The perceived threat to established norms inherent in the idea that women were moving beyond their expected societal roles is also mirrored in a number of the accusations levelled against male witches.

One example, a 13th-century letter by Pope Gregory IX, described a gathering of heretics which was very similar to the later descriptions of the witches’ sabbath. It stated that at orgies, if there were not enough women, men would engage in “depravity” with other men. In doing so, they were seen to become effeminate, subverting the natural laws believed to govern sexuality.

Magic was then, in many ways, viewed by the church as an expression of rebellion against established norms and institutions, including gendered identities.

The idea that women might have been dabbling with the demonic magic previously associated with educated males, however inaccurate it may have been, was frightening. Neither men nor women were allowed to engage with demons, but while men stood a chance at resisting demonic control because of their education, women did not.

Their perceived lack of intelligence, together with contemporary notions regarding their “passions”, meant that they were understood as more likely to make pacts of “fidelity to devils” whom they could not control – so in the eyes of the medieval church, women were more easily disposed to witchcraft than men.

Jennifer Farrell is a lecturer in medieval history at the University of Exeter. This article first appeared on The Conversation (