Witch Hunt History
A dominant impression in popular American culture is that witch-hunting and witch burning were a medieval artifact of Western Christianity. Some even speak of paganism as a more humane system on that account, especially as it has become voguish (and inaccurate) to claim that paganism is an ancient form of proto-feminism. Most of our contemporaries – at least those who think about this at all – carry with them the idea that witch-hunting and witch burning were products of superstition that were swept aside by the post-Enlightenment certainties of science. In fact, the subject of witch persecutions is far more complex; and the history of witch persecutions turns out to be illuminative of each historical epoch of which it is a part. This is true, however, only when witch persecutions as a whole – across place, time, and culture – are studied and understood as a phenomenon of gendered power.
Studies show that belief in witchcraft – as a malevolent practice – existed in early China, Babylonia, and Egypt. Laws against it were promulgated in these various societies, as well as in pre-Christian Europe and Imperial Rome.
Hebrew law forbade all forms of sorcery and divination, though in the context of Hebrew monotheism, these practices were understood not so much dangerously efficacious as an idolatrous alienation of affection from the true God. The comment in Exodus that a “witch shall not be suffered to live” is actually a mistranslation of a Hebrew term for ‘someone who poisons’ into the word “witch.”
History has left us with many questions about when and how certain practices came to be primarily associated with women, even when the language to describe them may have been gender-free.
Romans were superlative record-keepers, so one of the earliest indicators of the popular association of malevolent witchcraft with women is an account from 331 BC, in which 170 women were executed for witchcraft. The designated witches were convicted of causing an epidemic. Epidemic was the catalyst again, from 184-180 BC, over which time the various Roman authorities put around 5,000 of these “witches” to death. Witch killing was in the Empire before Christianity came onto the scene.
By the 6th Century there appeared somewhat mythologized written accounts of Vistula River Goths engaging past anti-witch campaigns. In the Gothic account, witches were exclusively women. So we can see that there was an explicit association of female with dangerous sorcery in Germanic and Roman society reaching back some time.
Little known nowadays, Roman persecution of witches – as well as persecution of witches by non-Romans in the Germanic provinces – pre-dated Christianity; and for the first four centuries of Christianity, Christians themselves were emphatically opposed to executing witches. The Roman practice of killing women as witches was actually curtailed by increasing Christian influence in Roman society after the Constantinian conversion.
Between 300-700 AD, the church implemented laws against “devil worshipping” and sorcery, but these crimes were described bisexually as those of “witches and wizards,” and the punishments were kept intentionally mild.
St. Augustine called witchcraft “illusion, not a crime.”
A Christian who believes that there is a vampire in the world, that is to say, a witch, is to be anathematized; whoever lays that reputatioin upon a living being shall not be received into the Church until he revokes with his own voice the crime that he has committed. (Synod of St. Patrick, 5th Century)In 906, the Vatican declared the belief in witchcraft (in its efficacy) to be heretical.
By the time of the Norma Conquest, the church regarded witchcraft in a manner consistent with many of our own contemporaries – as a less than catastrophic superstition – that warranted only mild rebuke. The Bishop of Worms wrote a long treatise circa 1020, in which he discounted the supposed efficacy of sorcery, witchcraft, and other purported forms of magic. Sixty years later, Pope Gregory VII beseeched the King of Denmark to cease and desist with witch burnings, which were becoming an occasional response to events like crop failure. Two centuries earlier, Pope Nicholas I had forbidden torture outright for Christians.
The church, then, had denounced sorcery and witchcraft, centuries prior to the Enlightenment, using the same basic argument that we use today in response to claims of magic and sorcery – that it is illusory and inefficacious.
So how did the church, Western Europe, and even the American Colonies devolve into the orgy of female witch persecution that began in earnest in the 15th Century?
Two things seem important to point out at the beginning. First of all, the majority of witch persecutions were under civil, not ecclesial, authority. Secondly, accusations, trials, and witnesses were highly localized, with women comprising nearly half of all accusers and hostile witnesses in documented cases. Women, like their male contemporaries, and formed by the same customs and narratives, internalized the “ontologies” of the witch hunts. Structural male power can and does exist without translating into exclusively male initiative and agency. Hegemony, by definition, entails the psychic development of consent among the governed.
Hereafter, we will look at three developments that contributed to this grotesque perversion of the Gospels: the church became the captive of politics and war; the church adopted the surrounding cultures’ mistrust of and contempt for women; and the church went down the wrong path with what Ivan Illich called “the criminalization of sin.”
The 14th Century brought bubonic plague to Europe. International trade (the movement of rats) and urbanization (concentration of human populace) acted as accelerants for the disease. Popular superstitions were inflamed by the experience, and the Romano-Germanic attachment to the notion of witches was fanned from ember to flame.
Witch persecution was not a phenomenon generalized throughout Europe, but highly localized, albeit in several far-flung locations. Around 26,000 witches would be put to death in what is now Germany, for example, while only four witch burnings appear to have ever taken place in Ireland. The diversity of the Middle Ages is only infrequently remarked, leaving the impression that much that was anecdotal was somehow universal through Western Europe.
Witch trials and executions were sporadic, local, and frequently caused by mass panics in conjunction with the scapegoating of people (mostly women) who were already unpopular in the community. It is likely, too, that personal vendettas and self-interest played a powerful role in many accusations.
