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Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (1/12)

Introduction

The European witch hunting era is one of the most appalling atrocities in Christian history, and has stigmatised the Christians of the Middle Ages (as well as Christianity generally), as superstitious, irrational, ignorant, and inhumane. But whilst there is no excusing the perpetrators, or those who encouraged the craze, certain facts should be understood which demonstrate that this madness was in fact not characteristic of Christianity, nor even characteristic of Christianity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but a strange incongruity in almost 2,000 years of Christian history.

The following charges have been directed at Christianity generally, and the established church specifically:

* That 9 million people were killed as a result of the witch hunts

* That the witch hunts were the product of a deliberate campaign by the established church to suppress an ancient pagan ‘mother goddess’ religion, or (more generally), to suppress women

* That the witch hunts were the result of hysterical anti-heresy efforts carried out by the Inquisition

* That the witch hunt era came to an end as a result of the ‘Age of Reason’, the rise of science, and a declining belief in the supernatural

Such charges are typically found among feminists and those who hold to ‘New Age’ beliefs, including self-styled ‘pagans’, or ‘neo-pagans’. None of these charges are true. In particular, the anti-Christian arguments frequently presented by pagans and neo-pagans are completely without evidence or substance.

An excellent article by self-described pagan Jenny Gibbons (addressed to her fellow pagans), destroys utterly the most common arguments raised. Gibbons notes that the vast majority of feminist and pagan literature on this subject is grossly inaccurate, and completely out of date:

‘Many articles in Pagan magazines contain almost no accurate information about the “Burning Times”, primarily because we rely so heavily on out-dated research.’

‘We Neopagans now face a crisis. As new data appeared, historians altered their theories to account for it. We have not. Therefore an enormous gap has opened between the academic and the “average” Pagan view of witchcraft. We continue to use of out-dated and poor writers, like Margaret Murray, Montague Summers, Gerald Gardner, and Jules Michelet.

We avoid the somewhat dull academic texts that present solid research, preferring sensational writers who play to our emotions. For example, I have never seen a copy of Brian Levack’s The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe in a Pagan bookstore. Yet half the stores I visit carry Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s Witchcraze, a deeply flawed book which has been ignored or reviled by most scholarly historians.

We owe it to ourselves to study the Great Hunt more honestly, in more detail, and using the best data available. Dualistic fairy tales of noble witches and evil witch hunters have great emotional appeal, but they blind us to what happened.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

The charges previously listed will now be examined in turn.

The Myth Of The Nine Million

The incredible figure of 9 million women executed for witchcraft, which was first claimed by 19th century feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage (with no historical support whatever), has long been disproved. Modern estimates ranging from 40-60,000, and these estimates are deliberately inflated in order to take into account missing data such as lost records. In fact, the number of executions for witchcraft which have been authenticated is far lower:

‘To date, less than 15,000 definite executions have been discovered in all of Europe and America combined. (If you would like a table of the recorded and estimated death tolls throughout Europe, and a full list of the sources for these figures, send (the author) a note at jennyg@compuserve.com.) Even though many records are missing, it is now clear that death tolls higher than 100,000 are not believable.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

Though dramatically less than 9 million, these numbers are still hideously shocking, and it would be a tragedy if even one person had been executed for this imaginary crime. Nevertheless, it is equally tragic for inflated figures to be falsely represented as true.

The Myth Of The Mother Goddess

In 1921, Margaret Murray published a book entitled ‘The Witch-Cult In Western Europe’, in which she claimed that the witch hunts were the product of a systematic attempt by the established church to suppress an ancient pagan religion of the ‘Horned God’. Drawing on numerous accounts of witches and their confessions, Murrary was convinced that even the most outrageous confessions made under extreme torture should be treated as accurate descriptions of a pagan religion which was widespread and systematically practiced throughout Europe.

In order to establish her argument, Murray bizarrely found it necessary to denigrate the intelligent Christians who rejected such confessions as completely untrue, who argued strongly that no real ‘covens’ of witches existed, and who believed that there was indeed no such thing as a ‘witch’. It was completely contrary to Murray’s case that so many Christians fought against the persecution for which she wished to hold Christians responsible, and no help to her that the confessions on which she relied to create her alleged ‘Horned God’ religion had so frequently been dismissed as completely imaginary.

