Thursday, November 25, 2004

Europe's Inner Demons by Norman Cohn

Those who've read my book reviews regularly may have noticed that I frequently pick up a book recommended earlier by ideofact or Amy Welborn. This one was suggested by ideofact, who noted that the blood libel against the Jews was first made against Christians by Romans, and later against Christians by other Christians. The subtitle The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom might seem to be hyperbole, but it is a literal description of what happened.

Cohn begins with the Roman charges against the early Christians: they were godless people indulging in promiscuous and incestuous orgies and cannibal feasts: worse than merely cannibal, because supposedly they ate children baked into bread. Naturally these charges faded away as Christianity spread and became better known. But the record of them survived, and served, in Cohn's estimation, as a template for describing the most horrific sort of humans. And who could be more horrific than a person who deliberately distorts and abandons God's truth: a heretic?

Cohn's plot for the book brings together the various threads that went to make up the bizarre standard accusations used in the great witch hunts. Before people could become terribly worried about witches, though, they had to lose their initial confidence in God's victory, and start worrying about the devil and his demons. His second chapter is devoted to the growth of doctrines and popular beliefs (mostly the latter) about demons and their natures and powers, including incubi and seccubi.

In the next couple of chapters he details how those old charges of orgies and cannibal rituals were revived against various heretical groups. Although many people confessed after torture, many recanted their confessions (and were tortured again). In several cases he examines in detail, sober analysis of the testimony shows contradictions and "I know it happened but I never saw it" confessions. He reasonably concludes that the heretics were innocent. Much though you'd like to, you must not automatically assume that all the charges were false. I will unapologetically discount claims that the devil appeared and changed shape, but murder is a well-known human activity and I can't assume that I know the facts of a murder case better a thousand years after the fact than people who were present at the time.

Conrad of Marburg played a pivotal role, it seems, especially after he was appointed inquisitor in 1231.

He as also terrifyingly severe. As confessor to the countess--now St. Elizabeth of Thuringia--he treated his penitent with a harshness which was extraordinary even by the standards of the time. He would, for instance, trick the twenty-one-year-old widow into some trivial and unwitting disobedience, and then have her and her maids flogged so severely that the scars were visible weeks later.
When such a man was appointed inquisitor to seek out heretics, the outcome could not be good, and when allied with "heretic hunters" who could spot heretics by their appearance (!), his power was fearful. And his ideas were bizarre. A heretic could not just be mistaken, he had to be initiated in ceremonies with other heretics, where the participants would kiss a toad or cat and indulge in nameless orgies. And since there was a group, one could identify others if tortured adequately. (After Conrad's assassination, the heretic hunt died out.)

These sorts of alleged crimes were part of the folklore of the educated, not the common people. Pope Gregory IX even issued a bull describing these sorts of initiations.

As time went on, additional details were added to the standard story, including roasting infants to mix with communion wafers. And the standard story became a template for describing all sorts of heretics, from Waldensians to Fraticelli. Never mind what they were accused of at the time, years later writers used the "standard heretic story" almost as a standard plot device to describe any heretics. (And what we do know of Cathars, Waldensians, and the Fraticelli suggests that the accusation of orgies was completely crazed: the Waldensians claimed, for example, that the Catholic hierarchy could not administer valid sacraments because they violated their vows of chastity.)

This "bag of tricks" proved useful to Philip of France when, beset by budget shortfalls, he decided to crush the Knights Templar and appropriate their assets. With the weak Pope Clement unable to resist much, Philip carefully arranged a strike against the Templars with mass arrests and charges of heresy. (Charging them with malfeasance wouldn't help him much--the Templars were answerable only to the Pope.) And so they were charged with idolatry (worshiping a head), renouncing Christ and all the saints, anointing the idol with fat from roasted infants, homosexual orgies, etc. And they confessed, in general, some after torture and some in fear of it.

Do you get the impression that precedents are being set here?

Then Cohn takes a slight diversion to describe ritual magic: the summoning and use of demons. This was an almost all male activity, restricted to the highly educated. The demons were summoned by invoking their names in particular formulae and commanding them in the name of God and the saints! In fact, such a magician had to prepare carefully, going to confession and making sure he was blameless and pure. Only the pure would be able to command the demons in Christ's name to go sink an enemy's ship or trap a demon in a ring he could wear.

In this we're on pretty solid ground: this sort of ritual magic was still practiced as late as the 17'th century and the books describing how to do these sorts of things still exist. (Before you go trying to do this yourself, note that the books contradict each other. And may God have mercy on your undeserving soul.) Not unnaturally, other people took a rather dim view of the magicians, and they were also charged with heresy and worshiping demons and making compacts with the devil. Even Pope Boniface was charged, albeit posthumously. At first most of those convicted were clerics (able to read and write), but over the years the charge of having a private demon to worship hit lower and lower in the social order.

