Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, November 23, 2020

Time for a new Witch Hunt? The pandemic could change more things than you would have expected.


A detail of Benvenuto Cellini's "Perseus and Medusa," a statuary group created in 1554 and presently in Florence, Italy. It is considered a work of art, but it is also the depiction of an extremely violent act: the beheading of Medusa, shown as a young woman in the group. It is rarely noted that this piece was created in the midst of the rise of a wave of violence against women in Europe, exterminated as witches. Clearly, Cellini's scene is influenced by this trend, even though witches were normally burned at the stake rather than beheaded. (but that had a tradition, too!)

Which historical period saw the largest number of witch hunts? If you answered "the Middle Ages," you were wrong. Surprised? Don't we all know that the Middle Ages, were the "Dark Ages," a time of barbarism and superstition, surely it was at that time that witches were hunted and burned. Who didn't see the "Burn the Witch" clip by the Monthy Python? It takes place in a typical medievalish setting.  

But, no. Burning witches was NOT a medieval thing. Look at the data. Trials and executions for witchcraft picked up well after that the Middle Ages were officially over, at some moment around the end of the 15th century. 

At the highest moment of this homicidal frenzy, about 2500 people per year, mostly women, were burned in Europe for a total estimated as about 50,000-100,000. Not a very large number in comparison to the population of the time, but a significant number, nevertheless.

Why did that happen? Why were Europeans obsessed with killing people, mostly poor women, who were doing little or no harm to anyone? And who were these witches, anyhow? There is a long story to tell here, so let's try to condense the main points of it.

The idea of evil women using poisons and magical spells to kill people is very ancient and it appears in many human cultures. The first report on this subject that has numbers in it comes from the Roman historian Titus Livius (59 BC - 17 AD) who tells us about two episodes of witch-hunting that took place in 331 BC and 180 BC. In both cases, a spate of executions (perhaps a few thousand) occurred after that a mysterious and deadly sickness had swept the land. According to Livius, Most of the executed people were women, accused of having poisoned the population.

Apart from Livius' report, witches (sometimes termed striga‎e in Latin) exist in the literature of Roman times mainly as fictional creatures. But we do read of evil women poisoning people in the real world. One such case is that of Munatia Plancina, a noblewoman accused of having poisoned Germanicus, a popular general, at the time of Emperor Tiberius. Plancina could have been sentenced to death for veneficium, but she committed suicide before her trial. 

So, it seems that in Roman times, women were not normally the target of mass extermination, but they could be punished as evil murderers. And, indeed, there is no lack of vilification against women in the Roman literature. Just as an example, Seneca (sometimes said to be a wise man) is reported to have written that "When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil." 

Maybe it was not Seneca's fault if he lived perhaps in the most male-oriented society in history. But I think the Romans had noted something well known to us: that the number of children a woman has is inversely proportional to her degree of instruction. There follows that, in order to have their legions, the Romans had to do all the things that today we associate with a "natalist" policy: keeping women at home in a subordinate position. As long as they kept at their role, they were left more or less in peace. Otherwise, they could be harshly punished.

Things changed when the Roman Empire collapsed (and, incidentally, the last Roman emperor who truly ruled the Western Empire was a woman, Galla Placidia -- it would have been unthinkable in earlier times). It was the turbulent time that led to Christianity to take over -- a religion that claimed that all men and women were equally sons and daughters of God. Of course, the practical application of Christianity was often far away from the ideals it claimed to uphold, but it was a change that was necessary at the time. And it was clear to the early Christians that there didn't exist such a thing as "witchcraft." Not that some ignorant women couldn't be deluded about being able to make a pact with the devil, but they were to be educated, not punished.

With this change, the voice of women started being heard. And what a voice! Think of Perpetua of Carthage and her diary ("Passio"), written maybe during the early 3rd century. If you read it, be careful, because it is powerful stuff,  not for the faint-hearted. It took time, but as centuries went by, the voice of women was more and more heard: strong, clear, moving. Just think of figures such as Hildegard Von Bingen (1098 - 1179), intellectual and mystic at the same time, she would have been impossible even to imagine in Roman times. Or think of Heloise, (1100-1164) and of her passionate letters to her lover, Abelard. Or Marguerite Porete (1250/1260 – 1310), the Beguine mystic author of "The Mirror of Simple Souls." (try to read it, if you have time, it is fantastically outlandish, eerie, and moving). And many more. To say nothing of the diffusion of the literary genre about courtly love that idolized women. A story such as the one of Tristan and Iseult would have been completely incomprehensible in Roman times.

And then, something changed, again. With the end of the first millennium, Europe went through a crisis of overgrowth. With wars, there came famines, the first was in 1315. It preceded the Black Death that was to arrive in 1346 and that would continue for centuries in intermittent waves. It was a painful transformation that would turn Europe from a backward peninsula of Eurasia into a forge of empires.

Europe was not just fighting external wars, but also internal ones against perceived internal enemies. Here, we need to digress briefly to consider the relationship between heresy and witchcraft. The two are often seen as being almost the same, but it is not so. Both had elements of challenge against the mainstream religious views, but witches were mostly poor women trafficking with healing herbs. Heretics, instead, were often intellectuals of some repute. They were also connected to political movements that challenged the powers of their times -- it was a completely different story. 

