Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Witch Craze

Anyone interested in the witch hunts of the 16th-17th centuries will want to read Lyndal Roper's Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany. Laura Miller, one of my favorite reviewers, reviews the book here. Roper dispenses with certain myths about church crusades, especially theories involving a centralized campaign to get rid of (supposed) goddess-worshiping pagans. The witch hunts were more the outcome of petty and vindictive village quarrels. Scapegoating usually started at the common level, born of simple spite and envy, to be joined by equally petty (and perhaps psychosexually fixated) local magistrates. The church itself was infrequently involved with witch-hunting.

Excerpts from Miller's review:

"The Inquisition was not greatly involved in witch burnings; it had its hands full with Protestants and other heretics, whom the church shrewdly perceived to be a far more serious threat to its power. In fact, while the justification for condemning witches was religious, and some religious figures joined in witch hunting campaigns, the trials were not run by churches of any denomination. They were largely held in civil courts and prosecuted by local authorities as criminal cases.

"A witch panic... was less the act of a ruthless authority stamping out all dissenters than a sign of a power vacuum: 'The very fragmentation of political and legal authority in Germany made it possible for panics to get out of hand, while the intensity of religious struggle, with the forces of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation confronting each other directly, nourished a kind of moral fundamentalism that saw the Devil's hand at work in all opponents.'...

"Current popular history holds that the witch hunts were concerted campaigns by a male-dominated church that felt its sway diminished by stubborn pagan and folk traditions that gave too much respect to wise old women... However, when you look at actual cases, the picture is quite the opposite... In most cases, the community itself started it. The church used trials and demonology texts to impose order on the chaotic paranoia of villagers looking for scapegoats for their own misfortunes... There's every reason to believe that -- far from seeking to eradicate folk beliefs in black magic -- Christian churches took advantage of ancient superstitions by stepping in to offer themselves as a solution to the mischief done by evil sorcerers...

"None of this excuses the Catholic and Protestant churches for the many atrocities they've perpetrated over the centuries, against 'witches' or anyone else who earned their disfavor. But it's also a caution against idealizing a pagan past about which we know next to nothing. The pagan cultures that have left records have proven themselves every bit as capable of misogyny and of senselessly brutalizing outsiders and misfits. As human beings, pagans were just as capable of barbarity as monotheists; and as human beings, women can be just as wicked as men, given half a chance...

"A gift of baked goods that comes with a barbed remark about the recipient's own culinary skills, a quarrel over the price of apples, irritation at someone who doesn't come promptly to dinner when called -- these are the sorts of incidents that precipitated the hideous cruelty of Europe's witch hunts. 'It is difficult to comprehend the sheer viciousness of the way villagers and townsfolk attacked those they held to be witches,' Roper writes. Then again, if you've ever lived in a small community, is it really that difficult to see how they got started in that direction, if not how they managed to get so far? It may take a village to raise a child, but history also keeps telling us that it takes a village to burn a witch."

The Guardian also has a review here. Roper's book goes well alongside Edward Peter's Inquisition, which similarly refutes theories about a sinister centralized church whose agents worked everywhere to thwart the masses. No one likes apologists for the church, but those who demonize the church are just as bad, and historically wrong.


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