Sunday, 26 October 2008

Black and white myths and the not so clear-cut facts

Unlike the talkative and humorous book on vampires mentioned recently, Rita Voltmer's Hexen. Wissen was stimmt (Herder) is succinct and to the point. It is short - just 128 pages - and practically layouted in two colours to make it easy to find and understand the information you need. In that sense, it's an exemplary example of how to communicate the current knowledge of a historical topic.

A majority of the book focuses on debunking a number of myths, misperceptions and manipulations. Voltmer exposes and confronts each of them with a short overview of current knowledge and explains the practice and thinking of contemporary experts and laymen of the early modern period.

Typically, the myths are very clear-cut, but the facts are not. However, in many cases we are familiar with the myths from comics, novels or movies about witches or from e.g. feminist neopaganist literature. But precisely our familiarity with the more or less fictional constructs about witches and the witch hunters is all the more reason why Voltmer's book is a welcome chance to disseminate a more correct understanding of the subject.

Some of the myths concern the pretty fantastic claims that several millions were accused of witchcraft and executed, that it was a medieval phenomenon, that the persecutions were largely of a misogynistic nature, that a witch was easily identifiable as either an old hag with warts or as a sexy midwife with red hair etc. etc.

Although debunking some of the more ridiculous myths about the torture - as seen in e.g. torture museums - it is quite unpleasant to read about this aspect of the judicial procedures against serious crimes like witchcraft. Voltmer provides a brief explanation of the views that justified the procedures, namely concerning the transcendent aspect of the torment, because the court was not only fighting the witch, but also the Devil by saving the witch's soul from eternal damnation.

Voltmer also questions the simplified explanations that have been provided for the whole phenomenon, yes, she even debunks the construction 'witch hunt'. For the purposes of this blog, it is particularly interesting to note that the Enlightenment (itself a construct) did not expose the witch hunt as a miscarriage of justice, and that it was not disbelief in witchcraft or fear of witches that stopped the witch hunt, but rather other concerns like e.g. considerations concerning the judicial use of torture. She also discards with the simple way of opposing rationalism and belief that is still so common, but not very useful when applied to history, cf. also my posts on the rationality of the past.

Finally, people might think that there is no witch hunt today, but Voltmer reminds us that, although not a witch hunt per se in the Christian sense, around the world, e.g. in some parts of Africa, people are still being persecuted for various sorts of witchcraft or magic, including vampirism!

However, Voltmer is worried that the historians who are researching the history of the early modern witch hunt may suffer the fate of a Don Quijote fighting wind mills in their attempt to put an end to all the popular myths, manipulations and conspiration theories about witches that are prevalent in movies, novels and the media in general. Hopefully, her book will be read and help fight the common myths. I heartily recommend it to anyone who needs a brief, but precise overview of the subject.


Anonymous said...

This book sounds a mix between Elizabeth Miller's Dracula: Sense & Nonsense (2000/2008) and Darren Oldridge's Strange Histories (2004).

Anonymous said...

This was my thought too, Anthony, but wouldn't you agree that such a mix would make a very good book indeed?

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