The plague also shifted the demographics of Europe, increasing the value of labor and empowering peasants to the point that they began to rebel throughout Europe. The general state of unrest led to accusations and counter-accusations among officials of church and state, at a time when corruption had become endemic in the Roman Catholic church. Nothing was so unpopular among the masses of Europeans as the selling of indulgences, coerced bribes from the loved ones of the dead to clergy in exchange for clerical “intervention” on the deceased behalf in a 12th Century Catholic invention – purgatory. Pope Sixtus IV implemented the indulgence system through a network of collection agents as a new papal revenue stream.
In 1492, the same year that Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain expelled Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and financed Cristobal Colon’s western expedition, Rodrigo de Borgia, a member of the notorious Borgia political clan, took office as Pope Alexander VI. He proceeded to scandalize Europe with his elaborate political machinations, his accumulation of wealth, his infamous sexual appetites, and his bald-faced nepotism. Alexander rigged the Sacred College of Cardinals by appointing 12 of his own at once, one being Borgia’s son.
Borgia and his family had great influence on the Vatican by virtue of their enormous wealth. The fast track was prepared for Borgia well before he ascended to the papacy. Trained initially as a Doctor of Law, within three years of his ordination as a priest, this ex-lawyer became a Bishop. The longstanding arrangements of church and state – sometimes fractious – had shifted into a direct church-state merger in the person of Alexander. Popular dissatisfaction was increasing to a boiling point, when the Pope’s political maneuvering inadvertently created a minor war between France and Naples. This set off another wave of political realignments that in turn resulted in greater social dislocation and popular discontent.
As Brad Gregory points out in The Unintended Reformation (Harvard University Press, 2012), “medieval Christendom failed, the Reformation failed, and Western modernity is failing.” But the breakdown of the Reformation and the crises of modernity were and are in many respects structural inconsistencies. The breakdown of Christendom (Christianity in power) was based on the failure of Christians – especially powerful Christian men – to practice what they preached.
In 1517, when Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses, criticisms of the Roman Catholic hierarchy were hungrily received by masses of people who had been thrown into chronic uncertainty by the tectonic political shifts taking place then in Europe. In 1525, Huldrych Zwingli introduced a new liturgy as alternative to mass in Zurich. In 1530, Jean Calvin broke with the church and founded yet another theological tradition that would oppose itself to the Roman Catholic church. The Protestant Reformation had begun.
Small wars erupted, and by 1618 there would be the very big, very complex, and very destructive Thirty Years War. Between the Reformation and the Thirty Years War, Protestant and Catholic, and even Protestant against Protestant conflicts created an increasingly hateful rhetoric on all sides, the equation of enemies with Evil, a kind of Manichean mindset that mapped easily onto the psychic terrain of Romano-Germany now in upheaval.
This rhetoric increasingly included accusations of devil-alliance and witchcraft. The suspicions of one another as members or not of one or another legitimate church easily led to accusations of witchcraft; and as in all societies that are placed on a more or less martial footing, suspicion of one’s own people accompanied the increased preoccupation with the supposed plots of enemies and spies. Suspicion had become a way of life. Accusation followed.
The church had itself been aligned with secular rulers since Constantine joined the church and Theodosius established it as the “state church of the Roman Empire.” While monasticism resisted “the world” (a euphemism for the political order), the church hierarchy – modeling itself on secular political power – adapted its practices and doctrine to accommodate the exercise of male official power.
The example of Jesus – an “effeminate pacifist,” preaching redemption by love – was subsumed by the 2nd Century into an increasing reaction against the spiritual equality of women in the Christian view. The emerging church, reflecting the surrounding society, was dominated by men – who apparently suffer a perennial temptation to masculinity constructed as domination.
Whether by exposure to the warlike secular rulers before establishment or by operating within the halls of power after establishment, the church forgot its early gender subversion and its pacifism. These were forgotten together, because the preparation for and practice of war is and has throughout recorded history nearly always been constitutive of male power, the practice of which was understood as a high masculine virtue.
Two Centuries after establishment, Emperor Justinian – a leader who pursued a policy of constant war – appointed the church’s bishops.
Justinian, in his military attempts to restore the old Roman Empire from his capital in Constantinople, was trying to pick up the pieces of empire that had been chipped away by “barbarian” (non-Roman) incursions and intrigues. Justinian prefigured nation-builders like Napoleon in his attempt to enforce a broad cultural conformity. He believed that his empire ought to have one, and only one religion.
Justinian was observant of the Christian doctrine of his day, and an active a participant in church debates. So Justinian sought to “protect the purity of the church” by executing heretics. The Christian church, which just four centuries earlier had been the victim of persecution by the Roman authorities, now set about the persecution of the “other.” That this departure was initiated by a leader immersed in the business of war ought not to surprise anyone.
Heresy was punished by death, an indication that the church felt threatened by heretics. Threats are directed at something and that is something another has to lose. What the church (as an organ of the empire) now had to lose was power.
The church did not opt – as Christ had – to take the way of the cross. On the contrary, the church adapted to the successor regime of those who had executed Jesus.
The church did not seek power, but fell into it. The church was rapidly becoming the institution with the only literate people with administrative experience, and the public moral standing to legitimate power. Many of the rulers throughout Europe prior to the final Christianization of Europe were themselves either Germanic or heavily influenced by Germanic culture. Most political leaders were barely literate.
Rome itself fell, according to some simple historical formulae, because in this arrangement of legitimation from church and governance from military powers, power was separated institutionally from authority. (The nation-state would eventually resolve this contradiction, with the active assistance of the church; but it would also result in Christians shooting other Christians in a series of wars between nation-states.)
