Monday, October 18, 2010

Quote of the Day

Here is a story. Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived on the edge of a village. She lived alone, in her own house surrounded by her garden, in which she grew all manner of herbs and other healing plants. Though she was alone, she was never lonely; she had her garden and her animals for company, she took lovers when she wished, and she was always busy. The woman was a healer and midwife; she had practical knowledge taught her by her mother, and mystical knowledge derived from her closeness to nature, or from a half-submerged pagan religion. She helped women give birth, and she had healing hands; she used her knowledge of herbs and her common sense to help the sick. However, her peaceful existence was disrupted. Even though this woman was harmless, she posed a threat to the fearful. Her medical knowledge threatened the doctor. Her simple, true spiritual values threatened the superstitious nonsense of the Catholic church, as did her affirmation of the sensuous body. Her independence and freedom threatened men. So the Inquisition descended on her, and cruelly tortured her into confessing to lies about the devil. She was burned alive by men who hated women, along with millions of other just like her.

Do you believe this story? Thousands of women do. It is still being retold, in full or in part, by women who are academics, but also by poets, novelists, popular historians, theologians, dramatists. It is compelling, even horrifying. However, in all essentials it is not true, or only partly true, as a history of what happened to the women called witches in the early modern period. Thousands of women were executed as witches, and in some parts of Europe torture was used to extract a confession from them; certainly, their gender often had a great deal to do with it; certainly, their accusers and judges were sometimes misogynists; certainly, by our standards they were innocent, in that to a post-Enlightenment society their "crime" does not exist. However, the women who died were not quite like the woman of the story, and they were not killed for quite the same reason. There is no evidence that the majority of those accused were healers and midwives; in England and also in some parts of the Continent, midwives were more likely to be found helping witch-hunters. Most women used herbal medicines as part of their household skills, some of which were quasi-magical, without arousing any anxiety. There is little evidence that convicted witches were invariably unmarried or sexually "liberated" or lesbian; many (though not most) of those accused were married women with young families. Men were not responsible for all accusations: many, perhaps even most, witches were accused by women, and most cases depend at least partly on the evidence given by women witnesses. Persecution was as severe in Protestant as in Catholic areas. The Inquisition, except in a few areas where the local inquisitor was especially zealous, was more lenient about witchcraft cases than the secular courts; in Spain, for example, where the Inquisition was very strong, there were few deaths. Many inquisitors and secular courts disdained the Malleus Malificarum, still the main source for the view that witch-hunting was women-hunting; still others thought it ridiculously paranoid about male sexuality. In some countries, torture was not used at all, and in England, witches were hanged rather than burned.

All this has been known for some time. Yet in the teeth of the evidence, some women continue to find this story believable, continue to circulate it. Some women are still so attached to the story that they resist efforts to disprove it. The myth has become important, not because of its historical truth, but because of its mythic significance. What is that significance? It is a story with clear oppositions. Everyone can tell who is innocent and who guilty, who is good and who bad, who is oppressed and the oppressor. It offers to identify oppression, to make it noticeable. It legitimates identification of oppression with powerful institutions, and above all with Christianity. This is, above all, a narrative of the Fall, of paradise lost. It is a story about how perfect our lives would be -- how perfect we women would be, patient, kind, self-sufficient -- if it were not for patriarchy and its violence. It is often linked with another lapsarian myth, the myth of an originary matriarchy, through the themes of mother-daughter learning and of matriarchal religions as sources of witchcraft. This witch-story explains the origins and nature of good and evil.

Diane Purkiss
The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations

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Recusant said...

cf Channel Four's big new drama that started on Saturday night. 'The Pillars of the Earth', which reserved a prominent place for this cliched myth. Having said which, the whole programme is replete with similar hoary myths of the Middle Ages.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but wasn't the book it was based on (The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett) notable for having the only character that wasn't an idiot, a monster, or a neurotic wreck be a devout Catholic monk (Prior Philip)?

Ignorance said...

What I find very interesting is that the product description (quoted below) is very neutral and that it is often bought alongside a book that appears, based on the product description, to be rather supportive of the thesis this books sets out to rebuke. Maybe it is to avoid scaring of ideologically motivated buyers?

"Throughout history the figure of the witch has embodied both male nightmare and female fantasy. While early modern women used belief and ritual to express and manage powerful feelings, the symbols and images surrounding the witch in the New World largely distorted the European views of Native American religions. In our own era, groups as diverse as women writers, academic historians and radical feminists have found in the witch a figure who justifies and defines their own identities. Examining texts from colonial narratives to court masques, Purkiss composes this fascinating study which goes far beyond the simple exploration of the figure. "

Bart said...

The most crucial point to keep in mind whenever this nonsense rears its head: witch hunts are not an invention of Christians.

Fear of witches is both pre-Christian and global; witch hunts have been recorded both before Christianity ever existed and in places that have never been majority Christian (the killing by Emperor Wu Ti of Emperess Chen and 300 co-conspirator 'witches' for attempting to curse consort Wei in the 2nd century BC is a fine an example as any).

And witch hunts still continue to this day in cultures that are not and have never been Christian. An estimated 200 'witches' are killed annually in India, for example. More often than not, they're condemned after being identified as witches by the local Ohjah (what you might call a 'traditinal healer'), much as cunning folk did in Europe.

And not to forget that early Christian rulers were disinclined to believe in the existence of witchcraft. The early Church made it anathema to believe in the possibility of witches' curses and several Christian rulers imposed capital punishments on people caught carrying out the ancient pagan practice of killing 'witches'. Ironically, it isn't witch cults that represent a pagan tradition kept alive by simple rural folk in the face of Church hostility - it was the fear of witchcraft and the persecution of supposed witches.

Courtney said...

Over the Summer holidays I took my kids for a tour of Lancaster Castle where the Pendle Witch trials took place - probably the best documented witch trials in England.

What struck me, having read some of the history, is how it seemed to be like a 17th century version of the Jerry Springer Show - two families, known to have issues with each other, slinging accusations at one another and saying ridiculous things (to our more so called sophisticated minds at least) whilst the local community is there egging them on. But this time the tv show host is the judge and he hangs them all at the end (new twist for day time tv?).

Beyond this, one family may have incriminated themselves because they wouldnt admit that a secret gathering they attended was actually an illegal catholic religious celebration (reformation period) and that the dissolution of the local abbey a generation or two earlier had left a moral and religious vacuum where "witchcraft" and folk christianity and the like had taken root in the absence of orthodox christianity.

My kids quite enjoyed the guided tour (actually they didnt talk that much about witches - mainly heraldry, due process and deportation to colonies). They still remember the shackles used for child prisoners though. And this is a thoroughly good thing in my opinion.

Jonathan said...

This is yet more evidence that history is being revised to suit a leftist agenda.

The cultural Marxists need to be shaken in their lofty perches.

Noons said...


The conflict thesis and the view of the middle ages as a stagnant time of superstition and persecution came into being, and entered the public mindset, long before marxism or the modern left/right political spectrum were ever conceived.