“Witch Hunts”

Donald Trump’s cesspool of lies, financial crimes, and likely treasonous acts against the United States are finally being investigated, so now he’s whining that he’s the victim of a “witch hunt.” Well, I know a bit about witch hunts.

I’ve researched and written about them for decades, not least in my historical novel, The Burning Time, which has extensive historical notes, from which I’ve borrowed below. If you want more such information, you can find The Burning Time in print, audio, and Kindle formats, and also as an Apple iBook. So, let’s talk about witchhunts.

We lack space here to go into more recent history—the 1950s “witch hunts” by Senator Joe McCarthy, his so-called Red Scare, and the agony that persecution visited on progressives in general and artists in particular—except to say that Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel, later became Trump’s beloved mentor. Nor have we time to explore the 17th-century witch trials in Salem and Danvers, Massachusetts, which were different though related to Europe’s persecutions. In the New World, as everywhere, fanatic religiosity (Puritan Protestantism, in this case), economic motive (acquisition by accusation), and misogyny were present. But here, racism was a further factor: charges originally focused on the alleged spiritual practices of Tituba, an enslaved woman of Native American or African descent. None of the accused were actually Pagan, Old Religion, or Wiccan; in fact, most were devout Christians. Only Tituba may have been practicing a form of indigenous worship. Nevertheless, 20 women and men were tortured and put to death by hanging, in 1692.

I have space only to focus briefly on witch-hunting and witch-persecution during the European devastation called The Burning Time.

“The Inquisition” is a misnomer. There were actually three Inquisitions.

  • In 1233, Pope Gregory IX established a Papal Inquisition to investigate and combat heresy; it became known as the Medieval Inquisition since it expanded its mandate to include sorcery and witchcraft. By 1484, when Pope Innocent VIII launched his own war against Satan, the Medieval Inquisition was well established, its power so great as to overrule local courts and secular law throughout Europe.
  • In 1542, Pope Paul III delegated the Medieval Inquisition to the Congregation of the Inquisition or the Holy Office (in the modern-day Vatican diplomatically renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), and this became known as the Roman Inquisition; it primarily persecuted Protestants and earned history’s ridicule for having condemned Galileo.
  • Last, the Spanish Inquisition, infamous for its autos-da-fé, was established in 1478 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella with the approval of Pope Sixtus IV. Its purpose was to expose and punish Jews and Muslims, force their conversions, and monitor them closely for recurring heresy, executing them if they were considered to have lapsed. The Spanish Inquisition was formally abolished as late as 1834.

All three Inquisitions share one commonality: mostly women and girls, but also some men—largely but not exclusively peasants—were consistently hunted, accused, tortured, tried, and executed for “witchcraft” throughout.

The Burning Time in continental Europe and the British Isles lasted approximately 600 years, peaking in the 16th and 17th centuries but persisting well into the 18th century and the “Enlightenment”; eventually, as exorcism became more fashionable, executions declined in frequency. In Ireland the last witch trial was held in 1711, in England in 1717. But in Germany the last person accused of witchcraft was executed in 1775; Catholic Poland burned alive its last witch as late as 1793 (the year George Washington held his first cabinet meeting).

Clearly, the papacy was not alone in mounting and sustaining these persecutions. In fact, ideological-political battles raging between the Reformation and Counter Reformation literally fed the flames, with newly minted Protestants like Luther and Calvin competing with Catholics for the most extreme fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. This became quite an industry, and gave rise to new, persecutory professions: one such was witch hunting.

Witch hunters charged handsome fees as they traveled from town to town, searching out prey. Their techniques included listening to all rumours and accusations; looking for “devil’s marks” (moles, warts, or “darker-than-normal” skin); and searching the accused’s home for evidence of cats, herbs, or books. Also commonly employed was the self-fulfilling trial by ordeal—usually that of water. In this procedure, an accused witch was forced to a kneeling position, bound that way with ropes, and tossed into a river or lake; if she floated, she was pronounced a witch and would then be burned; if she drowned, she was declared innocent—posthumously. Watching such trials by ordeal became a popular entertainment. So did attendance—complete with picnics, jugglers, peddlers, and spectator crowds—at witch burnings.

The concept that a pact with Satan was inherent in all magic or heresy actually came later in the witch persecutions, and was applied first in Ireland and Sweden, where indigenous, often matriarchal and goddess-worshipping faiths were deep-rooted and thus required demonizing by the colonizers. Earlier European records show accusations and executions—by hanging, boiling alive, crushing with stones, and burning at the stake—for more commonplace political-cultural rebellions: “sodomites,” “midwives,” “misbelievers,” and “wives guilty of treason against their husbands.” But once the idea was afoot that heresy resulted from a Satanic pact, it became dogma and spread swiftly.

The result was widespread slaughter. A short sampling: in 1482, in Constance, France, 48 women were burned; in 1507, in Calahorra, Spain, 30 were burned; in 1515, in Geneva, Switzerland, 500 accused witches were executed in a single day; in 1524, in Como, Italy, 1000 were killed; in 1622, in Würzburg, Germany, 900; in 1670, in Mohra, Sweden, 70 women and 15 children were executed and 136 other children between the ages of nine and 16 were sentenced to be whipped together at the church door every day for a year. In Germany, the 16th century saw witch burnings almost every day; complete villages were “cleansed” of women, girls, and “witch familiars”—cats. (The mass killing of cats was the primary reason rats could spread unhindered, carrying the yersinia pestis bacterium that decimated Europe with bubonic plague or, as it was called, the Black Death.) By 1586, only two women were reported left alive in an entire Rhineland district. Whole convents were indicted and sentenced for harboring “rebellious, learned women.” The children of victims were especially suspect, suffering incredible cruelties: as late as 1754, Veronica Zerritsch of Germany was compelled to dance in the warm ashes of her executed mother, then was burned alive herself, at age thirteen.

Some scholars, focusing on the continental persecutions between 1550 and 1650, conservatively estimate the number hanged or burned at 60,000. Other scholars, charting the entire span of The Burning Time across Europe—600 years—estimate that between eight and nine million persons were massacred. It’s impossible to know for certain. But we do know that although men were also accused, tortured, and killed, the vast majority of victims were women and girls.

We also know that witch persecutions are mounted against the less powerful by those who have more power, never the other way around. Even today, village murders of people accused of witchcraft and sorcery (usually for practicing traditional medicine and midwifery) have been increasing in parts of Asia, South America, and Africa—almost always preceded by incursions from fundamentalist Christian missionaries, usually from North America. In 2001, a major witch craze seized Kinshasa, nurtured by evangelical churches; it became so powerful that child witches were soon confessing publicly to having had orgies with demons. In South Africa’s Northern Province, there were almost 400 killings of suspected witches between 1985 and 1995—accompanied by a rapid growth in the power of charismatic Christian churches. The murders range from stoning, hanging, and beating to “necklacing”—placing a gasoline-filled rubber tire around the victim’s neck and setting it aflame. The victims are almost always female.

Or have we already forgotten the chants of “Bern the Witch” against Hillary during the campaign?

So tell us, do tell us, Donald Trump, about witch hunts.