The church, in its alliance with power since Constantine, now found itself the most stable political force in Europe, where borders and rulers were changing with the seasons. The church, in other words, had trapped itself into a kind of political responsibility that was never anticipated by the early church, and one that now forced the militarily powerless church to align itself with worldly leaders – taking in many cases what appeared to be the lesser of several evils. In this way, the church used its own accumulation of power to eventually become the servant not of “the least of them,” but of states.
As empires shifted and multiplied, the church found itself fragmented, having established its bases with secular authorities that later divided. By the 11th Century, the Great Schism had occurred separating the Eastern and Western churches, with the Western church aligning with the Bishop of Rome against the Bishop of Constantinople.
From 1378 until 1417, there was a schism within the Roman Catholic Church, wherein two different popes were recognized by two competing factions. These destabilizations coincided with various social disruptions, even as the church became more embroiled in political intrigue, slouching toward Alexander VI.
The church had lashed itself to an unstable political ecology, a situation in which the temptation to cold-blooded pragmatism became more and more urgent – and divided. By the time the witch persecutions began to take off in certain parts of Europe, the church was already accommodating so many practices that are antithetical to the Gospels that embracing the notion of witchcraft – especially as a way of demonizing enemies or terrorizing subjects – was as easy as spelling B-o-r-g-i-a.
It was during this period of dissolution within the church that the church established the Inquisition – a loose confederation of church officials who tried people for heresy.
Started in the 11th Century, the Inquisition or Inquisitio Haereticae Pravitatis (Inquiry on Heretical Perversity) these tribunals seldom practiced torture, acquitted a goodly number of people, and only infrequently used the death penalty (administered not by church but secular authority). This moderation was abandoned in response to the threat of Protestantism, and by the 15th Century had become a weapon against Jews and Muslims, especially in Spain.
The Inquisition was not synonymous with witch persecutions, though there were around 500 witch burnings that were the result of the Inquisition’s participation in the witch-hunting. Many of these were convictions based, however, on heresy as the charge, witchcraft still being seen as superstition. Even during the witch-craze between 1576-1640, more than half of those tried only as witches by Inquisition clerics were acquitted.
In 1258, Pope Alexander IV (not to be confused with Alexander VI) had explicitly forbidden the trial of witches by inquisitors.
"The Inquisitors,” wrote Alexander IV, “deputed to investigate heresy, must not intrude into investigations of divination or sorcery without knowledge of manifest heresy involved."
Pope Alexander IV
Pope John XXII reversed the church’s position on witches in 1326, after two attempts on his life, one with poison (associated in the Medieval mind with witches). The fear of witches was becoming more widespread throughout Europe and many priests were infected with it, leading them to petition the more cautious Pope for an expansion of the inquisitorial charter to include prosecution of witches. In 1347, noted above, bubonic plague decimated Europe, heightening the general fear of witchcraft.
Torture began to become a more frequent practice during witch trials, especially as the Reformation began to pick up momentum. In a particularly odious example of church dissembling and cowardice, the church officials conducted questioning, but anything that required physical violence was the purview of the state. The state had become a kind of Shabbos goy, doing those things that might sully the church of Jesus.
The church participated in witch-pogroms, in part, because the church had become the captive of politics. It had found itself competing for the loyalty of Christians in the wake of schism and reformation, demanding it by force on the one hand and pandering where necessary to popular prejudices and illusions that had previously been rejected by the church. The church’s incoherence in both this practice of persecuting “witches” and attempting to salvage political power was a reflection of an extremely tumultuous political ecology.
The Crusades were undertaken in part to unify European Christendom in a time of great political turmoil, and had inured the church to war. With war comes the logic of war, including “collateral damage” and tactical massacre; and when Christians massacred other Christians who were the cohabitants of Muslim communities, it was seen as tactical necessity. Since the mission was holy, went the logic, then the means were sanctified. Crusaders had all been promised a direct pass to Heaven by Pope Urban II, telling them they were all shriven of their soldier sins in advance of committing them.
In 1054, the Council of Narbonne declared that “no Christian shall kill another Christian for whoever kills a Christian undoubtedly sheds the blood of Christ.”
By the time the church was attacking renegade Christians in the Albigensian Crusade (in what is now southern France), the church was endorsing massacres of heretics.
During the massacre of men, women, and children at Beziers in 1209, troops appealed to the abbot with the dilemma that some Catholics lived among the residents, to which the abbot replied, “Kill them all, and God will know his own.”
The phrase “kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out” is a common phatic expression among today’s United States combat arms branches of the military.
The inhering hard-heartedness of the practice of war became part of the church’s political language. That this hard-heartedness could so easily be turned against “witches” should be no surprise.
By the 16th Century, Christians were killing Christians throughout Europe in mutually organized warfare. Christians had fully embraced the world’s death-dealing man-sport of war.
Sin and Crime
[W]ith the New Testament, some very new forms of perception – not only of conception but also of perception – came into the world. I believe that these forms have had a definitive influence on our Western manner of living, shaping our way of thinking about what is good and desirable. I also believe that this influence has been mediated by the Christian Church, which bases its authority on its claim to speak for the New Testament. The Church … attempted to safeguard the newness of the Gospel by institutionalizing it, and in this way the newness got corrupted.
The church’s institutionalization under conditions of establishment made this inevitable. The church’s claim to infallibility included the complex development of a comprehensive, self-justifying world view. Once aspects of that integrated world view were disproven in part (consider Galileo) the institution reacted defensively and with a total absence of good will. It sought to impose the old “truths” as doctrine, by force if necessary, long after the church’s erroneous claims with regard to “natural science” were even viable. This reaction to the church’s epistemological crisis undermined and is still undermining the church’s credibility.
