Howdy, folks! There's been a few cool discussions looking at responsible gaming w/r/t inclusivity here recently - Colleen's thread on the Transvestite Flaw, @dc444's thread on disability-friendly design, @Zaleramancer's post on faerie stereotypes, @Corteia's post on alternate directions for sagas that accommodate players, @Marko_Markoko's posting on the religion thread, and prob a ton of others that I can't name offhand. All of them have been really interesting and I felt moved to contribute by doing what historians in Current Year do best and point out that even beyond just talking about changing history in sagas or historical "outliers/rebels," the engagement of historical societies with these questions tends to be a lot more nuanced than non-experts assume. I admittedly wrote about this already on Colleen's thread but I also (reluctantly) accept that Oghuz warrior epics and trans Mamluks are a bit out there when considering where folks tend to run their sagas. Luckily, Folk Witches turn up in a lot of sagas, so maybe this will be less demonstrative and more immediately practical.
I was looking through my copy of 2019's Routledge Guide to Medieval Magic (if the title isn't enough of a neon sign, highly recommend picking it up for folks running sagas) when I got to one of the contributions written by the collection editor Catherine Rider - Magic and Gender - which served as something of an overview article providing a broad look at the past few decades of research on the topic. It (and the work it cites) has some interesting things to say about our ideas of "women's magic" and why they may be anachronistic. The Folk Witches in Hedge Magic are unquestionably rad, but the writing in that book does fall into this trap as well. While noting that male witches may exist (likely for game purposes) the inset on male witches and the rest of the chapter just takes the feminine coding of this magic as a given. The book says:
Male folk witches are uncommon, and some versions of the folk witch initiations only work on female characters. Some covens are entirely made up of male folk witches, although this is rare.
Dr. Rider's paper near the start does mention why we tend to associate things like flight, love magic, healing, etc with women in this period - a few (later than 1200s) sources that have been heavily drawn on:
The idea that women were especially likely to do magic appears in some very well-known medieval sources. One of the most notorious and most often quoted is the Malleus Maleficarum, written in 1486 by two inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer (also known as Institoris) and Jakob Sprenger, to describe the comparatively new crime of diabolical witchcraft...According to Kramer and Sprenger, this connection between magic and lust made women more likely than men to do all kinds of magic, but it also made them especially likely to do magic in order to control love and sex – arousing love, causing impotence or infertility, or even stealing men’s penises. The Malleus discussed these subjects in detail, and modern scholars have also done so, with the unusual stories of penis theft attracting particular attention.
Purloined genitals aside, there's more to the story here, as Dr. Rider points out:
Other scholars have sought to put the Malleus into its fifteenth-century context by arguing that its emphasis on women was part of a wider change taking place in attitudes to magic. In particular, Bailey, Boudet, Ostorero and Chène have highlighted that many fifteenth-century clerics placed a greater emphasis on women’s magic than could be seen in earlier texts.
When we turn back the clock to before (to use Dr. Breuer's term) the late medieval "crafting of the witch" through the gendering of folk magic, we find a pretty different range of clerical lit:
Work by Michael Bailey, Kathleen Kamerick and Alain Boureau, as well as my own work, has therefore sought to explore the range of clerical views of magic and the debates that took place among learned writers. These scholars have shown that although some authors stated, or implied, that women were especially prone to magic and the related sin of “superstition”, others described both male and female magical practitioners. For example, exempla (short moral stories collected for use in sermons) told stories of male magicians who invoked demons as well as describing “superstitious” women. There were also ecclesiastical writers who did not say much at all about the gender of magical practitioners and preferred to focus on different issues, such as the exact nature of the relationship between magicians and demons, or the question of whether or not certain unofficial ritual practices were legitimate or superstitious.
Now that's all good and well, you might say, but that doesn't tell us much about whether certain kinds of magic typically associated with traditions like the Folk Witches had feminine connotations or not. Dr. Rider goes through the question in some more detail below, starting with the aspect of folk witchery that does appear to be coded female in period sources:
Magic relating to love, sex and fertility is probably the form of magic most often cited by modern scholars as a female activity. Individual medieval writers, such as the authors of the Malleus, who as we have seen linked love magic to women have attracted attention, and Richard Kieckhefer has also pointed out that women were more likely than men to be accused of doing love magic in trial records. Scholars have varied in how they interpret this information. On the one hand, Kieckhefer emphasizes that although women were more likely than men to be accused, this does not mean they were necessarily more likely to do love magic in practice: rather, men may have found it more convenient than women to blame their sexual transgressions on magic, and they may also have been more able to make the authorities take their allegations seriously...However, as these examples show, it is extremely difficult to write about certain forms of magic as women’s magic because most of the surviving sources were written by men rather than by the women themselves. It is therefore almost impossible to know how far they reflect a genuine difference in practice and how far they draw on the kinds of stereotypes about women, sex and magic discussed in the previous section.
So even love and sex magic as a feminine practice is a murky question at best. Even more to the point, many of the other classic practices connected to the Folk Witches as describe in Hedge Magic lack gender connotations. Flight is one that is clearly genderless. Healing and dowsing for items are two others:
...the sources that often do not present healing or divination as particularly male or female activities (in contrast to their depictions of women doing love magic or men calling up demons)...other forms of magic, such as healing or finding stolen goods, were linked to men and women in roughly equal numbers.
The author and the scholars she cites locate the feminization of folk magic in the Late Middle Ages - after Ars' conventional start date - and it still wasn't a completed process until the Early Modern and the accompanying (in)famous growth and institutionalization of witch trials:
In a study of late medieval witch trials published in 1976, Richard Kieckhefer noted that around two-thirds of the accused were women, and that the proportion of women accused, compared to men, rose during the fifteenth century. More recent work on fifteenth-century Swiss trial records has sought to bring greater nuance to this picture and has stressed that although a general “feminization” of witchcraft did take place in this period, the numbers of men and women brought to trial varied considerably between regions. In some areas, men continued to outnumber women even at the end of the fifteenth century. These studies have also shown the extent to which the gendering of trials depended on whether the witches were tried by a secular or ecclesiastical tribunal, though the impact of this also varied. Susanna Burghartz’s comparison of trials in Lausanne and Lucerne has found that, contrary to what we might assume about clerical misogyny, the proportion of women in witchcraft trials conducted by the secular authorities in Lucerne was far higher than in trials conducted by the inquisitors in Lausanne. This was not always the case, however, and Kathrin Utz Tremp found the opposite pattern in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century Freiburg: in towns and before inquisitors, women appeared in greater numbers, whereas in the countryside and before secular tribunals, men outnumbered women. The picture is one of local diversity within a general trend towards “feminization”.
While it's certainly true that magi are still likely to look down their noses at the hedgie peasant magic of Folk Witches, there's no need to tie the magic to femininity (and its inherent connections to relative status in the world of 1200s Western Eurasia.) This is a pretty harmless example, since there's been a lot of work done by folks who consider themselves to be modern day practitioners of similar historical magical traditions to reclaim so-called women's magic from the negative connotations attached to it and the entry in Hedge Magic is certainly sympathetic to the Folk Witches, but historians have already gone and done one better - those strongly gendered connections to "weaker and ruder" peasant magic simply don't seem to have existed in the 1200s!