Wednesday, November 06, 2019

#13 - The Big Bad Three

Updated and edited slightly, 2019

Reprinted Feb 2015, unedited, from over nine years ago. (1/12/06)  One of my first posts, and apropos in light of the president's (Obama) venturing into historical discussion with the approximate sophistication of a freshman at a late-night bull session.

When editorialists and online commenters want to illustrate for you how bad Christianity is, and how much it has contributed to the misery of man, there are three examples that are trotted out: the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition, and the Crusades. Keep in mind...

Witch trials were more common -- ten thousand times more common -- in Europe, and increasingly common the farther east you went, until it stopped hard at Belarus/Ukraine/Russia - Orthodox lands. My thought is that the milder superstitions of curse and the evil eye in Orthodox thinking was more deeply embedded and thus somewhat moderated. As the colonies were still part of Europe, being the most western (that is, least witch-burning) portion fits the pattern nicely. Not only was there no correlation to strongly religious areas in European witch trials, there was a negative correlation. Execution of witches was most common in areas that still had strong pagan and folk superstitions. Salem was not even known as a particularly religious city in the New England Colonies. Seaports seldom are. Following Hawthorne's self-hatred and Miller's anti-McCarthyite agenda, the idea that Christian extremism leads to witch-burning is firmly implanted in our mythology, but is false. There is some connection to the rise of heresy crackdowns, but a stronger one to the plague and to social unrest.

The small-i inquisitions, insane as they were, were usually saner than the civil courts around them. A higher percentage of "heretics" tried in civil courts were executed. It may be sad, or even infuriating, that things were so bad that the Inquisitions were a step up, but they were.The Spanish Inquisition was the great exception, because it was under the direction of Ferdinand and Isabella, not the Dominicans and Franciscans who had developed very clear rules for what was a fair way to "inquire" and what was not.  The crown made money from the forfeited lands as well.  This was not the primary motive, but it sweetened the deal. The treatment of the conversos and the expulsion of the Jews comes into this, though not always with clear lines.

Western Europe played defense against Islamic expansion for almost 95% of the 7th-17th Centuries. In our current imagination, this is remembered as a series of aggressive Crusades by the West. The Romanians, who got slaughtered and had their heads put on pikes for our sake, remember the events a little differently.  There were a hundred tribes in the mix, and it almost never was broken down as entirely Christian vs Muslim in battle and competition. The Christians took small amounts of territory, not empires. Eventually, they had some very valuable ports, and that became a good portion of the value.  Also, there were Crusades to the Baltic counties, to Spain, to everywhere.  Crusading became part of the culture.

Remember also that reference to the evil of the Inquisition and Crusades were first used as criticisms against Catholics rather than Christians in general. When the individuals who had the temerity to name themselves The Enlightenment spun their version of European history into popularity, they were building on the considerable anti-Catholic spin that already prevailed from their upbringing. To steal an image from a recent post of mine below, the background music you hear when you read the words Salem, Inquisition, or Crusades promises more evil than the actual events deliver. Da-DUHH! Real events are more complicated.  The numbers actually killed, versus huger numbers of the dead in other battles and invasions we no longer even mention, are small, but the infamy remains great.  Historical events are often remembered more for their symbolic value in modern culture wars than for their actual effect.

The Jews get a pass and are allowed to complain about any of it, because they really were screwed over at least once a century just about everywhere. No argument from me there.  The interesting thing is that these were always the brutal, explosive exception.  Jews would live in a place long enough to prosper, be tolerated and even somewhat accepted, and then the Christians would just descend into a decade of violence again.

There have been no religious wars in Christendom since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. What people call religious wars in Europe are tribal and national wars that people tried to dress in religious clothing. Wolves don't hide in wolf's clothing.

Update: We treat not burning witches anymore as a moral improvement. It is actually only a scientific improvement. We no longer believe witches can accomplish those horrible things, so we don't persecute them anymore. People who we believe can do bad things to us from a distance -- disease, radiation, toxins -- we still want to do bad things to. Because we consider their damage partial or minor we only sue them and fine them and put them in jail. If we thought they could kill our children we might get meaner. Part of the sneering against us is drawn from secularists treating the scientific advance as a moral one. Yet notice the recovered memory of satanic cults hysteria from 10-20 years ago -- both religious and secular people went completely nuts with that, and sent some innocent people to jail over it -- not to mention destroyed families and reputations.


LiquidLifeHacker said...

Thanks AVI, I am saving this post because I didn't know the history part of the witches....very interesting. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

AVI, have you pursued the idea of anti-clericalism, its history, and whether the term is applicable in recent history in the West?
Would you have any references? I would be interested to see the link between attacks upon traditional religious institutions and fanatic secularism. Revolutionary France is first to mind naturally. What then about other well known terror states-- Nazi Germany or Revolutionary Russia?

Anonymous said...


Shirer's RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH reveals some pretty chilling plans the Nazis had for obliterating conventional Christianity in the Reich - they hoped to replace it with an official "state religion" that 'worshiped' the Nazi ideals. A very pagan thing, with dark overtones that would scare even a Wiccan.

Seriously, imagine a chapel with a Hackenkreuz flag on the back wall instead of the crucifix, and on the altar there's nothing but a ceremonial broadsword and a leatherbound copy of MEIN KAMPF. This was literally their plan for the Church - not just to change it so it wouldn't have any authority over them, the way Henry VIII did, but to mutate it out of all recognizability so they would have complete control of it.

