Posts Tagged “medieval”

Women condemned for witchcraft burned at the stake / Rudolf Cronau [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsOne of the (many) surprising things I learned about the Middle Ages, while I studied that period in college, was that for much of the period — despite common folk belief that witches were real and a threat to society — witch-hunts generally did not occur. The Church actually taught that witches did not exist — despite widespread folk belief they did, in many areas — and that to suggest they did, was heresy.

That’s not to say the Church was a collection of pansies; they certainly did go after heretics of various kinds, e.g. the Cathars, against whom they marched to war in the early 13th century, and the repression of the Knights Templars was predicated on charges of heresy and blasphemy, not of witchcraft (as is sometimes said).

But through the 15th century this attitude changed, and witch-hunts began to occur. From the middle of the 16th century through the middle of the 17th, witch-hunts reached their peak. By the close of the 17th century, witch-hunting mania had all but died out, both in Europe and in the New World (the infamous Salem Witch Trials took place in the early 1690s).

I’d always suspected this had been brought on by religious reform fervor which had been underway for some time already (e.g. in the case of Waldenses, Cathars, Lollards, Hussites, etc.). Especially in the wake of the Great Western Schism ending in 1417, religion was being rethought in many quarters. But that’s as far as my speculation went.

Recently two economists (of all people) have examined this mystery, and arrived at a possible explanation. The (UK) Guardian reports on their interesting findings (Archive.Is cached article):

But by 1550 Christian authorities had reversed their position [that witches didn’t exist], leading to a witch-hunt across Christendom. Many explanations have been advanced for what drove the phenomenon. Now new research suggests there is an economic explanation, one that has relevance to the modern day.

Economists Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ of George Mason University in Virginia argue that the trials reflected “non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share” [cached].

As competing Catholic and Protestant churches vied to win over or retain their followers, they needed to make an impact — and witch trials were the battleground they chose. Or, as the two academics put it in their paper, to be published in the new edition of the Economic Journal: “Leveraging popular belief in witchcraft, witch-prosecutors advertised their confessional brands’ commitment and power to protect citizens from worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil.”

They reach their conclusion after drawing on analyses of new data covering more than 43,000 people tried for witchcraft in 21 European countries.

It was about both sides each trying to one-up each other and prove their piety and sacred prowess. It’s an interesting idea, and makes a good deal of sense in the context of the time. Although the Guardian compares this to Stalin’s “show trials” of the mid-1930s, I see parallels elsewhere, such as with Islamist groups going after third-party (mostly occidental) victims in their efforts to impress the rest of the Islam world with their sanctity and to prove they have al-Lah’s favor.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Hat tip: Secular Web News Wire.

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Some 25,000 alleged "witches" were executed between 1500 and 1782 in Germany. Germany was responsible for the deaths of some 40 percent of the 60,000 witches who were tortured and killed in Europe during the infamous era, says witch-trial expert Hartmut Hegeler. This woodcut shows a witch being burned at the stake in Dernburg in 1555.At several points during the European Middle Ages, witch-hunts were a fact of life, and in some locales and times were even commonplace. This activity was not limited to the Church institution of the Inquisition; many regions had secular laws against “witchcraft,” which meant that many witches could be, and were, prosecuted by local authorities. “Handbooks” for dealing with witches … the most famous of which was Malleus Maleficarum … were widely trafficked, in spite of the fact that most of them (including M.M.) didn’t have official Church sanction. Witch-hunts could, therefore, be spontaneous, ad hoc “peasants with pitchforks” affairs, sometimes not even having the approval of local authorities.

Naturally, this is an unpleasant history that most folks these days prefer to avoid, brushing it off as “a thing of the past” which no longer reflects modern life. But Der Spiegel reports that Germany — once a hotbed of medieval witch-hunting — is trying to accept and deal with this history (WebCite cached article):

Tortured and burned at the stake by the tens of thousands, Germany’s alleged witches have been largely forgotten. But thanks to efforts by a small group of activists, a number of German cities have begun absolving women, men and children who were wrongly accused of causing plagues, storms and bad harvests. …

It began with the trial and execution of an eight-year-old girl for witchcraft in the spring of 1630. Compelled to name others involved in an alleged nighttime dance with the devil in the German town of Oberkirchen, young Christine Teipel’s confession sparked a wave of fingerpointing and subsequent trials. Within just three months, 58 people, including 22 men and two children, were burned at the stake there. …

“We owe it to the victims to finally acknowledge that they died innocent back then,” [retired minister and witch-trial expert Hartmut] Hegeler told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “But this is not just about the past — it’s a signal against the violence and marginalization of people that goes on today.”

Indeed, witch-hunts do continue, even today. Not in Germany, perhaps, but they still do happen nonetheless.

Hegeler’s efforts to rehabilitate accused witches, unfortunately, haven’t met with universal acceptance:

But not every community welcomes such requests. In November, the western German city of Aachen rejected a request to vindicate a 13-year-old Sinti girl who was tried and killed in 1649. …

The city of Büdingen in the state of Hesse also told Hegeler they had more important issues at hand.

Even so, progress is being made on this score. Maybe if enough people hear about the rehabilitation of accused medieval witches, they’ll pay attention to the witch-hunts that keep occurring even now.

Photo credit: Der Spiegel.

Hat tip: Peter at Skeptics & Heretics Forum on Delphi Forums.

