History of European witchhunts: Jenny Gibbons, and a response to Beastrabban

May 16, 2008

I highly recommend the excellent article Recent Developments in the Study of The Great European Witch Hunt by Jenny Gibbons.

Too many modern Pagan writers still cling to outdated ideas about the European witchhunts. Jenny Gibbons shows where many of those wrong ideas came from and how they were eventually corrected.


One minor disagreement: She says to “stay away from” Satanism and Witchcraft by Jules Michelet. I agree that Michelet’s claims are unfounded. But I recommend that Wicca-based Pagans read Michelet’s book, not as a source of true history, which it isn’t, but because Michelet’s book played a vital though rarely acknowledged role in the development of modern Wicca’s foundational mythology. I think it’s good for Pagan Witches to know where their own mythology came from.

Below are some blog entries I’ve come across recently which deal with the history of the European Witchhunts:

Some comments on BeastRabban’s post:

1) For the errors in older scholarly views of the witchhunts, Beastrabban blames, simply, “19th century radical, secularist and Neo-pagan journalists and historians with an anticlerical and antichristian agenda.” In fact, as Jenny Gibbons points out, the problem wasn’t just an “anticlerical and antichristian agenda.” A bigger problem was methodological. As Jenny Gibbons explains:

Starting in the mid-1970’s, historians stopped relying on witch-hunting propaganda and began to base their theories on thorough, systematic studies of all the witch trials in a particular area.

Ever since the Great Hunt itself, we’ve relied on witch hunters’ propaganda: witch hunting manuals, sermons against witchcraft, and lurid pamphlets on the more sensational trials. Everyone knew that this evidence was lousy. It’s sort of like trying to study Satanism in America using only the Moral Majority Newsletter and the National Enquirer. The few trials cited were the larger, more infamous ones. And historians frequently used literary accounts of those cases, not the trials themselves. That’s comparable to citing a television docu-drama (“Based on a true story!”) instead of actual court proceedings.

Better evidence did exist. Courts that tried witches kept records – trial verdicts, lists of confiscated goods, questions asked during interogations, and the answers witches gave. This evidence was written by people who knew what actually happened. Witch hunters often based their books on rumor and hearsay; few had access to reliable information. Courts had less reason to lie since, for the most part, they were trying to keep track of what was going on: how many witches they killed, how much money they gained or lost, etc. Witch hunters wrote to convince people that witchcraft was a grievous threat to the world. The more witches there were, the bigger the “threat” was. So they often exagerrated the number of deaths and spread wild estimates about how many witches existed. Also, trial records addressed the full range of trials, not just the most lurid and sensational ones.

But trial data had one daunting draw-back: there was too much of it. Witch trials were scattered amongst literally millions of other trials from this period. For most historians, it was too much work to wade through this mass of data. The one exception was C. L’Estrange Ewen. In 1929 he published the first systematic study of a country’s trial records: Witch Hunting and Witch Trials. Focused on England, his work offered vivid evidence of how much data literature missed. In Essex County, for instance, Ewen found thirty times as many trials as any previous researcher. Scholars were basing their theories on only 3% of the available evidence. And that 3% was vastly different from the other 97%.

In the 1970’s other researchers followed in Ewen’s footsteps, so in the last twenty-five years, the quantity and quality of available evidence has dramatically improved.

2) Beastrabban writes:

The idea that the Middle Ages was a period of superstition and ignorance, represented by the Roman Catholic Church, in contrast to the modern, forward-looking and ‘rational’ age, was the product of the 18th century French radical philosophes.

Are you sure that this view of the Middle Ages originated with the 18th century French philosophes? Are you sure it didn’t originate earlier, with Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda, for example?

Anyhow, even if medieval Europe wasn’t as bad as some folks have portrayed it, I still wouldn’t want to have lived back then rather than now. It was an era of mass ignorance, insofar as most people were not taught how to read, even though learning was kept alive in at least some monasteries.

3) One thing Beastrabban says that I wholeheartedly agree with:

Unfortunately, the Satanism scare of a few years ago and repeated persecution of suspected witches in parts of Africa demonstrates that the mythology of the malevolent witch is still very much alive today, and needs to be combatted by people of humanity and decency, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

Thanks, Beastrabban.

4) A general comment on Beastrabban’s blog, as a whole: It’s very bare-bones, with no sidebar widgets at all. It would be nice if Beastrabban could use a layout (or “theme” as WordPress calls it) which allows widgets, and it would be nice if he could put up archives and a tag cloud. This would make the blog much easier to navigate.

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