WHAT is a witch?

A 17th-century painting by Salvator Rosa leaves little room for doubt. Witches At Their Incantations features an elderly woman in the foreground. She has wild and unkempt grey hair. She is naked, sitting on the bare earth, breasts sagging to her waist, a cauldron between her knees, holding what looks like a human femur in one hand and a handful of entrails suspended over the foul brew in the other. Other old women are enthusiastically dancing or casting spells nearby. Behind them all, seemingly forgotten, the lifeless body of a youthful male victim hangs from a tree, the innocent sacrificed by these grey-haired succubi. To complete the tableau, there is another half-naked demonic-looking old woman, muscular, gnarled and with heavy features, suspending a swaddled baby over what looks like the gaping maw of some infernal beast. Subtlety was clearly not Rosa's style.

What this painting illustrates is the way in which the vilification of middle-aged and elderly women found expression in the witch mania of the 16th and 17th centuries. Now viewed as one of the most shameful episodes in modern European history, it is held up as a cautionary tale about the dangers of powerful elites scapegoating vulnerable minorities. Yet even today, some of the deep-seated misogynist attitudes given expression in the witch trials persist. They can be found in the use of terms like "hag" and "crone", in expressions of disgust towards the ageing female body, and in the savagery directed at certain older women who wield power, whether political or sexual. Perhaps most worrying of all is the fact that these attitudes seem to be as vicious in some quarters today as they were four or five centuries ago.

It should probably come as no surprise that the attitudes vented in the witch trials endure to some extent, given how powerful they became in the popular imagination. The witch trials that swept Europe between the late 15th and the early 18th centuries, coming to a head between 1560 and 1660, turned latent negative attitudes towards women into a codified form of persecution.

Belief in magic and witchcraft was widespread in the Middle Ages, but by the end of the 15th century, a new vehemence emerged in the Church to stamp it out as a heresy. In 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer Of The Witches) was published in Germany. While historians stress it had limited influence in the British Isles, the book – a kind of treatise on the prosecution of witches – did capture the new mood of paranoia and intolerance. It described witches as meeting in secret societies under the noses of the rest of the community – "the enemy within", to use a modern phrase – and as being in a compact with the devil. They were deemed capable of making men impotent and women sterile with spells.

They were also more likely to be women than men. Between 1351 and 1790 in northern France, four-fifths of the accused were female. Dr Diane Purkiss of Keble College, Oxford University, author of The Witch In History: Early Modern And Late Twentieth Century Representations, confirms that in Scotland around three-quarters of the accused were female (in England, 90% were women). While more recent paintings are as likely to portray witches as young, beautiful and beguiling – such as the dark-haired young beauty in John William Waterhouse's Magic Circle (1886) – Purkiss stresses that these idealised images were "an artist's fantasy rather than a social reality". She adds: "The majority who got executed were at the older end of the spectrum. Some were in their nineties."

So why were post-menopausal women targeted? They appear to have been victimised partly because of their low social status. In that sense, they were classic scapegoats. "Witches were not financially independent," says Purkiss. "They were often beggar women and seen as a burden on society."

Images from the period also underline the extent to which older women, who were no longer sexually alluring to men and could not bear children, were regarded as worthless and their bodies hideous. Deanna Petherbridge, curator of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's forthcoming exhibition Witches & Wicked Bodies, was struck by the "amazing stereotypes" of the hag or crone she came across while researching the show, which charts artistic depictions of witches over the past 500 years. "They are extremely thin with long hanging dugs, a nude figure almost always showing the breasts, so I realised how important it was [for the artists] to show these shrivelled breasts. I realised how important it was that she was no longer attractive or fertile.

"The hag who is beyond childbirth and beyond sexuality is so ugly she must be feared. This idea does go a fantastically long way back in Western culture, right back to Greek mythology,"

As the writer Fay Weldon points out, male-dominated 16th and 17th-century society derided old women: "A post-menopausal woman isn't good for anything except as a servant and there were lots of young women around for that."

Offensive terms that emerged at that time to describe old women are still very much in use today. The term "crone" encapsulates the notion that old women had no value. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word derives from "carrion" or "carcass" and was being used by the end of the 14th century to mean a withered old woman. In 1552, it was used to describe a worn-out old ewe with broken teeth. What clearer expression could there be of the view that women past child-bearing were useless?

The term "hag" was a Germanic translation of "harpy" – one of the bird-women creatures which tormented the Thracian king Phineus in Greek mythology. Though initially described as beautiful, they were later depicted as ugly and aged. "Hag" emerged in the late 14th century, but became associated with an evil old witch, as in this 1552 usage: "Hags or night furies of witches, like unto old women, which do suck the blood of children in the night." Both words came to be gender and age-specific, adding to the vast collection of terms of abuse for women, which greatly outnumber abusive terms for men.