This struggle between church and the Enlightenment, however, cannot be grasped through some evidentiary debate that sees the sides as antithetical. The Enlightenment grew directly out of the church. Ivan Illich, the late Catholic priest and social critic, makes a case in a series of interview just before his death that modernity is not the opposite of Christianity, put its deep and demonic perversion.
Witch-burning itself co-evolved with the Enlightenment, and shared many of the beliefs and assumptions of the so-called fathers of the Enlightenment. First case in point is Jean Bodin.
A nominal Catholic, Bodin is remembered rightly as principally a lawyer and political philosopher. His political philosophy revolved around social order, which was perceived to be in short supply during his life (1530–1596), specifically calling for the establishment of powerful central states (what would come to be called a modern nation-state). He called for dialogue between the various Abrahamic religions, and placed minimal emphasis on church as a political actor. He is rightly seen as one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, and yet his life will always be notorious for his enthusiasm to kill women as witches.
Maria Mies, writing about Bodin in her book, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale – Women in the International Division of Labor (Zed Books, 1999), deserves an extended quote here.
The persecution and burning of the midwives and witches was directly connected with the emergence of modern society: the professionalization of medicine, the rise of medicine as a ‘natural science,’ the rise of science and of modern economy. The torture chambers of the witch-hunters were the laboratories where the texture, the anatomy, the resistance of the human body – mainly the female body – was studied. One may say that modern medicine and the male hegemony over this vital field were established on the base of millions of crushed, maimed, torn, disfigured and finally burnt, female bodies.
There was a calculated division of labor between Church and State in organizing the massacres and the terror against the witches. Whereas the church representatives identified witches, gave the theological justification and led the interrogations, the secular arm of the state was used to carry out the tortures and finally execute the witches on the pyre.
The persecution of the witches was a manifestation of the rising modern society and not, as is usually believed, a remnant of the irrational “dark” Middle Ages. This is most clearly shown by Jean Bodin, the French theoretician of the new mercantilist economic doctrine. Jean Bodin was the founder of the quantitative theory of money, of the modern concept of sovereignty and of mercantilist populationism. He was a staunch defender of modern rationalism, and was at the same time one of the most vocal proponents of state ordained massacres and tortures of the witches. He held the view that, for the development of new wealth after the medieval agrarian crisis, the modern state had to be invested with absolute sovereignty. This state had, moreover, the duty to provide enough workers for the new economy. In order to do so, he demanded a strong police which above all would fight against witches and midwives who, according to him, were responsible for so many abortions, the infertility of couples, or sexual intercourse without conception. Anyone who prevented the conception or the birth of children he considered as a murderer, who should be persecuted by the state. Bodin worked as a consultant to the French government in the persecution of the witches, and advocated torture and the pyre to eradicate the witches. His tract on witchcraft was one of the most brutal and sadistic pamphlets written against witches at that time. Like Institoris and Sprenger in Germany he singled out women for his attack. He set a ratio of 50 women to one man for the witch persecutions. This combination of modern rationality, the propagation of the new state and a direct violent attack on the witches we also find with another great master of the new era of European civilization, namely Francis Bacon. (pp. 83-4)
Bodin is sketching out a post-aristocratic society that will be ruled by his own up-and-coming merchant class. Note how the role of women has changed in Bodin’s rationale. Whatever degrading beliefs preceded this era about women, Bodin has introduced a new and utilitarian instrumentality to the proper role of women, that is, breeders. They are required to produce workers to power the New Future being mapped out by an emerging European bourgeoisie.
The beginnings of the technocratic nation-state also marked the beginning of the rule of lawyers. Bodin himself practiced law, but in previous periods, the interpretation of law was neither needed nor greatly emphasized. Mies again:
Similarly, there is a direct connection between the witch pograms and the emergence of the professionalization of law. (p. 84)With the emerging nation-state, Roman law was being adopted to replace Germanic law, and universities were opening law schools to train juris doctors who could effectively manipulate and interpret the complexities of ever more technical law.
Many people were chagrined by the sudden outgrowth of lawyers, complaining that they were generally lazy, parasitic young men who twisted reason in order to allow the rich to gain at the expense of the poor. There was actually a good deal of truth in this assessment, as there still is today. (I can’t help but remember Jesus’ encounters with the scribes – the lawyers of his day – and his rebuke that they had let the letter of the law trump the spirit of the law.)
“The reasons why the sons of the rising urban class were flocking to the law faculties,” writes Mies, translating a 16th Century chronicle, “was the following: ‘In our times, jurisprudencia smiles at everybody, so that everyone wants to become a doctor in law. Most are attracted to this field of studies out of greed for money and ambition.’”
Witch trials were big business. Each one employed a host of judges and lawyers, who competed in verbal puffery with one another to extend and thereby raise the costs (and payouts) of the trial, which even included bills for the alcohol consumed by the soldiers who pursued and captured.
The fact that the witch-hunt was such a lucrative source of money and wealth led in certain areas to the setting up of special commissions which had the task of denouncing ever more people as witches and sorcerers. When the accused were found guilty, they and their families had to bear all the costs of the trial, beginning with the bills for alcohol and food for the witch commission (their per diem), and ending with the costs for the firewood for the stake. Another source of money was the sums paid by the richer families to the learned judges and lawyers in order to free one of their members from the persecution if she was a witch. There is also a reason why we find more poor people among those who were executed. (Mies, p. 85)
Witch trial funds were used to finance portions of the 30 Years War.