Thus Murray overemphasized the importance of those Christians who believed in witches, whilst attempting to slander and defame those who rejected the belief:

‘It will be seen that the most brilliant minds, the keenest intellects, the greatest investigators, were among the believers: Bodin, Lord Bacon, Raleigh, Boyle, Cudworth, Selden, Henry More, Sir Thomas Browne, Matthew Hale, Sir George Mackenzie, and many others, most of whom had heard the evidence at first hand. The sceptics were Weyer, pupil of the occultist Cornelius Agrippa; Reginald Scot, a Kentish country squire; Filmer, whose name was a byword for potical bigotry; Wagstaffe, who went mad from drink; and Webster, a fanatical preacher.’

Margaret Murray, ‘The Witch-Cult In Western Europe’, 1921

This pargraph is incredible not only for its malice, but also for its inaccuracy. Robert Boyle was not a believer in witches and witchcraft, expressing only a belief that it was possible that angels and demons may intevene in the lives of men and women, but doubted it could be proved definitely. Similarly, Lord Bacon held a very rational and skeptical attitude towards these beliefs:

‘Even though he remained formally open-minded regarding the existence of witches and demons, when Bacon chose to discuss particular issues, he, like other Anglicans, explained beliefs in witchcraft as arising out of the misinterpretation of natural phenomena. Thus, for example, in the Sylva sylvarum, he argued that the hallucinogenic effects of some ointments produced a mistaken belief in real transvection (human flight) and metamorphoses; so that when women charged as witches confessed to being transformed into animals and transported to witches sabbaths, they were mistakenly reporting their hallucinations as reality.’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43, Winter 1992

In her efforts to discredit those Christians who objected to taking stories of witches and witchcraft seriously, Murray characterizes Johann Weyer’s tutor as ‘the occultist Cornelius Agrippa’, trying to defame Weyer by associating him indirectly with the occult through Agrippa. In fact, Agrippa was a devout Christian who (though he wrote a book on the history of the occult, which he never published, and though he studied the so called ‘occult sciences’ such as astrology and alchemy, like many other Christians of his day), was never charged or suspected of indulging in occult practices himself. This of course does not reflect at all negatively on Weyer, who was a dedicated Christian himself, and who believed in the devil and demons (though he rejected a belief in witchcraft).

Reginald Scott is dismissed by Murry as ‘a Kentish country squire’, as if this somehow invalidates his extensive work on the witchcraft delusion (which cites around 235 different authors), his sound Biblical arguments, and his vast knowledge of the sleight of hand techniques used by magicians to fool their audience. Robert Filmer is labelled a political bigot (a prejudiced opinion), but Murry does not explain how this in any way detracts from his excellent ‘Advertisement to the jurymen of England touching witches’, in which he urges caution and temperance in dealing with accusations of witchcraft.

John Wagstaffe is accused of becoming ‘mad from drink’, though no source is cited for this claim. Even if it were true, Wagstaffe certainly wrote ‘The Question of Witchcraft’ whilst sober and in sound mind, and it was slanderous of Murry to insinuate that Wagstaffe’s alleged later actions in some way require this very important book to be ignored. As for John Webster, charged by Murrary with being ‘a fanatical preacher’ (which she does not even attempt to justify), no explanation is given of why his arguments against the reality of witchcraft should be dismissed on account of his alleged ecclesiastical zeal.

It is ironic that Murry lists among her champions the French witch finder Bodin, who not only approved of but actually recommended the torture of those suspected of witchcraft (even if they were children), believed that accusations of witchcraft were equivalent to proof, and said that burning witches over a slow fire for half an hour was too quick a death for them. This is a man whom Murry praises as one of ‘ the most brilliant minds, the keenest intellects, the greatest investigators’.

All this aside, Murray’s argument that the witch hunts were Christianity’s answer to a rival pagan religion were completely discredited years ago:

‘For years, the responsibility for the Great Hunt has been dumped on the Catholic Church’s door-step. 19th century historians ascribed the persecution to religious hysteria. And when Margaret Murray proposed that witches were members of a Pagan sect, popular writers trumpeted that the Great Hunt was not a mere panic, but rather a deliberate attempt to exterminate Christianity’s rival religion.

