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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

the incredible shrinking witches...

...or, why the myth of the "burning times" becomes more lukewarm the more real historians look into it.

Cyberspace provides a welcoming home for all sorts of fantasies, conspiracies, urban legends, tall stories, myths, and outright lies. One of the most ludicrous pieces of disinformation to have been accorded iconic status via the World Wide Web is the myth of the "burning times" in which nine million people (sometimes specifically stated as nine million women) suffered execution as witches, the victims of misogynistic, paternalistic, patriarchal, Bible-thumping Christians (the standard villains in an era in love with "the victim").

Historian Robin Briggs notes in his book Witches and Neighbours that
"On the wilder shores of the feminist and witch-cult movements, a potent myth has become established, to the effect that 9 million women were burned as witches in Europe; gendercide rather than genocide."

Anyone perusing the Net would know just how mainstream this potent myth from the wilder side had become. Briggs, being a serious academic, probably has not spend much time exposed to the kind of scholarship that is bandied about as authoritative by miltant anti-Christian polemicists.

Here are a few random examples:

from the Canada Pagan website
All went well for many millenia, then came Christianity! This religion, supposedly based upon love soon introduced the 'Burning Times' when the new religion decided that other religions, such as Wicca, could not be permitted if Christianity were to survive and prosper. Pagans and many other unfortunates, chosen at whim, were tortured and put to death, often at the burning stake and their properties confiscated by the Roman Catholic Church. This eliminated any competition and bulged their purses. Later, Protestant groups followed suit, and so it continued for over five-hundred years and over nine million fatalities of insanity supported by a Papal Bull. All those lives lost in the name of a loving, Christian God! Sad!

from THE PERSECUTlON of WOMEN AS WITCHES by Ruth Wildes Schuler
The Judea-Christian concept of women as the original criminal has resulted in the slaughter of millions of people in a period of three hundred years. Since the late 1400's it has been estimated that at least nine million people have been executed for the sin of witchcraft. The majority of these victims have been women, for witchcraft seems to have been a female crime. Men were generally protected from such accusations because they were considered to be of superior intellect and virtue in both the Judean and Christian cultures.

Little is known about these women who were murdered, for the historians were male and felt that the massacre of witches was too unimportant to chronicle, except as mere footnotes. Three centuries of burning women at the stake in agony was passed over lightly, the genocide ignored because of an acceptance of the Bible's proclamation that females were evil.

And even from The Witches' Influence on Macbeth By Jennifer Riedel
The belief in the existence and power of witches was widely believed in Shakespeare's day, as demonstrated by the European witch craze, during which an estimated nine million women were put to death for being perceived as witches (The Burning Times). The practice of witchcraft was seen to subvert the established order of religion and society, and hence was not tolerated. Witch hunting was a respectable, moral, and highly intellectual pursuit through much of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries.

The "nine million" claim was - and is - a popular canard amongst a number of disparate groups all linked by one common thread – an intense antipathy to Christianity. Thus one can find these phantom millions upon millions of victims of the burning times appearing prominently in the rhetorical outrage and accusations of wiccans, pagans, atheists, feminists, "free thinkers", secularists, various non-Christian religionists and any one else with an axe to grind against Christians.

The simple question that one could – and frequently did ask - when confronted with this claim on various discussion groups is where did this "information" come from? Usually the response consisted of bluster, obsfucation, appeal to dubious websites, abuse, insult and tirade. But times change...

Fortunately this myth is beginning to unspin under the penetrating light of rigorous historical investigation, and many of those who pushed it are now backpeddling furiously or attempting to put a new spin on their previous dogmatic pronouncements about the "nine million".

We now know its origin. The figure was plucked from thin air by the nineteenth-century feminist, iconoclast and polemicist, Matilda Joslyn Gage in her diatribe against Christianity (not my term but the description of academic historians and philosophers Dan Burton and David Grandy) entiltled Woman, Church and State: An Historical Account of the Status of Woman through the Christian Ages with Reminiscences of the Matriarchate originally published in 1893, and still apparently in print.

As to its standing as an "historical account" it is seriously and appallingly deficent. Gage asserts "it is computed from the historical records that nine millions of persons were put to death for witchcraft" without giving any clue to who actually calculated such a figure and from what sources. Burton and Grandy describe Gage’s book as "an entertaining compilation of nearly every anti-clerical legend ever concocted... mixed with wild unsubstantiated tales – all presented as fact". (This description serves as a remarkably accurate evaluation of the whole school of nineteenth century diatribes against Christianity that are still the mainstay of anti-Christian internet sites.)

The legend was then spread via the works of Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca; and further popularized by figures as diverse as "Starhawk" and Andrea Dworkin until it hardened into an orthodoxy. And then it was unleashed via the Internet to serve as cannon fodder in the war on Christianity. And the rest, as they say is "history". But of course it isn’t real history at all, just another postmodern fantasy wish-fulfillment dressed up as a PC reinterpretation of the way things were in the unenlightened past.

The revisions and back-tracking have begun however; to their credit many pagan, wiccan and feminist scholars are at last confirming the spurious nature of much of the burning times rhetoric and scaling back the ridiculous numbers of supposed victims to a mere shadow of their former enormity. Scholars, such as Briggs, consistently point out that the nine million figure is:
"an overestimate by a factor of up to 200, for the 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 adds that "these figures are chilling enough, but they have to be set in the context of what was probably the harshest period of capital punishments in European history."

Richard Greene notes:
"I do not wish to compare people's pain: an unjust murder is an unjust murder regardless of how many other people are murdered. It should be noted, however, lest we think times have changed, that the efficiency of murder in our own time would seem to dwarf that of early modern Europe. In the early 1970's the Khmer Rouge Government murdered 2-3 million people in the the small nation of Cambodia. It seems that if we have changed, the change is only in the efficiency with which we conduct our witch hunts."

What Greene doesn't mention here is that the Khmer Rouge were committed atheists and communists, intellectuals educated in France under the tutelage of leading Marxist social theorists and philosophers, the children of reason and rationality, of Darwin and Science, not of medieval supernaturalism and yet their genocidal fruits bear witness to the darkness that lies so close to the surface in the heart of Man...even supposedly "rational" Man.

So let the truth come out, even if late in the day as usual. One can at least relish how ironic it is to see on various "Internet Infidel" and Neo-pagan lists much scoffing and incedulity beginning to be expressed about the "nine million" where only a few short years ago these very same lists were full of crowing propaganda about the "facts" of the Christian "burning times." The actual historical facts are now more widley available. Here are a couple of places one can start:

How Many Witches by Richard J. Green

Falsehoods of the Burning Times by Arthur Hinds on The Wiccan Pagan Times site.

6:30:00 pm