WITCH-HUNTING THEN AND NOW

Appropriate to this time of year, books about Witchcraft were once among the most popular, when the printing press was in its infancy, before 1500, when books were known as ‘incunabula’ coming from ‘cuna’, the Latin word for cradle.

The image above comes from the first illustrated book to be printed on Witchcraft, Ulrich Molitor’s De Lamiis of 1489. The three women are witches, although granted they are a far cry from the Sanderson Sisters. There’s also some distance between this opening image and the title of the work, where the word for ‘Witch’ refers to Lamia, the mythological Queen of Libya who turned into a demon with an insatiable hunger for children. For instance It doesn’t even come close to other depictions of that creature:

This one comes from Topsell’s translation of Gesner’s Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, which includes as many fantastical creatures as it does cats, goats, and wolves.

So the point of the image of the three women, iconic in its time since the book was popular enough to reach half a dozen editions before 1500, is that any woman could be a witch. None of the lore was dropped of course – witches were still identified by what children were devoured, what men poisoned, how many thunder storms cooked up, crops destroyed, and how many times they had slept with the devil – only rather than portray pure evil as a wet hot scaly mess, the power of this widely circulated book is that the face it gave to the name was, well, a few grannies sitting around a table having a cup of tea. Maybe one of them is a housewife. Each of them could be anyone.

The Latin caption that accompanied the image asked two questions: Can witches come to parties on enchanted wolves and broomsticks? And can they eat, drink, and speak together, and recognize one another? As if the woodcut were to answer: well, we can at least do the eating, drinking, and speaking, and maybe that should be enough for you. As Alan Kors and Edward Peters put it in Witchcraft in Europe, 400 – 1700 the images from this book are without any identifying physical or costume features attributed to witches – that is, some of the illustrations seem to depict ordinary women doing ordinary things”.

The idea will be familiar to anyone who has watched the Lifetime Movie Network: that solemn, time-old truth that the only monster is the ‘monster within’, that evil comes in pretty, normie, and many other unremarkable- or whiskey-bottle-shaped packages, and that this is the scariest plot-twist of them all… The work on the above of witches at a satanic meeting is dramatic, but only a small part of a much larger context of persecution. Because the reality for the normal women sitting around the table is that the treatises that demonized them were not mere public service announcements against hocus pocus, or cautionary tales: treatises on witchcraft like De Lamiis really were used to identify potential witches and prosecute them brutally.

In fact, treatises like this one on witchcraft are the earliest forms of popular reading to field discussion on the legality and efficacy of torture: Molitor here actually does not believe that torture methods produce accurate confessions, however he does believe that accused witches should be executed. The more comprehensive, and more widely circulated Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of the Witches” published in 1484) remained the definitive guide to identifying, interrogating, torturing, and killing witches for at least 200 years. By the 17th century it had tripled in size. It’s one of the earliest treatises to recommend waterboarding. It takes the form of a Q&A, includes dialogue meant to be used verbatim during the trial by the judge and it is fully complacent with torture, from the first day of questioning:

“But if neither threats nor such promises will induce her to confess the truth, then the officers must proceed with the sentence, and she must by examined, not in any new or exquisite manner, but in the usual way, lightly or heavily according as the nature of her crimes demands. And while she is being questioned about each several point, let her be often and frequently exposed to torture, beginning with the more gentle of them; for the Judge should not be too hasty to proceed to the graver kind. And while this is being done, let the Notary write all down, how she is tortured and what questions are asked and how she answers.

And note that, if she confesses under torture, she should then be taken to another place and questioned anew, so that she does not confess only under the stress of torture.

The next step of the Judge should be that, if after being fittingly tortured she refuses to confess the truth, he should have other engines of torture brought before her, and tell her that she will have to endure these if she does not confess. If then she is not induced by terror to confess, the torture must be continued on the second or third day, but not repeated at that present time unless there should be some fresh indication of its probable success.” (Source)

There are already a few feminist and socialist perspectives on the consequences of this view toward witches – “Burning Women” is a favorite one-off zine on the subject – which argues that witch-hunting (1.) Forces women into a silent, domestic norm by honing in on and burning out those landholding or profession holding (i.e. midwives) deviations. (2.) Criminalizes poverty, since many persecuted are from the poorer classes and (3.) Tears apart (often working class) communities through a culture of fear-mongering, informing against one another, certain torture, death, etc. True, these are huge issues of which the literature of witchcraft plays only a part, but the reasons for the argument are sound, judging even from skimming the Malleus: it has some pretty heavy-handed accounts of the trials of thunderstorms blamed on property-holding widows, miscarriages blamed on midwives, poor old women blamed for famine.

