Monday, June 08, 2009

Ending torture: The witch hunts of early-modern Europe

The period of the witch hunts in Europe is something that most people would probably initially identify as a "medieval" occurrence. But it wasn't. The high point of the witch hunts was the period from the late 1400s to the late 1600s, with a notable decrease after the Thirty Years War of 1808-1848 1818-1848. With the modern period conventionally dated from 1492, the year of Columbus' discovery of America, the witch hunts were very much much an early-modern phenomenon, not one of the "Middle Ages".

Peter Mario Kreuter in "Zur Geschichte der Hexenverfolgung" (On the History of the Witch Hunts) Kursbuch 163/Mar 2006 writes about the role torture played in those ugly events. He also talks about some of the more important recent findings by historians of the period during the previous three decades. Counting the number of victims is a grim but necessary part of that historiography, though records from that period are scarcely on a par with those of the last couple of centuries, which have provided their own occasions for historical body counts. He places the number of those executed for witchcraft in Europe during that period at around 50,000, half of them within the Holy Roman Empire, though that is only the most extreme measure of lives damaged and communities shattered. As many as 20% of the victims convicted of witchcraft were men. And that, contrary to the conventional assumption, the female victims were not mainly older widows or midwives.

But his focus is on the role of torture.


One historical irony of the use of torture in criminal processes is that it resulted from what was from today's viewpoint unquestionably an advance in deciding guilt or innocence. In the 1100s, ancient Roman concepts of law were introduced in the Holy Roman Empire to replace the methods that had been used for centuries of deciding trial by ordeal or by combat between contending parties. Ordeal was just that, and involved infliction of pain. The defendant would be required to do something like pick up a hot piece of iron or plunge his hand into boiling water. The extent of his wounds would then be taken as a measure of his guilt or innocence, the idea being that God would thereby give a sign. It was similarly assumed that the outcome of a duel would also be ordained by God to further earthly justice. Trial by ordeal and duel were banned in the Empire by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

That was replaced by trial by inquisition, a concept which is not identical with the sinister implications it acquired from the actions of the Vatican's Holy Office in its persecution of Waldensen and Catharen heretics in the 1200s and 1300s. The idea of trial by inquisition was that the actual facts of the case should be investigated with eyewitness testimony and physical evidence. But an unfortunate twist in this was that the process also put a high value on the admission of guilt by the accused. Which then led to the application of torture to obtain such admissions. The physical cruelty of trial by ordeal had been much more of a very short-term, one-time event. With the inquisition method as it developed, torture could be applied until a confession was obtained. This didn't happen all at once in 1215. The secular and religious authorities began authorizing torture in specific cases. The Vatican authorized the use of torture against accused heretics in 1252, and against practitioners of forbidden magic in 1326.

By the time that the infamous Malleus maleficarum (The Witches' Hammer) by the Dominican witch-hunters Heinrich Kramer and was published - using examples of cases mostly from Austria - that tendency had become full-blown. Sigmund Freud and the early psychoanalysts studied the Malleus maleficarum because they regarded it as a rich source of perverse sexual fantasies.

Kramer drafted the Papal Bull Summis desiderantes affectibus issued by Pope Innocence VIII of 1484, which read in part:

It has come to Our ears that members of both sexes do not avoid to have intercourse with evil angels, incubi, and succubi, and that by their sorceries, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurations, they suffocate, extinguish, and cause to perish the births of women.
Incubi were evil spirits that seduced women, succubi those who seduced men.

During the much-maligned medieval period, Church doctrine had considered it erroneous to believe that there could be such things as witches with magical powers. But along with the increased role of reason and science in the modern age came new versions of superstition and fanaticism, among them the ideas of demonic magic as a reality. Kreuter describes how over time, witchcraft came to be increasingly associated with sexual fantasies about the involvement of male and female witches with the Devil and other Satanic powers. Interestingly enough, Kreuzer relates a case from the Düsseldorf area from 1499 in which a judge sought the advice of a "good" magician, one Conrat (or Conrait) Steynbrecher on the guilt of an accused witch rather than applying torture. Steynbrecher pronounced her innocent. He was considered to have his special gifts from God rather than the infernal regions. A lucky break for those he acquitted. But hardly a substitute for real legal rights.