Today, we know that there is absolutely no evidence to support this theory.’

‘Before trial evidence was available, there were two major theories on who the witches were. Margaret Murray (The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches) proposed that witches were members of a Pagan sect that worshipped the Horned God. Murray’s research was exceptionally poor, and occasionally skated into out-right textual manipulation. She restricted her studies to our worst evidence: witch hunting propaganda and trials that involved copious amounts of torture. She then assumed that such evidence was basically accurate, and that the Devil was “really” a Pagan god. None of these assumptions have held up under scrutiny.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

The Myth Of The Midwife

One very popular interpretation of the witch hunts is that they were part of an anti-female program by the Christian establishment with the intention of systematically suppressing women generally, or women ‘healers’ and midwives specifically, both allegedly seen as threats to the establishment:

‘In 1973, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English suggested that most witches were mid-wives and female healers. Their book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses convinced many feminists and Pagans that the Great Hunt was a pogrom aimed at traditional women healers. The Church and State sought to break the power of these women by accusing them of witchcraft, driving a wedge of fear between the wise-woman and her clients.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

This theory, like so many others, has also been proven entirely untrue:

The evidence for this theory was — and is — completely anecdotal. Authors cited a number of cases involving healers, then simply assumed that this was what the “average” trial was like. However a mere decade after Witches, Midwives, and Nurses was published, we knew that this was not true. Healers made up a small percentage of the accused, usually between 2% and 20%, depending on the country. There was never a time or a place where the majority of accused witches were healers. In 1990, D. Harley’s article, “Historians as demonologists: the myth of the midwife-witch” (in Social History of Medicine 3 (1990), pp. 1-26.) demonstrated that being a licensed midwife actually decreased a woman’s chances of being charged.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

Ironically, the evidence is much to the contrary. It was the midwives who often denounced the local ‘wise woman’ as a witch, and some of these village ‘healers’ in turn denounced each other:

‘And there was worse to come. Feminist and Pagan writers presented the healer-witch as the innocent, enlightened victim of the evil male witch hunters. Trials showed that as often as not, the “white” witch was an avid supporter of the “Burning Times.” Diane Purkiss (The Witch in History) pointed out that “midwives were more likely to be found helping witch-hunters” than as victims of their inquiries.

How did witches become witch-hunters? By blaming illnesses on their rivals. Feminist authors rightly lambasted male doctors who blamed unexplained illnesses on witches. Trial records suggest that this did happen, though not terribly often. If you look at doctors’ case books you find that in most cases doctors found natural causes when people thought they were bewitched. When they did diagnose witchcraft, doctors almost never blamed a particular healer or witch. They were trying to explain their failure, not to destroy some individual.

Traditional healers and “white” witches routinely blamed diseases on witchcraft. For a doctor, diagnosing “witchcraft” was admitting failure. Medicine could do nothing against magick, and doctors were loathe to admit that they were powerless against a disease. However baneful magick was the forte of the helpful (or “white” witch). Folk healers regularly blamed illnesses on magick and offered counter-spells to cure their patients. Many were even willing to divine the name of the cursing witch, for a fee.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998


The Myth Of The Inquistion

It is commonly believed that the witch hunts took place during an era when the established church was strong, and able to impose its religious views on the population. In fact, the opposite is the case:

‘When the Church was at the height of its power (11th-14th centuries) very few witches died. Persecutions did not reach epidemic levels until after the Reformation, when the Catholic Church had lost its position as Europe’s indisputable moral authority. Moreover most of the killing was done by secular courts. Church courts tried many witches but they usually imposed non-lethal penalties. A witch might be excommunicated, given penance, or imprisoned, but she was rarely killed. The Inquisition almost invariably pardoned any witch who confessed and repented.’