Being an ageing woman might be enough on its own to attract accusations of witchcraft, if a neighbour wished to settle a score. However, a woman was more vulnerable if she compounded the offence of being old by daring to challenge the traditional order by acquiring status and influence through supposed mystical practices.

This "female kind of power", as Purkiss puts it, often sprang from accused women's status as storytellers – in other words, being women in possession of ideas. "One of the ways older women added value to themselves was to tell stories, to have expertise," says Purkiss.

She adds: "The witch trials in Scotland are pretty terrible and focus on persecuting particular sorts of woman. There are two types. One is residual Catholics, resisting the Kirk. The second was women who knew a lot about folk stories, ballads and particularly women who thought they were communicating with fairies. They told spookily scary stories about the dead. That was enough to alarm men – in the Kirk, for example – who wanted to be the only storytellers."

So there we have it: a society that valued women when they were young, beautiful and fertile, but averted their eyes in disgust when they passed the menopause and saw them thereafter as a financial burden; a society in which women who stepped outside conventional norms of behaviour were attacked, where females with power and influence were derided. Sound familiar?

Clearly, women's social status has improved since the 17th century, but ageing females are still sometimes subjected to alarming outbursts of savagery, and society continues to place greater value on younger women.

It doesn't take long to find examples of how the terms "witch", "hag" and "crone" are used to attack older women today. The campaign by Margaret Thatcher's detractors to ensure the song Ding, Dong The Witch Is Dead reached No 1 in time for her funeral may have failed, but it did garner widespread and gleeful support. "Crone" also features repeatedly in political blogs and Facebook comments about Thatcher, among other places, frequently prefixed by "evil old".

Madonna, who would almost certainly have been dodging the ducking stool for her threatening sexual confidence had she lived in early modern Europe, has also been attacked in such terms. There is a Facebook page called simply Madonna Is An Old Hag, featuring photographs of the middle-aged singer in raunchy poses and revealing clothing. "Wizened old hag", "bitter old hag", "Material crone" – the derogatory epithets come thick and fast for the one-time siren. "Madonna flashes her 53-year-old nipple to concert-goers in Istanbul," declared the website Queerty last summer, unleashing a collective "eeuw!" from icked-out former admirers of the diva, apparently repulsed by the idea of a woman in her fifties showing her breast (though a substantial proportion of fans also supported her).

"We still struggle with any powerful woman," says Purkiss. That applies whether their influence is political, commercial or linked to celebrity. Women seen as powerful are routinely cut down to size by derision aimed at their age and appearance.

Such comments are made in a social context in which beauty and youth is valued in women, whose perceived worth therefore diminishes as they age. Females are still far more apt to be judged by their age and looks than are men: just ask Miriam O'Reilly, the former Countryfile presenter who successfully brought an age discrimination case against the BBC after being dropped from the show in her early fifties to be replaced by younger presenters, while John Craven, then 66, was kept on. Film and TV actresses continually bemoan the ever-smaller choice of roles available to them once they pass 40. Hillary Clinton may have become US Secretary of State, but that only intensified comment on her hair, clothes and make-up, much of it insulting. What a contrast with her one-time rival, President Barack Obama.

The societal bias in favour of pretty young women inspired Fay Weldon's 1983 novel, The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil, about a clumsy, unattractive woman called Ruth who destroys the lives of her former husband and his beautiful lover using mystical powers. Ruth's supernatural abilities were necessary because, explains Weldon, "you need the devil's power to overcome the idea that plain women aren't interesting".

Meanwhile, as women strive to maintain their sense of worth by staving off the signs of ageing by artificial means, the cosmetic industry flourishes. At the same time, old women are fair game for comedians making crass jokes. "What we are seeing now has always been the norm," says Purkiss. "Young is beautiful and old is not only ugly, but also valueless."

In this climate, potent terms such as "hag", "crone" and "witch" are dredged up from the past, dripping with damning associations, and hurled at today's middle-aged and elderly women: the same target group which was once persecuted by the witch-finders.

Fortunately, there are also more enlightened attitudes in today's world. For all those who used ageist, misogynist terminology following Thatcher's death, there were others – many of them no fans of her politics – who condemned the use of such language.

In fact, says Petherbridge, it was ever thus: "Even at the worst times of witchcraft in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, there have been sceptics and that has been expressed in hilarious caricatures and send-ups." One such painting is The Witches' Sabbath (1798) by Francisco Goya, featuring Satan in goat-form before a coven of ugly witches, which was intended to pillory superstitious beliefs and send up the Inquisition.

So the tide of change is going in the right direction. Nonetheless, the bile directed at ageing women in the 21st century contains unpleasant echoes of the sinister misogyny of the witch trial era. And that is deeply disconcerting.

By Rebecca McQuillan