5 Misconceptions About Witch Trials

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October is a delightful month: with its crisp weather, fall foliage, ripened fruit, the World Series, and of course Christmas decorations everywhere as part of the ubiquitous War On Christmas. But lest we forget, there is another holiday that used to take precedence in October. No, besides Columbus Day.  And while it’s fun to attend “haunted attractions” and see all the black and orange, and the trick-or-treaters in costume, we mustn’t lose sight of the very grim history behind those caricatures of pointy-hatted witches. Accusations of “devil worship” have cost many people their lives in horrible ways in the past; and they have even been leveled against innocent individuals in our own supposedly more enlightened age.

The kind of misinformation that led to those horrors persists today. And there are even widespread misconceptions about the history of the whole bloody mess of accusing and trying “witches”. So while we’re waiting for a more substantial blog post to pop out of the oven, let’s briefly look at some of the most common misconceptions about witch trials:

1. Millions of people were tried as witches in Europe

As you may be aware, hyperbole is often involved when people look back on sensationalist events and trends of the past. The number of gunfights in the American West, for instance, has been greatly exaggerated — after all, they make good cinema and pulp fiction. And though the Crusades were undeniably bloody, the tally of victims has greatly expanded in the retelling. The same is true of witch trials. Historians estimate the actual number of persons executed as witches in Europe to be somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000.  (The actual number of documented executions for witchcraft is about 12,000). Some estimates run as high as 200,000. Those are certainly horrifying numbers, but a far cry from “millions”.

2. Witch trials were very common in the Middle Ages

They were actually quite rare. While the “Dark Ages” (which weren’t quite as dark as many people suppose — but that’s another discussion) were notoriously brutal toward (suspected) offenders of all stripes, alleged witches were generally not among them. The “golden age” of witch trials didn’t really begin until the Fifteenth Century (about the time of Joan of Arc), which was well past the generally agreed upon imaginary demarcation point between Medieval and Renaissance. The last known witch trial in Europe was in Poland in 1783. In America, the last known trial was 1833 in Tennessee.

During the Middle Ages, however, people certainly were tortured and horrifically executed for the offense of “heresy”, which might be thought of as witchcraft in another robe — both involve doing/ believing/ thinking things that conflict with official religious doctrine. Indeed, Pope John XII officially decreed that the two go hand in hand — that witchcraft, in effect, is a form of heresy. That was not until the early Fourteenth Century, which was at the tail end of the Medieval era, but still it is likely because of this identification between heresy and witchcraft that many people today have such a grim and distorted view of persecution for “witchcraft” in the Middle Ages.

3. The church was behind it

Not necessarily. It’s complicated. During the Middle Ages, church authorities tended to look upon witchcraft as superstitious nonsense. In fact, in the year 906 the church actually declared it heresy to believe in witchcraft. It did a total about face in 1484, however, when Pope Innocent VIII decreed it heretical not to believe in witches.

What religion has always done, however, is provide the ideological framework within which such persecution took place. Fundamentalist zealots can point to several biblical passages that condemn witches (e.g. Deuteronomy 18: 11-12) and apparently even call for their murder. (Exodus 22: 18 : “Do not allow a sorceress to live.”)

4. Burning people at the stake meant setting them on fire

Usually nothing so merciful as that, alas. What would happen quite often is that the victim would be tied to a stake within a ring of fire and slowly roasted alive. The lucky ones might die of smoke inhalation. Incidentally, even individuals who were already dead could be “executed” by burning. The body of John Wycliffe was exhumed and burned 30 years after his death.

5. Suspected witches were burned at the stake in America

Never happened. The preferred method of execution on this side of the pond was by hanging. In Salem, 19 people were hanged and one was pressed to death with stones.

The myths and lore surrounding historical events like witch trials are a boon to the imagination, and to galvanizing emotional response to certain ideals. They are a convenient shorthand for the collective memory; we speak of “Salem witch trials”, even though trials also took place in Andover and Ipswich, and in fact the whole witch mania actually got started in Salem Village, which is now called Danvers. Referring to all of them as just “Salem witch trials” is all well and good in pop culture — just as it’s fun to read Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere even though it’s mostly bullshit, and Revere is mostly just famous because his name rhymes with so many words. But when it comes to having a serious discussion about history, there’s no substitute for getting the facts straight.