‘Consider the case in York, England, as described by Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic). At the height of the Great Hunt (1567-1640) one half of all witchcraft cases brought before church courts were dismissed for lack of evidence. No torture was used, and the accused could clear himself by providing four to eight “compurgators”, people who were willing to swear that he wasn’t a witch. Only 21% of the cases ended with convictions, and the Church did not impose any kind of corporal or capital punishment.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

The infamous work ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ (‘The Witches’ Hammer’), a guide to detecting and trying witches, has long been considered the standard church work on the subject, and is still thought by many to represent the ‘official’ manual of the church, and especially of the Inquisition. The book claims to be the work of two Dominican priests (James Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer), but in fact there is evidence that the book was entirely the work of Kramer, who attached Sprenger’s name to the book in order to take advantage of Sprenger’s influential position in the church, and so give the work greater credibility. Historical evidence also shows that Sprenger showed no personal interest in witchcraft, was unconnected with any witch trials, and was actively hostile to Kramer. The probability of them co-authoring the work is extremely low.

The front of the book includes a letter from Pope Innocent III, commending both Kramer and Sprenger for their work, and urging them to prosecute witches. But contrary to popular belief it seems the letter was not an official endorsement, but written by the Pope at the personal request of Kramer, who hoped it would increase his personal prestige. There is no evidence that the Pope actually commissioned the book, or even read it.

The book also contains a letter of approval from the University of Cologne, but there is evidence that this was forged, and the university in fact condemned the book for unethical legal practices and contradicting Catholic teaching on demons. That Kramer forged both Sprenger’s involvement and the letter from Cologne, casts considerable doubt on the worth of the genuine letter from the Pope. It is clear that the Pope was certainly not aware of the true authorship of the book, or even of its contents, and his letter of recommendation was therefore worthless.

Kramer himself was condemned by the Inquisition 6 years after the book was published (that Sprenger was not condemned supports the case that he was not a co-author), and the Catholic Church actually placed the book on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the list of prohibited books), but despite this it gained great popularity among secular witch hunters and courts. Rejected by the Church, it was never an accurate reflection of methods used by the Inquisition to deal with accusations of witchcraft:

‘In the 1970’s, when feminist and Neo-Pagan authors turned their attention to the witch trials, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) was the only manual readily available in translation. Authors naively assumed that the book painted an accurate picture of how the Inquisition tried witches. Heinrich Kramer, the text’s demented author, was held up as a typical inquisitor. His rather stunning sexual preoccupations were presented as the Church’s “official” position on witchcraft. Actually the Inquisition immediately rejected the legal procedures Kramer recommended and censured the inquisitor himself just a few years after the Malleus was published. Secular courts, not inquisitorial ones, resorted to the Malleus.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

A related charge against the Church is that the Spanish Inquisition was the Christian organization responsible for the greatest persecution of witches. But in actual fact, the Spanish Inquisition (established to prosecute heresy, not witches), was not only restrained from witch hunting, but was extremely lenient when it did encounter those accused of witchcraft.

The myth was built in part on the fact that Kramer and Sprenger were themselves members of the Inquisition, and thus ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ was considered to be an official witch hunting manual of the Inquisition, which in fact did not use it. The myth was also drawn from accounts of Inquisitorial witch trials found in ‘Histoire de l’Inquisition en France’ (written by Etienne Leon de Lamothe-Langon in 1829), accounts which were later discovered to have been completely fraudulent. Lamothe-Langon had forged them as a part of his career of writing historical novels and even biographies, and falsely representing their contents as genuine:

‘The myth of the witch-hunting inquisition was built on several assumptions and mistakes, all of which have been overturned in the last twenty-five years.’

‘As more research was done and historians became more sensitive to the “an inquisition/the Inquisition” error, the inquisitorial witch-hunter began to look like a rare bird. Lamothe-Langon’s trials were the last great piece of “evidence”, and when they fell, scholars re-examined the Inquisition’s role in the Burning Times. What they found was quite startling.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

The reality was that the Inquisition had for years been strictly forbidden from investigating witchcraft:

‘In 1258 Pope Alexander IV explicitly refused to allow the Inquisition from investigating charges of witchcraft: “The Inquisitors, deputed to investigate heresy, must not intrude into investigations of divination or sorcery without knowledge of manifest heresy involved.” The gloss on this passage explained what “manifest heresy” meant: “praying at the altars of idols, to offer sacrifices, to consult demons, to elicit responses from them… or if [the witches] associate themselves publicly with heretics.” In other words, in the 13th century the Church did not consider witches heretics or members of a rival religion.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