At this point Cohn makes a serious error.

In the supposed practices of this group, maleficium and demon-worship were interwoven. The maleficia were manifold. The group was accused of concocting powers, pills and ointments from herbs, the intestines of cocks, horrible worms, nails from corpses, the swaddling-clothes of babies who had died unbaptized; and of making candles from human fat. These substances were boiled in the skull of a decapitated robber, and were employed, to the accompaniment of incantations, to bring sickness or death to faithful Christians, or else to excite love or hatred. Moreover, it was said that at their nocturnal meetings these people did what only the clergy were entitled to do: fulminated excommunications against individuals, cursing each part of the body from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head. In particular the women anathematized their own husbands.

All these things were done in a truly heretical spirit. It was said that, to ensure the success of their sorceries, the members of the group became apostates from Christianity--though on a curiously temporary and provisional basis. . . . By magical means they sought the counsel of demons, and they also sacrificed animals to demons; Lady Alice had three times offered up the blood and limbs of cocks to her private demon, just as Pope Boniface was supposed to have done.

There is nothing manifestly impossible in all this, but the charges include a further item, and one which must give us pause. It concerns that private demon of Lady Alice's, who appeared sometimes in the guise of a cat, sometimes in the guise of a shaggy black dog, sometimes in the guise of a Negro. Lady Alice received him as her incubus and allowed him to copulate with her. In return he gave her wealth--all her considerable possessions had been acquired with his help. Moreover, the demon was known to other members of the group. He even gave them his name, which was the Son of Art, or Robin, son of Art; and he also explained that he belonged to the poorer demons in hell.

Now, in the contemporary account of the proceedings against Lady Alice--which is the sole source for these matters--all the charges are listed together, as though they were interdependent; so if one charge is manifestly false, the rest must also be suspect.

No, the charges are not necessarily interdependent. It is perfectly possible to mix charges of real attempted maleficia with fantastic charges, and have them all confirmed under torture. Although Cohn shows some familiarity with African sources, quoting at length from a confessed Shona witch in Rhodesia, he does not take the appropriate lesson from the witch's testimony. She describes in detail night wandering with other cannibal witches, exhuming and devouring parts of corpses. Investigation showed these bodies to be intact. But she believed that she had done so. She had malicious intent, and the customs of her people shaped her fantasies.

If Cohn had looked a little farther afield, to the leopard societies of West Africa, he'd have found that groups devoted to acquiring human body parts for magical use are in fact quite real, and active to this day. The societies "manipulate" powerful spirits using specific parts from a freshly killed human (usually a child--probably because a child is easier to kill) to gain political power or wealth. There is nothing manifestly impossible in either the notion that the prosecutors thought she had consorted with demons, or with the notion that she believed she had consorted with demons.

I don't care to rely on confessions extracted by torture, but I cannot assume that Lady Alice was innocent, or that the sort of things claimed by the prosecutors were never attempted.

To return to Cohn's theme, however, notice that the rise of and reaction to ritual magic adds a new feature to the collection of accusations: that of making a pact with the devil in exchange for power or wealth. The accusations also become somewhat more detailed, describing salves made from the dead infants and so on.

The next chapter is a pleasant annihilation of the foundations of Wicca: "The Society of Witches That Never Was." Jules Michelet and Margaret Murray, by picking and choosing carefully among the records and legends of the witch-trials, compile respectively their own legends of revolutionary and earth-mother gatherings. By noting what Murray elided from the quotations on which she built her myth of a peaceful feminist earth-worshiping cult, Cohn demonstrates that Murray was dishonest. And the famous source Lamothe-Langon turns out to be not a historian, but a novelist and writer of spurious memoirs. So much for Wicca.

Another piece is missing: night flight. Without it you cannot have large assemblies of witches; everybody has to be very local. But popular German culture (not the educated elites, this time) had legends of the striga, a night-flying cannibal witch. He finds, in contrast, legends of women who fly at night together with their mystic queen Holda (variously interpreted as "Diana" or "Herodias"). Holda apparently was a kind of goddess of the harvest, who punished laziness and rewarded diligence and held a special interest in childbirth. Holda, and her followers, flew by night on their errands. Offerings of food and drink assured their amity; even today in Sicily. At first those confessing to participating were rebuked as having been deceived by dreams and were required to do mild penance, but by the thirteenth century the "ladies of the night" were construed not as dreams but as real demons, and for consorting with demons the punishments were naturally far harsher. And there apparently came to be a melding of the notions of the two types of night fliers. He notes that some of the famous witch's ointments included such things as belladonna, leading some researchers to suspect that hallucinations were associated with its use; but Cohn is dubious, noting that the ointment was usually applied to brooms or items other than the witch's body. At this point he brings in the Shona witch's testimony about cannibal ramblings at night, and suggests that dreams are shaped by culture.

