“Goody Proctor is a gossiping liar!”
Dumb Ideas that Changed the World, Episode 13 SLOW, LOW
Tease: “Goody Proctor is a gossiping liar!”
Intro: Welcome to “Dumb Ideas that Changed the World.” The views expressed are solely those of the host and do not reflect the opinions of this station or its funders.
Many of us have vague knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, perhaps from Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Twenty accused witches died before the frenzy ran its course. A tragedy to be sure but historically, Salem was a brief, one-time hysteria in colonial America.
What if I told you that European witch hunts took the lives of a hundred-thousand people? It makes Salem look like a blip on the radar. But that was the reality in countries like France and Germany over 300 years.
Novelist Rivka Galchen notes that astronomer Johannes Kepler spent a full year, not working-out the planetary laws of motion, but defending his mother against charges of witchcraft. He eventually won her release, sparing her from torture and a possible death sentence. Like Katharina Kepler, most accused witches were older women—the most vulnerable segment of society. And it wasn’t the Church but secular courts that persecuted them.
Essentially no Satanic worship took place in Europe during the Renaissance, just the old paganism practiced by a small minority. But the authorities conflated paganism with Satanism, so anyone still practicing the old rituals was suspected of devil-worship. Soon, anyone could be accused. One of the capital charges against Saint Joan of Arc was witchcraft.
Convicted witches were hanged, burned, or drowned. False accusations were unpunishable, so what better way to destroy someone than accuse them of demonic sorcery. If a mother died in childbirth, the midwife could be charged with satanic murder. Even priests were burned at the stake on dubious charges. Hearsay and emotion were the coin of the realm in these kangaroo courts. And in a bit of karma, last year’s accuser could be this year’s accused.
The obsession with Satanism was dumb because the Medieval Church had dismissed the existence of witches and magic as pagan superstitions. Here was a case where medieval Europe was more enlightened than the Renaissance. Finally, reason prevailed and the last executions for witchcraft took place in 1793.
I’m Jeff Gentry
Best reference: Davies, W. and Ble´court W., eds. Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.
Dumb Ideas that Changed the World copyright 2023 by Jeff Gentry. All rights reserved.