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Lady Margaret Hall Library: Women's History

Our changing exhibitions showcase some of the most interesting collections from LMH Library and Archives. You can view current exhibitions in the display cases on the middle floor - just lift the protective covers - and you can explore highlights on this page. Have a look at our previous exhibitions here to see more of the collection. 

At the moment we don't have step-free access to the exhibition space, but if you contact the library (email items can be brought to the downstairs floor. External visitors can view exhibitions by appointment. 


Woodcut print of two witches riding on brooms with the devil

1 of 5 | Witch trials craze in Early Modern Europe

The Early Modern period in Europe saw a time of increased suspicion and fear surrounding instances of perceived witchcraft, which culminated in what is popularly referred to as the early modern ‘witch craze’ – this period saw around 100.000 trials and between 40.000 to 60.000 people killed on suspicion of practicing witchcraft in Europe between 1400 and 1782. Persecutions reached a highpoint from 1560-1630, after which instances of witch trials gradually declined and by the 18th century they were rare occurrences. The last known execution for witchcraft in Europe took place in 1782 in Switzerland.

In Western and Central Europe, roughly 80 percent of those accused of witchcraft were women, mostly over the age of 40 (notably, however, the majority of those accused in Iceland, Finland, Estonia and Russia were men). The women targeted were typically already part of marginalised groups, including spinsters, widows, or post-menopausal women, and many of those accused are suspected to have suffered from mental health conditions, food poisonings, or were involved in healing or midwifery. Suspected witches were often accused by other women, frequently by neighbours or family members.

Title page of Malleus Maleficarum

2 of 5 | Heinrich Krämer and Jakob Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum (Frankfurt, 1588)

The Malleus Maleficarum, or the Hammer of Witches, is one of the most well-known treatises on the topic of witchcraft. It was first published in 1486, coming at a time when witchcraft trials were still infrequent but increasingly present in public consciousness in Western Europe. The Malleus is a detailed guide to the phenomenon of witchcraft - it purports to give evidence for the existence of magic, goes on to explain how witches recruit others, and finally gives instructions on how to perform a witch trial and by what means witches can be tortured into confession.

Throughout, the Malleus argues that women are more easily susceptible to the crime of witchcraft by virtue of their inherent weakness of faith and their stronger sex drive. Women are characterized as “defective in all the powers of both body and soul” and “evil as a result of nature” – and they are accused of practicing infanticide, cannibalism and stealing men’s penises. Even the title uses feminine grammar to highlight the explicit association between witchcraft and women – the masculine form would read Malleus Maleficorum.

The Malleus was highly popular and was reprinted a vast number of times, but it was also controversial. While the views within the Malleus are frequently represented as the Church’s official position, it was condemned by the Inquisition as being inconsistent with Catholic doctrine of demonology. As such, territories with a strong Catholic presence, such as Italy and Spain, saw fewer witch trials than more religiously divided areas such as modern Germany and France. In these territories, however, the Malleus became a key text on witchcraft, and its definition of witches was widely used in determining who was guilty of practicing magic. 

Donated by Katharine Mary Briggs (LMH 1918-22).

Title page of La Demonomanie des Sorciers

3 of 5 | Jean Bodin, La Demonomanie des Sorciers (Paris, 1598)

In La Demonomanie des Sorciers, or Demon-Mania of Witches, Jean Bodin offers an argument for the existence of witchcraft, and a guide on how to prosecute witches. It argues for a relaxation of the regular rules of persecution and urges brutal treatment of those suspected of practicing witchcraft, including torture and execution.

“Those too who let the witches escape, or who do not punish them with the utmost rigor, may rest assured that they will be abandoned by God to the mercy of the witches. And the country which shall tolerate this will be scourged with pestilences, famines, and wars; and those which shall take vengeance on the witches will be blessed by him and will make his anger to cease.”

La Demonomanie was first published in 1580 at the height of the witch trial craze in Europe. The work was published to great success and came to significantly influence the course of trials of this period. It engaged with several other works on witchcraft from the period, including the Malleus Maleficarum, which Bodin cites repeatedly. La Demonomanie also challenges the views put forward by Johann Weyer in his De praestigiis daemonum from 1563, in which he argues that what is usually considered witchcraft is in fact linked to instances of mental illness in the women accused. In challenging Weyer’s points on the rights to punish the mentally ill, Bodin’s work formed an important part in the development of legal theory specifically targeting the punishment of insane men and women.

