Thursday, November 6, 2014

And You Thought Halloween Was Scary? How About Teaching Bad History About Witchcraft??

Often as not it's bad history rather than scary costumes that forces historians to turn away and scream in terror every Halloween.

I was dismayed to see that Hampshire College--admittedly, the Spiritual Life Center and Community Partnerships for Social Change, rather than an academic class--was sponsoring a screening of one of the worst pseudohistorical documentaries for the occasion.

"The Burning Times" is a 1990 piece in the National Film Board of Canada's "Women and Spirituality" series. It has developed a popular following for all wrong reasons, which will become immediately obvious:
This documentary takes an in-depth look at the witch hunts that swept through Europe. False accusations and trials led to massive torture and burnings at the stake, and ultimately to the destruction of an organic way of life. The film questions whether the widespread violence against women and the destruction of the environment today can be traced back to those times. 
The intention of my Hampshire colleagues was good, I am sure: to add some intellectual content to a holiday long known here for its substance- and sex-related excesses, to highlight the historical oppression of women, and to acknowledge neo-paganism within the scope of spiritualities in the college community.

Unfortunately, the film is a slick and sloppy New Age compilation of errors, half-truths, omissions, and exaggerations.

Given that "The Burning Times" describes the city of Trier as "French" even though all the signs on the buildings shown are in German and it belonged to France only briefly--from 1794 to 1815, never during the Middle Ages--an attentive viewer might think to question the film's larger claims such as the characterization of the witch hunts as "the women's Holocaust" (at 14:19).

I remember one colleague here in the Five College Consortium lamenting to me that whenever students saw "The Burning Times," it took him at least half a semester to unteach the idiocy they had absorbed. Some years ago, when I saw that WGBY, the local Public Television station, was showing this sorry film during a pledge drive (adding insult to injury), I went so far as to call them up and explain that I was therefore not going to donate any money that year.

Yes, it's that bad.

The work of any professional historian will suggest how much more complex the reality was.

Even a glance at David Hall's appropriately titled essay on "Witchcraft and the Limits of Interpretation" (New England Quarterly, 1985) should make anyone pause before making sweeping generalizations covering many centuries and countries.  But his piece is rather heavy going.

For those seeking the bird's eye view, Brian Pavlac, author of Witch Hunts in the Western World, helpfully lists:
Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, Corrected and Commented
  1. The Witch Hunts were an example of medieval cruelty and barbarism.
  2. The Church was to blame for the Witch Hunts.
  3. The Witch Hunts specifically targeted women.
  4. The Witch Hunts were an attempt at "femicide" or "gendercide," meaning the persecution of the female sex, equivalent to genocide.
  5. The Witch Hunts were all alike.
  6. Millions of people died because of the Witch Hunts.
  7. People condemned during the Witch Hunts were burned at the stake.
  8. During the time of the Witch Hunts, witches actually existed and worked magic.
  9. In modern usage, the term "Witch Hunt" can be applied to any persecution of a group of people.
  10. Modern witchcraft/magick/wicca is a direct descendent of those practices done by people during the Witch Hunts of 1400-1800.
(detailed explanation of each here on his Women's History Resource Site).

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance deal specifically with the film:


We are not going to win many friends in the Neopagan communities with the following essay. However, we believe it to be accurate. It is a story that needs to be told.

The facts are that almost all of the information that is generally accepted as truth by the Neopagan community about the "burning times" is wrong:
  • The total number of victims was probably between 50,000 and 100,000 -- not 9 million as many believe. 
  • Although alleged witches were burned alive or hung over a five century interval -- from the 14th to the 18th century -- the vast majority were tried from 1550 to 1650. 
  • Some of the victims worshiped Pagan deities, and thus could be considered to be indirectly linked to today's Neopagans. However most apparently did not. 
  • Some of the victims were midwives and native healers; however most were not. 
  • Most of the victims were tried executed by local, community courts, not by the Church. 
  • A substantial minority of victims -- about 25% -- were male. 
  • Many countries in Europe largely escaped the burning times: Ireland executed only four "Witches;" Russia only ten. The craze affected mostly Switzerland, Germany and France. 
  • Eastern Orthodox countries had few Witch trials.[....]
  • Most of the deaths seem to have taken place in Western Europe in the times and areas where Protestant - Roman Catholic conflict -- and thus social turmoil -- was at its maximum.

Any questions?

If there's a lesson to be learned, it's that changing historical facts is no way to redress historical injustice or bring about historic change. Even would-be radicals need to do their homework.

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