The Burning Times

The New York Times has a feature up about the history of medieval and early modern persecution of “witches”. The piece starts right out of the gate by talking about who isn’t in tune with the latest scholarship.

“In a search for historical roots and moral legitimacy, some feminists and many adherents of neopagan or goddess-centered religious movements like Wicca have elaborated a founding mythology in which witches and witch hunts have a central role. Witches, they claim, were folk healers, spiritual guides and the underground survivors of a pre-Christian matriarchal cult. By the hundreds of thousands, even the millions, they were the victims of a ruthless campaign that church authorities waged throughout the Middle Ages and early modern centuries to stamp out this rival, pagan religion.”

The article goes on to talk about the latest theories and numbers regarding the witch-hunts in Europe with scholars Robin Briggs (author of “Witches & Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft”), Diarmaid MacCulloch (author of “The Reformation”), and Malcolm Gaskill (author of “Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy”). The latest modes of thought put the total number of deaths from that period at around 50,000 (instead of the 9 million popularized by Mary Daly), and presents a less monolithic picture of persecutions which manifested differently in different places. The things scholars do seem to agree on is that the victims were overwhelmingly female (80%) and that patriarchy and misogyny were major factors in some of the regions of the witch-hunts.

But how many modern Pagans still cling to the “9 million” myth or the myth that all of these women (and men) were members of the “old religion”? Several influential Pagan authors and organizations have worked to correct the old (false) conceptions, including Isaac Bonewits, Ronald Hutton, The Covenant of The Goddess, Arthur Hinds (of popular Pagan band Emerald Rose), Catherine Noble Beyer (from “Wicca: For The Rest of Us”) and Arlea Hunt-Anschutz. Even the Alt.Pagan FAQ sticks pretty close with modern scholarship on the issue.

“As is often the case, this horror sprang from fear and misinformation — most of the people who were arrested, tortured and killed were not Witches (or witches) of any sort, but simply people who had gotten on the wrong side of someone who had the local magistrate’s ear, or who somehow didn’t fit in (particularly beautiful or ugly women, widows who had wealth or owned land, the handicapped and retarded, and even overly intelligent people are all examples of those who became primary targets of this persecution).”

While some authors still cling to the old persecution myths, the modern Pagan movement has been very open to embracing new scholarship and most (if not all) new books embrace a more reasonable outlook on our history. We don’t need a persecution myth from the past to legitimize us any longer.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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