Why ‘Witches were Women Who Knew Math’ Annoys the Heck out of Me

Vivian Yongewa
4 min readJun 27, 2022

To Every Problem, There Is A Solution That is Simple, Easy, and Wrong

  • HL Mencken

Actually, I’m not sure if that was Mencken. He said something similar, at least. But his quote gets to the heart of my complaint: making everything in history simple is wrong. It is particularly wrong when dealing with the witchcraft trials in Europe.

This is an article about how the statement ‘women were burned at the stake because they knew math’ is fractally wrong and needs to die a fiery death.

It Ignores The Guys

Roughly 25% of all the victims of these hunts were male. Some of these men were minorities, like the indigenous folks in Finland. Some of these were flat-out little boys who were defenseless orphans. Many were men who were swept up once the hysteria got good and hot, like the ‘more weight’ guy.

There were places and particular hunts where male victims outnumbered female victims, like in sections of Northern Germany.

Yeah, 25% is a clear minority, and some of these victims were afterthoughts. Often, a woman would be accused of witchcraft, and her husband would then face accusations too.

It is fair to say that these trials tended to victimize women more than men, but to erase male victims with these simplistic generalizations takes away a lot.

It’s Factually Wrong On Many, Many Levels

Most women throughout history have been taught the math necessary to run the life people expected them to lead.

In the Early Modern era, which is when the hunts were prevalent (really, witchcraft trials are rare until after the Reformation,) most women would know some bookkeeping, addition, subtraction, and, if she was high-class and well-educated, geometry. There is zero correlation between being able to add and winding up on the stand defending yourself from accusations of sinking ships with demonic help.

There is also no correlation between being a midwife and accusations. Midwives were often witnesses for the prosecution, and practically never victims of accusations.

Well-to-do women and a large section of the merchant class of women knew how to read (writing was taught separately, so a much smaller section would be able to write.) Again, no close correlation between that skillset and witchcraft accusations.

You know what was closely correlated?

Poverty. A few noblewomen were accused, (Keppler had to defend his mom a couple times from charges,) but you were way more likely to be accused if your husband was a miller or you were a widow making do by taking in laundry.

Bringing a lot of lawsuits was also a fair indicator. Something about being embroiled with vindictive people tends to bring on nonsensical charges.

Education was, if anything, protective in these circumstances.

It Does Not Serve the Feminist Cause At All

There is a certain reductive way of viewing women’s place in the past that completely sweeps away nuance and lived reality. That thinking leads to all sorts of weird pretzel logic:

“Women were killed for knowing math, so having a womb means you will be unable to think logically!” Lise Meitner and a slew of other women would beg to differ. My sister the chemist would beg to differ. Also, did you just read above how the biggest determiner of if you would be victimized is poverty? Weirdly, this hasn’t stopped many women from being poor.

“Feminine intuition was suppressed but magically was better, therefor hate science!” The fact that midwives lost one in eight of their patients means nothing. The fact that they were not using magically different ideas from their male counterparts means nothing. Definitely don’t look at the heartbreaking record.

“The emphasis on women was an attempt by the e-eeevilll (insert derogatory slur) to kill the pure white race!” This is a theory that has been put out. If I have to explain why this is dumb, I cannot help you. You are far too far around the bend.

It Lets off Some of The Real Villains

It is not a coincidence that the bulk of the witch hunt craze happened after the Reformation. It is not a coincidence that the bulk of these hunts happened where Protestantism and Catholicism tended to rub shoulders. When the two religions wanted to prove that they were the right way to heaven and were really taking the fight to the devil, they ‘proved’ it by accusing the vulnerable of consorting with devils.

It is also not a coincidence that witch hunts started in places already trammeled by the Hundred Year War and just barely recovering in a deeply changed economy. People become inclined to magical thinking and flipping out when they are under constant stress and don’t know what to expect. (If that sounds familiar, well…we have seen an increase in magical thinking, now haven’t we?)

The belief that they were uniquely under attack and so were excused from using normal, reality-bound court procedures in these cases was a factor.

The social and economic realities that rendered women more vulnerable to charges, such as institutionalized sexism that gave husbands ‘coverture’ over their wives, were factors.

The way the law courts worked and the penal code worked were factors. I mean, there were a lot of places where the king or the accuser got the accused’s property, and witchfinders were paid to make accusations.

And Sets Us Up To Do It Again

The problem with these types of narratives is that it gives people the notion that, since many women graduate with biology degrees, the fight is over, and we are in the most equal society ever.

Putting aside the big ol’ slap in the face we all just got, this narrative means that we ignore other vulnerable folks. It means we merrily traipse off into the next moral panic with zero self-awareness. We’re not accusing nice ladies who do math of witchcraft, so it is totally legitimate to forward that Facebook meme without fact checking or to demand a lowering of evidential rules for some cases.

Stop it, people. Stop it.

Vivian Yongewa

Writes for content farms and fun. Has an AU historical mystery series on Kindle.