Notes: Episode 10, The Witch Trials (Part 2)

As with every show, I’ll list any corrections or clarifications here. If there’s anything I’ve overlooked, please contact me by email or in the comments and I’ll edit the notes to reflect the new information.


7:22 – I did mention this in the notes for part one, but not in the show, so I thought it worth mentioning again: the Waldensians weren’t eradicated during the 12th century purge. The way I spoke about them made it sound like there had been a comprehensive destruction of the people who identified as such, but the reality of the situation is that they modified their beliefs to fall more in line with conventional Christianity and eventually aligned with John Calvin’s teachings during the Reformation of the 16th century, using the turmoil to integrate themselves back into the mainstream of European religious society. At this point they’re nearly indistinguishable from similar Calvinist traditions.


9:48 – I glossed right over the distinction between saints and pagan gods here. To pray to a local god or spirit would violate the First Commandment (loosely, that there is only one God); however, there was and continues to be a doctrine in Catholicism claiming that saints are holy people who have been confirmed to be in Heaven, and as such it is acceptable to ask for their intercession just as it would be to ask a neighbor, friend, or family member to pray on your behalf. The confirmed holiness of a saint meant that their prayers could potentially carry more weight. The distinction here is between veneration (respect, requests for assistance, etc.) and worship (adoration, ritual, sacrifice etc.); while it would be improper to directly worship a saint (to put it mildly), it is acceptable to venerate them for their confirmed position of respect and ask for their intercession. This also allows people to ask for the intercession of anyone, living or dead – not just saints. By reclassifying heritage shrines as veneration to saints, the early Church was able to essentially allow people to continue as they always had without risking mortal sin. This doctrine was one of the points rejected during the Reformation, so it won’t be found in any Protestant churches; however, it is common to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.


17:08 – I may have given the wrong impression of England’s relationship to the witch trials here by stating it was less of a problem and then failing to mention any notable examples. There were still witch trials; it was simply more difficult to get a moral panic-style snowball effect moving when all had the right to be tried in front of a jury of their peers. Most notably, there was a short period during the English Civil War when jury trials were suspended; in this short time, hundreds were executed in continental-style interrogations, most notably by a witch hunter named Matthew Hopkins, who held executions in Chelmsford. Still, in the entire early modern period of over 300 years, England only contributed around 500 to the death toll of many thousands. It certainly can’t be considered a major center of activity in this trend.


20:38 – I mention that the old interpretation of the trial by water was that a guilty person would sink, but neglected to explain what changed. When the trial by water was used to determine whether a person was a witch, they were looking for how “natural” a person was. As water was pure (we’re talking about a society with a classical understanding of the elements, i.e. four), and witches were outside the natural order of things due to the power given them by Satan or other demons, the water should spontaneously reject them. A righteous person who had accepted their part in the natural order of things would be embraced by the water and sink. Either way, trial by water didn’t really have a happy outcome.


23:00 – I talk about the Inquisition quite a few times in a way that kind of assumes everyone knows what the Inquisition was. The first thing to note is that there hasn’t been only one Inquisition; at various times, different powers have taken it upon themselves to conduct inquisitions of their own on behalf of the Church. However, usually if it’s not clarified further, we’re talking about an investigation by the Church into heresy. It began in the 12th century as a reaction to those two groups I’ve mentioned numerous times, the Cathars and Waldensians. It operated as something of a parallel legal system in all Christian states, but was only concerned with crimes of spirituality – it wasn’t really concerned about whether you paid your taxes, but it did intensely mind what you believed about transubstantiation. It’s important to note that technically only Christians (and after the Reformation, Catholics) were supposed to be subject to the Inquisition; it was more of an internal affairs thing. However, that didn’t stop it from famously and frequently over-stepping these bounds to persecute people of other religious persuasions at numerous times. The Inquisition did concern itself with witch trials, though not all witch trials were conducted by the Inquisition, and those that were conducted by other groups generally used Inquisition methods – it turns into a bit of a square versus rectangle situation there. That being said, it wasn’t a witch hunting unit; it was more concerned with heresy and counter-reformation than who killed whose goat with a magic spell. Technically the Inquisition still exists, though it’s been called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1965.


33:58 – To add to the number of things stacked against women in this whole gender dynamic, I should point out that often alleged instances of succubi were blamed not on a malicious spirit acting of its own volition, but instead on a witch who had conjured a succubus as her familiar. The logic never stacks up in any of this witchcraft stuff, but looking at the gender politics of it all makes it that much more apparent who was calling the shots.


