One of the fascinations of parenthood is learning to see things through the eyes of a young person again. When my daughter was fascinated with dinosaurs, I found myself learning such tongue-twisters as micropachycephalosaurus (I spelled that without looking it up just now) and struthiomimus just to remain conversant with her. (That, and I never really grew up.) When she took a childhood interest in insects, I found myself picking up bugs that would have sent me running just a few short years before, in my bare hands, to take them home to show her. All of this is by way of introducing my current continuing interest in witch trials. My wife (and consequently our daughter) is a direct descendent of the Towne family that included three innocent women accused as witches in the 1690s—Rebecca Nurse, Mary Easty, and Sarah Cloyce. When my daughter found out, the next long weekend from school we drove to Salem. I’ve been reading about witches ever since. I recently finished Brian A. Pavlac’s excellent Witch Hunts in the Western World. Well, as excellent as any book about such a gruesome topic can be. In the course of reading it, an unexpected connection dawned on me.
Many of those accused of witchcraft in the early modern period in Europe were accused of killing babies. The vast majority of them were women, often midwives. Those so accused had their bodies stripped and examined in public venues, generally only to have confessions tortured out of them later, under the eyes of male magistrates. The church had given credence to the superstition that witches actually existed and were in league with the Devil. Suddenly as I read, I heard the echo of a familiar refrain that comes from modern witch hunters. Those who, like the magistrates of old, are men; men telling women what they may or may not do with their bodies. Who draw their self-righteousness from their religion and who claim that birth control is of the Devil. Who accuse women of killing babies. Texas begins to sound like the rebirth of the Holy Roman Empire. In all of Europe that was where the most women were slaughtered, in thousands, by men who burned with the zealotry of a religion that had lost touch with reality.
Time spent on history is never wasted. At times we seem to have come so far, but then I look back over my shoulder and see the suchomimus of unbridled male fantasy closing fast. We have worked hard to bring equality to all people, but at the start of yet another millennium, we are still measuring the worth of humans by the gonads they carry. Based on outdated views from a book that was once meant to be inspirational. Sadly, the legacy often left by religion is only a residue of superstition. The reasoning behind the witch hunts of yesteryear and those of today is the same—the desire to control the behavior of others. It is the cocktail of religion and politics that inebriates those who crave power. What was true then remains true today. In the words of Pavlac, “A history of the Middle Ages shows the intensifying entanglement of magical thinking with political power, which produced the European witch hunts.” Substitute “Modern Day” for “Middle Ages” and “Planned Parenthood” for “European” and see if you can’t find a pattern.