Donated by Katharine Mary Briggs (LMH 1918-22).

Woodcut print demonstrating a trick where a person's head is

4 of 5 | Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (London: 1930)

The Discoverie of Witchcraft, first published 1584, aimed to expose witchcraft as a falsity. Scot claims that a belief in witchcraft was un-Christian and went against Catholic doctrine, as well as being irrational. He viciously attacks the views espoused in the Malleus Maleficarum and La Demonomanie des Sorciers (referring to their authors as “witchmongers”) and criticises their unjust methods of trial and their “absurd lies” regarding the witches’ supposed bargains and powers.  In offering evidence against the existence of magic he aimed to prevent persecution of those most vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, including the poor and aged. This stance drew plenty of debate and controversy, and in his Dæmonologie (1597) James VI of Scotland referred to Scot’s position as “damnable”.

The Discoverie includes explanations of common illusionary or stage magic as a means of explaining how the public was fooled by charlatans. In his analysis of the truth behind reports of magic and witchcraft, Scot became the first person to publish information on how to perform tricks using stage props and sleights of hand, as shown in these illustrations.

Several woodcut print panels depicting various malicious activities, such as a flying devil, the Witches' Sabbath, and a floating person

5 of 5 | Joseph Glanvill, Saducismus Trimphatus (London, 1689)

As the books in this case demonstrate, the existence or non-existence of witchcraft was a topic of numerous debates in Early Modern Europe: Weyer refuted the Malleus, Bodin refuted Weyer, Scot refuted Bodin, and this book by Glanvill was written to refute Scot.

The Saducismus Trimphatus, or Sadducees triumphed, was first published in 1681 and likened those who were sceptical of witchcraft to the Sadducees (a Jewish sect active in Judea from 200 BCE-70 CE who denied the immortality of the soul). Saducismus is said to have strongly influenced the famous Salem witch trials in 1692-3. However, these also heralded the approaching end of the witch trial craze – the last execution for witchcraft in England was in 1712, and the Witchcraft Act of 1735 made it illegal to accuse someone of practicing witchcraft or having magical powers.

Donated Cynthia Mabel Borough (LMH 1919-22).

Education and Suffrage

Photograph of Emmeline Pankhurst

1 of 7 | Education and Suffrage

LMH Library holds several historical items pertaining to the Suffrage movement in the UK, including numerous pamphlets and newspapers published by suffrage groups or activists.
Women were only explicitly banned from voting in Great Britain in 1832. In the following decades, the campaign for women’s suffrage gained momentum, and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed in 1897 by combining seventeen national suffrage organisations together. The NUWSS held public meetings, wrote letters to politicians, published pamphlets, and organised marches.

In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst and a number of other NUWSS members formed the Women’s Social and Political Party (WSPP), whose members became known as the Suffragettes (as opposed to the non-violent Suffragists). The Suffragettes reignited flagging interest in the suffrage movement through attention-grabbing publicity stunts and violent incidents, often leading to fines, imprisonment, and force-feeding. While the WSPP was ensuring continued interest in the cause, the NUWSS continued to lobby the government on women’s suffrage, and, as a result of their work, the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, granting most women over the age of 30 the vote in Great Britain and Ireland. In 1928, this was extended to all women over 21, granting women the vote on the same terms as men for the first time.

Fron cover of suffragist pamphlet 'Votes for Women'

2 of 7 | Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrene (eds.), Votes for Women,  8 September 1911.