After the French Revolution, those who had prevailed in the initial contest of arms sought out writers, who could become the propagandists of the victors. Subsequent accounts of the Revolution suggest that these ideas determined the shape of the struggle, when in reality, the opposite was true. The outcome of the struggle determined the narrative to consolidate the power of the victors.
I cannot avoid a discussion of the Malleus Maleficarum. This was the notorious witch-hunting guide penned in 1486 by the German priest, Heinrich Kramer, aka Institorius. It is hard to say whether this book was one of the motors of violent misogyny in the emerging Enlightenment, or whether Kramer was a cultural expression of existing popular misogynistic notions and practices. In either case, we can see it now as a tract that actively promotes the idea of devils against the more skeptical voices of the church who had in the past named these ideas popular superstitions. It is not accidental, in my view, that Protestants and Catholics reciprocally demonized one another, and in so doing resuscitated these superstitions.
Kramer was a crackpot who stumbled into a niche. Prior to his glory days as authority on witchcraft, he had been run out of the province of Tyrol for his near-crazed indictments of several women there as witches. The local bishop called Kramer “a senile old man.”
A papal bull had been issued two years prior to the publication of Malleus Maleficarum. Summis desiderantes affectibus, composed by Pope Innocent VIII, gave official church recognition of the existence of witches, and called on the Inquisition (already established) to intervene. When the church assented to the witch burning craze, it's assent acted as an accelerant. Kramer’s book was adopted as the authoritative text on witchcraft. Between 1487 and 1669, 36 editions were published. The ‘senile old man’ became famous on the burnt bodies of women. The church then collaborated every step of the way.
Some scholars now suggest that the role of Malleus may not have been as formative of the epoch as previously claimed, analogous to the French Revolution example. Whichever it is, modern readers will alternately find the actual text shocking, even anachronistically funny. But within the Malleus, we can also find the cultural axioms of Kramer’s time, place, and class, with regard to women.
The title of the book means “the hammer of the witches.” Witches is written in the feminine form. The reason, explains Kramer, that women are more likely to be witches is related to the multiple deficiencies inhering in every woman. Lust, inability to reason, weakness… but mostly lust. The insatiability of women was a key theme of the day.
This was considered dangerous to men, because there was a corresponding belief that every time a man ejaculated, he surrendered a day of his lifespan. Men’s lust was projected onto women, who men perceived as intentional temptresses, trying to steal men’s days. The humiliation of “barren” women was undoubtedly associated with this idea – wherein men who were losing a day of each life with each ejaculation were confronted with a grim cost-benefit analysis.
This was nothing new. Men had and have been projecting like this for millennia. What was new in this case was the rise of the lawyers, to which Mies alluded earlier.
Ivan Illich locates the origins of this lawyerly society in the church, explaining to a significant degree how the church “got here from there,” from calling witchcraft a foolish superstition to participating in a pogrom against European women.
Illich called this development “the criminalization of sin,” and he draws an historical line from the witch pogroms back to the 12th Century, drawing on the work of Gerhart Ladner, author of The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers (Harvard University Press, 1959).
Waterboarding used to obtain confessions
As mentioned above, when the horse collar was adopted in Europe in the 12th Century, the new breast collar allowed the horse to dig in her hindquarters for a push without pain or hypoxia.
Soil in Europe was mostly deep and mostly wet, and once in the new harness, horses could double the output of oxen. Farm families were able to plow larger fields in less time, so farmers were able to move their residences nearer to town. Towns grew, and this in turn gave rise to the parish church, which became the organizing center of life in these new villages.
New religious practices and rituals flourished in these towns, local relic-veneration, special saints’ days, festivals, and local rules that governed in the name of the church’s idea of hospitality and neighborliness. These practices fit well together in these villages, where most people knew most other people very well and were probably related to them at least by marriage.
The greater density of settlement also led to the need for greater administrative control within the population to ensure the peaceful settlement of public concerns and disputes. A new idea crept into the thinking of administrators. Contract.
Contractarianism, which would come into full flower with Hobbes four centuries hence, germinated in 12th Century Europe.
The Codex Theodosianus was published in 438 AD by its namesake, Theodosius, the Emperor of Rome. In this comprehensive legal code, for the first time, oaths were taken to be legal instruments. Early Christians did not take oaths as a matter of spiritual discipline. Oaths are prohibited in Matthew 5:33-37.
Again you have heard that it was said to them of old, thou shalt not forswear thyself: but thou shalt perform thy oaths to the Lord. But I say to you not to swear at all, neither by heaven for it is the throne of God: Nor by the earth, for it is his footstool: nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king: Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil.The Codex did not merely overturn the Christian antipathy for oath-swearing. It went much further. It made the oath a secular legal instrument, a legal obligation. Most Christians went for centuries afterward never taking an oath of any kind. It was not necessary in the locally-self-sufficient ways that peasants managed their lives. But the contract was established.
So the oath laid there. The newly-necessary administrators of the new villages engendered by the horse collar picked it back up. They made it part of a new notion called contract. We will say a great deal about contract further along, but for now the important thing to remember is that contract disembodies an agreement from its other social contexts and validates it only before the officers of law.
The distinction between contract, a modern notion, and covenant, a notion reaching back to the origins of the Hebrews, is that a contract is predicated on suspicion – and it places limits on the obligations spelled out; whereas a covenant is based on love or family, and it implies obligations without limit.
