The self-destructive tendencies of human societies should be of major interest to those who study the mind. Why a highly evolved species would forego reason—or create an entire false logic—to give itself an excuse to mass-murder its own is among the greatest trials of theodicy. Can God be justified in such circumstances? With or without divine approval, God is nevertheless implicated. One of those homicidal events, the European witch craze of early modern history is a prime example. Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts is a disturbing book on many levels. For a human being with any level of empathy, reading about the torturous destruction of at least 100,000 people—generally women—is hard going. We don’t want to be reminded that we were ever so naïve as to believe that women slept with the devil, flew through the air to meet with other witches, and were trying to bring down society. The “upright,” as Barstow makes very clear, feared for the church. Concern for the ways of God excused—demanded even—the death of the innocent. Many of the victims confessed, under torture, that the godly men had got it right.
Barstow contends that economic stresses and fear for the sanctity of the church, along with a generous dose of native misogyny, fueled this holocaust. She notes that it happened in the same society that would initiate another holocaust a mere three centuries later. But why women? Coming out of the medieval period, societies were strengthening centralized governments. Roles of power that belonged to women were highly individualized, and therefore considered threats. The healer, in absence of a medical profession, was often female, frequently a midwife. In days of high infant mortality, they were sometimes blamed for performing abortions, something men in power simply couldn’t accept. Barstow points out that population increases were stressing the economic production of the period. The newly minted Reformation advocated a very active devil in the world. Since the devil, like God, was a guy, well, women satisfied his lust.
The most disturbing aspect of reading this book for me, however, is the fact that our society has come to resemble that one once again. Strong centralized governments control what citizens do through fear—what else would compel us to allow Patriot Acts to pass? They target women as scapegoats—otherwise the issue of abortion would not command such male attention. Fear for the sanctity of God is repeatedly invoked. Sometimes these modern witches are persecuted on the basis of ethnic background as well as gender. And in both the witch hunter society and that of today an elite class has collected the wealth and sits back to let the remainder incinerate itself in the name of God. Witches don’t fly through the night to meet a fictional devil. The real threat to society is right here among us, but its not who the powerful want us to think it is. And it is very human.