During the early Middle Ages, matters of faith were supposed to be solved by discussions, that was the reason for the ecumenical councils of the Christian churches. It was only when the political situation in Europe deteriorated that the Inquisition of the Catholic Church was established in 1250. Despite the harshness of the judicial system that was starting to appear, heretics were normally given a chance to recant and abandon their "errors." In this way, they could avoid the harshest forms of punishment. Remarkably, many of them refused, including Marguerite Porete who was burned at the stake in 1310. Galileo Galilei was not so brave when he was tried for heresy in 1633. He saved himself by abandoning his "false belief" that the Earth was turning around the Sun.

With time, things got worse: the European states needed soldiers for their worldwide campaigns and women had to go back to become child-making machines. Heresy started to overlap with witchcraft as a crime. And note that witches couldn't just repudiate their false beliefs in order to escape the fire: they were supposed to had committed heinous crimes for which they had to be punished, even though they might have repented. Joan of Arc (1412–1431) was burned at the stake after having being accused of several crimes, including both heresy and witchcraft.  She was given no choice to survive: her destiny was sealed when she had decided to abandon her traditional role of submissive female. 

A strong push in the direction of punishing witches in the same way as heretics came with the publication in Germany of the book by Kramer and Spengler "Malleus Maleficarum" (The Hammer of Witches) (1486) A horrible libel that reproposed the misogynistic views of women that had been typical of ancient Rome, it was the crack that caused the dam to collapse

So, for at least a couple of centuries, women in Europe could be accused of witchcraft and burned. And many of them were. Of course, nobody wanted to exterminate women, they just killed a sufficient number of them to give the example to the others, so that they would stay in their place. It is difficult to assess how well that worked, but surely witch hunts were an important element of their times. That's clear by the large number of the pictures we have of people being burned at the stake, but also for the resilience of the concept. The term is still popular with us, nowadays, and we use it to describe the persecution of people for their belief on superstitious or ideological grounds. 

Witch burning in Germany in 1550 (image source). Note the gruesome details, the methods of execution and the setting was is all studied to impress, scare, and intimidate people. An early version of the "shock and awe" method, well known nowadays.

 It was only in later times that women started to regain a voice in the Western society. The industrial revolution made women useful as workers and that generated the need for a certain degree of instruction for them (it was also discovered that women made excellent snipers). It was a gradual process, and don't forget that it was only in 1920 that the right to vote was granted to women in the US. But, in time, we arrived at the current situation where "gender equality" has become the rule. 

But now? Don't forget how witch burning is often associated with plagues and stress for society. Of stress we have aplenty and, about plagues, we are experiencing one right now. So, could we see a new age of witch-hunting in the West? I mean not just in figurative terms, but with people -- especially women -- actually executed?

Of course, we tend to think that we are way too enlightened for burning witches, nowadays. But things change fast. The reaction to the current pandemics is taking various forms, one is the typical attitude toward natural disasters: looking for a scapegoat. In this case, the scapegoat is taking a form different from the typical scapegoats of earlier times. Whereas witches were supposed to have actively caused plagues, nowadays the anger is directed against the "Covid deniers," not just the people who deny the existence of the virus (they are rare, but they exist), but often toward those who simply doubt the mainstream view of the remedies for the pandemic, lockdowns and the like,

So far, "deniers" are considered more or less in the same way as heretics during the Middle Ages. They are supposed to be gently pushed to abandon their false opinions and, of course, they are prevented from diffusing them. In some cases, deniers are considered somewhat deranged or actually insane for their "false belief" -- a stance that reminds very much the trials for heresy of old times. (see, e.g. this article)

But, in the future, could we see the same evolution that we saw with the end of the Middle Ages, that is a move toward actively punishing deniers? Could very well be. The last spate of witch-hunting, the one that took place in the 1950s in the US against supposed Communists, didn't have specific anti-feminism connotations. But things are changing and there are clear elements showing that the struggle between men and women is not over. Take a look at this piece of statuary by Luciano Garbati, recently installed in New York. It shows us a woman who just beheaded a man, it is, obviously, the symmetric and opposite version of Cellini's "Medusa". Apart from not even remotely matching the earlier piece in terms of artistic qualities, this image is worrisome. It shows that men and women of our age can't find a middle ground of mutual respect, but tend to fight for dominance. And, historically, we know that males tend to win this struggle. 

Garbati's piece, just as Cellini's one, is just a symptom of the ongoing struggle. If the battle escalates to even higher levels, as it seems to be happening, we might well see a strong backlash against women in the West. Could it be that women would be accused again of plotting dark and dire things against humankind? And maybe burned at the stake? I don't know, but some hints that I read on the Web are ominous. Take this comment to the Malleus Maleficarum that appeared on Google Search. Hopefully, it is supposed to be a joke.... perhaps. And it is not the only one of this kind that appears in the site.


As usual, the future is impossible to predict. But never forget that the future always takes you by surprise. Hard times may be coming, but one day men and women will learn how to live in harmony with each other. Even Benvenuto Cellini, after all, shows to us a lovely image of Medusa, not as a monster but as a woman. Maybe he, too, had understood that men and women are not enemies to each other.

And, as I was thinking of these matters, there came back to my mind the song by Leonard Cohen "Joan of Arc" -- beautiful, sweet, moving, and delicate. May these times never return -- or at least so we can hope.






Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)