An interesting Halloween-inspired graphic from “The Economist”* that sheds a lot of light on the history of European witch hunts:
The key take-aways in my book:
1) Contrary to the impression you can get from popular history, witch hunts were not a part of the dark and superstitious Middle Ages (however dark and superstitious they were) but of the early Renaissance and post-Reformation – overwhelmingly during the period of the so called wars of religion between 1550 and 1648 (and a bit thereafter), during which the Catholics and the Protestants merrily raped, pillaged and slaughtered each other across the continent, but particularly across Central Europe.
2) It’s an overwhelmingly German (or German-speaking) phenomenon. Not coincidentally, Germany was the scene of the largest devastation and loss of life during the wars of religion, particularly the Thirty Year War. This undoubtedly contributed to the climate of hysteria and extremism that bred mass persecutions. It also reminds us of a close association in contemporary minds between witchcraft and religious heresy and deviation.
3) Again, contrary to the popular legend (largely a product of Protestant propaganda), the Spanish Inquisition was far from some sort of a medieval Gestapo. While it persecuted (and executed) many heretics as well as Moors and Jews, you actually had an excellent chance of survival if the friars took an interest in you. The standard of the legal process was way above that of other secular and religious courts throughout Europe and most persecutions ended in acquittal or fines, with imprisonment as the last resort. This is not to say that the Inquisition was not a horrid organisation by today’s standards, but that it has been overwhelmingly surrounded by myth and fancy since its days.
4) Poland does not figure on the list because it experienced virtually no witch trails in all its colourful history. This was arguably a function of its overall religious tolerance throughout its golden age from the late Middle Ages to the mid-17th century. Despite the country’s strong Catholic character, the long succession of monarchs and aristocratic parliaments insisted on a near absolute freedom of conscience (“I’m not a master of people’s souls”, as one king famously said), which saw the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth being a European refuge where the Roman church co-existed with the Czech Hussites, Lutherans, Calvinists (and even the non-trinitarian Arians), the Eastern Orthodox, the Uniates (Orthodox ritual, but allegiance to Rome), not to mention Jews and Muslims, who, unlike in the Ottoman Empire or the Moorish Spain, were all treated essentially the same, on the more traditional bases of wealth and status rather than ethnicity or religion. Until the 20th century, Poland was the only country in Europe where a traveler could see in one town a Catholic church, a Protestant chapel, an Orthodox “cerkiew”, a Jewish synagogue and a Muslim mosque virtually next door to one another.
5) Witch hunts, no question about it, are a dark chapter in European history**, but contrary to some 20th century feminist historians, it had not been a case of a female Holocaust (even if undoubtedly primitive attitudes to women did play a large part in the events). Putting aside the fact that some of the witches were male, the generally recognised total of some 20,000 victims spread out over a period of 150 years and most of Europe (even if concentrated in its central part) is very far cry from the claims of gynocide of hundred of thousands or even millions of (needless to say) innocent victims.
6) If you want to be a witch, there is no time like today. Happy post-Halloween to you all.
* albeit from two years ago
** it bears to remember that belief in witchcraft exists in all cultures around the world, and European Christianity is not the only one to see witch killings, though arguably nowhere else were they so well thought out and organised.