Yes, the neighbors were mean, but the church still deserves blame. Readers respond to Laura Miller's "Who Burned the Witches?"

Published February 3, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

[Read "Who Burned the Witches?" by Laura Miller.]

I know one famous story about the mother of astronomer Johannes Kepler that illustrates what Laura Miller describes in her article. Frau Kepler was a morally righteous woman who didn't mind voicing her stern disapproval of a sexually active townswoman alleged to be a prostitute. When this alleged tart came down with a pelvic infection, she was suspected by officials of having had an abortion, which was a crime just as bad as witchcraft. When pressured by local police to name her abortionist, she denied that she'd had an abortion. She claimed her fever was caused by Frau Kepler and made a formal complaint of witchcraft against the woman.

This complaint evolved into formal criminal charges and subsequent arrest and imprisonment. Finally one day Frau Kepler was dragged from her cell and led into a torture chamber filled with instruments used for extracting confessions and ordered to confess or face interrogation. Reportedly Frau Kepler told her interrogators they could rip every last vein from her body but she would never confess to a lie. Thanks to the Duke of Wurttemberg's timely intervention, Frau Kepler's defiance saved her life. Her neighbors, however, still believed she was a witch, and ran her out of town. She went to live with her son Johannes but died from stress soon afterward.

-- Patricia Schwarz

Laura Miller's hair splitting as to whether Catholics or Protestants were more responsible for the centuries-long persecution of women in European history belies the fact that many Christian theocracies either turned a blind eye to or outright exploited the terror of the witch hunts to tighten their grip on power. To reduce the institutional misogyny of Christianity to little more than medieval tort reform gone awry belittles the pain and suffering delivered on countless by the church, regardless of its affinity (or lack of it) with Rome.

The church used its far-reaching power to institutionalize marriage and codify the laws of primogeniture that systematically denied women of their civil and property rights. Popes, bishops and kings were not one bit shy about flexing their muscle to oppress the working class. Remember, this was a time when one could be hung for stealing food or hunting on the king's land. Severed heads on spikes would often greet visitors at the city gates. Don't underestimate the chilling effect the foul stench of burning hair and flesh of the not so occasional "witch" burning would have on political speech. One only has to look at the backlash today on those who had the temerity to speak out against George Bush and the invasion of Iraq to get the slimmest of peeks at the hammer and anvil effect of the wedding of church and state on the individual.

Ms. Miller diminishes how the European crowned heads used their supposed love of the "Prince of Peace" to justify hacking and murdering their way through a millennium of conquest and imperialism. When Pope Urban II got tired of seeing Christian-on-Christian violence, he ginned up his propaganda machine to vilify Islam and the Arabs, starting the crusades, for which we are still paying a high price to this day.

-- Stephen Bottomly

The core of the argument in this psychological analysis of witch hunting is that individuals across cultures and continents reacted the same way to personal threats. You presume the psychology of past people would be as it is today, with envy at health or anger at loss. Certainly any small community can become a tangle of distrust and dysfunction, but I don't see how this negates the role of churches or other powerful figures. Nor does it account for the fact that once the interdependent system of small communities is broken by betrayal the communities tend to fall apart, as does accurate record keeping.

In their day, the church had its own version of fearmongering. The Catholic Church routinely sent out missionaries charged with frightening people into tithing to ward off devils whose weapons of mass destruction were the fires of hell. In much the same way as Rumsfeld, et al., preach the usefulness of torture while denying their role in abuse, political and religious leaders (often the same people) set the course and ask others to do the driving.

-- Mary C. McFadden

What was new about the witch hunts of the 1500s and 1600s was not village gossip and feuds, or the people most likely to do the accusing. As Laura Miller points out, during the Middle Ages, witch trials were occasional things stemming from old pagan beliefs more than Christianity, and did not usually involve the carnival of high-tech torture devices that characterized the later trials, especially in German-speaking areas. Indeed, the most ardently Catholic areas -- Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal -- had no witch hunts on the scale they occurred elsewhere. On the other hand, Holland, rather secular even then, laughed at witches. What made the 1500s and 1600s different is the spread of the printed word, which disseminated things like the "Malleus Maleficarum" far more than such works would normally have traveled.

Miller is right in her assertion that the church was not enthusiastically involved -- indeed, some judges prevented priests and monks from talking privately with the condemned because the pre-execution confessions of these poor wretches had to be true, and the priests knew they were innocent, causing a deep dilemma. In "Highroad to the Stake," Michael Kunze's narrative of the ghastly Pappenheimer torture-execution of a family in 1600 (five males, one woman, one child), he points out that it was the spread of legal studies and lawyers that gave such a boost to the whole idea of witch hunts. It gave legitimacy and structure to what had been a rather random, unregulated and chaotic activity. As for women being the chief accusers, well, it's testimony to the irrationality of fear and envy that they did not work in their own interests. In one village there were only two women left alive.

