Roundworld Witches and Witchhunters - a rather long essay

Discussion in 'THE WITCH BOOKS' started by Hsing, Nov 4, 2005.

  1. Hsing Moderator

    So, here is the essay I promised back in August… :)

    I red an interview with Terry Pratchett where he states the following:

    As it is true that no magical tradition made it -unchanged- into our days – it is not entirely true that there was no magical “tradition” in Europe until 19th and 20th century fiction and esotericism invented it.

    This remark sparked the idea to write a small essay, not to proove the Marthter wrong (he wasn’t exactly) – I thought a little background info to Roundworld witches might be interesting in any case.
    Maybe there’s a small essay on the Discworld witches and a comparison following up, I’ll see.

    Unfortunately, there are a lot more sources telling us about the witchhunters, than those reliably giving account of those who were called witches.

    · A small overview - or
    "From looking down on the superstition of the simple men
    to burning the first witch - and from there to obsession"

    It was always considered blasphemy by the church when someone practiced or believed in old folk beliefs or witchcraft – but it was, until the 13hundreds, regarded a misbelief, and not necessarily –not normally, rather- punished with death until the middle of the 14th century.

    The “high times” of witch hunt were actually after the end of the Middle Ages, between 15th and 18th century, in Middle Europe. About 100.000 and 400.000 people were executed for practicing witchcraft and devil worshippery, between 1450 and 1750.

    It all started when witchcraft and devil worshipping were declared the same.
    That was an important change - people who believed in or believed to be witches were no longer treated like heathens who knew no better. After witchbelief was connected to devil worshipping, and regarded as a pact with Satan - the church herself started treating witches as real. From the late 14th century on, the so called witches were burnt to death or killed otherwise if found guilty.

    The switch from “believes in things contradictiong the Christian belief” to “is a witch” took place for the first times in Northern Italy and the Alp region. And not all victims are women – in the beginning, every fourth person convicted to death in the early trials was a man.

    · The honoured midwife and the male conspiracy? - or: Who killed whom

    Overall, about 80% of all victims of witchcraft trials were women – counting only witchcraft trials, not those where people were accused of heresy. That makes seeing mysoginist traits in witchhunt relatively easy – but even though society was, after our standards, indeed mysoginist, that was not the main motivation behind the witch trials.

    Most sources show that the convicted women were, other than popular history (and quite a lot of school literature, actually) says, not mostly healers, wise women, or midwives who were seen as a danger to the power of the church or as competitors to the doctors- although that did occur. When paranoia was high, everybody became a suspect.

    Most “witches” were outsiders, whom the community wouldn’t miss. Almost all victims in my own hometown, Münster, were elderly women, most of them had no family and no special skills.

    I had the impression that, in those relatively young urban societies, people saw themselves in a dilemma that was relatively new to their culture. In a rural society, their Christian belief told them to support women –or men- like those, and it might have worked if times were not too bad.
    In a city society, their Christian beliefs told them the same, but under those conditions, it was totally unrealistic to expect of them to fulfill these expectations– there were too many in need, and even though the population formed clusters and smaller sub-societies from the beginning on, the fluctuation and population number was too high to uphold the community standards of the village.

    People’s conscience needed a way out – and declared the outsiders, the potential burden to either their purse or their conscience, evil.

    · “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” and other institutions

    Yes, they started it all – everyone knows that. But not quite as well known is the fact that they were part of stopping it, too, and rather later than they would have preferred. The church and the Inquisition had long returned to the original point of view that the existance of witches and witchcraft was superstition, when worldly judges and institutions were only starting to get really good at the game.

    The Inquisition had opened the doors – they had invented the methods, shaped the typical patterns of interrogation, the relentlessness, the mercyless style if you will, that let no way out for the victim but confession and denunciation.
    Especially the force to denunciate gave the process of a witchhunt a fatal momentum in a law system where word counted as proof.
    The infamous "Malleus Maleficarum”, a kind of hand book for the witch hunter which was very popular in its morbid way was written by a Domenican monk named Heinrich Kramer.

    But the church lost interest in witchhunts and concentrated on those who posed a real threat to the power of the church – the sects. (In fact, Spanish inquisition even refused witch trials in Spain, because the only accusation they would accept was heresy.)

    Some of the first critics of witchhunts were Catholic clerics, one of them the Roman inquisitor Francesco Albizzi, who not only didn’t allow witch trials in Rome under his rule, but also played a role in saving the lifes of a douzen children in Switzerland, who were convicted for witchcraft after an infamous series of trials which, in most cases, had cost their parent’s lives already.

    Worldly institution took over soon, and gained power through their key role in the witch hunts– but mostly, the witchhunts lived of the entire population rather than being forced upon it by the institutions.

    Reasons for them were so many that it’s not quite possible to point a finger at one and say: That’s it. There are plenty of theories. During the Middle Ages, for example, there was an era of cold weather,in the sense of more than a few harsh winters – it was what scientists today call a “small ice age”.
    This in societies where often people weren’t sure wether the hail storm that started twenty minutes ago would ever stop (instead of thinking “Oh, small ice pellets, occur in low hanging storm clouds, where small waterdrops are pushed into higher, colder layers and freeze to become hail, should be over in twenty minutes.”) created more than a general sense of doom.
    People needed an evil they could fight.

    One theory says that, in times of starvation, people often used all kinds of materials to bake bread, for example flour that was infested with ergot, a kind of mold than can cause hallucinations similar to LSD. It was also not unusual to consume the drugs nature provided - mushrooms, nightshade, thorn apple. Most historians though avoid explanations that reduce a phenomenon like the witchhunts to only a bad trip or bad weather periods, no matter how major – besides the fact that the main part of the witch trials did not take place in the Middle Ages, but in the following centuries.