Oddly enough, the first way the church adopted this legal notion of contract was with regard to marriage, already seen as a covenant in Christian thought.
Heretofore, there had been various customs within Christendom for making marriages. Some were parentally arranged, some were assisted by matchmakers, and so forth. The norms varied, but no one had ever conceived of the idea that the man and the woman making the union would select each other, as "equals" before the law.
It was the Roman Catholic church that introduced this idea of a woman consenting as an equal with her own future partner. And marriage was codified with a contract. The first known reference to this legal-consent to marriage is in a 12th Century letter from Heloise to Abelard, when she left her religious life to pursue him.
Lest anyone get the idea that this contract undermined the rule of men over women, we need to understand the essentials of this contract. The woman was free until she had undertaken the contact, whereupon the conditions of said contract obliged her to obey her husband, and required him to protect and provide for her. The contractual agreement, as Carole Pateman describes it in her book, The Sexual Contract (Stanford University Press, 1988), was for female obedience in exchange for male protection. A grown woman was a legally free agent to submit to this subordinate status with whom she chose. And as Pateman also points out, husbands had a “sex right” within that contractual relation. It has only been in the last decade or so that we have acknowledged such thing as marital rape precisely because that “sex right” has been integral – if unnamed – to male-dominant cultural beliefs about relations within marriage.
By 1215, when the Fourth Lateran Council was convened by the church, the marriage contract was recognized throughout the church; and women were further confirmed in this newfound portion of legal equality when the same council mandates yearly, private confession “for men and women.” (In most places, prior to this practice, confessions had been in public, not exclusively in a private session with the priest.)
To make a long story short, the parish system had given rise to a changed, and far more juridical outlook on the practices of the church. Ivan Illich:
This re-introduction of oaths reaches an epochal point in the twelfth century at the height of feudalism, which was based on conjuratio, or oath-taking. It was then that the relation of love in its supreme form, the commitment of a man and a woman to each other forever, on the model of the Gospel, became defined as a juridical act, through which an entity called marriage comes into existence. And for this juridical act, God becomes, so to speak, the necessary instrumentality when he is summoned as a witness. The fealty of citizens in Europe’s expanding cities was conceived along the same lines – as a contract sealed by a divinely-witnessed oath. This conjuratio, or swearing together, in the face of God, give the European city the particular quality of sacredness which it takes on between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. (p. 86)The major sin within marriage was adultery; and seeing as how the church had adopted the juridical role of law-enforcer in making this new thing – marriage – both a contract and a sacrament, the idea of sin became conflated with the idea of law-breaking, of crime. A sin had now become a crime, placing its resolution not in Christ, but before the administrative authorities.
This is also the period in which the idea of a conscience was introduced within the church. Prefiguring Bentham by more than 400 years, the church used the notion of conscience (an internal forum) as a way of extending its rule-making into the psychic interior of its members, a kind of late Medieval panopticon. This was a new idea, conscience. It was also a precondition for the development of the nation-state and its “citizen.”
[I]f you want to understand the idea of the patria of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the idea of the fatherland, the idea of the mother tongue, to which I owe sacred loyalty, the idea of pro patria mori, that I can die for my fatherland, the idea of citizenship as something to which my conscience obligates me, then we have to understand the appearance of the internal forum [conscience] in the middle ages. (Illich, p. 93)
The Reformation broke over the church with Luther’s theses in 1517. The church was shattered into pieces. The Roman church found itself in competition for the loyalty of princes and peasants. Between the churches, the public square had been converted into a competitive marketplace, wherein each faction was branding itself and standing that brand against another. In this kind of sectarian devolution, each faction finds it necessary to differentiate itself from the others, and those areas of former agreement are swallowed up in the escalation of both sectarian hostility and opportunistic salesmanship.
In response to this emergency, the Council of Trent was convened between 1545 and 1563. In it, the Roman church was referring to itself as a societas perfecta, a perfect society, based in law. Again, the church prefigures Hobbes’ state in Leviathan.
Illich says of the council’s self-description, it was “a self-understanding… reflected in the legal and philosophical thinking of the time, which had begun to portray the state in the same terms, that is as a perfect society whose citizens internalize the laws and constitution of the state as demands of conscience.”
Basing his Gospel exegesis on the Parable of the Samaritan in Luke 10, Illich interprets the story to be one where the old boundaries are erased in the new life, where we can see the divine in the face of she who one chooses, like the Samaritan who chose a wounded enemy as a friend.
Illich goes back to oath-taking.
[W]hy and in which context of the covenant between God and his people. The covenant of the Old Testament consisted in God taking an oath to Abraham. It is his prerogative to take an oath and, thereby, establish Abraham and his descendants as his people. The New Testament continues this covenant and excludes the oath. Instead of joining people through an oath, the New Testament proposes to unite them in the Holy Spirit. (p. 84)With the rise of this juridical mindset came the power of the lawyers, who we see in Mies’ account as the shakers and movers (and financial stakekholders) in systemizing the torture and killing of “witches.”
And it starts with the Codex Theodosius, where oath-taking becomes a legal instrument, points out Illich, when even Roman law had not yet done this. With the Codex, the primitive Christian way of enacting its own community – with communion and a shared kiss (the conspiratio, the exchange of the Holy Spirit through the exchange of breath) – had been overturned, and with it the highly personal, covenantal relations that were maintained by scrupulous honesty – a people whose virtue transcends law, as Paul described: “You are not under the law.”
Still, codified law became the new basis of community conformity.