 

The Standardized Red Herrings of Homophobia

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If you have gay-hating friends or relatives (and who doesn’t) or if you’ve been exposed to the mindless prattling of media cesspools like Fox “News” (and if there’s any way to avoid it, please let us know), then it’s almost certain that at some time or other (and probably more than once) you’ve heard something very similar to this:

I’m sickandtired of gays ramming their lifestyle down my throat. They’re a small minority, and they’ve chosen to be the way they are. They shouldn’t have any special rights.

This is a very standardized comment, as if those using it had learned it at some kind of special school or seminar. It consists of four separate red herrings, which may be used separately or in combination. Let’s look at each of them.

1. Ramming down my throat

Gay haters are invariably a bit vague about exactly how homosexuality is being rammed down their throats. They can’t seem to cite a single instance of someone trying to force them to marry or even sleep with a person of the same sex. What they really seem to mean by gays ramming their lifestyle down their throats is gays existing in their direction.

But suppose gays indeed were interested in ramming their “lifestyle” down people’s throats. What kind of behavior might that entail? We don’t have to search very far to answer that. There happens to be a superb illustration in the conduct of the very people who so often persecute and malign gays.

Christians have a long history of ramming down throats. Sometimes quite literally — one of the many delightful medieval treatments for “heresy” was to pour hot lead down the heretic’s throat. There, that’ll teach ’em the proper way to love God. (Heresy, by the way, wasn’t unbelief; it was belief in a slightly unapproved fashion.) But things have changed a bit since then, haven’t they? Well, sure. We have laws now against barbaric tortures. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that religious fanatics are any nicer. And it certainly doesn’t mean that religion no longer has the world — or the nation — in its grip.

Church membership, or other religious affiliation, is still the default mode, and religion is often presumed to be a yardstick for morality. Ministers perform weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage.  The official (and probably unconstitutional) motto of The United States is “In God We Trust”, which glares at us from our currency every time we make a financial transaction. Officials are sworn into office on a Bible. Witnesses in court place their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth “so help you God”.

The words “under God” were inserted into the Pledge Of Allegiance, which school children are compelled to parrot every day. Christian activists tirelessly spread the blatant lie that prayer was banned from public schools, and work overtime to turn voluntary school prayer back into mandatory school prayer — which we had when I was in school not so very long ago. Religious crusaders stick the so-called Ten Commandments under people’s noses, including on government property when they can get away with it. They also vigorously (and successfully) campaign to get fundamentalist dogma inserted into science textbooks.

Christianity is promoted on billboards, on window signs, in TV spots, in Internet advertising. Proselytizers preach on TV or in the streets in an effort to convert people to the one true faith — namely their own. Sometimes they even go from door to door soul-hunting. There are entire TV networks — quite a few of them — devoted to devotion.

Prayer is injected into as many public and private events as humanly possible. When was the last time you heard of someone asking if anyone objected before praying at the dinner table? When have you ever heard of parents asking their children if they really want to go to church? Children are dragged along because it is supposed to be “good for them”, whether they have any beliefs of their own, or even understand what religion is all about. They are baptized into their parents’ religion as infants.

But enough about religion. We could go on and on, but you get the idea — the Christian culture provides a textbook model of what throat-ramming really looks like. The question is, what exactly about gay culture is any any way, shape or form comparable to any of the above?

The only possible answer is that, just as Christians have churches to assemble in, gays have certain bars. But it’s a very weak parallel. Gay bartenders don’t aggressively recruit new drinkers, telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t come in and have a stiff belt. And they don’t ring their damn chimes at odd hours when people are trying to sleep.

2. They’re a small minority

Roughly 3 percent of the American population is either gay or bi. That’s certainly a minority, but’s it’s by no means the smallest of minorities. It’s about 6 times the number of American adults who are legally blind, for instance. So if numbers were really what mattered, then gays should be treated with 6 times as much respect as the blind.

