs such as mescaline) Freud was profoundly addicted to drugs, especially cocaine. Among other things, this addiction tends to manifest in grandiosity, delusional thinking and paranoia. Hence the bile with which he repelled critics of his immense unifying theories. Any criticism of Freudian analysis nowadays can be countered by accusations of relevant symptoms:- for the most part critics are labeled as ‘projecting’ their own sexual neurotic castration fears back onto analysis (and individual analysts), merely in the guise of a critique, thus it is the critic who is at fault, not the analytical theory; which is supposedly perfect and omniscient. Ho hum… There are disturbing echoes here of mediaeval notions of heresy; where the Bible was simply not to be criticised or discussed, under pain of death. Freudian analysis has no referents in other sciences, in the same way that, for example, biology underpins chemistry in part, and physics supports them both, and is thus not falsifiable under the empirical logical criteria of Karl Popper unlike most other accepted scientific notions. Freudian analysts have precisely the same ‘cure rate’ when they first qualify as when they have been in practice for thirty years. In every other field there is some kind of ‘expert effect’, e.g.- a newly-qualified medical doctor, engineer, teacher etc. should not be as talented or experienced as one of many years’ practice, whose results should reflect his expertise. Not so in Freudian analysis. These points throw doubt on the veracity and utility of the entire method for ANY purposes; other than as to set a sobering example of how not to do science. However, as with many other discredited ideas, if something is prominent in language for long enough it spreads, regardless. ‘Freudian slip’ and ‘ego’ are now everyday terms, and psychoanalytic language has become a metaphorical tool, despite the horrendous flaws in the theory. 

An additional danger of trying to impose a modern idea onto an older culture is that enormous errors appear under the guise of academic authority, thus often remaining unchallenged for decades. E.g. Durkheim (a Catholic) ‘proved’ that Catholics had a far lower rate of suicide than Protestants. With hindsight, ‘real’ suicide rates are similar in all cultures; it is merely the honesty of reporting that differs. This highlights the dangers of taking language at face value without reference to other wider cultural matters, and is expanded on by Kate Hoolu in a forthcoming essay on this site in a while)

The feminist model of the witch-hunt maintains it as yet another example of patriarchal domination of the female; which has characterised much of history. Women were vilified at length in the Malleus but this book has been apparently overestimated in spread and importance at the time. Contemporary writers were certainly negative about women, but of magnitudes less than the bile in the Malleus, and in Scot’s case it was an attempt to protect the accused from a vengeful society. 

Feminists often assert that 9 million witches were executed, a figure which, if not merely plucked from the air, may derive from methodologically unsound extrapolation of data, and seemingly some desire to ‘outscore’ the Jewish holocaust. A more likely figure is far less than 1/10th of that. The more academically-accepted statistic that over 80% of tried witches were women is also read as a reflection of the murderous intent of a male hierarchy. There are some loopholes in this argument; were this totalitarian male conspiracy actually the case we should find numerous consistent statements by many hostile male witnesses. However in surviving records women are prevalent; as victims of witchcraft, as witnesses and as ‘experts’; such as in searching the accused for witch marks. Male witnesses are in the minority; often only as repeaters of hearsay. In much the same way that psychoanalysis can be twisted to deflect any criticisms, feminists may argue this as merely another symptom of the malaise, that women were especially and cruelly forced to testify against their sisters by the male dominated society, and that absence of evidence of male testimony is not evidence of absence; due to missing or fragmentary records. That the judges and examiners were all men would also support the patriarchal notion, but from analysis of legal cases, women were 15 times more likely to be witnesses versus a witch than against a woman accused of a more ‘normal’ felony.

The demonologies were written by men; often male clerics; some of whom may have been celibate. They were probably Biblically-inspired to portray women as the weaker and more corrupt sex. However, accusations leading to trials often derived from women villagers, with seemingly very little crossover between the two camps of peasant accuser and elite demonologist.