In this way, what was formerly categorized as sin was transformed into crime, and church as community was further trumped by church as governor. As the church merged with empire, then merged with states, then was broken into pieces by the Reformation to compete for state sponsors and popular bases, it found it necessary first to promulgate laws that would criminalize sin.
In time, the state assumed the law, mastered the churches, and re-established them as dependencies.
The execution of Barbara Zdunk (trying to find artist's name, any help appreciated)
But neither power dislocations nor the church’s transition from witch-skeptical to witch-believing can explain how women came to be burned, by Catholic and Protestant alike, as witches. Prior to these contingent circumstances, males had already seized a monopoly on social power at the expense of women (and their children). This reign of men over women cannot be accurately dated, because this reality was already manifest when humans began recording their activities for posterity. As seems to be the case in all relations of dominion-subjugation, the dominator needs to belittle the one who is subjugated; he needs to strip her of full membership in the ethnos. Nowadays, we see women’s devaluation in a specific and modern form, and therefore we might say a woman is stripped of her essential humanity. In wars, the enemy always earns an epithet (the first I heard was “gook” for Vietnamese), as a signifier of his or her status, less-than. Otherwise, it is more difficult to subjugate. That may explain why many of the so-called church “fathers” went on record so unabashedly about their feelings of revulsion and contempt for women-as-women.
The rule of men-as-men, if history is any indicator, will always tend toward the denigration of women-as-women.
The Definitions of Woman
Church misogyny by powerful men, and cultural contempt for women among men generally, combined to become a central factor leading the church into its participation in the witch hunts.
Stephen Katz writes:
The medieval conception of women shares much with the corresponding medieval conception of Jews. In both cases, a perennial attribution of secret, bountiful, malicious "power," is made. Women are anathematized and cast as witches because of the enduring grotesque fears they generate in respect of their putative abilities to control men and thereby coerce, for their own ends, male-dominated Christian society. Whatever the social and psychological determinants operative in this abiding obsession, there can be no denying the consequential reality of such anxiety in medieval Christendom. Linked to theological traditions of Eve and Lilith, women are perceived as embodiments of inexhaustible negativity. Though not quite quasi-literal incarnations of the Devil as were Jews, women are, rather, their ontological "first cousins" who, like the Jews, emerge from the "left" or sinister side of being. (Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, p. 435.)In fact, a study of the church of the 1st and 2nd Centuries shows that Christianity in its origins was more gender egalitarian and gender subversive than surrounding cultures. The original trajectory of the Gospels aims toward spiritual fusion with the other; and the reassertion of first patriarchy, then patriarchal political power (inextricable from the practice of war) after the 2nd Century was a centuries-long and male reactionary response against the most gender-revolutionary implications of this “way of the cross.”
Jesus refused every male prerogative of power. He was not a husband. He was not a father. He was not a political leader. He was not a soldier. He was not a religious official. These were the typical male power roles of his day. He was, in fact, a tekton, a low-paid construction craftsman from a peasant village of about 200 people.
The Gospels were certainly not written for the express purpose of rebuking dominator-masculinity. This category and the feminist movement that gave rise to it were non-existent in 1st Century Palestine. But nothing, aside from perhaps money, has been more consistently subversive of the Gospels than precisely that: dominator masculinity.
Two contentions: (1) the most consistent and formative practice that underwrites dominator masculinity is war, acting in every society as an incubator for violence that penetrates society in every fissure; (2) dominator masculinity will always require for its existence a subjected femininity. Culturally, this subjected femininity must be despised. This is at the very root of misogyny, the hatred of women.
When Origen and Tertullian began penning their own works of theology in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries, they projected their own desires onto women and cast women as lustful, disorderly creatures. Some of the period’s “observations” regarding gender were without malice – simply the fallacy of naturalization by people whose direct experience was uninformed by modern categories of analysis. Many, however, used language that was positively venomous.
Bishop Clement of Alexandria said of women that "the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame". St. Jerome called women “the root of all evil.”
Shortly after the church had been co-opted into statecraft by the murderous Constantine, Augustine of Hippo would establish himself as the preeminent theologian of the church. His contempt for women was so powerful that he, ingrate born of a woman, asked aloud why God had “created them at all.”
The exegetical basis of this contempt for women was the story of Adam and Eve, which the church took for quite some time to be an exact historical account. Eve succumbed to temptation and beguiled Adam into sharing her sin, goes the interpretation of the Hebrew origin myth.
This idea fit with prevailing attitudes about women that treated the lust of the male as a kind of bewitchment authored by the female – as if she chloroformed him. His reaction was projected as her intent… carnal creature that she was, and lacking in any capacity to understand or control herself except through obedience to father, husband, or brother.
If points of evidence are being laid down with any emphasis in this argument, the first point of emphasis is this tautological claim by the earlier church that women are tainted with Eve’s weakness, because Eve was a woman. As we examine later teachings on sex and the church, we will see clearly that the church changes its story (from the Eve-woman tautology to the woman is an “imperfect man” argument, to the apostolic succession argument).
Even though these stories underwriting women’s subjection to men in the church and exclusion from church practices change, the fact of women’s exclusion and subordination remains constant.
We can let some of our saints speak for themselves.
