Science and the Burning of Witches

I recently met a Franciscan nun who, after our conversation, gave me a book she thought that I ought to read.  It is called The Holy Longing, by a priest named Ronald Rolheiser.  Some of you may know it; I've only begun it, but already I suspect it is probably infamous among Catholic conservatives.

Aside from that judgment, I am not ready to weigh further on the book's quality; but he does make one claim that is quite wrong.  He is asking for a reconciliation of sorts between the old "paternalistic, Christian heritage" and the new world.  Along the way he defends the old faith with a historical reference:  "[A]s Rene Girard says it is not because we invented science that we stopped burning witches, but rather when, because of the Judeo-Christianity, we stopped burning witches that we invented science." (p. 39-40)

This is wrong as a point of history.  We invented science when we started burning witches.

The usual dates for the witch-burning craze are 1480-1750, around the time of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War.  It was about the time that there was this deep questioning of tradition -- that would lead to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and modern science -- that there also coincidentally spread a new cultural distrust of the feminine.

I was just reading a collection of essays called Friendship in Medieval Europe that shows how much things changed.  Several of these essays note that -- contrary to what many people might expect if they were raised with the modern critique of Western history as "paternalistic" -- the early and High Middle Ages were a golden age for relations between the sexes. Of the Anglo-Saxon period, we learn:
"What we can conclude on a formal level, however, is that 'friendship' is not significantly limited, either in a hierarchical manner -- Boniface and Alcuin are friends with bishops as well as priests, abbots as well as monks -- or with regard to gender -- they are friends both with men and women. Every person (ominis homo -- and not: 'every male') needs a friend, as the Anglo-Saxon abbess Eangyth writes to St. Boniface; and she chooses him to be hers. Alcuin counts several women among his friends." (125)
It turns out that there are vast examples of robust friendships between men and women throughout the early and High middle ages, and into the late middle ages, including whole collections of letters now being studied by scholars across Europe. There is particular importance placed on the exchange of poetry between men and women as tokens of friendship; in the last few years, we've gained awareness of a huge amount of female-written Medieval poetry that is normally captured in letters between friends, including between monastic communities and nunneries. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote on the virtue of friendship, drawing on Aristotle's dictum that we can say to our friend, "You are the other half of my soul," (in Aristotle this is more usually translated 'the friend is our other self'); and the priest Richard Rolle, who died in 1349, wrote that in spite of the dangers of physical attraction between men and women, "that sort of friendship is not improper, but rewarding, if it is practiced with a good intention."

However, in 1401 the chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, wrote a sermon in which he charged that friendship with women put you at risk of "diabolical deception" and 'great evil unless God in his goodness averts it.' Gerson nevertheless knew some women, including Christine de Pisan, whom he engaged with intellectually (and agreed with) in the famous debate of the morality of Roman de la Rose. Christine de Pisan, in the early 1400s, was challenging this new, rising misogyny and objected to the vulgar language that the book put into the mouths of noble women.  But when Gerson wrote his own book about it, he ignored her contributions and did not mention her at all. Gerson lived at the same time as Bernardino of Siena, whose traveling sermons popularized the idea of witches.

As for witch-burning in the early and High Middle Ages, it was actually banned by the Church under penalty of death. The same decree, in 785, banned belief in witches in order to suppress violence against women. That held until the 1400s, when popular pressure in Switzerland and Germany began to force the Church to rethink its stance. As late as the 1390s, though, women confessed to practicing 'white magic' to Inquisitors, but the Inquisitors had nothing in their guidelines about women using magic and had to write for advice.

It looks like the early 15th century is the turning point in which the Church (following popular movements from German-speaking central Europe) began to take the dark view of female sexuality that we have come to associate with witch-burnings.

The easy friendships between men and women that we observe in Chaucer, who lets the Wife of Bath have a merry wit and deliver a good long sermon on the virtues of women, did not quite die with him in 1400. Sir Thomas Malory, born in 1405, stands at the end of this golden age. He was in the English speaking world, which did not receive the witch-burning craze until after his death (England did not pass a law on witchcraft until 1542). Though it is commonplace to blame Malory for making Guinevere's sexuality the cause of the fall of Camelot, it is clear that Malory does not view Guinevere as a bad or wicked woman. In fact, one of the few times that Malory directly addresses his audience is to make the point that "she was a true lover and therefore she had a good end." Her love with Lancelot, though it had tragic practical consequences, is what redeems her for Malory, not what damns her.