-- Mary Claire

Laura Miller's excellent article on the witch hunts misses the important role played by mass hallucinations caused by ergot poisoning. Witch hunts are surprisingly well correlated with certain weather conditions that favor mold formation on rye; this mold produces a substance quite similar to LSD and, apparently, led entire communities to experience hallucinations. With the seeds of witchcraft planted in their minds by local folklore and religion, entire towns began seeing horrifying hallucinations. Salem's January 1692 witch hunt, for example, has been tied quite convincingly to ergot poisoning.

-- Rob Stafford

So the church only supported the witch hunts, laid down a legal basis for the witch hunts, burned some witches and stood by while it all occurred?

Of course the idiots who brought the accusations bear guilt. The idiot magistrates who ran the trials are similarly guilty.

However, it was the church that started it, and the church could have stopped it. The church should pony up and shoulder the blame, and academics should stop making excuses for the church's behavior.

-- Peter

As a practicing Catholic I am often confronted with suggestions from individuals, and from popular culture at large, that the church is a giant evil conspiracy, with evidence such as the 9 million figure, which Miller discusses. I was pleased to see Miller writing about the humanity and agency individuals hold outside of the church, as I know from my own experiences we can encounter terrible people just about anywhere, within the church, or outside of it. In her conclusion Miller warns against the tendency to idealize pagan cultures, arguing that not only do we not know much about these societies, but that they are also made up of human beings capable of the same range of kindness and cruelty as those within the Christian tradition.

For this reason I was disappointed by one short passage near the end of the article where Miller wrote: "Most of us have heard that Christianity incorporated such pagan and folk traditions as the winter solstice festival (Christmas) and the spring festival (Easter) into the Christian calendar. There's every reason to believe that -- far from seeking to eradicate folk beliefs in black magic -- Christian churches took advantage of ancient superstitions by stepping in to offer themselves as a solution to the mischief done by evil sorcerers."

This idea that most of us have heard it certainly doesn't make it true, no more so than the idea that most of us have heard that the Catholic Church burned 9 million women at the stake. It is a popular belief that Christians appropriated pagan festivals and traditions of the season, as a means of stamping them out. I don't believe this since early church fathers in all other accounts seemed loath to compromise their faith to pagans, but it is true that across Europe and Eurasia the celebrations were common to the solstice season. It is at least as probable that pagans choose to participate along with Christians and appropriate Christian beliefs into their own celebrations, eventually leading to accretions.

In the Western world, the birthday of Jesus Christ has been celebrated on Dec. 25 since A.D. 336, 354 or 386 depending on the sources, in all Catholic and Catholic-derived churches (Eastern Rite, Roman and Protestant), replacing an earlier date of Jan. 6. Efforts to fix a date for the birth of Christ began some two centuries after his death, as the Catholic Church established its traditions. It is important to remember that at this time Christians were being persecuted themselves. Early Christians faced severe penalties for their beliefs and practices, the martyrs of the early church were willing to face death rather than back down or compromise their beliefs, and I personally find it ridiculous to suggest that they had some plot to convert heathens by appropriating the pagan holidays, when they could barely even practice their religion.

The earliest evidence of a celebration of the natal day is from Alexandria, Egypt, about 200 A.D., when Clement of Alexandria says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not just the year, but the actual day of Christ's birth. For context, Constantine did not convert to Christianity until 312 A.D. and his conversion was very much a personal conversion, and he was required to send out orders to pagan generals to desist with their persecution of Christ's followers.

An alternate theory suggests that the date of Christmas is based on the date of Good Friday, the day Jesus died. Since the exact date of Jesus' death is not stated in the Gospels, early Christians sought to calculate it, and arrived at either March 25 or April 6. To then calculate the date of Jesus' birth, they followed the ancient idea that Old Testament prophets died at an "integral age" -- either an anniversary of their birth or of their conception. They reasoned that Jesus died on an anniversary of the Incarnation (his conception), so the date of his birth would have been nine months after the date of Good Friday -- either Dec. 25 or Jan. 6.

I believe it is damaging when theories are propagated that falsely ascribe motives to the church. When it comes to something as serious as celebrating and honoring Christ, no one should suggest that early church leaders would use such an occasion for an ulterior motive without sufficient evidence.

-- Carmen Devine

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------