Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"Witch trials were comparatively rare"? (Or, Shit Malcolm Gaskill says)

Once again I must turn my attention to the unedifying public spectacle of a noted scholar grotesquely misrepresenting the most basic historical facts in the name of dispelling "myths". The following is from an op-ed piece written by Malcolm Gaskill ("one of Britain's leading authorities on the history of witchcraft", if he does say so himself, and, to be fair, he is in fact a well respected scholar and author of innumerable important publications on historical Witchcraft) and published in The Guardian on April 5, 2010 (Witch-hunts then -- and now):

"The history of witchcraft helps us to understand this tragic phenomenon [modern cases of violence against people accused of Witchcraft]. Unfortunately, the subject remains littered with powerful myths. Some modern witches sing a protest song called Catch the Fire, which mentions the 9 million women burned during the "witch-craze". Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code says 5 million. The actual figure was about 50,000. This still might seem a lot for an imaginary crime, but viewed in context of time, space and population levels, it's clear that witch trials were comparatively rare. Plus executions followed in only about half of trials."

Were witch trials really "comparatively rare"? (Uh, and "compared" to what, exactly?) Well, in the comparatively small nation of Scotland, which was hardly the epicenter of the European Witch-hunts, there was one year (1649) in which there were 399 documented Witchcraft trials. In fact, during the next 13 years there were over 1000 more trials, for a sustained average of over 100 a year from 1649-1662. If we view these Scottish Witch trials "in context of time, space and population levels", this would be the equivalent of nearly half a million 21st century American citizens being put on trial for the crime of Witchcraft over a span of 14 years. And while it is true that only half (a mere 250,000 or so!) of these would be convicted and then publicly burned at the stake, the other half would still be severely tortured before being acquitted. And by "severely tortured" I am referring to methods that would make Guantanamo look like a tropical vacation resort. Here is another way of putting these deaths in "context": the rate at which people were burned at the stake for the crime of Witchcraft in Scotland between the years 1649 and 1662 was three times higher (or more) than the rate at which young Americans died in Vietnam between the years 1962 and 1975. For more information on the Witch-hunt in Scotland, see these three posts of mine and links therein:

In Iceland, an even smaller country and another place that does not figure prominently in the history of Witch-hunting, there were "only" 20 executions for Witchcraft (that we have good documentation for). But this was in a nation with a population at the time of about 50,000 inhabitants (about 1/20 that of Scotland). And all of these executions took place in less than three decades. That means that if we again look at the "context of time, space and population levels", Witch-hunting was almost as intense in Iceland as it was in Scotland. For more in the Witch-hunts in Iceland, check out these links:

So much for the periphery. What about the places that were at the center of the action? In just a few regions of what was at the time the Holy Roman Empire (in what is today western Germany and some bordering regions of France and Switzerland), the phenomenon of Witch-hunting reached such a frenzy that otherwise staid and sober scholars have actually felt compelled to employ the term "superhunt". These are the very same scholars who, like Gaskill, never tire of lecturing modern Pagans on the grave sin of historical exaggeration. In just one of these outbreaks (in Alzenau, just east of Frankfurt) nearly 10% of the adult population was put to death (and these were predominantly women, so one in six adult women were executed).

Although the European Witch-hunts lasted over three centuries (from the Witch trials in Valais which began in 1427 and in which over 350 people were put to death in 20 years, to the last trickle of official trials and executions in the mid 18th century), and  ranged from one end of Europe to the other (from Transylvania to Scotland and from Sweden to Spain), the superhunts were highly concentrated outbursts of murderous Witch hysteria that accounted for almost a quarter of all executions for Witchcraft in Europe (according to William Monter). These concentrated outbreaks of Witch killings occurred in Trier (1586-95), Mainz (1593-1631), Fulda (1602-06), Cologne (1627-35), Bamberg (1616-30), and Waldenburg (1616-30), leading to the deaths of at least 10,000 people in a relatively small region of Europe over a span of just 45 years. [See Monter on "Germany's Superhunts" in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 4: The Period of the Witch Trials.]

The bottom line is that it is an act of scholarly malfeasance to blithely state that "it's clear that witch trials were comparatively rare." Sadly, though, it has become de rigueur for certain self-appointed demythologizers to squander their academic credentials in the service of this kind of revisionist propagandizing, which aggressively promotes the (comforting to some) notion that Witch-hunts, Inquisitions, heresy-hunting, and other sins of the past, really weren't all that bad after all. I mean, well, "comparatively" speaking, you know.

See also:
"Witches and other evils": Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud on Witches and Witchcraft
Julian Goodare Contradicts His Own Data on Witches and Healers