Even the wicked sorceress Morgan le Fay is not a witch, but a student of necromancy -- see the article on the meaning of this in the Early and High Middle Ages, which is different from the word's meaning today. Of course, Morgan was a necromancer for Malory, but earlier she had been something else, not a witch but a fairy. In this guise she is the heroine of Marie de France's Lanval, saving the knight from an unfair judgment.

There is a doctrine that the Middle Ages were a dark and miserable time, and that the story of the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment is a story of ever-marching progress toward a more rational society. In truth, the story is more complicated. The same breaking of the old order that allowed for a new scientific world view also let loose a great deal darker. It was not when we became scientific that we stopped burning witches. Rather, that was just when we began.


History Ireland has a counterexample, the earliest witch-burning case I've heard of from 1324. It's worth reading their account in full. The only one who was burned was a minor figure, a servant of the family chiefly charged with heresy; and the secular law worked hard to defy the Church in the face of a very enthusiastic (and foreign) bishop. Of the principal defendants, the woman escaped by flight (she was extraordinarily wealthy), and her husband got off with a penance. The Church forced him to go on pilgrimage and to re-do a part of the local cathedral with lead. It turned out the lead was too heavy for the cathedral roof, which collapsed as a consequence of his fulfilling the penance the bishop had imposed. Divine judgment, possibly.

It's interesting to see how this early case played out, compared with the enthusiasm that would appear in later centuries.


MikeD said...

The witch burning craze had quite a bit to do with the Black Death. People looked for reasons that God was punishing them, and any and every scapegoat that could be found was pursued. Jews took a bad hit in this period as well. Not that there needed to be a pandemic for them to be scapegoated.

The rise of the Flagellants contributed to the change in the Church's tolerance for burnings. The Flagellants were unafraid to murder priests and Church officials who tried to stop their "purification". After all, they were attempting to purify their souls to save themselves from the Plague. In effect, the Church gave the Flagellants license to murder and burn witches save themselves from being murdered.

Grim said...

The Black Death peaked almost a hundred years before the witch-burning craze, though. It probably did have something to do with a general disruption of the order of society; but a trend that kicks off in 1480 historically corresponds not to the Black Death, but to the childhood of Martin Luther.

Grim said...

By the way, note that Bernardino of Siena -- just to tie this all together -- was also a Franciscan, and is now known as Saint Bernardino of Siena.

Lars Walker said...

This is excellent. Thank you.

Grim said...

I am delighted to have been of service, sir.

Eric Blair said...

Well, there is another way of looking at the phenomenon. When the old lines of authority are overthrown, as happened in the reformation, suddenly all sorts of things that were previously thought unthinkable become not only thinkable but doable.

A possible modern parallel is the violence that accompanied the death of Tito and the subsequent break up of Yugoslavia. Who would have thought that people who had lived together peacefully for living memory suddenly would turn on each other with such violence?

I don't think "science" had much to do with it either way.

Grim said...

The corollary to that, my friend, is that "science" was actually very much in evidence in the allegedly pre-scientific disputes; long before Newton or Galileo we have some fairly impressive High Medieval works on optics, physics, and natural philosophy.

The objection to Galileo was very much that the science was against him -- that Aristotelian physics didn't accord with what he was describing, and he didn't offer an account that could supplant it. And indeed he did not; Aristotle's view of the world is almost completely different from the one that Newton and Leibniz would put together after Galileo.

This world shaking, though, maybe requires a destabilization of the sort you're discussing. After all, Tito stood at the end of a century's attempt to make 'scientific atheism' a solid foundation for progress. At the end, we found out that the new Soviet man wasn't very different from the old tribal man after all.

Tom said...

From my reading, the myth of the Dark Ages seems to mostly have been an invention of the Enlightenment, and in large part an attack by non-Catholics (including Protestants, deists, atheists, etc.) on the Catholic Church.

Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire suffered from it, as have all the people who believed the fable that the medievals thought the earth was flat, a story concocted by a French historian at the end of the 18th century and popularized in English by Washington Irving's fictionalized biography of Columbus.

I wasn't familiar with the history of witch burnings, but the timing makes sense with a number of other things I am familiar with.

I wonder (and it is just uninformed wondering); Aristotle is considered by many to have had misogynistic views. Would the rise of Aristotelian philosophy have had anything to do with the rise in misogyny in general at that time?

Tom said...