Cohn's next chapter dissects several histories of the start of the witch-hunts, all of which place the origin in the campaign against Catharism with the first burning in 1275. Unfortunately the histories relied on unreliable sources, including one which seems to have incorporated amusing hoaxes in among his collection of legal rulings. This is more of a technical detail for the layman: the upshot is that Cohn places the start of the witch-hunts a century later. The sabbat and night-flying start appearing in the records from the 1420's. The accusations are a blend of the ritual magic (formally renouncing God, making a pact with the Devil, offering a limb {after death} as a sacrifice) and the popular concepts of malificia (sickening and killing cows, rendering men impotent or women sterile, etc). The night flight and ritual meal appear also. The accused were not thought to be heretics of some school but apostate Christians.

And the subsequent years unveil all the grotesque details of the sabbat; the Devil summoned, the pact with the Devil, the Devil having sex with all members of the coven, the Devil's mark on the worshiper, and so on. Cohn suggests that

There is no reason at all to think that most of the men and women who confessed to these strange performances really were Waldensians. It seems, rather, that ecclesiastical and secular authorities alike, while pursuing Waldensians, repeatedly came across people--chiefly women--who believed things about themselves which fitted in perfectly with the tales about heretical sects that had been circulating for centuries. The notion of cannibalistic infanticide provided the common factor. It was widely believed that babies or small children were commonly devoured at the nocturnal meetings of heretics. It was likewise widely believed that certain women killed and devoured babies or small children, also at night; and some women even believed this of themselves. It was the extraordinary congruence between the two sets of beliefs that led those concerned with pursuing heretics to see, in the stories which they extracted from deluded women, a confirmation of the traditional stories about heretics who practiced cannibalistic infanticide.

I have to interject my own notions here. Why would a woman believe that she had killed and eaten babies? When you think mothers you think nurturers. But hang around some new mothers for a while and you're bound to run into "post partum depression." It doesn't last, but it is quite common. In less than an hour a mother can run the gamut from feeling that her baby is the most wonderful person in the world to wishing the baby would die. And if the baby does die (child mortality was quite high), a significant number of mothers will blame themselves. And of course some women abuse their children, who may die as a consequence. (News reports show that some women go so far as to deliberately kill their children. I hope that was as rare then as it is now.)

Every culture has certain myths that shape the interpretation and expression of good and evil impulses. Guilt and cultural expectations then amplify the offence to fit the paradigm. And so one could find guilt-ridden (and sometimes actually guilty) women who might readily admit to murderous and even cannibal acts.

At any rate, we all know what happens next. Fortunately some officials were aware of the risks of relying on torture and relying on coerced identifications. But where the officials were weak and the fear started, many nominal witches died.

His last chapter asks why there were so few malificium trials in earlier centuries, even though the peasants universally believed in both magic and malice. His answer is that the law was adversarial rather than inquisitorial. There was for long no notion that a murder was a "crime against society" which a judge should investigate (inquire into => inquisitor), but instead there was a system in which a citizen would accuse another of a crime and attempt to prove it. The problem was, of course, that if he failed to prove his charge he was liable to the penalty himself. And since proof is difficult, most people would not go to the law unless they were certain they had enough witnesses to the crime. But since people want justice, this raises the risk of free-lance justice: lynching, or hiring a different witch to curse the first one. And these were not uncommon. When crimes like witchcraft became subject to inquisitorial procedures, it was now finally safe to accuse someone of killing your cows, and people did.

This has been a rather long review of a 233-page book, but since I suspect it isn't all that commonly available I thought I'd best explain the author's intent as well as I could. If you get the chance and are interested in the history of witchcraft, by all means read it for yourself.

I wish Cohn had looked more closely at non-European sources, such as for the leopard societies, or about African witches, and spent a little more time with the newspaper reading about such folks as John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the (O(30,000)? the number is disputed) people who died accused of witchcraft were innocent of the charges. I also have no doubt that some were guilty of attempting to and sometimes succeeding in harming their neighbors, although surely not in such a lurid fashion as described. I do not need to believe in a "witch's mark" to believe that a woman poisoned her neighbor's cow when it raided her vegetable garden. I can believe that someone tried to invoke the Devil without believing that he then appeared in the form of a black cat.

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