Posts Tagged “witch-hunt”

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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Salem witch2I blogged some time ago about Germany addressing its witch-hunting past. A similar effort has been underway here in my home state of Connecticut, which had a couple surges of witch-hunts several decades prior to the now-much-more-famous witch-hunts in Salem, MA (WebCite cached version). One would think that, in the 21st century and in a “blue state,” the powers-that-be would at least be willing to entertain the idea that the witches killed by the Connecticut colony in the 17th century just might have been the victimes of an injustice.

Efforts to rehabilitate Connecticut’s witches started back in ’05 or ’06. An early result was this research report by legislative staff (cached). Such efforts were generally resisted by the General Assembly and the state bureaucracy. Nevertheless, advocates for making things right continue to plug away, as Hartford FAVS reports (cached):

At 82, Bernice Mable Graham Telian doubts she’ll live long enough to see the name of her seventh grandmother and ten others hanged in Colonial Connecticut for witchcraft cleared. …

In 2008, Telian wrote to Connecticut lawmakers when a resolution was introduced in the General Assembly to acknowledge the witch trials. Lawmakers heard testimony from descendants of executed witches and historians, but the measure died. There was even an earlier effort to get the victims pardoned, but the state board of Pardons and Parole said it doesn’t grant posthumous pardons.

Now members of the Connecticut Wiccan & Pagan Network are pushing Gov. Dannel Malloy to sign a proclamation to clear the names of the victims. Supporters are asked to send Malloy a postcard that reads: I am a Pagan/Witch and I vote. Clear the names of Connecticut’s eleven accused and executed witches.

Connecticut lawmakers and bureaucrats have had many excuses for why they refused to act on this over the last 6 or 7 years. Chief among them is the belief that it will set a precedent that would somehow bring on hundreds of lawsuits by people trying to posthumously clear their ancestors. The request for a proclamation rather than a pardon, though, gets around that:

Anthony Griego, who is heading the effort, said the proclamation is non-binding and doesn’t open up the door for lawsuits.

I expect even this namby-pamby, nowhere-near-a-real-exoneration of Connecticut’s witches to meet continued resistance by state government. It’s not viewed as a priority, and it’s thought of as something from the deep dark past with no importance. The state’s Right wing is particularly resistant to doing anything, as seen — for example — in this 2008 editorial in the New Haven Register:

Connecticut does not grant posthumous pardons for those convicted of crimes. That includes those hanged as witches in the 17th century. Instead, the legislature’s Judiciary Committee is considering a resolution denouncing the state’s witch trials as shocking. Of course, they are shocking to a modern sensibility. Equally telling, however, is the 21st century urge to find current victims of ancient miscarriages of justice. …

The legislature’s venture into the state’s earliest history suggests some of the foolishness of our passing judgment on a far different time. In the 17th century, evil and the devil were considered real.

This editorial, then, pans the idea of pardoning Connecticut’s witches as a (presumably Lefist) effort to “find more victims” to help, and it excuses Connecticut’s witch trials as normal and acceptable for the time in which they occurred. Unfortunately, they were not “normal”; witch trials in the American colonies were actually not very common at all — this is why they’re so remarkable and seem so egregious (at the time they occurred, and even more since). Furthermore, it was immoral then and it remains immoral now, even though Christian witch-hunts continue to happen in other parts of the world. The Register editorial also smacks a little bit of the Tea Partiers in Tennessee who demand that schools there not teach that some of the Founding Fathers owned slaves because, quite simply, they don’t want to hear about it any more. Sheesh!

The real point, here, as far as I’m concerned, is: How can Americans dare tell people in other parts of the world to stop their witch-hunts, if they aren’t also willing to go on the record and state, clearly and unequivocally, that the witch-hunts in our own past were reprehensible and wrong? What’s more, an injustice is still an injustice, even if it happened in the past and everyone involved is long dead. Admitting past injustices is a way of preventing them in the future. And what, exactly, is the point of refusing to admit that injustices happened, when everyone fucking well knows they did? Mature adults can handle such an admission. So let’s just get it done already, fercryinoutloud!

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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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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Young Saudi Arabian woman in Abha, by Walter CallensIt seems I leaped to conclusions about Saudi Arabia entering the 21st century. That country remains mired in medieval thinking, as exemplified in this ABC News report about a Saudi woman who was beheaded for having engaged in “witchcraft” and “sorcery” (WebCite cached article):

A Saudi woman was beheaded after being convicted of practicing “witchcraft and sorcery,” according to the Saudi Interior Ministry, at least the second such execution for sorcery this year.

The woman, Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar, was executed in the northern Saudi province of al-Jawf on Monday.

The “evidence” against her?

A source close to the Saudi religious police told Arab newspaper al Hayat that authorities who searched Nassar’s home found a book about witchcraft, 35 veils and glass bottles full of “an unknown liquid used for sorcery” among her possessions. According to reports, authorities said Nassar claimed to be a healer and would sell a veil and three bottles for 1500 riyals, or about $400.

This execution received a stamp of approval from the entire Saudi court system:

According to the ministry, Nassar’s death sentence was upheld by an appeals court and the Saudi Supreme Judicial Council.

Are we quite clear, now, on how barbaric it is to kill people over mere metaphysics?

Note: Any Christians out there who are thinking how superior their religion is to Islam, in this regard, had best be careful: I’ve already blogged about Christians in Africa who’ve gone after supposed “witches.” Christians would do well to keep in mind how much harm their own religion has inflicted on people in the name of eliminating witchcraft. Christianity certainly does not have clean hands in this matter — even now.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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