Sunday, 4 December 2011


Do the numbers matter?

I've been watching "The Burning Times" on You Tube; it's a film which is part of a trilogy, and this particular film looks at "The Burning Times", which is the time of the witch craze in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The film presents the witch trials as a kind of "gendercide", an attack by the church, which is hierarchical, patriarchal, celibate, against women, during which they were disempowered.

It's a moot point in which way they were wholly empowered before that anyway in a modern sense, in an age when women certainly didn't have the vote, and indeed few men did. It's worth remembering perhaps that the empowerment of women, in terms of having an input into political discourse and action, only came about at the start of the 20th century. Before that, some women might have power or any control over their rulers, but the majority did not. It is all to easy, perhaps, to present a somewhat idyllic picture of the past, which when it comes down to it, doesn't match up to the increases in women's power over their lives in the 20th century. That's not to say that the present situation is perfect; it certainly is not - women are still discriminated against in the boardroom, but there is certainly more freedom for most women in England, for example, than before the time of the witch craze.

The film is not rigorously researched, and shows the bias in the estimates of the burnings. Early estimates were widely over the top e.g. 9 million burnings, and not all countries had burnings (e.g. England had hangings).  Modern historians such as Lyndal Roper, Robin Briggs, and Brian Levack have put the record straight by painstaking documentary research of the main witch craze period - because there had to be a judicial process, there had to be records kept.

The numbers are important because when they were miscalculated to 9 million, all kinds of comparisons were made with the Jewish Holocaust. The film terms the burning times, "the women's holocaust". In fact, "most reasonable modern estimates suggest perhaps 100,000 trials between 1450 and 1750, with something between 40,000 and 50,000 executions, of which 20 to 25 per cent were men"(Briggs). That's still a lot of people, but not nearly as much. Moreover, it was the secular courts which condemned and killed; the Church courts did not. In Spain, an Inquisitor stepped in to stop the killing because the proof of witchcraft obtained by the secular authorities was deemed to be worthless, relying as it did on torture.

That's not to say the church stopped the witch hunts, but mostly it was the civil court judges who had the well-thumbed copy of the Maliffeus, the early manual used as a guide - more on that later.
Understanding what was happening is important, but the false picture of a kind of conflation with Nazi Germany is mistaken; in Germany, it was from the top down that the instructions for genocide were coming; in the Witch craze, it was the break down of the chain of command, where local communities were able to take the law into their own hands (lynch mob justice) that this happened - which is why it happened when the Circuit Judges could not ride out in the English Civil War.

Alan Macfarlane found that as many women as men informed against witches in the 291 Essex cases he studied; about 55 percent of those who believed they had been bewitched were female... Other studies support a figure in the range of 60 percent. In Peter Rushton's examination of slander cases in the Durham church courts, women took action against other women who had labeled them witches in 61 percent of the cases... J.A. Sharpe also noted the prevalence of women as accusers in seventeenth-century Yorkshire cases, concluding that "on a village level witchcraft seems to have been something peculiarly enmeshed in women's quarrels."

None of this is hidden, there are archives of the trials available. In fact, a correspondent has told me that the archives of Scottish trials are all records are available to the public in Edinburgh, and new information is added as it is found. Most accusations were made by neighbours. The files show several of the accused were attacked by mobs before they could go to trial, or after they were freed if found innocent. This was more to do with mass hysteria than government or church control, which agrees with Levack's assessment that it was the breakdown of the normal process of law that lead to hysteria and lynch mobs.

The Malleus Maleficarum, contrary to how it is portrayed in the film,  was treated as rubbish in its lifetime by the church. Almost all of the Malleus was written by one man: Heinrich Kramer. A German inquisitor of the late 15th century, Kramer was not a well-respected man. His views on Witchcraft were considered weird and extreme by most of his fellow clergymen, who continually opposed and hindered his trials. For instance, Kramer ran a large trial in Innsbruck in 1485, where 57 people were investigated. Yet nobody was killed. Eventually the bishop of Innsbruck became so irritated with Kramer's fascination with the Witches' sexual behavior that he shut down the trials, claiming that the devil was in the inquisitor, not the Witches. It was only later, in the 16th and 17th centuries that the secular authorities, looking for a guidebook in witch trials, came (unhappily) across the book. Jenny Gibbons notes that: "the Inquisition in the 15th century resoundingly condemned the book. It said that the legal procedures it recommended were unethical and illegal, and that its demonology was not consistent with Catholic doctrine. Undaunted, Kramer forged an enthusiastic endorsement."

Later, the Compendium Maleficarum (1608) overtook it in use - it had mention of covens, sabbats, witches marks - none of which appear in the Malleus.

Lyndal Roper in particular has done a lot of ground-breaking work in Germany, which reveals much the same as Sharpe, that women were making accusations against women (Witch Craze, 2004). This in fact confounded much of her expectations, which is a sure sign that the evidence was strong. It does not surprise me - when looking for scapegoats for infant mortality, about breastmilk that dried up, about babies who sickened and died, it was likely to be women who would seek scapegoats of other women, especially when older women (over 40) acted as midwives, helped the mothers with the infants, and could also milk cows.

The film uses exaggerations and disinformation to make an agenda about how the church disenfranchised women by using witch trials. That simply is not accurate.

Margot Adler, who took part in the film, has since mentioned this inaccuracy. She said this:

"We now know that most persecutions of witches occurred during a 100-year period, between 1550 and 1650, and the total number hanged or burned probably did not exceed 40,000. For years, many Wiccans understood that the figure of 9 million, so casually bandied about by many of us, was hyperbole, yet this number continued to find its way into countless books, films, and news articles. I confess that only last year, I told a reporter that the figure was close to 1 million. Recently, a German historian, Wolfgang Behringer, discovered the source of the 9 million figure. It was first used by a German historian in the late 18th century. He took the number of people killed in a witch hunt in his own German state and multiplied it by the number of years various penal statutes existed, and then reconfigured the number to correspond to the population of Europe. "Nine million" still gets repeated every time "The Burning Times," a searingly powerful film, is screened or shown on public television. The film's heartrending and appalling descriptions of some of the trials, tortures, and deaths that did occur is not nullified by this new and more accurate research. But it serves no end to perpetuate the miscalculation; it's time to put away the exaggerated numbers forever."

Why is it important to focus on the numbers, and also on the research which shows that the thesis of the film is flawed? Some people don't like this kind of focus, but I think it is important. If women are to become more enfranchised in today's society, it must not be dependent upon bad scholarship, which can all too easily be exposed by misogynists.

We must build on sure foundations, and not on sand.

For a survey of good reliable historians re-assessing the period, Jenny Gibbons has an excellent article at:
Recent Developments in the Study of The Great European Witch Hunt
Survey Database, Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, Scottish History, School of History and Classics, Th

1 comment:

Nick Palmer said...

I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition!