Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Witch Of Tradition

The Witch Of Tradition Cover FOURTEEN years ago a very distinguished literary colleague of George Bernard Shaw said to me: "Shaw is in senile decay." Ten years later I went to see Shaw's "Joan"; and I concluded that if the dramatic feeling, the mastery of stage-craft, the agility and sureness of insight into human nature, of that remarkable play were symptoms of advanced senility I would reconsider my design to avoid that normal period of existence.

And the play just as plainly indicates the strength or stubbornness of its author in its chief defect; it is an historical play and it is entirely unhistorical. Many years ago Shaw decided that historians do not know how to write history, and he would teach them. Unfortunately, in order to grasp the truth of a single personality of an earlier and different age one has laboriously to learn a mass of detail about that age, and labor of that kind does not fascinate men of febrile imagination. Shaw cannot write history.

Was Joan of Arc a witch? Shaw may have heard that there are a few quite scholarly people who think it possible that she was. Scholarly people, he would say, can believe anything. He robustly excludes the very possibility. The charge of witchcraft against "the Maid" was a mere pretext of priests and politicians; and Shaw, in his scorn of science and Rationalism, so surprisingly exonerates the priests and the Inquisition in his play that a Catholic weekly actually announced that he was about to enter the Church.

The murder of Joan was plotted by soldiers and statesmen -- English soldiers and statesmen, of course and the poor priests were bullied and cajoled into a tragicomic trial for witchcraft.

It was quite plain that Mr. Shaw does not know that our idea of witchcraft has been radically altered. He does not even know that one of the characters he introduced into his play, Gilles de Rais, the original "Bluebeard," was, not the indolent court-fop and trifler be makes him, but a very stern and earnest young man, Joan's most intimate friend, and a witch. Probably Shaw does not know that there were male witches as well as female, and that the child in her mother's arms, the maid of fifteen or the winsome young mother of twenty-two, might be a witch just as easily as the old wrinkled dame who lived in a cottage on the edge of the wood and gathered her herbs by the light of the moon.

It is this new conception of witchcraft, which we will explain in this chapter, and will apply to the trial of Joan of Arc, that brings the subject within the program of religious controversy which I am realizing. This horrid massacre of women age by age was tragic enough even on the old conception of witches. Any old dame, widow or spinster, who was wise enough to wish to avoid the cackle of her empty-headed neighbors was apt to be suspected of witchcraft. The child who fell ill -- inoculated by the open drain or cess-pool by the door -- had passed her in the street, and so had clearly been bewitched. The mother who had a miscarriage, the farmer whose pigs sickened. ... The witch! Drown her out of hand, or, less humanely, let the priest see to it; and then the horrors of trial and torture will be added to the injury of death.

This thing occurring during many centuries all over Christendom concerns us just as much as does the beauty of a cathedral. I am not indicting the Church: not merely gathering all the dishonoring facts which can be picked here and there out of the history of medieval Europe. We are seriously studying the effect upon civilization of the acceptance and world-establishment of Christianity. It created a new frame of mind, a new outlook on life, a new character; and this new spirit expressed itself in, amongst other things, the torture and burning or drowning of some hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of men and women on the ground that they were witches. And the crime was directly inspired by the new religion. The sole inspirations of the murderous attitude were belief in the devil and the express statement of the Bible that witches were in league with evil spirits and must be put to death. In the fully developed law of the Church witchcraft was heresy. It was a religious crime.

This was dreadful enough even if we suppose, as is commonly supposed, that the murdered women were yellow, soured, misanthropic old dames from whom death was in any case not far distant. No doubt a poor, brooding, solitary old woman would be more likely than any other in the village to incur popular suspicion. Harenet, one of the earliest English denouncers of the belief in witchcraft (though no modern book ever mentions him), before the end of the seventeenth century thus ironically reminded the witch-hunters of one common type of their prey:

An old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, having a ragged coat on her back, a spindle in her hand, and a dog by her side -- a wretched, infirm and impotent creature, pelted and persecuted by all the neighbors because the farmer's cart had stuck in the gateway, or some idle boy had pretended to spit needles and pins for the sake of a holiday from school or work.

Life was hell to these old dames for near a thousand years after the establishment of the religion which is said to have uplifted woman.

Yet Catholic literary men and priests and Protestant preachers, who are rarely serious students of history, find this old-hag theory of witchcraft convenient. Sorry for the old ladies, of course, but ... You can understand it, can't you? The edge of your resentment is dulled. The glib word-spinners remind you of the vivid faith of those heroic days -- the greater sensitiveness to the devil's work in the world -- the living fear of God, and so on. In other works I tell enough about the real Middle Ages to spoil this pretty argument.

But a worse error of these apologists, the popular fallacy which is still all but universal in Christendom, is to suppose that the witches were even for the greater part old women. Thousands of reports of witch-trials have now been studied, and from the hundreds that I have myself read at least in summary, I should say that feeble old dames were a comparatively small minority. Maids in their teens, like Joan of Arc, are appallingly common amongst the victims. Young women in their twenties and thirties, strong and defiant of the priests, seem to be almost in the majority. Men are frequent amongst them; and the men include numbers of priests, nobles, lawyers, etc. Let me quote the translation of a letter written at Wiirzburg during the persecution there in 1629:

There are still four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex -- nay, even clerics -- so strongly accused that they may be arrested any hour. Some out of all offices and faculties must be executed; clerics, counselors, doctors, city officials and court assessors. There are law students to be arrested. The prince-bishop has over forty students here who are to be pastors; thirteen or fourteen of these are said to be witches. A few days ago a dean was arrested; two others who were summoned have fled. The notary of our church consistory, a very learned man, was yesterday arrested and put to torture. In a word, a third part of the city is involved. A week ago a maiden of nineteen was put to death, of whom it is everywhere said that she was the fairest in the whole city and was held by everybody a girl of singular modesty and purity. She will be followed by seven or eight others of the fairest. There are three hundred children of three or four years of age who are said to have had intercourse with the devil. I have seen put to death children of ten, promising students of ten, twelve, fourteen, fifteen, etc.

