Friday, February 20, 2009


It took me a while to finish Witchcraft in Europe: 400-1700. Reading through primary sources is something that I find I can only do in spurts. The pieces tend to the wordy, which can be good for helping one go to sleep. Which is not to say I did other than appreciate the book greatly. The short lead-in commentaries were intelligent, helpful and informed. The pieces themselves were great insights into what people thought and did, though the misogyny becomes wearing after a while. Wow, what weird things people believed and acted upon. And we are talking the intellectual elite here – such substantial intellectual figures as Jean Bodin (Pp290-302).

What is also striking is how relatively quickly the mass persecutions arose, and then later died away. The ‘Witch Craze’ itself starts in the mid-C15th and is dying rapidly in the late C17th. Some of the stories are remarkable – the persecutions in Spain were essentially ended by the dissident reports of an Inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar Frias, in 1610-14, arguing that the treatment of evidence was very bad and making a series of recommendations. Which the Spanish Inquisition’s ruling tribunal basically adopted as instructions to all Inquisitors. Once proper evidentiary procedures were enforced, the whole thing died away in Spain (Pp407-418).

But it definitely helps if you don’t think too much about the human misery and suffering that underlies it all – in Latin Christendom, about 50,000 people were killed (p.17), often burnt alive, often after appalling torture, from C13th to the C18th for witchcraft. One Johannes Junius, a burgomeister, who "confessed" to witchcraft and was burnt, smuggled out this letter to his daughter (his hands were so severely crippled it took him several days to write the letter).
Letter of Johannes Junius, Burgomeister of Bamberg, to his daughter Veronica, 1628
Many hundred thousand good-nights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die. For whatever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and—God pity him—bethinks him of something.

I can tell you how it has come with me. When I was the first time put to the torture, Dr. Braun, Dr. Kotzendorffer , and two strange doctors were there. Then Dr. Braun asks me, "Kinsman, how come you here?" I answer, "Through falsehood, through misfortune." "Hear, you," he says, "you are a witch; will you confess it voluntarily? If not, we’ll bring in witnesses and the executioner for you." I said "I am not witch, I have a pure conscience in the matter; if there are a thousand witnesses, I am not anxious, but I’ll gladly hear the witnesses." Now the chancellor’s son was set before me…and afterwards Hoppfens Elsse. She had seen me dance on Haupts-Moor…I answered: "I have never renounced God and will never do it—God graciously keep me from doing it. I’ll rather hear whatever I must." And then came also—God in highest Heaven, have mercy—the executioner, and put the thumb-screws on me, both hands bound together, so that blood ran out at the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from the writing…Thereafter they first stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up in the torture. Then I thought heaven and earth were at an end; eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony…

And this happened on Friday, June 30, and with God’s help I had to bear that torture…When at last the executioner led me back into the prison, he said to me: "Sir, I beg you, for God’s sake confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture which you’ll be put to; and even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not if you were an earl, but one torture will follow another until even you say you are a witch. Not before that," he said, "will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another…"

And so I begged, since I was in wretched plight, to be given one day for thought and a priest. The priest was refused me, but the time for thought was given. Now, my dear child, see in what hazard I stood and still stand. I must say that I am a witch, though I am not,—must now renounce God, though I have never done it before. Day and night I was deeply troubled, but at last there came to me a new idea. I would not be anxious, but, since I have been given no priest with whom I could take counsel, I would myself think of something and say it. It were surely better that I just say it with mouth and words, even though I had not really done it, and afterwards I would confess to the priest, and let those answer for it who compel me to do it…And so I made my confession, as follows; but I was all a lie.

Now follows, dear child, what I confessed in order to escape the great anguish and bitter torture, which was impossible for me longer to bear…

[paraphrases his confession]

Then I had to tell what people I had seen. I said that I had not recognised them. "You old rascal, I must set the executioner at you. Say—was not the Chancellor there?" So I said yes. "Who besides?" I had not recognised anybody. So he said, "Take one street after another, begin at the market, go out on one street and back on the next." I had to name eight persons there. Then came the Zinkenwert—one person more. Then over to the upper bridge to the Georgthor, on both sides. Knew nobody again. Did I know nobody in the castle—whoever it might be. I should speak without fear. And thus continuously they asked me on all the streets, though I could not and would not say more. So they gave me to the executioner, told him to strip me, shave me all over, and put me to the torture. "The rascal know one on the market-place, is with him daily, and yet won’t name him." By that they meant Dietmayer, so I had to name him too.

Then I had to tell what crimes I had committed. I said nothing…"Draw the rascal up!" So I said that I was to kill my children, but I had killed a horse instead. It did not help. I had also taken a sacred wafter, and had desecrated it. When I said this, they left me in peace.

Now, dear child, here you have all my confession, for which I must die. And they are sheer lies and made-up things, so help me God. For all this I was forced to say through fear of the torture which was threatened beyond what I had already endured. For they never leave off with the torture till one confesses something; be he never so good, he must be a witch. Nobody escapes, though he were an earl…

Dear child, keep this letter secret so that people do not find it, else I shall be tortured most piteously and the jailers will be beheaded. So strictly is it forbidden…Dear child, pay this man a dollar…I have taken several days to write this: my hand are both lame. I am in a sad plight.

Good night, for your father Johannese Junius will never see you more.
July 24, 2628.

