Monday, September 24, 2007

The Last Witch to be Executed

At the start of my article about the end of the witch trials, I state that the last execution took place in 1782 in Glarus, Switzerland. This fact appears in almost everything ever written about the trials but I previously knew nothing specific about the event. The other day, the BBC aired a programme on Radio 4 about this final executed 'witch' (with an accompanying article here). She was called Anna Goeldi and her story is one of jealousy and class-politics rather than witchcraft. Her confession, extracted under torture, was a succession of cliches which should have convinced no one. But influential people wanted her dead. Today, there is a campaign for her to be officially acquitted or pardoned, which the authorities are resisting, as authorities do. I think this is a mistake. Not long ago, after decades of prevarication, the British Government issued a blanket pardon for all the deserters executed during the First World War. This was a humane act and I don't see why the authorities in Glarus feel it is worth defending a conviction for witchcraft.

A few posts ago, I asked why there are no right-wing conspiracies. I was put in my place by the comments, but it has also occurred to me that the witch craze, originating in learned books by theologians, was the ultimate conservative conspiracy and one of the most damaging.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.


Bjørn Are said...

Reading from the BBC article:

"Fear and superstition fuelled witch-hunts all over Europe in the Middle Ages and caused the deaths of many innocent women."

Is there any hope for a mainstream acceptance of the witch hunts being a rather localised phenomenon (over 50 % of the cases were in present Germany) from the 16 and 17th century, when even a serious organisatio like BBC places witch-hunts "all over Europe" and "in the Middle Ages"?

SlagleRock said...

Without meaning to minimize the suffering that took place during various "witch hunts," it should be noted that it has been greatly exaggerated for PR against Christianity. Philip J. Sampson's book Six Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization deals with witches in chapter six. He also references a book by Diane Purkiss called The Witch in History. Sampson's is one of those books that has a bibliography that's worth the price of the entire book.

Bjørn Are said...

Indeed, a good book. I wrote one even earlier (1998) on such myths (there are more than six), unfortunately in Norwegian only;-)

One question being addressed by Historians at the moment is not whye there were so many witches (and sorceres) executed in Europe, but whye there were so few. The last generation more people have been murderes/executed (e.g. in Africa) for sorcery than during the whole "European witch craze".

In short what held Europeans back for more than a thousand years after Constantine, and why did so few get killed when the courts handled such cases for some hundred years (mainly from late 1400's ti lae 1600)?