Monday, July 26, 2010

Witch Hunting Panic And Torture

Witch Hunting Panic And Torture Cover Witch-hunting could be endemic or epidemic. Its dynamics varied. Small panics (fewer than 20 victims) tended to occur in villages worried about maleficium. Their victims were often poor, obnoxious persons whose removal the rest of the community applauded.

If small panics fed on long-smoldering fears about neighbors, large ones exploded without warning, killing people of all classes and conditions and rupturing social bonds. The worst examples of this were in Germany, where unlimited use of torture (in defiance of imperial law) produced an ever-expanding wave of denunciations. To object was to court death.

Large witch-panics started with the usual obscure suspects and worked up the social scale to prosperous citizens, reputable matrons, high-ranking clerics, town officials, and even judges. The longer a panic lasted, the higher was the proportion of male and wealthy victims.

According to the Dutch Jesuit Cornelius van Loos, confiscations from suspected witches in large panics could "coin gold and silver from human blood," Youngsters were legally old enough to burn as soon as they could distinguish "gold from an apple." Children as young as nine were burned in Wurzburg, including the bishop's nephew, and boys ages three and four were imprisoned as Satan's catamites.

Some of the German trials were marred by collusion, bribes, and rape. Unspeakable tortures were routine -- 17 different kinds were authorized by "the Saxon lawgiver," Benedikt Carpzov, during the 17th century. Confessing "without torture" in Germany meant without torture that drew blood. Nearly all who underwent this broke, even the blameless.

Yet witches sometimes did turn themselves in and confess spontaneously, the equivalent of today's "suicide by police." The same melancholy, frustration, and despair that they claimed had driven them into the devil's arms brought them willingly to the stake. They had apparently come to believe the wish-fulfillment fantasies of pleasure and revenge enacted in the theaters of their minds. Nevertheless, they still hoped to save their souls through pain.

A few brave men spoke up for justice. In 1563, Johann Weyer, a Protestant court physician, drew attention to the cruelty of the trials and the mental incompetence of many of the accused. English country gentleman Reginald Scot mocked witchcraft as popish nonsense in 1584. In 1631, the Jesuit Friedrich von Spec, confessor to witches burned at Mainz, proclaimed them innocent victims. Van Loos, witness to the horrors of witchcraft trials at Trier, had his manuscript confiscated in 1592 before it could be published and was himself imprisoned and banished.

Ironically, a Spanish inquisitor named Alonso Salazar y Frias mounted the most dramatic challenge to witch-hunting. In 1609, a panic among French Basques in the western Pyrenees on the Bay of Biscay spilled over into the Navarra region in Spain, where six accused witches went to the stake. But Salazar, who had been a judge in that trial, became skeptical as the panic widened to engulf 1,800 suspects, 1,500 of them children. Basque witches' confessions included such incredible details as familiars in the form of costumed toads that child-witches herded with little crooks during sabbats.

Salazar cross-checked testimony, had supposed magic substances tested, and applied logic to conclude that the alleged witches were simply an artifact of witch-hunting. "There were neither witches nor bewitched until they were talked and written about," he reported in 1610. With stubborn practice, Salazar wrested a decision from his superiors that freed the accused in 1614. The Spanish Inquisition never executed another witch; nor did it permit secular authorities to do so after an outbreak in Catalonia that saw more than 300 witches hanged between 1616 and 1619. What could have erupted into Europe's worst witch-panic was extinguished by one man.

Books You Might Enjoy:

Max Heindel - Teachings Of An Initiate
Richard Johnson - The Zodiac Stellar Stories
Stephen William Hawking - Space And Time Warps

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