Friday, August 10, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

The "witch craze", as a certain particularly horrific part of European/North American history is often referred to, allegedly lasted from some time around the beginning of the 16th century to the end of the 18th.  In fact, hunting "witches", particularly those of the female variety, goes back to the Dark Ages.  In those times, Christianity's desperation to convert any human it ran into often translated into violent acts that had a battle cry of "join or die."  Charlemagne's mass beheading of Teutonic tribes-people who refused to "turn" is one of the most bloody examples of such policies.

But even in the very early years of accusation, torture and death, there were men who not only disbelieved, but were willing to speak up.  From Peter Stanford's definitive biography of the Dark Lord, The Devil, I offer just two examples.

In 1233, the Archbishop of Mayence spoke out against the policies of Pope Gregory IX's lap-dog, Conrad of Marburg.  Marburg was systematically subjecting people he imagined were in league with the Devil to ordeal, including but not limited to trial by water and tortures such as the ladder and the boot.  Mayence, clearly nauseated by these goings-on, wrote to the Pope:

Whoever fell into his hands had only the choice between ready confession for the sake of saving his life and a denial whereupon he was speedily burnt.  Every false witness was accepted, but no just defense granted - not even to people of prominence.  The person arraigned had to confess that he was a heretic, that he had touched a toad, that he had kissed a pale man or some monster.  Many Catholics suffered themselves to be burned rather than confess to such vicious crimes of which they were not guilty.  The weak ones, in order to save their lives, lied about themselves and other people,, especially about such prominent ones whose names were suggested to them by Conrad.  Thus brothers accused their brothers, wives their husbands, servants their masters.  Many gave money to the clergy for good advice as to how to protect themselves and the greatest confusion originated.

How the Pope reacted has not come down to us.  It is telling however, as Stanford notes, that St. Conrad of Marburg is still on the roll of the Catholic beatified.

Much later, in 1631 when the Reformation was whipping up the mania to find, torture and destroy witches to a fever pitch, another German priest saw through the insanity.  Father Friedrich von Langenfeld, who by his own admission escorted 200 people to death by fire, wrote of the guilt he felt:

I swear solemnly that of the many persons whom I have accompanied to the stake, there was not one who could be said to have been duly convicted; and two other pastors made me the same confession from their experience.  Treat the heads of the Church, the judges, myself, in the same way as those unfortunate ones, make us undergo the same tortures, and you will convict us all as witches.

The horror and contrition that these men felt fairly jumps off the page.  Their voices, along with those of a few other brave souls, could not drown out the din of madness.  A witch hunt will always be a witch hunt.

If, like me, you are a lover of true history, I cannot recommend Mr. Stanford's book enough.  Though currently out of print, and unfortunately unavailable online, it is well worth hunting for.  As an example, one last quote from Mr. Stanford himself:

The Bible is a collection of writings by people who use history not simply to report events, but to put over a particular slant.  Without some knowledge of the background and of the politics of the time, a straight reading of the Bible is akin to a Martian reading a biography of George Bush by Bill Clinton without knowing any of the context and believing it to be gospel.

And there, but for the Bon Dieu's grace, go I.  Vendredi heureux ~

Header: Witch Hill by Thomas S. Noble via Wikimedia


Timmy! said...

Wow, great post, Pauline. I could not agree with you more.

I also like the new look of the blog.

Pauline said...

Hey thanks. I just love Mr. Stanford's work and his take in "The Devil" is spot on. Trying to get the word out.

And thank you too on the look of the blog. Anyone who is curious about it should click through the "Keep Calm..." button to meet the talented artist behind it all :)