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Conspiracies & Catholicism: Witchcraft

August 4, AD2014 12 Comments

This installment of Conspiracies & Catholicism seems kind of redundant after last week’s article on magic, but I’m looking more at the “everyone knows” about the Church and witchcraft.

Let me see if I can sum up the archetypal belief:

All through the middle ages, single women– especially if they lived alone or practiced some sort of medicine– were randomly being accused of witchcraft and burnt alive for it. The Inquisition was the main group killing women, and hundreds of thousands were killed by the Catholic Church. Millions died, many of them Pagans.

Does that look about right?

Well, here’s a thumbnail that I promise I really didn’t model that off of:

For example, historians have now realized that witch-hunting was not primarily a medieval phenomenon. It peaked in the 17th century, during the rationalist age of Descartes, Newton, and St. Vincent de Paul. Persecuting suspected witches was not an elite plot against the poor; nor was practicing witchcraft a mode of peasant resistance. Catholics and Protestants hunted witches with comparable vigor. Church and state alike tried and executed them. It took more than pure reason to end the witch craze.

Also, witches were not secret pagans serving an ancient Triple Goddess and Horned God, as the neo-pagans claim. In fact, no witch was ever executed for worshipping a pagan deity. Matilda Gage’s estimate of nine million women burned is more than 200 times the best current estimate of 30,000 to 50,000 killed during the 400 years from 1400 to 1800 — a large number,  but no Holocaust. And it wasn’t all a burning time. Witches were hanged, strangled, and beheaded, as well. Witch-hunting was not woman-hunting. At least 20 percent of all suspected witches were male. Midwives were not especially targeted; nor were witches liquidated as obstacles to professionalized medicine and mechanistic science.  – Sandra Miesel, Medieval historian writing for Crisis Magazine

On a side note, for those who do not want to read the rest of that very good article, it seems Germany was utterly nuts for a while there; a huge portion of the numbers for her defensible claim of “comparable vigor” comes from a couple of folks there*; it might be worthwhile for someone really interested in the subject to find out what all was going on at those times and places– the phrase “prince bishop” worries me a bit, as a purely emotional reaction. I poked around enough to find this history wikia with enough details for someone who’s really curious and has the mind for German history. Apparently, Germany had a big criminal law collection called The Carolina, which required death for those believed to have harmed someone using magic. Good luck trying to tell what area was Catholic or Protestant, and how solidly so; I’ve seen long running anime that were easier to follow – in Japanese. No wonder even experts acting in good will can argue for decades about this stuff.

Speaking of Germany, there’s another question. Alright, so a lady with a master’s on the subject says that broadly speaking, the standard cliches are bunk. How do you explain that Catholic witch hunting manual from Germany?

The Malleus maleficarum was written by two Dominicans about 1486. The principal author, Heinrich Kramer, was widely recognized as a “demented imbecile” by contemporaries. The bishop of Innsbruck thwarted his attempt to convict women there of witchcraft and forced him out of town. The Malleus competed with the Carmelite Jan van Beetz’s Expositio decem catalogie praeceptum, “an icily skeptical treatment of tales of black magic. Of course, exposés never get the circulation of the lurid originals.  –Michael Flynn, author and historical hobbyist

Mr. Flynn is one of my favorites, because of the stories he finds.  (His sense of humor, even on dark topics, is also to my taste.  Your mileage may vary, but I’ll give an example related to the topic.  There was a fellow from the Spanish Inquisition who was brought a self-professed “witch” to try, and he insisted that she prove she could perform the claimed witchy powers; that Inquisitor may have been copying Vincent of Beavius, who is reported to have chased a supposed witch around the room with a stick when she insisted that she was able to pass through keyholes. Look for my article on the Inquisitions at some later point.)

Needless to say, both women were proven innocent of sorcery.

Mr. Flynn’s mention of some of the Pagan activities against witches that had to be outlawed suggests that Germany may have just had some really, really brutal traditions. Another well read, though (oh common curse!) vague on names scholar, who goes by SuburbanBanshee, observes the pattern that when you go way back, witchcraft was only seen as a problem far from the population centers. Christians ended up saving the supposed witches from those who blamed them for whatever horrible thing was going on at the time. Places where folk tradition was not stronger than formal teaching recognized that “witchcraft” and false gods could not possibly be more powerful than God!

Conspiracies and Catholicism is a series of posts about things like albino assassin monks, hidden Bible books, pagan Santas and secret councils— popular culture related to Catholicism, sometimes in unexpected ways. If you have a suggestion for a future article, please leave a message in the comments or email me. Prior posts available here.


* Footnote: From the comments, in case the system has to be updated/gets lost again; the “equal vigor” thing isn’t the only issue with the Crisis article– Howard wrote an article when it was (re)published about some questionable characterization.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Wife, mother, cradle Catholic; former naval aviation technician and life-long geek who wants to help others find out how much really cool stuff the Catholic Church has to share, especially in terms of pop culture and misconceptions. A millennial who graduated in '01, former raid tank, raid healer and raid leader for a fairly casual raiding guild in the second and third WoW expansions, a Star Trek fan and fell in love with the X-Men from her uncle's comics, and even with kids a low-level MMO and sandbox gamer.

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