    If one is “looking for the money” they quickly find where in this game it went. For the Inquisition, it was about power. For their worldly successors, it was often power as well as money.

    The witchhunters themselves in Middle Europe often proceeded a lot like rat hunters, in a way. Whole areas where left economically destroyed when they left, not to talk of all the people they had gotten killed.

    They either reacted on accusations made by locals and proceeded from there, or “found” the first witches by themselves. They usually started with outsiders, people no one was too likely to defend. When paranoia was high enough and everyone felt surrounded by witches, demons, and devil worshippers, they worked their ways into the elites of the city, by torturing themselves from confession to confession. When a rich couple had been burnt at the stake, their money was usually –or at least partly- the witchhunter’s.

    But it didn’t necessarily need the business sense of one or a few professional witchhunters – witchhunt became a political and economical tool for many. Cities used it to manipulate the balance of powers between them and their sovereigns, and business men and traders denunciated competitors and rivals. From a point on, German historian Walter Rummel once said, the witchhunters were, in a way, alchemists – “They made gold of human blood.”

    · From Middle Aged folk beliefs to fear of witches in 1960’s Europe

    There are sources that tell of the folk beliefs of the people that the early “witchhunters” (who would not have called themselves that) interrogated – before too much torturing was involved, before such a process necessarily ended in death.
    There are rests of tales of people being picked up for nightly flights over the fields, of rather pagan sounding harvest rites, people seeing themselves as a kind of shaman, or serving more than one deitie, combining Christian beliefs and older religions.

    The problem is that those capable of writing them down were those not believing in them, and it was not in their main interest to give detailed accounts of what they thought to be misconceptions and superstitions.

    Those believing in witchcraft, in good and in bad, were often not the types able or willing to write things down. Ethnologists and anthropologists, not historicans, are recently still trying to describe those “simple men’s” beliefs, using the methods normally used for describing foreign cultures on describing that of their ancestors.

    By now, several anthropologists, among them Jeanne Favret-Saada, have shown that at least until the 70ies, all over Western Europe, witchcraft was still accepted as “causing effects”, even though people would rarely admit to each other that they did so, and all that before the occult had its revival – if the “re” is correct at all.
    In rural parts of France, spellbreakers were still part of many communities, and a curse, witchcraft, was still used as an explanation for series of bad luck or accidents.

    A small example:
    Jeanne Favret-Saada, Les mots, la mort, les sorts. Paris 1977. p85.
  2. mowgli New Member

    Interesting essay, Hsing :) I especially liked the bit about Spanich Inquisition refusing to hold witch trials - there goes THAT stereotype!

    By the way:

    ... 15 years ago or so I overheard a relative of mine talk about her neighbor "She has the evil eye - she made my little boy sick just by looking at him"

    ...10 years ago, I baby-sat for a woman who seemed upset at my description of a hypnotist show at our school party: "That's black magic - you shouldn't invite this sort of thing into your life!"

    ...4 years ago I read about kids in an American school who were expelled from school for "casting malicious spells" on their classmates - this was during the time when people burned Harry Potter books and accused J.K.Rawling of promoting devil-worshipping.

    Yeah, just when you think you've progressed far enough...
  3. Hsing Moderator

    Yes, I love such bits...
    Still, they were master torturers, even though their reasons were less superstitious.
  4. Rincewind Number One Doorman

    The other day after reading half your essay (and very interesting it is too) I had a dream that I was a witch Hunter. Only a time traveling witcher Hunter. From the Future. Go me!
  5. mowgli New Member

    ...Hoping like hell that you didn't catch any :) ...
  6. pmsurrey New Member

    Thank you hsing, that was one of the most interesting articles I read in a long time. It still amazes me that even in todays world there are folks who still believe in the evil eye but then again maybe they know something i don't.
  7. Ook New Member

    That was really interesting, good stuff.
    Apparently there are a few remnants the old ways, some families have little tit-bits passed down I think, but yeah, nothing big.

    I'd love to know what the world would be like without Christianity/Islam (I only say both as I imagine in the absence of one, the other would have expanded to fill the vacuum).
  8. Hsing Moderator

    Thanks! I completely forgot about this one. :wink:
  9. trees New Member

    Just recently read articles in the paper about scientists saying telepathy might realy exist - and if telepathy works why not the evil eye?
  10. Tamar New Member

    Oh, come on. The difference is like the difference between reading about an earthquake in the newspaper and causing one by being angry.
  11. Maljonic Administrator

    Oh, I don't know - there could be a connection. I mean you can make people feel bad just by talking to them, even send them crazy if they're vulnerable and you know how to pressure people. So, assuming you could read minds, like listening to a telephone, it's a logical step to postulate the possibility of being able to transmit as well as receive. If you don't let yourself be misled by names, such as 'evil eye', and imagine how a negative telepathic transmission might affect someone... you might call it a 'negative telepathic suggestion, or NTS, is modern society' and 'the evil eye' in medieval society.

    I'm not saying I believe in such things, just if you had one for of telepathy it doesn't take much of a leap to imagine the other.
  12. Tamar New Member

    Words matter. As traditionally described in the sources I've read, the "evil eye" is not the same as a negative telepathic transmission (that would be more like "ill-wishing"). The evil eye is specifically the placement of a curse on someone simply by glancing at them, even when the person doing the glancing has no such intention - supposedly some people are just born with it and can't avoid doing it. Telepathy has nothing to do with it.

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