Posts Tagged “middle ages”

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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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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It’s official. The Republic of Ireland — a generally-enlightened country whose economy boomed through most of the 2000’s — has slid back into the Dark Ages. It is now illegal to blaspheme in Ireland, as the New York Times Lede blog reports:

After some hesitation, Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese, signed into law on Thursday a controversial new measure which makes it a crime, punishable by a fine of up to $35,000, to publish or utter blasphemous statements in the Irish Republic.

As The Irish Times explained in April, the new law was crafted after someone noticed that while the country’s constitution clearly calls blasphemy a criminal act, Irish legislators had failed to give the nation’s police force the legal means to hold blasphemers to account.

Ireland’s response to the problem was not to amend its Constitution to remove the offending clause … it was, instead, to dig in, keep it, and make it enforceable.


This means lots of things are now impermissible in Ireland, probably including the showing of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a scene from which actually exemplifies (via parody) what’s wrong with laws against blasphemy, as the Lede showed.

Here is the offending scene, courtesy of YouTube:

I can only assume it’s illegal to view for someone in Ireland to cite material from my blog, since it has so much godless-heathen content. Heck, it might even be illegal for someone in Ireland merely to view this blog! So if you’re reading this blog in Ireland, best of luck, and hopefully the authorities will never find out you’ve been here. (I certainly won’t tell!)

The Lede blog offers the following defense of Ireland’s new ban on blasphemy:

In fairness to Irish lawmakers, it should be noted that six American states — Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wyoming — still have laws against blasphemy on the books, although they are only occasionally enforced in the 21st century.

I’m sure the New York Times meant this to be taken humorously, but sadly enough, there are some who will say that Ireland’s ban on blasphemy is acceptable, because these states also ban it … following the old “two wrongs make a right” thinking which is decidedly fallacious (but then, religionists never met a fallacy they didn’t like).

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People often ask me what good my degree in medieval history is. An answer I sometimes give is, “In many ways our civilization is still medieval; modern history is medieval history, and vice versa.” A sterling example of this is in the following case; it exemplifies the medieval mindset which still lives on, even in 21st century Connecticut (USA).

Recently there appeared on YouTube a video of a teen being exorcized of “homosexual demons”; this report comes from WTIC-TV (Fox 61) in Hartford:

A Connecticut church posted a controversial video on YouTube that raised questions about the treatment of children by a leader of a gay and lesbian teen mentoring group among others

The video features church elders performing what looks like an exorcism, of what they refer to in the video as “homosexual demons”

The video shows leaders of the Manifested Glory Ministries in a frenetic scene, screaming, “Right now I command you to leave!”

At the same time a teen writhing on the ground as the adults around him implore so called “homosexual demons” to get out.

The leaders yell at the boy on the ground saying, “Right now in the name of Jesus, I call the homosexuality, right now in the name of Jesus.”

For 20 minutes it continues with the boy in a near seizure, even vomiting.

(Missing punctuation is per the original story.)

The Bridgeport, CT church that orchestrated this gay exorcism doesn’t appear interested in defending their practices, though, and even pulled not only this video but their entire account from YouTube:

Prophet Patricia McKinney and her husband, church overseer Kelvin McKinney have a weekly radio show. She wasn’t much interested in talking, telling Fox 61’s Laurie Perez, “Don’t be following, I’m telling you no.” …

The church has recently taken down its YouTube account, but the video is still posted on other sites.

So this church is happy to exorcize “homosexual demons,” and are even proud enough of it to post it to YouTube … but once it gets ridiculed and reporters ask about it, they suddenly become shy, won’t admit to it, and even try to conceal it. How wonderful.

Note: the video that’s embedded on the Fox 61 report page, is their own televised report, not the original exorcism video. That can be seen here, if you care to look:

Although this “exorcism” is not of the Hollywood sort and a little bit campy, having seen a number of exorcisms as performed by Protestant fundamentalists myself, I can attest to this one being quite usual.

At any rate, although this ceremony is not the famous Rituale Romanum as it had been practiced in the Middle Ages, the idea that a person’s problems are caused by diabolic or demonic possession, making exorcism a solution, is most certainly a very medieval idea. (That’s not to say that I consider being gay to be a “problem” … that’s what Manifested Glory Ministries thinks.) Our 21st century occidental civilization obviously has a great deal of development left ahead of it, before it actually becomes a truly 21st-century civilization.

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