Emotions, Gender and Selfhood

Dr Laura Kounine, University of Sussex


In Imagining the Witch, I aim not to look at why witches were persecuted in a particular locality, what the institutional structures in place were which facilitated – or hindered – witchcraft persecutions, which has been the focus of many other (excellent) studies on the early modern witch-hunts. Rather, I wanted to use witch-trials as a lens to explore emotions, gender, and selfhood in early modern Germany.

More than any other crime, witchcraft was the crime that preoccupied the imagination in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There were an estimated 100,000 trials for witchcraft in Europe between 1500-1750, around half of which occurred in the Holy Roman Empire alone. Witchcraft was a crime of unbridled passion: it centred on the notion that one person’s emotions could have tangible and deadly physical consequences. Moreover, the crime of witchcraft centred on questions of identity: who are you? Are you good or are you evil? The crux of the trial was based on revealing a person’s ‘true’ self, and was premised on the moral question of what kind of person would commit such a crime. It was also an overwhelmingly gendered crime: approximately three quarters of those tried for witchcraft in the Holy Roman Empire were women. The criminal ‘identity’ of the witch thus brought into focus questions about gender, emotions, the body and selfhood.

Recent lines of enquiry on the early modern witch, for instance in the seminal work of Lyndal Roper and Diane Purkiss, have elucidated why a woman might confess to being a witch, and what psychological investment they may have made in taking on this identity. They focus on why it was women who were over-represented in the early modern witch trials, and demonstrate how the ‘witch’ could represent the ‘anti-mother’ or the ‘anti-housewife’. In my own research, I was drawn in a different direction. I was fascinated by how those put on trial for witchcraft – women and men – could find strategies to defend themselves against this charge, and resist the identity of the witch being imposed on them. Almost half of witchcraft trials in early modern Europe did not end on in execution. In the Lutheran duchy of Württemberg in southwestern Germany, where my study is based, there were around 350 witch trials, 197 of which ended in execution. A trial for witchcraft, much less an accusation, was not an inevitable road to the stake. Not all those put on trial for witchcraft ultimately confessed to this crime. My history of witchcraft, then, is a history of resistance.

Moreover, while it is clear that the witch persecutions were an overwhelmingly gendered phenomenon, they were not exclusively targeted at women. In Germany, the heartland of the witch-craze, men made up approximately 20 to 25 per cent of those tried for witchcraft. One of the key aims of my book, then, is to examine what ‘gender’ meant, and how it shaped and constituted experience for men and women caught up in witchcraft trials. It explores how men and women sought to defend themselves on trial, as well as the ways in which numerous witnesses presented evidence, looking for the variegated and at times conflicting identifications in establishing someone as a ‘good’ as opposed to ‘evil’ man or woman. By approaching witch-trials from this angle, then, I attempt to challenge the prevailing understanding of witchcraft as a crime of the ‘other’, in that this argument rests on the premise that there were binary—and deeply gendered—models of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour. Indeed, the trial narratives show that what constituted evil or good was not always distinguishable or definable. The fear surrounding the witch lay in the very fact that it was not easy to categorically say whether someone was evil or not; the threat did not lie in their ‘otherness’ but rather their very sameness.

Witch-trials are fascinating sources for the historian. In a period where material documenting most ordinary people’s lives, and in particular ordinary women’s lives, are rare, trial records afford a glimpse into the lives of common folk. They are also sites of deception and temptation, however, and despite the riches buried within them, can mislead the historian in the thinking that we are getting an unmediated view of the ‘voice’ or ‘self’ of the common folk.

In this book, then, I wanted to think carefully about how historians can approach records of the ‘self’. I wanted to move beyond histories of emotions and gender that had stayed at the level of discourse – and which had, to great effect, illuminated what the terms ‘man’, ‘woman’, or ‘emotion’ had meant in different contexts and cultures. But I wanted to think about how we could get to the level of subjective experience. That is, how did discourses impact on individuals; what agency did people have; and how did they understand, or experience, being a man or a woman. Gender and emotions are – in part – cultural constructions, but they are also a subjective experience, grounded in the human body. The aim of my work is not to search for a person’s fixed, unchanging ‘core’ self, but rather to investigate how, in the process of giving an account of oneself, a person’s psyche traversed and negotiated cultural landscapes, when a person capitulated to cultural norms and when they attempted to resist, and how a person could appropriate cultural – official, local, and familial – categories in an attempt to revise and survive a particular situation. Culture and language are crucial, but so are the body, the psyche and the notion that people have – and had, in the early modern period – some capacity to resist.

This is particularly important for the early modern period, where debates have raged over the extent to which early modern people did or did not have a ‘self’ in the sense of our modern understandings of the term. Here I hope to reframe the questions we are asking of past peoples. When people confessed to witchcraft in seventeenth-century Germany, they did not necessarily give accounts of themselves that conform to modern notions of individuality, but they nonetheless developed narratives of themselves through their relationship with God, their family, and their community. A central argument of my book, therefore, is that it is more productive to think about the ways in which people gave accounts of themselves at precise historical moments, giving meaning to idioms of self and conscience, than to chase the shadows of the individualized self. Moreover, it is less useful to have a notion of personhood, subjectivity, or identity that implies a homogeneous set of ideas, a fixed self-image, and consistent ways of behaving than it is to think of people entertaining and performing different, shifting identifications. While the interrogators thus wished to create a fixed ‘identity’ of the witch during confession, the trials often reveal a far more dynamic process of identifications which could be assimilated or contested. This set of identifications was negotiated and defined by the accused, their defenders and their interrogators. Indeed, once we move beyond the argument over whether and to what extent early modern persons had a ‘self ’ in our modern understanding of the term, we can begin instead to think about strategies with which people articulated their person – even when, especially under strain, this was an unconscious act. Here, we can borrow Natalie Zemon Davis’s use of the term ‘self-fashioning’, in which people in a particular situation tried ‘to survive, to cope, to improvise, to take the best advantage of the possibilities offered’.

This book sets about challenging binaries: between men and women, good and ‘others’, premodern and modern. I believe that the way in which historians can do this is to use categories such as emotions, gender, and the self as lenses: as categories of historical inquiry that are used to ask questions, rather than to confirm answers.


Imagining the Witch: Emotions, Gender and Selfhood in Early Modern Germany 
is available from Oxford University Press

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About the Author:  Dr Laura Kounine is Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sussex. She is the co-editor of Cultures of Conflict and Resolution in Early Modern Europe (Ashgate, 2015)Emotions in the History of Witchcraft (Palgrave, 2017) and the online platform History of Emotions – Insights into Research. She is also the author of Imagining the Witch: Emotions, Gender and Selfhood in Early Modern Germany (Oxford University Press, 2018).

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