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Spinello Aretino Exorcism of St BenedictFor most of the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church downplayed the practice of exorcism. As an institution, it tended to shy away from the idea that people’s problems — particularly mental or neurological illnesses — were caused by demonic possession, and instead left it up to the practice of medicine. This was a positive development, and lent credence to the idea that these illnesses are not of metaphysical origin, but physiological in nature.

But the Church wants desperately to divert the attention of both Catholics and non-Catholics from the clerical child-abuse scandal which has plagued it around the world, for the last several years. Many of their tactics have been rhetorical and in direct response to the scandal, such as the claim that the scandal is merely a demonic attack upon God’s holy Church, in which the true victims are the abusive clergy, not the children they abused. Other, more indirect responses have been the Pope’s claims that “secularism” is the greatest evil in the world, the equivalent of Nazism … and worse, that the Nazis themselves had been wicked secularists.

Still other responses have been less rhetorical and more active, and even more indirect. The latest is a reversal of the Church’s former de-emphasis on exorcism, and a renewed embrace of that medieval practice, as reported by the UPI (WebCite cached article):

More than 100 Roman Catholic priests and bishops have gathered in Baltimore for a conference on exorcism.

The two-day conference, which is not open to the public or news media, was organized by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., The New York Times reported Friday. Paprocki said the main goal of the conference is to help priests and bishops decide when exorcism is appropriate. …

R. Scott Appleby, a professor of church history at the University of Notre Dame, said reviving exorcism restores a sense of the church as an institution dealing with the supernatural: “It’s a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.'”

That this is being done in the increasingly-religionistic United States cannot be a coincidence. It will inevitably appeal to a nation which tends toward metaphysical solutions to problems.

However, it’s not the only old Catholic practice which the Church is reviving. A couple of years ago, the Pope himself proposed that issuance of indulgences — in the form of paper documents — ought to be resumed, and bishops began following this suggestion, beginning early last year (cached article). Reforms begun early in the 20th century, culminating at the Second Vatican Council, had rendered indulgences-on-paper moot, since Catholicism now holds that, once someone has done something to earn an indulgence*, s/he has earned it; the document itself is unnecessary and superfluous (although there is no reason a Catholic could not still ask for one). This remains the case even now, however, the Church is pushing indulgences-on-paper, as a way of “connecting” Catholics back to the Church … or something.

My guess is that the Catholic Church might ingratiate itself to its laity more efficiently, by confessing its crimes and its sins directly and without excuse or caveat, and by handing over for prosecution all abusive clergy and the hierarchs who aided them. Of course, they will never do that, at least not voluntarily … so they keep looking for other ways to “connect” with the laity.

At any rate, the Church is rolling back the clock, as it were, to an older time when exorcisms were more frequent, in an effort to appear to be actively involved in the supernatural again. And they’re doing it in order to divert attention from the criminality of abusive clergy within its ranks and of the hierarchy that aided and protected them for decades. Nice.

While the sale of indulgences has been outlawed by the Church since the Council of Trent in the 6th century, their issuance never ended; Catholic doctrine holds that they can still be earned by certain activities, such as devotional prayers, saying of the Rosary, fasting, etc.

Photo credit: Spinello Aretino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Jean-Paul Laurens: Le Pape Formose et Etienne VII ("Pope Formosus and Stephen VII"), 1870The New York Times article I blogged about earlier today, concerning Fr Lawrence C. Murphy, who taught at St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, and abused children there but was never disciplined by the Church, has aroused the ire of the Holy See. It responded to the article within hours — much quicker than the Vatican normally deals with things — essentially reiterating its old whine (which I also blogged about before) that it’s all just a vile plot to discredit Pope Benedict XVI by telling lies about him. The Vatican’s own response is here, in the original Italian. The New York Times has mentioned this response, itself (WebCite cached article):

In 1998, top Vatican officials, including the future pope, did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin, according to internal church documents obtained by The New York Times from lawyers who are suing church officials. The decision came after the priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger for leniency.

The Vatican has said that the abuse dated back decades and that Father Murphy’s age and ill health were reason enough not to dismiss him from the clergy.

It’s kind of funny that the Roman Catholic Church — of all institutions in the world — decided that the age and ill health of an accused man somehow prevented them from trying and punishing him for his crimes. Why do I say that?

Because of history.

I refer to something known as “the Cadaver Synod,” and it took place in 897 CE.

This precious, revealing little episode of Catholic and papal history is one that the Holy See and the rest of the Church likely would rather you not know about. But as fantastic and unbelievable as it sounds, it actually did happen. And it really was about as dreadful as the name sounds.

The story of this wretched affair is convoluted, but I’ll boil it down to a simple statement: For a number of obscure political reasons, Pope Steven VI put his late predecessor, Pope Formosus, on trial for ecclesiastical offenses, so that Formosus could be declared to have been an illegitimate pope, and all his actions while in office reversed or annulled. To that end, Formosus’s corpse was disinterred, he was dressed in his papal vestments, and put on trial, as though he were a living defendant standing trial for his supposed offenses.

That’s right, folks: The Roman Catholic Church actually put a dead body on trial!

I’m sure you won’t believe me, but please, feel free to check it out for yourself: From no less an authority than the Catholic Encyclopedia — which in its 1909 edition you can read for free online (with a WebCite cached version) … just scroll down to the last paragraph of the article to read about this winsome little nugget of R.C. history.

At any rate, I have to wonder why anyone in the Vatican would object to putting an infirm old man on trial; after all, if a trial was good enough for the deceased and already-partly-rotting Pope Formosus, then it’s good enough for a sick and aged Fr Murphy … no?

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