Historians and scholars produce new picture of witches and witch hunts, but questions remain
It is the season of witches - cute little costumed ones crying "trick or treat" and full-grown adult ones laying claim to Halloween and recounting tales of medieval and early modern persecution.
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."
Over the last two decades or so, he and other historians, along with scholars in anthropology and psychology, have produced quite a different picture, although one leaving many questions unanswered.
Were the Middle Ages the prime period of burning witches, and church authorities the prime persecutors? That is an impression inherited from 19th-century Romantic and nationalist writers like the German folklorist Jacob Grimm and the French historian Jules Michelet.
Filtering dubious sources, including in Michelet's case some that had actually been forged, through their political agendas, they portrayed witches as personifications of popular resistance to political and religious authorities.
In fact, medieval Christianity was divided about witchcraft. Belief in magical or supernatural powers that could be manipulated for either good or evil was ubiquitous then, as it has been throughout human history and still is in many cultures. But medieval Europe was torn between that belief and theological arguments that such powers were illusory.
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