The Trial of the Witches

I was taking to my friend Paolo recently (who I’m looking forward to seeing at the forthcoming Occult Conference in Glastonbury) and was reminded of a lecture I attended some years ago given by the brilliant Ronald Hutton in aid of the Friends of the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft. Ronald’s talk discussed the different ways in which witch trials played out in different regions of Europe during the early modern period. My discussions with Paolo reminded me of the wonderful work, at that time, of the Spanish Inquisition – yes, you read that right, and no I’m not being ironic!

As with most witch trials, the events of 1609 at Logroño, near Navarre, in northern Spain, happened from the grass roots up and not, as is often imagined, as the result of the evil machinations of the Church and State. Although typically referred to as ‘hysteria’ (these days we might use the term ‘moral panic’ from the work of Stanley Cohen) many trials developed from the claims of just one individual. These days we’d probably say these denunciations came from people suffering from ‘personality disorder’ (this means they can appear relatively lucid but, often as a result of arrested development following childhood trauma, develop a narcissistic need to create situations in which they are socially important, often as victim). While it’s a tricky business psychologically diagnosing people in the past what we do know if that the allegations of witchcraft was always a powerful one (comparable these days with claims of ‘ritual abuse’ and ‘terrorism’). Once such a claim was made the machinery of the State swings into motion, and this is where the Spanish Inquisition comes in.

Moral panics, the stock-in-trade of the media

Moral panics, the stock-in-trade of the media

The Council of the Inquisition has always taken a fairly sceptical position in terms of claims about witchcraft. In the early 1500’s they warned against an uncritical acceptance of the classic witch hunters manual Malleus Maleficarum. So by the time the Basque witch hunt had racked up an impressive 7,000 allegations the Inquisition dispatched Alonso Salazar Frias, then junior inquisitor and hot-shot lawyer, to find out what was really going on.

Salazar found himself entering a highly charged situation of claim and counter-claim  Priests were suspected of using (illegal) talismanic magic, almost 2000 people had confessed to their crimes (1,384 of whom were children between the ages of seven and fourteen). Over 5000 people stood accused of visiting the witches Sabbat and all the usual satanic orgy stuff. Salazar wasn’t convinced. Neither was his boss the Inquisitor General who had only permitted the first executions in this case because he felt it might help calm the general hysteria of the populus. Of course in the face of the moral panic Salazar himself was suspected of being in league with the Devil but, brilliantly, our young Inquisitor decided to do something really simple – he looked for evidence.

Since a large number of people had confessed to carousing with Satan Salazar and his team employed the tactic of asking them where they sat at the Devils’ table in relation to other accused persons. Even though the general motifs of the story (viz killing babies, kissing Satans’ bottom etc. etc.) were more or less the same, the lack of consistent evidence allowed our young Inquisitor to throw out the whole case. This event prompted changes in the rules of evidence and effectively stopped any further witch trials in the Catholic controlled regions of Spain.

Meanwhile in parts of Europe where the agents of justice were more closely located in the immediate community it turns out (according to Ronald Hutton), that the story of the witch trials generally plays out very differently. Without having people from outside the situation coming in to unpick the scapegoat ‘madness’ of the mob it was much more likely that large numbers of the accused would end up executed.

So what can we learn from the tale of the Basque witches?  Firstly that sometimes having an external intervention by the State, especially when it’s using rational rules of evidence, can be a jolly good thing. Having people who clearly have no axe to grind sorting fact from fantasy is very much what is needed, especially in such emotionally charged situations. Secondly that although many people think that local=good there are times when dealing with problems within a community is more likely to lead to scape-goating (which is a normal but of course problematic social process). Thirdly, that the Christian Church was not always the agent of violence against supposed witches and in fact the annals of the witch craze have plenty of examples where Catholics and others actively stepped in to prevent executions. In addition we should be mindful that in England one of the bloodiest periods for witch killing was during the English Civil War at the instigation of Matthew Hopkins, a time when the machinery of the State (such as the Magistrates circuits) was disrupted.

Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms

Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms

So while there may be many things which are rotten about the Catholic Church and the institutions of our States there are also many things which are humane, wise and beneficial. This also makes it all the more important to support the anti-defamation work of various Pagan groups, interfaith work and that we support social diversity in cultural and legal terms. We are social creatures and creating and supporting mechanisms to ensure that moral panic and social unrest don’t get turned into excuses for lynch mobs is a good thing. And allies in this work can come from surprising sources; as they say, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…


3 thoughts on “The Trial of the Witches

  1. Brilliant post Julian, shame that our own modern system fell for the SRA panic in the 1980s and perpetrated its worst acts of gullibility and persecution. Tho’ Catholicism today doesnt seem quite as bright as it did then!.

  2. […] is relevant to wider culture. One of my own interests in this field is in the social phenomena of witch hunting as a form of scapegoating. The way in which communities, of many different sorts, go about hunting and killing […]

  3. […] evidence’. (As an example of the importance of evidence in the legal process check out this early article on this blog to discover how this requirement changed the course of the witch-hunts in 17th century […]

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