This is not a page from some history of witchcraft in which the writer is rhetorically embroidering a statement of a contemporary chronicle. It is part of a letter written at the time, the year 1629, in the city of Wiirzburg itself, and by no less a person than the bishop's chancellor. No more veracious document could be imagined. And it is just by chance that in a single city out of hundreds we get this contemporary and authoritative account of the terror that for a time blanched the faces of the citizens.

This single passage must, although it belongs to an exceptionally ferocious period of witch-hunting, convince any reader at once that the popular idea of witchcraft is entirely false. I say "popular," but it is singular how slow even scholars, historians and scientists, have been to grasp the remarkable significance of the witch-movement. In the latest edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica," which is certainly the finest work of general reference to which the public can turn for information, the article on "Witchcraft" is totally inadequate. The author is a competent ethnographer, yet he writes almost entirely from the traditional point of view. Only in the last few lines he mentions the very suggestive fact, without perceiving its significance, that in Italy today witchcraft is still called la vecchia religione "the old religion" -- and that in its historical phenomena we must recognize a stratum of popular beliefs which are "derived in the main from pagan sources.

The "New International Encyclopedia" is no better, and the generally very able and informing "Dictionary of Religion and Ethics" entirely omits the subject. Yet one point which is quite fatal to the popular conception has been established in every history of witchcraft. This is that witches were not merely, or even usually, old women whose repulsive forms or isolated lives drew popular suspicion upon them. The fairest maids of a town were just as liable to be dragged before the Roman Inquisition or the Protestant bishop as was the old dame who lived alone on the outskirts of the village. Hundreds, if not thousands, of maids like Joan of Arc were drowned or burned at the stake as witches. Women of all ages, from the babe upward, were arraigned. Women of every rank figure in the lists of victims. Men also of every rank and degree of education or illiteracy enter the chronicle. Theologians, lawyers, nobles, and leaders of armies are found as well as peasants and artisans.

And it will further transpire that even the young women met the sentence of death in the same spirit as the girl-martyrs -- the very few genuine girl-martyrs -- of the early Church. They spat at the religion of their Christian persecutors. They had, they said, a higher religion, and would die rather than abjure it. The Church, it is true, in most cases left them no opinion. By a refinement of brutality it enjoined that they should be fiendishly tortured to extract confessions; then, in order to have a formal assurance of their guilt, it held that confessions thus wrung from them in the agony of torture were "voluntary confessions"; and finally it said that, since conversions professed out of fear of torture were unreliable, the witches might and ought to be put to death. Most of them, therefore, suffered death in silence. But in numberless cases they defied their tormentors and murderers, and boasted that they died for a greater faith than the belief in Jesus.

Hence there is an increasing tendency to regard witchcraft as an organized religion. The best history of witchcraft is Dr. W.G. Soldan's "Geschichte der Hexenprozesse," as edited by Max Bauer in 1911: a fine two-volume work superbly illustrated, which has unfortunately not been translated. In the final chapter the Authors discuss all the views of witchcraft during the last hundred years, and they fail to realize its full significance. They are disposed to regard too many details as mere concessions under torture to the queries of the judges or as hysterical illusions.

Much sounder, though it is little more than an account of trials in England, is Miss M.A. Murray's "The Witch-Cult in Western Europe" (1921). Miss Murray, of London University, has written a model work within her limits: candid and scholarly. The reader will find it a revelation and, in spite of the tragedy, a most entertaining work. Her conclusion is (p. 1 2):

The evidence proves that underlying the Christian religion was a cult practiced by many classes of the community, chiefly however by the more ignorant or those in the less thickly inhabited parts of the country. It can be traced back to pre-christian times and appears to be the ancient religion of western Europe. The god, anthropomorphic or theriomorphic, was worshiped in well-defined rites; the organization was highly developed; and the ritual is analogous to many other ancient rituals. The dates of the chief festivals suggest that the religion belonged to a race which had not reached the agricultural stage. ... It was a definite religion with beliefs, ritual, and organization as highly developed as that of any other cult in the world.

In saying that it was chiefly the religion of the more ignorant, Miss Murray seems to have forgotten that at least ninety-five percent of the people of Europe were then illiterate, and she, perhaps gives a wrong impression as to the survival of the religion from pre-christian times.

While psychologists have been busy applying their formulae to the mind of the witch -- and have generally come to wrong conclusions -- historians have been collecting the scattered evidence, analyzing the reports of trials, and constructing an entirely new idea of the witch-movement. It was the strongest and most widespread in the most enlightened, or least illiterate, centuries of the Middle Ages. The solution is that the medieval Church was right in its idea. Witchcraft was organized heresy, a formidable revolt against Christianity.

Books You Might Enjoy:

Kathryn Paulsen - Witches Potions And Spells
Will Herberg - The Writings Of Martin Buber
Phil Hine - Aspects Of Evocation

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