Even when the Inquisition was later authorised to deal with witch hunts and bring witches to trial, it rarely executed anyone:

As John Tedeschi demonstrates in his essay “Inquisitorial Law and the Witch” (in Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen’s Early Modern European Witchcraft) the Inquisition still played a very small role in the persecution. From 1326-1500, few deaths occurred. Richard Kieckhefer (European Witch Trials) found 702 definite executions in all of Europe from 1300-1500; of these, only 137 came from inquisitorial or church courts.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

In fact, contrary to all expectation the Spanish Inquisition took active steps to minimise the number of witch trials, and to quench the mass panics which frequently led to a chain of hysterical accusations. During the height of the witch hunts the Spanish Inquisition took a healthily skeptical attitude towards witches and accusations of witchcraft, and successfully suppressed outbreaks with intelligent policies:

‘When the trials peaked in the 16th and 17th century, the Inquisition was only operating in two countries: Spain and Italy, and both had extremely low death tolls. In fact, in Spain the Inquisition worked diligently to keep witch trials to a minimum.

Around 1609, a French witch-craze triggered a panic in the Basque regions of Spain. Gustav Henningsen (The Witches’ Advocate) documented the Inquisition’s work in brilliant detail. Although several inquisitors believed the charges, one skeptic convinced La Suprema (the ruling body of the Spanish Inquisition) that this was groundless hysteria. La Suprema responded by issuing an “Edict of Silence” forbidding all discussion of witchcraft. For, as the skeptical inquisitor noted, “There were neither witches nor bewitched until they were talked and written about.”

The Edict worked, quickly dissipating the panic and accusations. And until the end of the Great Hunt, the Spanish Inquisition insisted that it alone had the right to condemn witches — which it refused to do.’

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

In the Basque witch hunt mentioned above thousands of people were accused of witchcraft, but due to the diligent work of the Inquistors in diffusing the panic there were only six executions by the secular courts, with five more people dying in prison. If this had occurred in a country which did not enjoy the sober and restraining influence of the Spanish Inquisition towards witch hunts, the death toll would undoubtedly have been hundreds of times greater.

Part two.

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15 comments

  1. An excellent piece!
    I attended a lecture about IO years ago at the American Museum of Natural History.
    The lecturer was a scholar who was describing the conclusions of an investigation into birth control in pre-modern times.
    Among the things he mentioned was that one of the accusations against witches by churchmen was that they provided poisons to would-be murderers and facilitated abortions.
    I think this accusation is much closer to home than the witchcraft business.

    I believe that the witch hunts were the product of the huge amount of ill will released by the formation of Germanic Christianity (Protestantism) and the secession of most Germanic lands from Latin Christianity.
    I notice that whenever times are tough – particularly when there is a question as to who is in good standing in a society and who is not – a search for scape goats, or, rather, sacrificial victims, is likely to begin.
    Even in societies with strong governments the rulers are quite likely to feel that they must give the people victims or they will become the target of the ill will.
    The abuses of the McCarthy era and the post 9-II era in the U.S.A. are both examples of this, but are pale echoes of the major pogroms of the Reformation era.


  2. Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s part of a series in which I review the history of Christianity and witchcraft. I certainly agree with the points you made. In fact it’s noteworthy that the Hebrew and Greek words used in the Bible for ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ carry the meaning of ‘poisoner’ and ‘poisons’, which was one early association people made with witches.

    I am definitely in agreement with you about the socio-religious pressures which contributed to the witch hunt craze. This has been noted by a number of historians. I also agree that witch hunts of all kinds are a sociological phenomenon which exhibits itself in environments when ‘orthodoxy’ is considered to be under threat. The McCarthy era is an excellent case in point.