As for the world-shaking event, I think Gutenberg's press set the stage and news of Columbus's discovery rocked the foundations of the European worldview.

Grim said...


I can't imagine that Aristotle is responsible, for much the same reason that the Black Death probably wasn't; you're talking about a period of centuries. Aristotle was being reintroduced into the West in the late 1100s; Aquinas was a man of the 1200s.

As to whether Aristotle was misogynistic, yes, he was -- moreso than Plato or Socrates -- but the degree to which that is true needs to be calibrated. Socrates apparently really did not get along with his wife. He is reported to have said, once, that a man should by all means marry; for if he got a good wife he should become happy, but if he got a bad one, he should become a philosopher.

Nevertheless Plato ends up encouraging something very similar to sexual equality in The Republic. Aristotle's married life seems to have been quite happy, but he does not appear to have entertained any such ideas.

However, Averroes -- the noted Islamic commentator on Aristotle who was one of the main conduits of his ideas to the West -- was wholly on Plato's idea on sexual equality. Further, some (though not all) of what we are reading as misogyny in Aristotle is to do with his attempt to identify form/actuality/agency with the masculine, and matter/potentiality/patiency with the feminine.

This arises more out of a real problem facing his form/matter distinction in cases of substantial change, such as generation or decay: that is, when a thing isn't becoming 'more' or 'fewer' or 'over there,' but when we would have to say that it is really changing forms. His physics doesn't account for this very well, and the male/female distinction -- a rough attempt to explain it for cases of generation -- is an attempt to tackle a serious conceptual problem, rather than an actual bias against women as such. It's not that he wanted to say that women weren't agents and were always patients; it's that one of the big objections to his physical model was "Well, how do we get babies?" Well, the form comes from the man and the matter from the woman; but if that's true, how come the child looks like both of them? It wasn't a good explanation, but he was making an honest stab at it.

(The Medievals, in any case, had a legend about Aristotle that is more to the woman's than to the philosopher's credit.)

Grim said...

By the way, Gutenberg isn't quite early enough either -- we're talking about a change that was ongoing in and around the Holy Roman Empire when he was two or three years old. What we're looking for may grow out of the social changes created by the Black Death -- but we're talking about two or three generations on from that -- or it may be something else.

I'm not really sure what caused it. It's not well-accounted for, though; but perhaps we'll come up with something by talking it through. It's a problem that has only been bothering me for a week or so.

Eric Blair said...

I'm plowing through Peter Wilson's "The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy", and although he hasn't said anything about witch-burning yet, he does in the beginning chapters, spend a lot of effort trying to explain the various issues, conflicts and settlements in the 16th century concerning the reformation and counter-reformation, especially as it applies to the German states comprising the Holy Roman Empire.

For example, the settlement of the Schmalkaldic War, ratified at Ausberg in 1555, basically managed to satisfy enough people that war didn't break out again between Germans until 1618, while in the meantime, both the French and the Dutch fought religious civil wars (the Dutch revolt started as basically a civil war, and ended up as something else).

Again, it is the religous/political upheaval that seems to be the precursor to the violence, Or part of it, and the interesting thing to remember is that the accused almost were always accused by their neighbors, not the state. Peasants are getting other peasants burnt at the stake--and as I said, I don't think science had much to do with it.

I notice that the Fr Rolheiser does not seem to mention the inquisition at all, either.

Some of the reviews at amazon, if they are to be believed seem quite down on the book.

Anonymous said...

There is a very strong strand of environmental history that argues that the decline of women's place in society and the West's break with "nature" came about because of the Scientific Revolution, most notably via the works of Bacon and Decartes. The growing emphasis on rational analysis and on differentiating humans from other animals paralleled a diminishing respect for "nature" and for women (because some thinkers held that women were closer to nature). Earth the mother became earth the resource to be exploited and "tortured" if she did not reveal her secrets (a paraphrase of Bacon). "Witches" possessed an alternate view of "nature" that challenged the growing professions (medicine especially) and so were disposed of by the increasingly anti-woman authorities. The discussion then usually falls into eco-feminism and related topics. Carolyn Merchant's book, "The Death of Nature" was the first work to outline the story.


Grim said...

...a diminishing respect for "nature" and for women...

It's certainly true that "nature" falls out of favor; but you need to understand what the word meant in the context of the end of the Aristotelian tradition. The chief difference between Aristotelian physics and the physics that Galileo, Newton, and Leibniz were developing is that "nature" loses its place.

