Monday, 20 March 2017

Musings on the Witch Hunts of the Early Modern Period

The month of March and the lead up to the Spring Equinox has been eventful, although not as eventful or as busy as it should have been. The first few days of the month were bright, surprisingly warm and teased us with the prospect of the warmer spring. This proved to be a rouse on the part of the weather Gods, as the weather would again turn cold mid-month. This hot and cold start of the month has been our year so far, with events and activities planned, some manifesting and successful, others less so.

In 2016 we in the Hearth of the Turning Wheel made the conscious decision to spread our wings a little more, to attend events and hold our own private moots. Attendance at the latter has been steady but not impressive. This year we took the step of editing our public listing on Witchvox and stating for the first time publicly, that we are actively recruiting.

The results of our more public movements have been mixed and surprisingly of some note. Early in the month of March this year, I was emailed by two students at New College in Nottingham. The students are on a BTEC film course and seeking to make a short (two minute) documentary on the Witch Hunt, sought an interview with a member of the Pagan community.

Since their available dates corresponded with my own annual leave I was pleased to step forward, agreeing to meet them in Nottingham on Tuesday 7th, a surprisingly warm and bright day at first. I met the two young people, one male and one female, both exceptional polite and good natured, near the lions on the market place and we then went for a bite to eat. Over a sandwich and a cup of tea I fielded questions and explained my own position in greater detail than the emails we had exchanged.

Although I am far from being an expert on the period of the Witch Hunts, I do have some knowledge of the matter and the advantage of being aware of the many pitfalls associated with this often controversial subject. These pitfalls are perpetuated in many poorly researched books and on websites innumerable.

The early modern period that is considered to include the Witch Hunts, is a time of great complexity and is therefore, difficult to fully understand. It is certainly true to say that the three centuries generally described as the period of the Witch Hunt has influenced our current historical perspective but our interpretation of that period is often misunderstood and characterised by gross misinformation.

The Witch Hunts today, looked on separately from the medieval period of religious disharmony that included the persecutions of the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade, are generally ascribed to have begun in the fifteenth century and ended in the seventeenth. The general dates suggested being 1450 to 1750 approximately.

A cursory search of the less academically credible works and websites, soon results in the usual spurious claims, that there was a systematic persecution of women, that there was a deliberate attempt to wipe away residual Pagan survivals, that nine million people perished and that witches were habitually burnt.

These claims are shown once more credible sauces are accessed, such as the classic Robin Biggs 1998 work, ‘Witches and Neighbours: the Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft,’ to be either untrue or barely half true. There is no evidence of a systematic persecution of women, even though women were considered to carry the sin of Eve, be more susceptible to temptation and therefore (un)naturally gifted at sorcery. If there had been such a planned extermination, our species would not have survived.

The destruction of residual Pagan belief is highly questionable, as the period of mass conversion in Europe was over by approximately 500 years. Rather what we actually witness, is a continuation of the heretical persecutions of the medieval period and the development of the religious wars between Catholic and Protestant.

The claims of nine million dead are easily dismissed on two points, first of all the European populations could not have sustained the loss of three million people per century, on top of the losses already accrued through war, famine and plague. To put it simply and using England and Wales with a population constant of four million, from the late medieval period to the Industrial Revolution as an example, there was not enough people to kill.

Secondly, in the late twentieth century historians looking at this period in far greater detail than previously and examining court records, have come up with a probable figure of fifty thousand people executed for witchcraft (but not specifically heresy) during those three centuries, with an upper estimate of one hundred and fifty thousand. Allowing for mob justice, that is the unrecorded and illegal executions of the European peasantry, there is an increase in the figure to one hundred thousand to three hundred thousand over the course of those three centuries. However, it is important to note that amongst historians, the lower figures are regarded as the more credible based on the evidence. Even if we allow or accept the unlikely upper estimate of three hundred thousand, we will note the huge discrepancy when compared with the fanciful estimate of three million.

The Witch Hunts are as many will know, often known as the Burning Times. This is something of a misnomer, although there is evidence to support claims that condemned witches were burnt, it is necessary to offer the caveat that the method of execution varied from state to state. In England witches were hung and heretics burnt. On continental Europe, it could be either mode of execution for either crime but burning was not necessarily the method of choice.

This I was able to freely expound to the students, who were most impressed with my encyclopaedic memory. The information presented was equally challenging, as their research was as expected, not as in depth as my own. Amusingly, it was noted that I was not what they expected. Well my attire did include a cravat, a jumper and a tweed jacket. Perhaps they expected me to turn up in black velvet and dripping with silver pentacles, I’m really not sure.

We moved on to Victoria Park, passing the lion tomb of William Abednego Thompson. Known simply as Bendigo, he is a legend in Nottingham, a Victorian bare knuckle boxer and national champion. Finding a comfortable seat I was interviewed straight to camera and attempted to answer the very simple questions to the best of my ability, before being allowed to recap our earlier conversation from memory. It has to be said, I think I did a better job in the cafĂ©, comfortable and warm, than I did later in the park. It is hoped that the documentary, once completed will be available via the New College website or YouTube. Then people will be able to judge my performance for themselves.

The experience has however, led me to look at the matter in more detail than I have done for many years. There are important questions that still need to be asked. Why when there is such a wealth of historical evidence pertaining to the period of the Witch Hunts, are such fabricated lies (such as those outlined above), still available and believed? Why do so many members of the Pagan and Witchcraft community, including many authors, perpetuate the misinformation?

I can’t address that but it still leaves a question, hanging unanswered. Why is it easier to believe a lie than to accept the truth?

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