The the book contains scripts for different ways of finding and questioning witnesses and suspects, and a particularly fun discussion of “Whether Mortal Enemies Many Be Admitted as Witnesses” (the first sentence says “they can’t”, the rest of the section gives reasons when they can). In the literature surrounding witchcraft, the odds are stacked against the vulnerable, and most especially women. The majority of criminal proceedings described in the book take place in little salt-of-the earth villages, casting in vivid relief the idea that witch-hunting reached every nook and cranny of literate and illiterate Britain and Continental Europe. Everyone was impacted in some way, if not only with anxiety. Even Johannes Kepler had to take time off from writing his most influential work (his commentary on Copernican astronomy) in 1620 to defend his mother when she was tried as a witch. That’s right: proof that the earth revolved around the sun was put off over a lousy withc trial. According to William Monter in “Witch Trials in Continental Europe”, Between 1450-1750, 80,000 people were tried and 35,000 executed. I haven’t even made it over to North America, but you might say, They are the 66(6)%.

There is also a lesson in media studies here: the literature of witchcraft produced was pretty much uniform in the aspersions it cast upon the poor, old, and female. Especially shorter works for wider audiences largely follow suit with the Malleus Maleficarum. The language reads kinda like this: Where you are not in favor of waterboarding suspected terrorists, you are against freedom, safety, America; where you are not in favor of tortured confessions from suspected witches, you are against freedom, safety, God and His Church. It’s hard to contradict that line of reasoning.

But there was resistance by some scholars. The “most thorough challenge to orthodox witchcraft doctrine” was written by Johannes Weyer in 1563 but would double in size with additions and updates by 1583: De praestigiis daemonum…(“praestigiis” here can mean “description”, but also “illusion”). Weyer was Dutch and trained as a Doctor in Paris and Orleans, but became hooked by the subject while studying under Agrippa – Cornelia Agrippa, the famous philosopher who also successfully defended and acquitted witches at trial in 1519 with much publicity.

What most interested Weyer was not the occult, but an early understanding of psychology: what towns and Inquisitors and raving villagers with pitchforks called witchcraft, Weyer diagnosed as depression. Their problem was not Satan, but melancholy. From that argument Weyer went on to discuss and theorize the psychology of the persecutors themselves, how people could come to believe in “witches’ sabbaths”, and react so hysterically and with such brutality, all of which also includes a consideration of hallucinogenics. Finally, he calls in his book for legal reform that would bar capital punishment of supposed witches and tend towards medical treatment. His book was banned by the Catholic Church, and came under heavy attack by other scholars – but it was also popular to the extent of reaching over 12 editions and multiple translations. In addition, the work distinguishes Weyer in as the founder of psychiatry. Garrison & Morton’s A Medical Bibliography (4917) cite him as as “the first clinical and the first descriptive psychiatrist to leave succeeding generations a heritage which was accepted….He reduced the clinical problems of psychopathology to simple terms of everyday life and everyday, human, inner experiences”.

It was only a hundred years after the Malleus Maleficarum and was published that the first work in English to deny the reality of witches was printed in London: Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (William Brome, 1584).

Scot’s preface to the reader pleads to their sanity:  “To you that are wise & discreet few words may suffice for such a one judgeth not at the first sight, nor reprooveth by heresay, but patiently heareth and thereby increaseth in understanding”. Don’t just a hag by her cover. But, unfortunately, opposed to understanding is the hysteria caused by fear: “the name of a witch is so odious, and her power so feared among the common people, that if the honestest body living chance to be arraigned thereupon, she shall hardly escape condemnation.” In other words, once someone was suspect, neither they nor anybody else could argue against the charge: suspicion alone was powerful enough to condemn.

We recently acquired a copy at work, which I had to catalogue. The book is so thorough in its dissection of the issue that it is also considered the major source for early attitudes toward, and rituals of, witchcraft, citing no less than 212 authors as well as examples from the courts of law in England.

