Monday, April 8, 2013

Murder and Mayhem: Christianity in Europe

Left: Hanging witches: now known as "The Women's Holocaust" "The Burning Times" The Great Witch Hunt"

From Roger Silverman

While teaching Macbeth some time ago, I did some research into the witch-hunting epoch, and came across a staggering figure of 9 million women put to death in Europe between around 1400 and 1700. Even if it is exaggerated, in terms of the total population of the time, this still amounts to virtual genocide, comparable perhaps with the twentieth-century Holocaust.
 It made me reflect what a struggle the Church had to conduct before it could finally establish its monopoly of ideological power in society, and to wipe out pre-Christian ideologies. Witchcraft surely represented the survival of pagan religions, which preserved primitive rituals and ancient folklore. These were survivals from pre-class society. 

In the background to the mass extermination of witches was the long tradition of the Crusades, where the population of Christendom were mobilised against Islam; the Spanish Inquisition; repeated pogroms against Jews (e.g. the massacre of Jews in York in the 12th century) and the expulsion of the Jews from England for about 300 years.

Paganism on the one hand, and alien religions such as Judaism and Islam on the other, had to be utterly obliterated so that there could be no challenge – however remote or implicit – to the monolith of the Church. The Church became a direct personal instrument wielded by the totalitarian monarch, which in England broke away from allegiance to the Pope. It served as the ideological prop which shored up the power of the absolute monarchies that marked the beginning of the end of the feudal system.

It is significant that the famous witches' incantation in Macbeth includes the following evil ingredients for their cauldron: "liver of blaspheming Jew, nose of Turk and Tartar's lips" – Turks and Tartars being the most conspicuous Muslims of the period.

Along with the less enlightened products of witchcraft – curses, spells, black magic, etc., for which it substituted its own variants – the Church stamped out the fruits of thousands of years of ancient folk wisdom. In those countries where the Christian Church had less success in imposing its domination and wiping out its forebears, entire systems of philosophy, hygiene, health, etc, survive today: in India, Yoga and ayurvedic medicine; in China, acupuncture; in the Far East, various martial arts. There are countless similar examples in the Islamic countries, Africa, among the aboriginal populations of the Americas and Australia, etc. I believe that relics of that pre-Christian culture still survive in Ireland, too. It was through the women that these traditions had been kept alive.

What vast cultural riches must have been destroyed by the Church throughout Europe as a result of the original witch hunts. 

Incidentally, for those who are interested, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to ingratiate himself with the new King James I (who was also James VI of Scotland). James was deeply superstitious and had himself written a book denouncing witchcraft. Since James was reputed to be a descendant of Banquo, Shakespeare put predictions that Banquo’s progeny would be kings, and rewrote history, turning Banquo from an accomplice of Macbeth in the murder of King Duncan (another warlord who had himself come to power by murdering his predecessor) into a saintly figure.

The play was written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, which precipitated a “war on terror” against Guy Fawkes, the Osama bin Laden of his day. The Catholic Jesuits who were being hunted down had prepared handbooks for the guidance of prisoners facing torture explaining how to “equivocate” (conceal the truth without actually lying outright) – hence the countless references to and examples of equivocation throughout the text.

Roger Silverman is a retired teacher living in London UK 

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