Do you not realize that Eve is you? The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. Guilty, you must bear its hardships. You are the devil's gateway, you desecrated that fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force. The image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child's play to you. You deserved death, and it was the son of God who had to die!-Tertullian (160-225 AD)
Fierce is the dragon and cunning the asp; But women have the malice of both.-St. Gregory of Nazianzum (329-389 AD)
Remember that God took the rib out of Adam's body, not a part of his soul, to make her. She was not made in the image of God, like man.-St. Ambrose (339-397 AD)
It does not profit a man to marry. For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?-St. John Chrysostom (347-407 AD)
The whole of her body is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum and the fluid of digested food ... If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and the cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is only a whitened sepulchre.
I don't see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?-St. Augustine (354-450 AD)
Note the personal sense of disgust – the active contempt for women that crept into the language of the church by the 2nd Century. Then read the 13th Century account of women penned by St. Albertus Magnus (1200-1280 AD):
Woman is less qualified [than man] for moral behavior. For the woman contains more liquid than man, and it is a property of liquid to take things up easily and to hold unto them poorly. Liquids are easily moved, hence women are inconstant and curious. When a woman has relations with a man, she would like, as much as possible, to be lying with another man at the same time. Woman knows nothing about fidelity. Believe me, if you give her your trust, you will be disappointed. Trust an experienced teacher. For this reason prudent men share their plans and actions least of all with their wives. Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one's guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. If I could say what I know about women, the world would be astonished ... Woman is strictly speaking not cleverer but slyer (more cunning) than man. Cleverness sounds like something good, slyness sounds like something evil. Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.It’s not her fault, really. Woman is just a “misbegotten man.” It is a birth defect common to all women.
These claims about the nature of women prefigure – in stark language – the identification in advance of women as criminal suspects in the practice of efficacious witchcraft.
Thomas Aquinas, writing his Summa Theologia in the 13th Century, holds to the assumption of women’s physical inferiorities (understood through what is now a completely foreign notion of physiology), but rebukes anyone who exercises contempt for women, to whom he ascribes spiritual equality. And so we see the reorientation of churchmen’s claims about women.
It was right for the woman to be made from a rib of man. First, to signify the social union of man and woman, for the woman should neither use authority over man,' and so she was not made from his head; nor was it right for her to be subject to man's contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet. (ST, Q 92, A3)In 1988, Pope John Paul II, speaking to women religious in Turin, said:
[I]n proclaiming the truth about the human person, it makes its specific contribution in confirming the perfect equality of man and woman as the image of God and his interlocutors. Man and woman, in, that they are the image of God, make visible in the universe the unity of God who lives not in solitude but in communion: the One and Triune God. In establishing the Kingdom of God Jesus goes back to this original communion so that a there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).This statement, when taken in the context of the whole address, is in fact used in a way consistent with his refusal to consider women’s exclusion from the priesthood; but what is remarkable is the way the language has been purged of the misogynistic bile that was freely spoken by earlier churchmen.
Yet these were not merely nasty remarks like one sees from misogynist men on the internet. These were the received wisdom of the time, stated with confidence by the church’s most revered male intellectuals.
The point is this: (A) the exclusion of women was originally based on descriptions of women that were (1) physically inaccurate, (2) based on a literal interpretation of Genesis, (3) fundamentally based on an overt and earnest contempt for women in general; (B) even as each of these justifications for the exclusion of women fell, the Roman church reinscribed the exclusion of women in new narratives – the current being that the original Apostles were all men (which is a logical fallacy – a non sequitur); (C) therefore, the Roman church’s exclusion of women from full participation in the church has only one consistent thread throughout – male power.
This raises a high index of suspicion of bad faith.
(not defective males)
When the church today speaks of feminism, it speaks only to liberal feminism as if that were the only kind of feminism there is. This is surely disingenuous, given the scholastic aptitudes of the Roman church’s bishops, cardinals, and pope. Cursory research exposes this pretension that feminism and liberalism are synonymous. They are not, any more than whale and bottlenose dolphin are synonymous. Liberal feminism is but one feminist tradition among several, more widely accepted because it does not challenge the current establishment at the systemic level. If I were being suspicious, I might believe that the church, which has a sound and defensible critique of liberalism, is selecting only the weakest tradition in terms of its philosophical defensibility, and avoiding those feminist voices that address the issue of political power more directly and defensibly.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about applying the term “feminism” as a singular noun is that there is such a tremendous diversity of views within the feminist project. When used here, I intend it to represent what is generally called a radical feminist perspective, not to be confused with the same term used as an epithet by anti-feminists.
The feminist, Maria Mies, whose research is included in this account of witch hunts, has been referred to as an eco-feminist by some, though her perspective is not far from that of Ivan Illich, and that is as an advocate of a subsistence perspective. Her work has shown clearly that the history of witch burning points a finger at more than the church(es). The state is directly implicated; as are several of the fathers of the Enlightenment. This brief history also serves as a window on the early development of male-dominance as it exists today, which is certainly distinct from the shape and resilience of patriarchies in the past.
The church’s philosophical pronouncements have been least defensible in rigorous debate about women. The church’s strength in rigorous debate is its critique of post-Enlightenment modernity, specifically liberalism.
A conjunction occurs at this point in the argument, where four different topics require greater explication before we can proceed to some central and final argument. None of these topics supersedes the other; and none cries out to be first. Moreover, these topics inflect upon one another throughout any narrative, and so there will inevitably be reiterations, even some redundancy in the presentation of argument.
One of those topics is, obviously, liberalism. Another is feminism, or at least specific insights from the body of feminist thought. Additionally, we need to consider war as a practice, and how it is constitutive of certain forms of masculinity.
Finally, we need to study the history of the church in its relation to the three preceding topics, as a means of synthesizing conclusions.