Cover of suffragist pamphlet 'Men are Men, Women are Women'

3 of 7 | National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, Men are Men, Women are Women (London, 1909)

Cover of suffragist pamphlet 'Votes and Wages: How Women’s Suffrage will improve the Economic Position of Women'

4 of 7 | Maude Royden, “Votes and Wages”: How Women’s Suffrage will improve the Economic Position of Women (London, 1912)

Cover of '

5 of 7 | Jane Harrison, “Homo Sum”: Being a Letter to an Anti-Suffragist from an Anthropologist (London, 190-)

Title page of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with strictures on political and moral subjects

6 of 7 | Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with strictures on political and moral subjects (Dublin, 1793)

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, first published in 1792, has stood the test of time as a fierce and inspiring manifesto on women’s liberation. In it, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) argues that women have the same fundamental rights and mental abilities as men, as both are equal before God, but that a lack of education for women serves to cast them as second-class citizens. As such, she calls for full and equal access to education for women through the establishment of national co-educational schools. Wollstonecraft writes with a passionate anger, which is supported by a sardonic wit:

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”

During her lifetime, and for much of the century following the publication of her husband’s biography of her (displayed in this case), Wollstonecraft’s work was largely overshadowed by her personal life. It is interesting to note that, while many 19th century writers ridiculed and caricatured Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen (also displayed here) never criticised Wollstonecraft in her work, and even made several positive allusions to Wollstonecraft’s work and ideas in her own novels. Wollstonecraft also served as inspiration to many women, such as the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, women’s right activists and social reformers Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the writer George Eliot.

Wollstonecraft’s work gained popularity during the British women’s suffrage movement, where it was adopted by the Suffragists and the feminist movement of the late 19th and 20th centuries. A Vindication continues to be a popular and inspiring text to this day.

Donated by Edith Bülbring (LMH Fellow 1960-76).

Title page of  Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

7 of 7 | William Godwin, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London, 1798)

After Wollstonecraft’s death in 1797 due to complications in childbirth, her distraught husband William Godwin published this memoir of her life. He wrote truthfully and openly of Wollstonecraft’s unconventional relationships, including her relationship with Gilbert Imlay and the birth of their illegitimate daughter, Fanny Imply – as well as his own premarital relationship with Wollstonecraft (before marrying due to Wollstonecraft’s pregnancy with her second child, Mary Godwin). Godwin also shared details of Wollstonecraft’s struggles with her mental health and suicide attempts, as well as her scepticism of religion.

The fallout from the publication of this memoir inadvertently destroyed Wollstonecraft’s reputation and led to her literacy legacy being disregarded for the next century. This translated directly onto her children, and when, Fanny Imlay committed suicide as a result of an unhappy relationship, and Mary Godwin eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, society was quick to blame Wollstonecraft’s feminist principles.

Wollstonecraft was so famous by the time of publication of Memoirs that Godwin did not need to include her name as the writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman on the front page.

Women's Writings

Portrait of Jane Austen

1 of 5 | Women's Writings

These items exemplify some of our early treasures by women writers. For much of history, women were excluded from the education paths, publishing worlds, and public spaces which would have allowed them to make a living off publishing their writing – and those women who did beat the odds to publish their work often did so anonymously. LMH holds first or early editions of works by some remarkable women writers, such as these displayed here. These women opened public spaces and expanded women’s voices against the odds, inspiring others to step into their footsteps.

Title page of Mansfield Park

2 of 5 | Jane Austen, Mansfield Park: A Novel in Three Volumes (London: 1814)

Jane Austen (1775-1817), like many women writers of her time, published all six of her novels anonymously, with two being published posthumously. This copy of Mansfield Park, Austen’s third novel, is a first edition. While the book was not publicly reviewed until 1821, it was a great success with the public and sold out its first printing in six months. The novel speaks to many issues that Austen herself cared about and wrote about in all of her works, including women’s right to choose who they marry, the financial insecurities which limited dependant women’s choices, abolitionism, classicism, and a rigid adherence to outward propriety for its own sake.

Austen was known to have a sharp wit and a satirical bent – her sister Cassandra destroyed most of Jane’s letters after Jane’s death, wanting to ensure that her family did not read evidence of Jane’s sardonic commentary on friends or neighbours.

Donated by Katharine Mary Briggs (LMH 1918-22).

Title page of Lettres Historiques et Galantes

3 of 5 | Madame du Noyer, Lettres Historiques et Galantes (Paris, 1790)

Anne-Marguerite du Noyer (1663-1720) was one of the most famous woman journalists of the early 18th century. She reported on the negotiations which led to the Peace of Utrecht of 1715 (ensuring peace in the War of the Spanish Succession) to great success, and was commended throughout Europe for her political writing as well the distinction she made between scandal and gossip.