34:24 – Deuteronomy? Oh dear. Nope, that’s definitely Exodus, and the proper reference is Exodus 22:18. It’s almost like I’m not actually a religious scholar! There are a lot of different translations out there, but I like the classic King James one best: “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” It’s got a nice ring to it, and I don’t understand how “suffer” means “allow”, so it’s that much more grave and mysterious.”Never let a witch live” doesn’t quite cut it for me, GOD’S WORD Translation.


48:44 – I may have downplayed the number of people burned at the stake. It was still substantial, especially in Europe and especially during the height of outbreaks of fervor; thousands of people were burned at the stake during this time, However, a bit of digging shows that many people were hanged or otherwise killed before their remains were burned, rather than burning them alive in the traditional Joan-of-Arc motif. As I mentioned, death by burning was not swift or painless. The function of burning remains, on the other hand, had the same spiritual implications as burning a person alive; that is, to deny that person a physical resurrection upon the return of Christ. Cremation was forbidden by the Catholic Church until 1963 and continues to be forbidden by the Eastern Orthodox Church for this reason, so it can be inferred that the extreme finality of destroying a person’s chance at life after death was reserved for the most obscene crimes. The knowledge that one’s remains would be desecrated in this manner must have been unspeakably devastating for those being executed, especially when the majority believed themselves innocent. Occasionally the number nine million is bandied about, but this is far from the truth; no academic estimates exceed 100,000 executions for witchcraft total, let alone by burning. This number is originally attributed to 18th century German writer Gottfried Christian Voigt, who was exaggerating the number of deaths in an attempt to make a point about rationalism and impartiality in law. It is not based on any legitimate methodology of estimate.


53:47 – The name of the fungus I can’t seem to come up with here is claviceps purpurea, and its a bit of a fad explanation for a lot of weird stuff that’s happened in history – not to say that it couldn’t have caused these things, but just to point out that it’s about as convenient an explanation as witchcraft for many of the things it’s applied to. Be skeptical of this one.


1:02:26 – In talking about attribution of cause and blame in this section, I seem to have accidentally implied that God was no longer considered a valid cause for events. That is very far from the truth. Instead, two major things happened: first, the number of things without a temporal cause drastically shrank, and second, the things that were left were more easily swallowed as having a divine source without requiring demons in the equation. For example, we better understood agricultural science, learning to rotate crops, fertilize, use pesticides, track annual weather patterns etc. to produce a more consistent output rather than simply hoping for the best; and if there was an early frost or severe storm that lowered yield, people were willing to accept that they had done all that was humanly possible to ensure a good outcome, and that if the outcome was bad despite all that, it was simply meant to be. They neither felt like it could have been prevented through magic, nor that the poor outcome was the fault of another person working magic on them, but that it was part of God’s plan and that domain was out of their control. It separated the relationship between temporal events and divine workings. This is a broad trend and there are going to be countless examples that contradict what I’ve written here based on myriad factors, but that’s the problem with social history: general leanings won’t match practical happenings every time.


1:02:44 – I think I mentioned Malleus Maleficarum about a dozen times without mentioning its author, Heinrich Kramer. Kramer was a Catholic priest who wrote the book in 1486, but it was condemned as false by the Catholic church only three years later. As I say in the show, that didn’t stop it from being used; it was an extremely popular book. It really is amazing though how much insight a priest was able to gain into the Satanic rituals of witches, though – makes you wonder if he might have made it all up.


1:04:27 – I just wanted to point out that I’m not ending the show with McCarthyism. Every work on witch trials does this, and to some extent I get it, but if you were expecting it here’s why I don’t think it belongs: the Second Red Scare of the 1950s was a moral panic, not a witch hunt. Moral panics occur when people are upset or frightened enough about the idea of subversion that they are willing to forgo the usual due process in order to feel safer or to achieve results, and both McCarthyism and the Witch Trials are examples of that; however, McCarthyism stemmed from political beliefs, not religious ones. The root of the fear, the mechanism by which it was encouraged, and the process by which it was realized were all very different. The society was different, the people were different, and the events are so remote and disjointed that they bare almost no relation – McCarthyism could have easily occurred without the Witch Trials, and the Witch Trials did not mean an inevitable Red Scare. Despite the rhetoric, no one believed that literal demons were behind communism in the United States. I think it’s a great example of analogy; showing the potential we have now for moral panic by connecting an event from 70 years ago to those that took place centuries ago is a useful demonstration of what we as a society need to avoid. In the end, though, they simply don’t belong under the same heading.

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