Aristotle argues in the Physics that motion is possible in a general way, which is that things that are potential become actual. To know anything more specific than that, though, you need to know the nature of the thing you're talking about.

This is an argument with a lot of intuitive strength. A rock moves differently than fire; a bird produces more birds, not donkeys. Thus, to know how a thing will move, you need to know what kind of thing it is -- and that means knowing what kind of potential it possesses.

What Newton realized is that you don't need to know anything of the kind. The nature of the thing is irrelevant to how it moves. You remember being taught the formula for force? "F=ma," Force equals mass times acceleration. That's true whether you're talking about rocks or birds.

You can see what a conceptual earthquake this is, and how it would build an arrogant faith in the power of reason.

I'm still not sure I see a causal link with the explosion of misogyny in the early 15th century. It's not obviously true that women are closer to nature; and if "nature" ceases to be important, you would think it would follow that your nature as a woman would not be important either. All that would matter would be your rational capacity, which is the kind of thing you can demonstrate: can you do the math, or can you not?

Grim said...

...the Fr Rolheiser does not seem to mention the inquisition at all, either.

I don't know that he mentions it by name, but he has a section on the evils of those in the Church; he does mention the Crusades by name (which seems intellectually incurious), and the current priestly molestation scandals (which is a pretty clear-cut example of evil).

I thought his general argument was reasonable; it boils down to, 'This is what the church has always looked like: God hung between two thieves.'

Anonymous said...

Grim, I agree with you. I put the word nature in quotes because the meaning does change, and has changed, over time. The word does not appear in my own work unless I very clearly define the meaning, or it is in a quotation from another source.

I'm afraid that it's been a while since I read C. Merchant's book, so I can't give you her entire causal argument off the top of my head. Something about limited available working memory . . . :)

I just wanted to toss the hypothesis out as an example of one suggested connection between the place of women in Western society and the scientific revolution and Enlightenment. I do not agree with the hypothesis, but within environmental history (and perhaps the history of science as well) it makes a useful starting place and frame for some work.


Tom said...

Hm, if witch burnings didn't really heat up until 1480 (so to speak), then looking for a world-shaking event in 1400-ish or earlier doesn't make sense -- IF that's what we're looking to explain. That's generations off.

If peasants were denouncing peasants, how would they have access to this rise of misogyny around 1400? They aren't reading any of the people you're talking about, are they? However, after Gutenberg we have an explosion of literacy that does spread to the peasantry, providing a method of mass information dispersal.

Tom said...

LR1: The growing emphasis on rational analysis and on differentiating humans from other animals paralleled a diminishing respect for "nature" and for women (because some thinkers held that women were closer to nature).

Grim: It's not obviously true that women are closer to nature; and if "nature" ceases to be important, you would think it would follow that your nature as a woman would not be important either. All that would matter would be your rational capacity, which is the kind of thing you can demonstrate: can you do the math, or can you not?

Well, it's been a few years since I read Merchant, but I thought a key point was that many thinkers believed women had less capacity for logic and, as the capacity for logic was believed to be the quality that made us human, women came to be seen as somewhat less human than men. (We're talking of intensity rather than species, here.)

Tom said...

I'm curious, why do we think there was an explosion of misogyny in the late 14th / early 15th century?

A related observation is that Christine de Pizan wrote against the misogyny of the Roman de la Rose, but the part she was writing about was written around 1275, if Wikipedia is to be believed, more than a century earlier.

Grim said...

If peasants were denouncing peasants, how would they have access to this rise of misogyny around 1400? They aren't reading any of the people you're talking about, are they?

Reading was less important as a means of communication, for the reasons you cite; but it wasn't the only means of communication available. The intellectual elite at the University of Paris educated the clergy, who transmitted ideas through sermons and lessons at churches throughout the land.

One such means of transmission was the mendicant orders of friars, of whom Bernardino of Siena was one. He was a famous speaker on these issues of witchcraft, for example.

There are two points to make about it, though: first, it's just because this is a slower means of communication that it's reasonable to think that 1400-1480 is a reasonable period for a sea change in public opinion. We have a sea change in our culture on the issue of the social acceptability of homosexuality from 1960 to, say, now -- we may or may not be all the way through it. That's fifty years, and we've got all the communication technology in the world.

Second, though, this doesn't seem to be a top-down phenomena only. In the Swiss and German regions, the clergy may have been responding to pressure from below, not leading opinion but following it. So there's something going on -- and as I said, I'm not sure what as yet -- that is moving intellectual elites and lower classes alike. These lower classes would not be just peasants, but would include also merchants -- whose travels would be another means of conveying ideas.