But it isn’t really about numbers. It’s about the fact that the wielders of this red herring are confusing (deliberately?) majority rule with majority tyranny.

I happen to be part of a 10-percent minority myself: I’m left-handed. That has resulted in more forms of awkwardness than most right-handers would ever think about. Not only are most baseball gloves, guitars and books designed for right-hand dominance, but so are most pianos, scissors, can openers, and even — no fooling — kitchen knives.  No problem. I understand perfectly that in a world dominated by right-handers, most things are going to be designed for their convenience. I even realize that there is a good reason why in the game of baseball southpaws are totally barred from four positions. I’m okay with it now and I was okay with it even as a kid when I had to contend with right-handed school desks and pencil sharpeners.

What I was not okay with then and am still not okay with now is the way I was relentlessly coerced and badgered into trying to be “normal”. There is a big difference between the majority determining what the norm is and the majority trying to compel everyone to conform to it. The line between the two is not the least bit fine.

3. They chose to be the way they are

This is an all-too-common form of Christian arrogance: the presumption that cherry picking an out-of-context biblical passage that seems to support your prejudices makes you an instant expert, more knowledgeable on a particular topic than people who have studied it professionally for years –even in highly technical fields like biology, climate science and evolution.

Experts say homosexuality is NOT a choice, based on extensive biological and psychological research — though we might have come to that conclusion a lot sooner if more people had been willing to just ask gays themselves. Just about any of them will tell you that they didn’t choose it, and quite a few will tell you that they would have chosen otherwise if they could have. But of course the gay-bashers know better. They know the gays are lying. They know that they absolutely wanted to be rejected by their families, marginalized by society and harassed and beaten, sometimes to death.

Aside from being drastically wrong, the “choice” belief is drastically irrelevant. In a sense, saying that gays choose to be “the way they are” is simply saying the same thing that gays themselves say: they do choose whether or not to acknowledge their predilection, but that doesn’t mean they deliberately created it.

But does it really matter? Suppose it were true that homosexuality is chosen with as much utter volition as deciding what kind of car to drive or what flavor ice cream to eat. Whether you realize it or not, there are factors beyond your control, and probably even beyond your comprehension, that cause you to prefer a red Chevrolet to a black Ford, or strawberry to chocolate. And even if that were not the case, should people who drive red Chevrolets and eat strawberry ice cream have to live in the closet?

4. Special rights

What special rights exactly have they asked for? Do you hear gays demand to be exempt from traffic fines, or be allowed to shop half price at any store, or be allowed to vote twice, or to be bowed down to every Thursday morning?

What they want is to be able to marry whom they choose — like anyone else. They want to enjoy the full legal benefits of such unions — like anyone else. They want to be able to partake of the services of government agencies and private businesses without discrimination — like anyone else. They want to be able to live openly wherever they choose without fear — like anyone else. It is the gay-haters who are special, not the gays themselves.

When I was a child, some adults suggested that I used my left hand in order to stand out and gain attention; in reality, what I wanted was just the opposite. That’s true of most gays as well. They may attend a Pride parade to combat the years of stigma thrust upon them, but at the end of the day they want to be thought of as friends and neighbors rather than oddballs and outcasts.

It’s quite interesting — and more than a little amusing — that at the same time they’ve been insisting that homosexuality is a choice, the gay haters have also tried (successfully) to portray it as a disease, a mental disorder. Is that supposed to mean that people consciously choose their mental illnesses?  But recent research (not to mention an overwhelming weight of anecdotal evidence) strongly suggests that it is in fact homophobia and not homosexuality that is connected to mental dysfunction.

A popular quote on the topic, falsely attributed to actor Morgan Freeman, is a bit more blunt:

I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.

That’s true enough in some cases, but not always. Not all homophobes — and there is indeed a fear factor at work — are candidates for the Westboro Baptist Church. Many are, despite their virulent homophobia and perhaps other forms of bigotry, otherwise decent folks who would make good friends and neighbors to gays and transgenders, as long as they don’t know those people are gays and transgender.

But they are still folks who fall prey to ridiculous knee-jerk soundbites odiferously loaded with red herrings.