Posts Tagged “witch-hunts”

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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