Anonymous said...

AVI, very interesting. One of the reasons my mom's side of the family fled during the "Huguenot" persecution (they fled to Hamburg, Germany) was a tendency of the French Church to persecute them as witches as well. I have no idea if that is true, but my grandmother who did an awful lot of geneological research believed it was. Any ideas on that?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

References -- I'm an amateur, but I'll pass along what I know. Paul Johnson's Modern Times, Carroll and Shiflett's Christianity on Trial, Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, and Roger Kimball's Lives of the Mind are ones I've read in the last few years. Most of those are general historical or philosophical, and would give you the information you're seeking along the way. The advantage of that is you get the info in context, the disadvantage is you read a lot that wasn't your original aim. Anne Applebaum's new book Gulag certainly gives a lot of detail about religious prisoners, as do the Solzhenitsyn books (The Gulag Archipelago is more thorough, but A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is very accessible and covers the main points). I got a lot of context from Jaroslav Pelikan's Jesus Through The Centuries as well.

GK Chesterton and especially CS Lewis just drop in references all the time -- when you've read everything you can do that. Lewis speaks of it some when he is discussing Wagner -- that may be in God In The Dock. Francis Schaefer covered some of it in Escape from Reason and How Should We Then Live.

The Schirer book is probably the layman's standard on Germany. You also pick up a lot from reading modern Jewish history about the Holocaust and the Gulag. Bonhoeffer doesn't reference it much in his own works, surprisingly. You have to read the biographical stuff on him to pick that up.

gmroper -- no, I actually don't know a lot about witch accusations of the Heugenots. I knew they were persecuted, of course, but hadn't run across that. It's certainly plausible.

Julian Morrison said...

I'm a secularist, certainly no Christian. To me it seems unfair to say "Christianity did bad things" when (1) Christianity has always been a messy slew of movements and schisms, different groups arguing for and against almost any given stance, and (2) most of the bad things were more "religious" than specifically Christian, and more "human" than specifically religious.

The main conclusions to be drawn might be: that people act on their ideas, and that merciless ideas make for merciless people. Therefore: common sense, kindness and healthy skepticism ought to be primary. Such a meta-philosophy would prevent any bad idea from running amuck.

Anonymous said...

Julian, while the three tenants of your meta-philosophy certainly are reasonable propositions and will probably work quite well within your circle of acquaintances - who presumably share your liberal (in the classical, not political sense) upbringing raised in a liberal (again in the classical sense) nation - such appeals to reasonableness are totally insufficient to deal with the larger world we live in (more an more interconnected by communication, technology, and weaponry) and a weak reed to lean on against the primal passions of tribe and blood-line and history and culture that do not share our liberal (in the classical sense) fabric of reasonableness.

Rather, only a grand narrative covering the full scope of human history, beginning from the Beginning, climaxing in the atoning reconciling sacrifice of the God-Man ratified by the power and love of God Himself, and permeating increasing areas of the world over succeeding generations, has the hope of forming a foundation upon which all philosophy can nourish and find harmony and which stand against (and ultimately prevail) the genuine and pervasive presence of evil. That is, in the words of the ancient parable, we need to build our houses upon the Rock, not on sand.

Anonymous said...

AVI, I think one subtext behind your essay here is that each generation needs to examine the signs of our own times. We cannot rely upon shopworn recitations of past grievances (especially when they are largely myth, as your essay argues) but rather must look at today's situation. That is, the dissolving threat of Christian theocracy (which was probably overblown to start with) pales into insignificance compared with the present danger of the stated goals of Islamists to establish by force - through death or forced acquiescence - a theocratic caliphate rooted upon the Koran (aggravated by blood feuds as to interpretation and leadership).

Or as C.S. Lewis so aptly expressed in the Screwtape Letters:

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere "understanding". Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritansm; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.

But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate his horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

ct - most excellent. You will always get my attention with a Lewis quote. As this comments section is buried in last January - the Julian you are answering has not been back since then, I think - I fear that this excellent comment will be lost. I will be bringing it forward in a new post soon. Thanks.

Luke Lea said...

I see you are quite clearly unfamiliar with A HISTORY OF NEW YORK by Diedrich Knickerbocker New York, 1809 BOOK I, CHAP. V.


Grim said...

It's worth noting that witch-burning accompanies the beginning of the modern age and the beginnings of science.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Grim, you may like a related series of mine, Wyrd and Providence

Grim said...

Interesting, AVI. That's a very plausible argument: the reason predestination made sense in the north of Europe is that the culture already supported it.

Same reason that witch-burning came out of there. A culture keeps its stories, and they sometimes last longer than formal efforts to suppress the beliefs they entail.

james said...

Tribes differ from each other in clusters of features. Sometimes this includes religious differences. That doesn't make the tribal conflict necessarily a religious war, though it might help cement each side more closely to their leaders.

And, IIRC, the wildest witch-finding was in Protestant areas. Possibly that had something to do with less central religious authority--unless the authorities go nuts too, they can put some check on the enthusiasms of the crowds.

Old Curmudgeon said...

Some time ago, on the internet, I read that many witch accusations and persecutions corresponded to cooler, rainy summers and the resulting better conditions for fungal growth on rye crops. One result of the discovery of the Americas and the diffusion of New World crops was a dramatic decrease in witchcraft accusations in Europe.

Old Curmudgeon