Interpretations #1:  Rationalism

To: all
From: Jenny
Date: 24 Apr 1998
Time: 12:29:45


Hi everyone,

I thought I'd do a couple pieces on the various ways that historians have interpretted the Burning Times.

The rationalist interpretation is one of the oldest theories around, dating back to the Burning Times themselves. It was the mainstay of historians until the 1960's, and still retains a bit of influence in both popular and academic history.

Basically, the rationalist interpretation says that the Burning Times were a horrible outburst of unreason. Ignorant peasants and superstitious clerics believed nonsensical things. Since there was nobody rational around to stop them, they slaughtered thousands and thousands of old women whom they believed had unlimited Satanic power. Fortunately European society got more sensible, and reason triumphed in the end. Once people were too intelligent and rational to believe in witches, the Burning Times ended.

As I said, this is an old idea. In the 16th century, Protestant Reginald Scot blamed the trials on the superstitiousness of the Catholic Church. The heyday of this theory was the 19th century, when it reigned virtually unquestioned. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution and Social Darwinism. Society was clearly "evolving", and so it seemed obvious to many that things had been terrible because we hadn't "evolved" to a more rational state.

Unfortunately, rationalism was strongest when Witchcraft Studies were in their infancy. We have -- quite literally -- at least 100 times as much evidence as early scholars did. This interpretation eventually died, crushed by counter-evidence. But some of its assumptions and pre-conceptions have proven hard to kill. Because, well, they sound so rational! <g> Some of these assumptions include:

1) The Burning Times happened in the Middle Ages. Rationalists saw history as the gradual progression and advancement of mankind. Therefore bouts of unreason, like the Burning Times, had to happen early. It wouldn't make any "sense" to have Witch-hunting arise in the Age of Reason! No, it was a medieval remnant that lingered *into* the early modern period.

This is one of the reasons why scholars didn't spot the Lamothe-Langon forged Witch trials immediately (those are the enormous Inquisition-run slaughters, where as many as 400 women were supposedly killed in one day). It fit their expectations -- it was exactly the sort of evidence they expected to find.

Later research has shown that the Burning Times were *not* medieval. Few Witches were killed in the Middle Ages. The crazes and panics were from the early modern period, from "the Age of Reason."

2) Most Witches were killed by the Church. Rationalism was never popular amongst Catholic scholars. Protestants insisted that the old, ignorant Catholic Church had done the lion's share of the killing. Many rationalists, however, were agnostics or atheists and blamed Christianity in general. Everybody agreed that the Inquisition must bear most of the blame -- they seemed like the most logical culprits.

This assumption is one of the reasons why some 19th century scholars mis-translated their trial manuscripts. In Latin, it is easy to confuse a trial run "by the Inquisition" with a trial run "by inquisition" (a form of trial used by almost all European courts, both religious and secular). A number of early historians read "tried by inquisition" and assumed that this meant "the" Inquisition, not "an" inquisition. And so they had the Holy Office killing Witches in times and places it didn't exist in.

Again, further research has shown this assumption was not true. The vast majority of Witches were killed by secular courts. When and where the Church controlled the trials, few Witches died. And the Inquisition did little Witch hunting. Protestants weren't significantly more pro-Witch than Catholics were, nor was Witch-hunting the way that Catholics and Protestants attacked each other.

3) The Burning Times aren't important. The rationalist interpretation saw the Burning Times as an isolated, unique outburst of insanity. Horrible, yes, but something we've evolved beyond. Therefore it isn't really important. It's an unpleasant relic of the past, a disgusting reminder of how savage we used to be. It has nothing useful to tell us, therefore it's not a very important field of study. It's more embarassing than insightful.

In the 1960's anthropologists challenged this assumption by pointing out that the Burning Times were not unique. Similar witchcraft beliefs and persecutions exist in other countries, world-wide. Pretty soon, historians backed them up by discovering "other" Burning Times in Europe. The 14th century saw a welter of conspiracy theories and rumor panics (Jews and witches are poisoning the water; Moors and lepers are trying to overthrow Christian kings; etc.) The "Witches are attacking Christians" conspiracy was simply the most "successful" of these theories, the one that lived on to do the greatest damage, the one that apparently resonated best with European society.

The only remnant of the rationalist theory that's still generally accepted is "the Burning Times ended when people stopped believing that Witches could harm them." This seems to be true: skepticism was indeed what ended the trials. But rationalists saw this as a permanent change: mankind became too reasonable to fall for such nonsense again. Today, scholars disagree. A rumor-panic will die once people question it -- but that doesn't mean they won't fall for the next rumor-panic that comes down the pike! The McCarthy Witch Trials and the Satanic Panics of the 1980's prove that we're every bit as gullible as our ancestors were.

Rationalist texts are hard to come by these days -- most are very old. However you still see this interpretation a lot in newspaper articles and in the writings of intellectuals who don't happen to know much about the history of Witchcraft. Again, it just seems to make so much sense to some people. And it's nice and simple, unlike the murky sociological interpretation I'll get to in a few days.

However if you'd like to read an example, the latest one I know of is Wayne Shumaker's _The Occult Sciences in the Renaissence_, printed in 1972. Be fore-warned: it's a hideously insulting text. Shumaker wrote it because he was shocked and outraged to discover that one of his graduate students actually *believed* in astrology! And so he composed a "nice" little book to explain how ignorant occultists were.

The sections on Witchcraft contain numerous and grave errors. The book wasn't well-received by most historians of the trials, because at the time it was written it was already a bit of a dinosaur. However the Times Literary Supplement, Scientific American, and Library Journal all gave it glowing reviews (which will give you some idea of where you're likely to run into the rationalist interpretation, even today!).