  3. Hello,

    I would like to have, if possible, a breakdown, by country, of the number of deaths due to the Witch Mania of the 15th to the early part of the 18th century; for example:

    France – no of people put to death for witchcraft
    Italy – ditto
    Germany- ditto
    England- ditto
    etc


  4. I would like to have such a breakdown also. I don’t have one. I believe such assessments are found in the scholarly literature. There is some useful information here:

    http://www.summerlands.com/crossroads/remembrance/current.htm


  5. The precise number of alleged witches who were accused, convicted or executed is simply impossible to recover in any detail. There are estimates for various jurisdictions, but these do not correspond to modern countries. Current estimates of executions are in the 50,000 to 100,000 range, over the period of European prosecutions — 15th to 18th centuries, depending on jurisdiction.

    Some Protestant jurisdictions saw extensive prosecutions, others did not. So too with Catholic jurisdictions.

    Many factors were involved. Religion was not, in itself, one of the most important. Legal code, social structure, political system, etc. A weak government was especially likely to give way to popular demands for prosecutions. Among the multitude of small jurisdictions within the Holy Roman Empire, there were many such. Only the imperial city states regularly used the emperor’s appeal process.

    Some German jurisdictions saw very few prosecutions, because slander was treated harshly. A formal accusation normally depended upon a long period (maybe 10-15 years) during which a reputation for evildoing accumulated. Those with enough friends and family members, financial resources and respectability could usually pursue their rumour-mongering accusers at an early stage. Only in a major panic were important figures likely to be among the accused.

    German states where major panics occurred were often those ruled by a Prince-Archbishop, one of the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, from whose courts there was no appeal to imperial courts. If an archbishop or one of his suffragan bishops became convinced that there was a widespread conspiracy of witches, the civil courts were in no position to resist.

    By contrast, the various Inquisitions of Mediterranean Europe and the colonies had no great interest in demonic witchcraft, the inquisitors were usually very sceptical about the evidence, and the central courts would review the evidence and replace overly enthusiastic inquisitors.

    Similarly, those cases that reached the appeal court of the Parlement de Paris were often dismissed, but perhaps less so at the Parlement de Bordeaux. The Duchy of Lorraine was a unitary jurisdiction with no system of appeals, with the consequences one might expect.

    In some regions or jurisdictions, or in some periods in particular ones, the accused were almost all men. In others, half and half. In others, mainly women.

    People were prosecuted because they were believed to be witches, not because they were men or women. Local stereotypes determined who were thought to be the likeliest practitioners of secret evil. Local social and legal systems determined who were the likeliest suspects to reach trial, to be found guilty, or to be executed.

    Of course some of the demonological texts display misogyny. Many texts of the period do. That can explain some aspects of the trials, such as changes in the gender pattern of trials, but texts have only an indirect impact on illiterate accusers. Moreover, this cannot explain wide variations between adjoining jurisdictions. Misogyny is not irrelevant, but it is hard to argue that it is sufficient to explain differences.

    Of course the scholarly texts on demonology, often in Latin, were written by men. Of course the judges and executioners were men.

    So too were the authors who wrote against witchcraft belefs and methods of prosecution. So too were the magistrates, judges and jurors who threw out accusations.

    The problem with “witch-hunting was really women-hunting” is that there are two false universals within that statement.

    Not all witches were the same. In this instance, they weren’t always women, and it is false to assert — no more than a few examples are provided, and comparisons between jurisdictions are avoided — that men were prosecuted only as relations of women accused.

    Not all women were the same. English prosecutions were at their height under one of the strongest monarchs in English history — Queen Elizabeth. What did she, or the aristocratic women around her, have in common with village women, apart from biology? What do feminist academics in New York have in common with poor women in Malawi, or Mississippi, for that matter? What does Margaret Thatcher have in common with an Algerian lesbian in Paris?

    Most thoughtful feminists, gays and lesbians, academics and activists, stopped thinking in such simple terms as male/female, gay/straight, black/white twenty or thirty years ago. It is those unable to abandon the slogans of a past era of feminism who continue to see the world in such terms. They are frozen in time, like Stalinists or Maoists.

    One of the missing differences, unmentionable among many Americans, is class. Or rather, less anachronistically, rank. Another is income. Another is respectability.

    The women who accused other women of killing children and animals were not betraying their interests, they were defending them. More specifically, they were usually defending their families, their home space and the non-market activities associated with housewifery. That is why brewing, butter-churning, breadmaking, and milk cows are mentioned so often as corroborating the central charge. In a village, accusations were the only weapon, short of physical violence, that could be used against a lethal menace that one could not avoid. It was normally a last resort.