Most accused witches were old, ugly women (which was a diagnostic sign at that time, see separate essay, Stereotypical Witch). This would seem to take them beyond the sphere where they would hold any kind of overt sexual role; weakening any relevance of psychoanalysis, and to a lesser extent, feminism; making them more akin to being an socio-economic problem as possibly financially-unsupported widows, too old to work and reliant on charity or alms, in a time when there was no formal ‘welfare state’. 

As Dr Diane Purkiss points out, feminist notions of the witch-hunt are flawed. If the male so hugely disempowered women, then it is unlikely that villagers would have been both so afraid of malefic women witches or willing to consult benefic ones, and the “perpetual witchcraze of patriarchy” is probably thus a modern myth.

So far as psychology that is not Freudian, there may be some more valid pointers to the witch theories. Jung (a pupil of Freud until he disagreed with the sexual theories), developed analytical lines allowing for symbolic and ‘real-life’ elements other than sex to influence the self. Similarly, another ‘Protestant Freudian’; Wilhelm Reich had a massively divergent view of history from Freud. 

Social psychologists, including Brown, Baum, Aronson and EO Wilson have outlined many processes of group action, authority, scapegoating, and how desire for conformity can change behaviours; often in ways that would seem objectively absurd.

A very basic summary of Aronson’s model is that we are motivated not so much to BE right, rather that we are motivated to BELEIVE we are right, which could be parsimoniously applied to every witch trial witness and prosecutor. The other ideas in modern psychology can also be fitted to historical scenarios with considerable credibility. However when used to identify the mentality behind the holocaust of World War 2, they were found greatly wanting in their conclusions. Again there is the problem of projecting techniques back beyond living memory.

It is medically accepted that stressful anger, such as may have been directed at an unwelcome begging old lady (the central motif, “charity refused, followed by misfortune to the refuser”, of many a witch tale) can precipitate illnesses, as can guilt, i.e. at not giving alms; and jumbled reasoning under stress such at the time of facing a venomously cursing ‘beggar denied’. Some witchcraft stories could be attributed to effects of psychoactive substances, whether these be ergotine fungi (a wheat contaminant, common in the period), naturally-occurring psilocybin mushrooms or improperly cooked potatoes. Potatoes are a member of the Solanaceae family, which includes the hallucinogenic-toxic Deadly Nightshade plant; with which raw potato shares some important chemical properties. It is possible that with inexperienced, improper cooking of this novelty ‘new world’ vegetable during the period that some pretty wild poisonings and hallucinations could have occurred. Early modern Europeans also seem to have concepts of madness as distinct from effects of witchcraft, but whether these distinctions were consistent or comprehensive is doubtful. Modern mental health definitions give over fifty discrete conditions, which could all have some referent in witch cases. The following is a brief summary of only a few:

Post-natal depression gives jumbled cognitive processes and delusions, as do more common depressions, especially ‘manic’ forms; and varieties of autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia, which may be relevant in possession cases. Post-traumatic stress leads to vivid audio-visual hallucinations; unpredictable physical immobility and a host of symptoms, which could easily tally to reports of maleficium.

The alleged phenomenon, in the Malleus, of the ‘vanishing’ phallus (i.e. by bewitchment) could be the denial of existence of body parts in haptic illusions after stroke. Haptic means a bodily sensory illusion, deriving from senses other than sight and hearing; the kind of effect where denial of ownership of an arm or leg becomes common. There are numerous other bizarre visual and sensory symptoms in strokes and following peculiar accidental-natural poisonings; which in earlier times could have seemed demonic or malefic; as they are always a major distortion of perception or bodily function. However a huge danger in any post hoc pseudo-diagnosis, especially by non-specialists, using trial statements or other records is that these are far from equivalent to modern clinical written observations, and as I have inferred several times, comparison and assumption of ‘like-for-like’ is easy. Probably too easy. The records were made for non-medical purposes and cannot be regarded as wholly accurate or reliable.