And in some regions of the Holy Roman Empire, reports Kreuzer, the local authorities put major limits on the activities of the witch hunters and the use of torture. But that didn't stop it from being widely applied to destructive effect. Not only were the accused victims tortured into confessing, they were also often required to incriminate others, who in turn would be tortured into confessing. Imprisonment during trial and torture were often accompanied by such indignities as shaving the accused's entire body, and by confining her in such a way that her feet were never allowed to touch the ground.

The late Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World (1995) described some of the methods of the witch trials of that period, including those prescribed by the Malleus maleficarum (which were not universally allowed):

What the Malleus comes down to, pretty much, is that if you're accused of witchcraft, you're a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There are no rights of the defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers.
And he describes the vicious circle that ensued from the torture of accused witches:

The more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere fantasy. Since each "witch" was made to implicate others, the numbers grew exponentially. These constituted "frightful proofs that the Devil is still alive," as it was later put in America in the Salem witch trials. In an credulous age, the most fantastic testimony was soberly accepted - that tens of thousands of witches had gathered for a Sabbath in public squares in France, or that 12,000 of them darkened the skies as they flew to Newfoundland. ...

In the witch trials, mitigating evidence or defense witnesses were inadmissible. In any case, it was nearly impossible to provide compelling alibis for accused witches: The rules of evidence had a special character. For example, in more than one case a husband attested that his wife was asleep in his arms at the very moment she was accused of frolicking with the devil at a witch's Sabbath; but the archbishop patiently explained that a demon had taken the place of the wife. The husbands were not imagine that their powers of perception could exceed Satan's powers of deception.
I don't pretend to be able to reduce such complex matters to simple formulas. But the pathological sexual components of the witch hunts of those long-gone (?) days are also present in the Cheney-Bush torture program, as they inevitably are in all such programs. The nudity and sexual positioning of the victims shown in the Abu Ghuraib photographs put those elements on display, though the interaction of the sexual and violent components is no doubt complex. One of the victims in the Abu Ghuraib photos had "rapist" written on his leg. As with the witches accused of criminal sexual acts with evil spirits and the Devil, designating that man (whether or not the accusation was accurate) as a sexual criminal provided some of the justification for his torture. Though obviously such an explicit designation was required in the minds of the Abu Ghuraib perpetrators for brutalizing and humiliating their victims, sexually and otherwise.

The fantastic nature of the accusations against the witches also has a definite kinship to the ticking-time-bomb justification for torture that is the Republicans' favorite ideological argument for it right now. The actions of which the witches were accused were phantom crimes. And when the US snatches some poor S.O.B. from Afghanistan or Iraq and tortures them on the chance that they may be part of "Al Qa'ida" and may yield some kind of information that in some way might help foil some deadly plot we don't even know about, the justification for torturing those victims is pretty much a phantom, too.

Early-modern fears of witches were irrational, whatever we take the material conditions that generated those fears to be, and allowing victims to be tortured into validating those fears became a truly vicious circle. The notion that torture is allowable as long as the authorities have an fear of some kind of bad things happened in the future is pretty much the same thing. It makes fear a self-confirming justification for torture. It took two centuries for the witch craze in early-modern Europe (and America) to subside, and longer for that for the process to be definitively ended. As long as we allow torture to be performed based on the professed fears of authorities - much less authorities like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld - torture will be an endless plague and do endless harm, to the direct victims first of all and to many others besides.

And when you think that Sarah Palin and her Third Wave Pentecostalist movement believe literally in witches and witchcraft ....

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