You raise a good point on the period when that part of the Roman was authored. Notice, though, what the article says about the author:

The continuation of Jean de Meun is a satire on the monastic orders, on celibacy, on the nobility, the papal see, the excessive pretensions of royalty, and especially on women and marriage.... Jean de Meun embodied the mocking, sceptical spirit of the fabliaux. He did not share in current superstitions, he had no respect for established institutions, and he scorned the conventions of feudalism and romance.

In other words, in 1275 this was an outrage to everyone -- the clergy, the Pope, the nobility, the feudal elite, kings, queens, popular superstition, and the customs of the poets of the day. By 1486, when we see the publication of Malleus Maleficarum, a poisonous view of women is widespread enough to provoke demand for twenty editions in less than thirty-five years.

Now we've got your printing press stirring the pot -- and it is doubtless partially responsible for the scale of the crisis. This is a way in which the new scientific and technical world is responsible for the witch-burnings, but the printing press can't bear all the weight alone. The interest at all levels of society is what caused the book to be a widespread success.

Grim said...

...for logic and, as the capacity for logic was believed to be the quality that made us human, women came to be seen as somewhat less human than men.

I haven't read Merchant at all, but that is a plausible interpretation of Aristotle's thought. He holds that theoria -- contemplation -- is the highest end of human life; and that rationality is our essential nature. If you had reason to believe that women were less logical, you might then see them as 'less human' in that sense.

It's Aristotle's views that are coming under attack at this time, though; I don't see why undermining his Physics with new systems like calculus wouldn't give women the chance to show -- in very practical terms -- that they could do everything men could do (at least in terms of access to logic).

Tom said...

Were women given that chance?

I question this because, first, mathematics was developing primarily in exclusively male settings: the university, the Jesuit schools, and the workplaces of individual scholars (often religious).

Certainly, women of means could have had tutors provided, but that didn't actually open the field that much, I think.

Where we have examples of early female scientists, they are associated with a male relative who was a reputable scientist. That is, they learned science by assisting a father, husband, or brother in his scientific endeavors. Then, they began to make their own paths. Even so, their reputations were still generally tied to that of their male relatives.

In addition, philosophy allowed for exceptions. Just because one woman was excellent at math did not mean we should believe women in general had that capacity.

Then, I think that there is some truth that the possibilities of our lives are bounded to what we have experienced. If all of the known mathematicians are men, even though we know correlation does not imply causation, society might very well believe that only men become mathematicians.

Hence, even though we have Madame du Chatelet explaining Newton's theories even better than Newton could himself, she could be written off as an exception. She was no reason to doubt the general rule (then believed) that women had less capacity for logic than men. (The exception that proves the rule, so to speak.)

Yeah, so there would almost have to be a mistaken assumption that is implies ought, but nonetheless society sometimes makes those assumptions.

Grim said...

There is an explosion of female scientists at this period, compared to earlier ones; but that's no surprise, since there is an explosion of scientists; indeed, there wasn't nearly as much practical reason to study what we would now call "science" before this period. It tended to be confined to the universities.

But what you are saying and what I am saying is coherent: the rise of misogyny appears to occur even though there were clear counter-examples, and a logical standard to which women might appeal. The rise of science didn't improve their case; rather, we see their case worsening. In literature, we see women depicted not merely as especially subject to the sin of vanity (as Raymond Lull depicted them), but as actively demonic and perilous; not merely as (at worst) in some sense inferior, but as a danger to society.

To put that another way: in Malory, almost every woman has access to some form of magic: see Geraldine Heng's "Enchanted Ground: the feminine subtext in Malory" for a good demonstration of this. These women go to mass, some of them represent the height of virtue; their enchanting power is often a great blessing. The power of enchantment, I would warrant, is one that all honest men would attest that women have. This way of dealing with that feminine power is wholesome.

Contrast with what we see in terms of fear of feminine power -- and especially in terms of their ability to 'enchant' the minds of men -- from the witch-burning period until about the 19th century. It's similar to the fear of women and their power that is alive today in Iran.

I don't know what the source of the disruption was precisely, but I would guess it was the general unsettling of the way of understanding the world that had held for a few hundred years. The scientific revolutions were part of this, and at work in it, but this is both a top-down and a bottom-up phenomenon. It permeates 15th century society.