    Prosecutions did not cease because accusers stopped believing that they and their children were in danger. Such beliefs only ebbed as a side effect of urbanization. They still linger in some remote rural areas of Europe, where lifelong face-to-face relationships transactions are normal.

    The upper ranks did not, for the most part, cease to believe in the possibility of witchcraft. They ceased to trust the evidence.


  6. Yeah right. What this really says, is that for more people were accused than originally thought. “Most were not executed”

    That means there were far more cases of innocent people suffering the lunacy of religion. If 15000 were put to death and most were not….what does that really say?

    The number could be astronomical, and likely was. I’m sure they kept impeccable records of the people they murdered and stole from. I’m sure they would have kept records…not.


    • No it doesn’t say far more people were accused than was originally thought. It says far fewer people were executed than originally thought. If 15,000 were put to death and most were not, that says the death toll was far lower than original estimates. The death toll is most likely larger than 15,000, closer to 40,000 with an upper limit of 60,000. If you have any evidence that the number was ‘astronomical’, please provide it. Of course impeccable records were not kept. That’s precisely why death toll estimates take account of missing and incomplete records, and estimate additional deaths which were never recorded, adding them to the total death toll. I note you made no comment on all the Christians who protested against the witch hunts.


  7. Also this article mentions nothing of the tens of thousands of native people that died in North America as a result of the Spanish inquisition. They had extensive rich history in language and libraries…all burned by the order of catholic Jesuit priests. Pure atrocity on a continental scale, as people were put to death as heretic savages, all for gold and god.


    • Please provide documentation from scholarly sources for ‘tens of thousands of native people that died in North America as a result of the Spanish inquisition’. I am also interested in the libraries to which you refer, and in the idea that the Spanish Inquisition operated in North America, motivated by gold. Please provide evidence for these claims.


    • I am going to assume that you are going to blame God for the violence done in the name of Christianity, but here is a question for you. If the Bible is fairly clear that all men were born in sin, to include the Christians, than why are you surprised that sinful men could commit sinful acts in the name of God who would not condone their actions? And if man is responsible for these sinful acts, than why does God get the blame? This is the problem with people who are born sinful, and misinterpret the text of the Bible, yet God is the one who gets the blame. This does not logically make sense. God did not tell the Catholic Priests to commit genocide, much the same as God did not tell Hitler to do the same. Man freely chooses evil, and man should freely accept the blame, not God. Also if you wish to talk about atrocities committed why not bring up Atheists as well. Why single out the Catholics? Joseph Stalin, an atheist killed millions, along with Mao Tsetong who killed 75 million. People are not as good as we would like to think, and this is the solution that true Christianity provides.


      • No I don’t blame God for the violence done in the name of Christianity. I blame sinful Christians for the violence done in the name of Christianity. I have not singled out Catholics in this series. It is focused on Christianity and the witch hunts, not on Catholicism.


  8. […] For more on this, a lengthy and detailed set of online articles looking at this topic fairly thoroughly can be found here: bibleapologetics.wordpress.com/christianity-and-the-witch-hunt-era-17/ […]


  9. even one would be too many.


    • Yes even one would be too many. The stupidity and terror of the witch hunts can rightly be laid at the feet of those Christians who believed in satan, demons, and witches. There were other Christians who did not believe in any of those things, and who protested the witch hunts. Unfortunately they were in the minority at the time.


  10. […] In Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era, Jonathan Burke points out that: “Historical facts demonstrate that the witch hunts were uncharacteristic of Christianity as a whole, though a belief in witches and witchcraft was common. The infamous ‘witch burning era’ is in fact confined to just 250 years of Christian history, and whilst large scale panics took place in many countries, it was rare for local church authorities to organize and initiate actual hunts. The overwhelming majority of witch hunts and accusations were initiated by the common people, many of whom retained pagan superstitions which local Christian teachers often did little or nothing to correct (and sometimes encouraged). But the Christian attitude and response to witchcraft was by no means uniform across Europe, and church authorities in different countries (sometimes even in different regions), treated the issue in a variety of ways.” […]



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