Witch-hunts: hysteria then and now

The New York Times has a Halloween-related story by Peter Steinfels debunking many of the popular modern myths about witches:

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.

Robin Briggs, an Oxford historian, is only one of many contemporary scholars rejecting this account. What unites most “common assumptions” about witches, witchcraft and witch hunts, Mr. Briggs writes in “Witches & Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft” (Viking Penguin, 1996), is “one very marked feature,” namely “that they are hopelessly wrong.”

In fact, writes Steinfels, witch persecutions were fairly rare in medieval Europe (the biggest witch craze paradoxically occurred during the Renaissance, in 1550-1650, possibly as an expression of Catholic-Protestant tensions). They were also predominantly a grass-roots phenomenon, and in many cases not directed by the Church at all. Here’s a particularly surprising tidbit: Spain and Portugal hardly saw any executions for witchcraft at all, due mainly to … the Inquisition:

In the course of its preoccupation with other scapegoats like Jews and Muslims, it had developed rules of evidence that meant most accusations and even confessions of witchcraft were dismissed as delusions.

It’s not often that you see the Spanish Inquisition as the (unwitting) good guys!

Most of the accused were women, and the witchhunts often did have misogynistic overtones; but a sizable minority of witch-hunt victims were men (Steinfels says 20%, other estimates put the number at about 25%, and in some regions men were the majority of the accused). What’s more, many of the accusers were also women. The total number of those executed on charges of witchcraft in Europe is estimate to range from 40,000 to 100,000.

This is not exactly “new” news. Laura Miller had an excellent piece on the subject in Salon.com in February, built around a review of Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany by Oxford historian Lyndal Roper. Two Canadian debunkers, Lara Apps and Andrew Gow, published their book, Male Witches in Early Modern Europe, in 2003; and Briggs’ Witches & Neighbors appeared in 1996.

Yet the myth of the witch-hunts as a patriarchal Holocaust in which as many as 9 million women were burned persists in women’s studies courses, where students are routinely exposed to propaganda materials like Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology and the 1990 PBS documentary The Burning Times. (Since the radical feminists love to make up ridiculous words like “herstory,” can we call this “hystory”?) Yes, of course the witch-hunts were horrific; of course medieval Europe was an oppressive patriarchal society. But it did not wage a Holocaust against women. As Steinfels writes:

Do such unfounded myths do anyone any good? Certainly many feminists, including some identifying themselves as neopagans, agree with contemporary historians about the answer: No.

Many presumably do. Others, shamefully, have actually compared historians who challenge the witch-hunt myths to Holcaust deniers.

Meanwhile, Ann Althouse writes that until reading the Times piece, she believed the 9 million figure to be real ever since reading Gyn/Ecology. Oddly enough, the revelation of Daly’s false claim does not change her mind about the book’s merits: she concludes her post with:

Have any of you folks read “Gyn/Ecology”? Oh, that is a rousing book!

I have great respect for Ann Althouse. I read her blog regularly, and I think its excellence is not in question (her commentary on the Harriet Miers nomination, for instance, has been among the best). But … first Andrea Dworkin, now Mary Daly? Gyn/Ecology is a hate-filled, paranoid screed that excoriates men as agents of the patriarchy, “lethal organs” of a “rapist society,” misogynists who feed parasitically on female energy and invent evil technologies to compensate for their inability to bear children. The birth-control pill and estrogen therapy are denounced as “the poisoning of women,” a medical plot to end women’s irritating tendency to live longer. The only contraception women need, Daly asserts, is a “mister-ectomy.” Women who don’t accept her views are derided as “honorary white males.” (For a sampling of quotes see this page.) I’m not sure I understand Prof. Althouse’s tolerant attitude toward this kind of hysteria and anti-male bigotry.

Update: Prof. Althouse responds:

I just said it was rousing, not that it was good or right. I went through a period when I read a lot of Dworkin and Daly’s books. They were very stimulating, but also ultimately stimulated me into wanting to distance myself from them. There are plenty of things in the treatment of women to be outraged about, but polemical works that demand that you reach and maintain a permanent state of anger just seem sad after a while (or dangerous, if they are actually effective).

I understand Ann’s point, of course, and I don’t for a moment think that she agrees with Dworkin and Daly. However, I am still troubled by the fact that feminist hate speech (which is what Dworkin/Daly are to me) seems to get a “pass” in a way that other kinds of hate speech do not. “Rousing” is not necessarily a positive adjective, of course, but not a negative one either. In my view, reasonable feminists need to be more judgmental on the subject.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Witch-hunts: hysteria then and now

  1. Dave

    I think you’re taking Althouse’s comment the wrong way.

    Althouse’s seems a wry sense of humor; “rousing book” can easily mean “amusing in its stupid assertions,” etc.

  2. Cathy Young

    If so, I apologize. It’s just that Althouse’s earlier praise for the similarly deranged and anti-male Andrea Dworkin makes me wonder.

  3. Dorothy

    Thanks for comments on a topic near and dear to my heart. FWIW, much of the pagan community has moved on from treating “the Burning Times” as fact, but certain people (*cough* Starhawk *cough*) still insist on promulgating these dangerous myths as fact.

  4. Dave

    From what I recall of Althouse’s praise of Dworkin, her praise was limited to saying that Dworkin was a provocative thinker, unafraid of what others thought of her.

    One could say the same thing of Hitler, yet not support his ideology.

    I think there is a distinct difference between praising someone for being provocative, or ornery, or whatever other quality you see in his/her writing, and supporting that which you praise.

  5. Dean

    “I just said it was rousing, not that it was good or right.”

    I suppose one could say that same for the Nuremburg rallies, really.

  6. Revenant

    Carl Sagan’s book “The Demon-Haunted World” drew some interesting parallels between witch hunts, preschool-child-abuse stories, UFO abduction stories, and a number of other examples of mass hysteria. It was a little overblown, but I still think it pointed at some underlying human trait.

  7. kat

    I think it’s a little unfair to compare Dworkin (a brilliant, yet very flawed thinker whose early experiences of rape and the sex trade rendered her thoughts on pornography a little…excessive) to Hitler, the mass murderer, albeit indirectly. Particularly given that she herself was Jewish.
    Having read her work I think that a lot of it is misinterpreted, although I would agree that at times she does indeed verge on misandry.
    As to the witchhunt “herstory”, I’ve never heard of the supposedly mainstream feminist version of events. I must have missed the handout! :)

    (to be clear, I am not suggesting Ms Young herself compared Dworkin to Hitler, directly or indirectly, but I felt a couple of comments on the subject veered dangerously close…)

  8. Cathy Young

    Hi Kat! Good to see you back.

    I personally prefer to stay away from Hitler (or Stalin) analogies. However, I think “brilliant but flawed” is an adequate description of Dworkin or Daly. Betty Friedan, for instance, I would consider “brilliant but flawed.” Dworkin strikes me as, to put it plainly, insane. (I mean, really — the woman has argued that the high rate of Caesarean sections in America is driven by the sexual sadism of doctors who get off on cutting women up.) That doesn’t rule out brilliance; a good analogy would be the turn-of-the-century Austrian writer/philosopher Otto Weininger (Sex and Character). Dworkin was also a hater, and one who was not above, at times, advocating violence toward the objects of her hate.

    By the way, here’s a column I wrote after Andrea Dworkin’s death.

  9. Dominic Whitis

    Very interesting.

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