Madame du Noyer wrote two weekly papers, the Quintessence of News, proceeds from which formed her primary income. However, she struggled financially and personally, and she spent many years living outside of her native France, needing to flee the religious persecution which followed her as a Calvinist in Catholic France. Nevertheless, the strength of her character and her literary talent was noted upon by her contemporaries, for example by remarking that:

“She, however, has shewed her self very little concerned at all these Crosses of Fortune […] She has, on the contrary, rather chose to laugh it off, and has given so witty, so ingenious an Account of her Adventures, that it is impossible to read them without being very much moved in her behalf […] Her Letters are writ in so easy and so natural a Style, that we pass on from one to t'other without being in the least tired with what we read […] Her Manners are easie, her Conversation agreeable and entertaining; and whatsoever Subject she talks upon she always manages it with abundance of Justness.”

-       Lettres from a Lady at Paris to a Lady at Avignon, possibly by Delarivier Manley.

Donated by Yvonne Rowe (née Searle) (LMH 1938-41).

Title page of Histories, Novels and Translations

4 of 5 | Aphra Benn, Histories, Novels and Translations (London, 1700)

Aphra Benn (1640-1689) was a leading English playwright, poet, political writer, and translator. She was one of the first English women to earn a living through her writing, and in doing so served inspired generations of woman writers to come.  Benn was briefly employed by Charles II as a political spy in Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, after which she returned to London and went on to write for a living. Her best-known works are Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, sometimes described as an early novel, and the play The Rover. During the 1670s and 1680s Benn was one of the most productive playwrights in Britain. Her plays were staged frequently and even attended by the King.

Benn was probably not formally educated and instead most likely practiced self-tuition by copying and translating poems in her childhood. She incorporated her criticisms of the English ideal of not educating women in some of her plays, including in Epistle to the Reader.  In fact, Benn wrote passionately about many issues facing women, including forced marriage and the exclusion of women from playwriting, at a time when she might reasonable have been expected to obscure her gender from her authorship.

Benn inspired women for years to come and is credited with being instrumental in opening up public writing spaces for women. Virginia Woolf remembered Benn in her feminist book A Room of One’s Own:

“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

Title page of an edition of the Barnacle, showing handdrawn lettering and bird decorations

5 of 5 | The Gosling Society, The Barnacle (1859-1877)

The Barnacle was an in-house publication by the Gosling Society (1859-1877), comprising a group of young Victorian women, who wrote individual pieces which were then bound together into these volumes. The novelist Charlotte Mary Yonge, a friend of the first principal of LMH when it was founded in 1878, was the ‘Mother Goose’ of this society and was responsible for collating and sharing this Victorian ‘zine’. The society fostered intellectual exchanges between women students in a time before universities were open to women and allowed these women to share their writings and art with one another.

Most contributions are essays or stories written in instalments, but there are also poems, illuminations, drawings, and jokes. Each woman wrote two pieces a month and sent them to Yonge to be selected and sent on. This system failed on occasion – our collection is sadly lacking three volumes which never completed their travels.

The contributors all had pen-names, such as Albatross, Bog Oak, Mockingbird, Ladybird, Gurgoyle [sic], and Frog. Several of the Goslings became novelists or journalists in later life, and later contributed to Yonge’s religious magazine.

Donated by Ester Georgina Battiscombe (née Harwood) (LMH 1924-27).

Contact the Library

By email or phone:

Jamie the librarian, with Isambard the cat on their shoulder

Jamie Fishwick-Ford
(Librarian, they/them)

Contact Jamie for appointments to visit the library or to request new books for the library.
(01865) 274361

Sally Hamer
(Assistant Librarian, she/her)

Contact Sally with any queries or problems, to renew your books, or discuss lost books and lost property.
 (01865) 274236

A picture of Isambard, a brown-grey Siberian forest cat.

(Librarian's Cat, he/any)

Visit Issy in Jamie's office 3 or 4 days a week, if you need a break or are missing your pets at home!

In person: 

Our offices are located on the middle floor of Lady Margaret Hall Library, Norham Gardens, Oxford, OX2 6QA