It’s comprehensive to the point that Scot includes some of the first in-depth descriptions of magician acts (in the sense of David Copperfield: Illusionist) – with tips for tricks to make it look as though you’ve stabbed yourself, a how-to guide to juggling, and this illustration of how to fake your own decapitation (which is called ‘the decollation of John Baptist’):

You might say he includes information on rabbits-out-of-a-hat to cast a ridiculous light over the entire enterprise of witch-hunting. But at the same time as he tells you how to throw fake knives, Scot keeps the real knives in his argument. It’s almost purely class-based: he singles out “witchmongers” who seek “to pursue the poor, to accuse the simple, and to kill the innocent”, pointing out how unreasonable it is to accuse vulnerable persons of having “power which only appertaineth to God”. The first four books list the procedures of identifying witches and using torture to procure confession, found in the Malleus Malificarum as well as Jean Bodin’s work. Bodin, a famous French lawyer and influential legal scholar, had championed a even more brutal approaches toward eliminating the threat of Witchcraft in the 1580s than anyone.

The Discoverie was hotly contested by other scholars, George Gifford, Henry Perkins, and even Meric Casaubon later wrote against Scot. Copies of this first edition are rare, however, because King James I, allgedly (it is not proven) demanded them to be burnt upon his accession to the throne in 1603. James himself was a high-profile believer in witchcraft, and wrote his own search-and-destroy guide to rooting out magic, the Demonologie in 1597. A pretty heavy media blackout for a work of very humane dissent: Fortunately Scot’s book was somewhat well received on the continent and appeared in Dutch editions of 1609 and 1637 even if it was not printed in England again until 1651.

From this perspective, the subject fits nicely alongside more recent historical research in the style of History is a Weapon. Everything about these books screams to be dragged and dropped into the present: we’ve got extensive documentation and a monopoly on information, be it on the part of the Monarchy (as with James I), or the Church (The Pope, The Inquisition especially); and we have an argument built solely on the politics of fear and scape-goating, appeals to religious ‘values’ couched in terms that threaten them to their very core.It’s rife with modern resonance.

But it’s important to excavate all of this from the places modern usage of ‘witch hunts’ have already taken us: it’s a political word, a defensive word, even a cursory lexis nexis search shows Herman Cain using the word every other minute to refer to recent allegations of sexual harassment, it is used to describe the War on Terror, it is used to describe a Baptist University in Georgia that is systematically firing its LGBT employees, it is sometimes even used to detract from forms of protest, like Occupy Wall Street.  Sometimes usage highlights similarity and other times it obscures difference – but let us hope the word will maintain its horror enough to be effective where it is most needed.

Parsing history from usage in these instances can be powerful, as History is a Weapon reminds us, the Motto of the Ministry of Information in George Orwell’s 1984 reads:

Who controls the past
controls the future;
who controls the present
controls the past.


UPDATE:
The Washington Post Wonkblog has reported  (with maps!) an essay by scholars at George Mason University concluding that the ability of a government to benefit from tax revenue actually correlates to a decline in witch-hunting in 17th century France:

We find that regions with higher taxes were less likely to try witches and that the rise of the fiscal state across much of France during the mid-seventeenth century can account for much of the subsequent decline in witch-trials. These results are robust across a range of different econometric specifications and our findings are supported by additional historical and qualitative evidence.

There findings are consistent with this post, and even strengthen the economic argument that has been made about the persecution of witches as one means of criminalizing poverty. There is no need to play the blame game when the village is running smoothly. There is no need for a well-oiled governing machine to basically eliminate the lower, unemployable echelons of its populations, or attempt to squeeze more money out of them. As Scot says of witches: “There is no way in the world for these poor women to escape the inquisitors hands, and so consequently burning, but to gild their hands with money, whereby oftentimes they take pity upon them…they reap such profit, as a number of these seely women pay them yearly pensions to the end they may not be punished again.”

In the old-world style where Church and State are very closely aligned (especially in France), a rich government means a rich Church, eventually a surplus of alms and pity for the down-and-out members of a community. Furthermore, higher taxes allow for better funded legal administration and codification. That makes it a little harder to permit the un-rigorous criteria of witch trials that relied on anonymous tip-offs by suspicious neighbors, confession by torture, and the standard of guilty until proven innocent (the Malleus Maleficarum lists little ‘tests’ a judge can use on suspects to prove themselves).

Another Update: Cornell University has a great digital library of their holdings in witchery: http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/w/witch/

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