On women as heretics

Christine Caldwell Ames considers whether inquisitions particularly targeted women.



Christine Caldwell Ames considers whether inquisitions particularly targeted women.


Women are subjects particularly of the Spanish Inquisition, more so than medieval inquisitions. And the Middle Ages was in many ways not a friend to women, in terms of their spirituality, in terms of women as religious actors in a kind of autonomous way. But nevertheless, if we look through trial transcripts of the first part of the medieval inquisitions – again, the 13th century, the 14th century – we don’t see an overwhelming number of women who are being charged as heretics. There are some very famous women, of course, who are charged with heresy in the Middle Ages. Visionary women for example, who maintain that they are beyond the bounds of church strictures, church laws, because they have had direct revelation from God. But they tend to be unusual in the Middle Ages.

When the church becomes more concerned about witchcraft, which doesn’t really happen actually until the 15th century, that’s when we start to see more women who are brought into trials. And the Spanish Inquisition will focus on women for a sort of curious reason. Since the Spanish Inquisition focuses on Conversos – that is, again, converted Jews who are believed to have still remained with their former Jewish faith – we see a lot of the questions of the Spanish Inquisition centre around domestic tasks. Things that people are eating, things that they’re cooking, because so much of the fear is that these new Christians, as they’re called, are falling back to Jewish practices. And so we do see, actually, a lot of women investigated by the Spanish Inquisition for that reason. But we do have more a gender balance in the earlier part of the inquisitions.