[Written in margin] Dear child, six have confessed against me at once: the Chancellor, his son, Neudecker, Zaner, Hoffmaisters Urself, and Hoppfens Elsse—all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me, and begged my forgiveness in God’s name before they were executed…They know nothing but good of me. They were forced to say it, just as I myself was
Mayor Junius was convicted and burnt at the stake.

Modern resonance
The techniques and dynamics remind me most of Stalin’s purges. Indeed, Norman Cohn makes the excellent point (p.89 of Europe’s Inner Demons) that the example of Stalin’s show trials should make it easier to see it was all nonsense. In both cases, the confessions only make sense as inversions of the ideology of the accusers. But then most of the modern techniques of totalitarianism – censorship (Index of Prohibited Books), heresy hunts (Inquisition), propaganda (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), show trials (auto de fe), agitprop (preaching friars), population culls (Albigensian Crusade) – were pioneered by the Church. If you claim to have the Truth for the complete moral ordering of society based on such ultimate authority that dissent from the same is wicked – plus have the appropriate set of causal explanations and possess the institutional power to back your claim – there are certain inherent dynamics which follow and will tend to work themselves out: particularly if they become useful weapons in power struggles.

It also helps to understand the Stalinist resonance if we understand the implications of Lenin Jacobinising Marxism. In Lenin's words and emphasis:
A Jacobin who wholly identifies himself with the organization of the proletariat—a proletariat conscious of its class interests—is a revolutionary Social Democrat
. The entire Soviet enterprise was an expression of self-declared beneficent, revolutionary will. Therefore, clearly opposing will was possible (indeed, a ready explanation for anything going wrong, since the Bolsheviks had the key to history, so clearly any failures were a result of malign intent). Hence Lenin's enthusiasm for capital punishment. Leninism came with a ready-made demonology, even more than Marxism proper.

Witchcraft accusations have a further totalitarian confluence. In many societies, accusations of witchcraft are typically levelled against those more successful than their neighbours. They become devices for systematically and brutally selecting against innovation and extra effort. Which is what happened with “kulak” and “hoarder” accusations in the Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Ho’s North Vietnam, Mao’s China, and so on.

(My favourite quote on totalitarianism as a concept is Peter Berger’s pre-1989 observation concerning
the persistent incapacity of even American professors to grasp a difference understood by every taxi driver in Prague.
The complaints about ‘totalitarian’ not being "predictive" strike me as particularly otiose: are the concepts of monarchy, democracy and dictatorship ‘predictive’ in that sense?)

Ironically, Marx himself endorsed some of the long tradition of conspiracy-mongering, citing alleged research to show that early Christians really had ritually slaughtered children. (As Cohn demonstrates, early Christians were subject to similar accusations by outraged pagans as those later Christians made against witches.)

Historical development
Cohn is very useful to read in conjunction with Witchcraft. He points out that peasant lynchings for witchcraft had occurred for centuries. What was needed to get the mass persecutions going was for officialdom to get in on the act. This was a process that occurred slowly.

Attitudes to Satan changed: Satan evolved from bumbling lesser being to God’s powerful enemy. Sorcery also became equated with heresy. St Thomas Aquinas was one of the important thinkers in this process, since scholastic philosophy provided a complete theoretical and causal structure for such views, even though sorcery itself was a minor element in St Thomas’s work. (Indeed, scholasticism as a complete systematised ontology, epistemology, ethic and causal analysis was unrivalled until the development of Marxism.)

Particularly after the 1231 agreement between Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX formalised laws for the suppression of ‘heretical depravity’, the developing Inquisition provided a jurisdictional apparatus available for enforcement of such beliefs, replacing the episcopal (bishop-run) inquisition, established in 1184 at the Verona Synod by Pope Lucius III with the support of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, with a more centralised and professional papal inquisition.

The removal of the ‘talion’, penalties for false accusation, from witchcraft trials by the use of inquisitorial, rather than accusatory, procedures opened the door to snowballing accusations. Once the belief in the sabbat – large gatherings of witches to worship the Devil – became part of educated belief, it plus inquisitorial torture was enough to set off the mass persecutions.

Endorsements by Popes Alexander IV (1258), John XXII (1326), Pope Alexander V (1409) of the evils of sorcery; an opinion by the authoritative Theology Faculty of the University of Paris linking ‘learned’ ritual magic with popular sorcery as both being diabolic (1398); the activities of popular preachers such as St Bernardino of Siena (1420s): these culminated in Pope Eugenius IV letters to inquisitors (1434, 1437) and the mass persecutions were away, holding Latin (Catholic and Protestant) Christendom in its grip until for the next two-and-half centuries, though the last witch burnings were as late as the 1780s. The 1487 publication of the Malleus Maleficarum provided the ‘encyclopedia’ for the Witch Craze, which was actually notably more virulent in the post-medieval period than in its original late-medieval manifestation. More jurisdictionally important was Pope Innocent VIII’s 1484 Bull Summis desiderantes affectibus, as it brought together the whole set of beliefs in one authoritative document.

There were three groups most commonly burnt alive in Latin Christendom: sodomites, witches and heretics – defilers of body, soul and mind. If you were accused of one, you were quite likely to be accused of another. Indeed, the witch persecutions clearly grew out of heresy persecutions, particularly of the Waldensians. That the Church examined, tortured and condemned before handing over to the civil power for execution (except where it was itself the civil power) was simply a vile manifestation of the squabbling alliance of Church and warlord that post-classical Western civilisation was built on. The witch burnings were the last to get underway, but also the last to end (though execution by hanging for sodomy extended into the C19th).

Johannes Junius stands in for a very large number of victims indeed.

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