That many statements were made either under-, or under threat of-, torture is important. Spanos, a historical psychologist, sees material transcribed under torture as “worthless as a basis of psychiatric diagnosis”. In addition, Osgood et al describe the inherent difficulties of reliably deciphering third-person reported discourse AT ALL.

There is also the danger, again highlighted by Spanos, that at 400 years distance we generalise so much that one simple model is forced to fit all cases. There is the additional risk that we impose frames of reference on the past, assuming 16th Century and 21st Century psyches to be identical. Unlikely. A devout medieval belief in Angels, witches, God and Demons is a minority view today; but any view held firmly cannot but affect the entire mental life of an individual. We simply have no grounds for comparison in this century. Even Amish communities cannot be seen as a useful model of what 16th Century people were like, simply because they are, although seemingly frozen in time, aware of the modern world.

Also, the reification of witchcraft in the 20th century does not mean that everything called by that name in the 16th Century was the same thing. Equally, psychiatric diagnoses are far from empirical entities; what seems schizophrenia to one psychiatrist may not be to any another. To highlight this: in the 1980s it was possible to ‘cure’ an American schizophrenic simply by putting them on a plane to London; the diagnostic criteria in the UK being different, and lesser, to those in the USA. This emphasises the limited culture- and time-bound nature of any mental health definition. Schizophrenia, in any case, is probably a generic collection of similar conditions or diseases rather than one ‘thing’

A final caveat for the use of modern techniques comes from a leading US psychologist, Beck, who studied hundreds of psychiatrists over several years. He found that psychiatrists have a far less than 50% diagnostic concordance rate between them on the same patients, when they were able to examine them. At times this rate went below 20%. It seems most unlikely that with the added handicap of not being able to interview ‘the patient’ (who has been dead for around 400 years) that psychological assessment of participants in a witch trial, even if the documents used were as good as clinical notes and above reproach (also very unlikely), that they could be any more accurate. 

The mixed contributions made to the understanding of the history of witchcraft made by feminism, psychology and psychoanalysis are all found to be wanting. Feminism (in this case only, I stress) seems to be largely a conspiracy theory with shaky foundations; being especially a gross overestimation of the spread and importance at the time of the Malleus and emotive overstatement of witch deaths to holocaust proportions. This is a personal view- I am not saying 100,000 is somehow “better” than nine million. One death is too many, but that has already happened, and fiddling the figures a few centuries later to suit a hidden agenda is a crime too. It seems that feminism and psychoanalysis are ‘two ends of the same stick’ called gender issues, and they both need eachother as counterpoints. Whether this area of history needs them at all is less certain.

The essay title indicated that these perspectives have at least partially hindered progress in our understanding of witches in history. Freudian psychoanalysis is the big stumbling block, and should remain completely unused in any field due to the grave doubts about the theory, let alone the method. Any form of psychology is almost impossible to use as an historical tool as it rather requires a participant present for interview and whatever testing is needed. Feminism and psychoanalysis can be equally blinkered, unfalsifiable and prone to generalist, explanatory fictions.

The greater use of psychology and feminist theories might be better employed in analysing and identifying the perspectives of those currently DOING the research, rather than the deceased being researched. 

Just as a byline: - It is quite amusing, but as a man and a psychology graduate I could, a priori, have been predicted (by both feminists and Freudians) to have come to precisely these conclusions. This would be regardless of whether both feminism and psychoanalysis are right or wrong. 


These are largely omitted in this version, but the main players in the essay were: 

Purkiss, D. The Witch In History. London: Routledge. 1996.
Roper, L. Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, sexuality and religion in early modern
Europe. London: Routledge. 1994.
Sharpe, J. Instruments of darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750. London: Hamish Hamilton. 1996.
Thornton, E.N. Freud and cocaine: the Freudian fallacy. London: Blond & Biggs. 1983. 

I’ve not done Amazon links for these- try a local library first!