Saturday, April 24, 2010

Reasons Not To Get Too High & Mighty About European Witchcraft Trials

Reasons Not To Get Too High & Mighty About European Witchcraft Trials

I am preparing next week's lectures for my Western Civ class, and one of the topics is the burst of witchcraft trials in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance.  There are differing theories for why more than 100,000 witches were tried over several centuries, but before feeling too superior to those "ignorant" people, consider some of these recent news stories, such as this April 2, 2010 Voice of America report:

Beheading of Man in Saudi Arabia for Witchcraft Averted

 A Lebanese man condemned to death for witchcraft by a Saudi court will not be beheaded Friday as had been expected, his lawyer said.

Ali Hussain Sibat, the father of five, was to be executed after noon prayers Friday, but a frenzy of media coverage, appeals by international human rights groups and intervention by several Lebanese government officials, may have saved his life, at least temporarily.

His lawyer, May al-Khansa, said she was still unsure whether the beheading had been waived or postponed.

 And this item from the April 24, 2010 Times of Swaziland:

Witchcraft suspicions lands 21 residents in Court

BHUNYA- A resident from kaLuhleko community who alleges that he was accused of having caused the death of a boy from another family has taken 21 residents of the area to court.

Sonboy Mabuza alleges that the accused persons accused him of having played a part in the death of one Sibonelo Fakudze in 2005. 

He alleges that the accused persons, most of whom are relatives of the deceased, have been threatening him whenever they saw him. He had made an application to the court for a peace binding agreement between himself and the residents especially the Fakudze family. 

And from the April 18, 2010 Daily Nation (a Kenyan newspaper) is a column that opens with a picture with this caption:
Lynching of people suspected to be witches is common in some parts of the country. In Kisii, officers from Nyamira Police Station arrived too late to save a woman who was killed at Kiabiraa Village of Nyamira North District in March.
And there are many other examples.  At least the authorities are unlikely to respond to this accusation with criminal charges.  From April 14, 2010 KHBS-TV:
A Springdale man has been arrested in connection with a reported rape.

Police said Hector Pineda raped and beat the woman regularly for four years.Officers said Pineda denied the abuse, and claimed to be a victim of witchcraft he said was done by the accuser.
By the way, I did find a marvelous account by Benjamin Franklin of a full-scale "weighing the witch" and "swimming the witch" trial from 1730 New Jersey:
"saturday last, at Mount-Holly, about 8 Miles from this Place 2 near 300 People were gathered together to see an Experiment or two tried on some Persons accused of Witchcraft. It seems the Accused had been charged with making their Neighbours' Sheep dance in an uncommon Manner, and with causing Hogs to speak and sing Psalms, etc., to the great Terror and Amazement of the king's good and peaceable Subjects in this Province; and the Accusers, being very positive that if the Accused were weighed in Scales against a Bible, the Bible would prove too heavy for them; or that, if they were bound and put into the River they would swim; the said Accused, desirous to make Innocence appear, voluntarily offered to undergo the said Trials if 2 of the most violent of their Accusers would be tried with them. Accordingly the Time and Place was agreed on and advertised about the Country; The Accusers were 1Man and 1Woman: and the Accused the same. The Parties being met and the People got together, a grand Consultation was held, before they proceeded to Trial; in which it was agreed to use the Scales first; and a Committee of Men were appointed to search the Men, and a Committee of Women to search the Women, to see if they had any Thing of Weight about them, particularly Pins. After the Scrutiny was over a huge great Bible belonging to the Justice of the Place was provided, and a Lane through the Populace was made from the Justice's House to the Scales, which were fixed on a Gallows erected for that Purpose opposite to the House, that the Justice's Wife and the rest of the Ladies might see the Trial without coming amongst the Mob, and after the Manner of Moorfields a large Ring was also made. Then came out of the House a grave, tall Man carrying the Holy Writ before the supposed Wizard etc, (as solemnly as the Sword-bearer of London before the Lord Mayor) the Wizard was first put in the Scale, and over him was read a Chapter out of the Books of Moses, and then the Bible was put in the other Scale, (which, being kept down before) was immediately let go; but, to the great Surprize of the Spectators, Flesh and Bones came down plump, and outweighed that great good Book by abundance. After the same Manner the others were served, and their Lumps of Mortality severally were too heavy for Moses and all the Prophets and Apostles. This being over, the Accusers and the rest of the Mob, not satisfied with this Experiment, would have the Trial by Water.
The description of the hogs singing the Psalms makes me think that Robert Heinlein had it wrong when he said, "Never try to teach a pig to sing.  It doesn't work, and it annoys the pig."


  1. "... making their Neighbours' Sheep dance in an uncommon Manner."
    Do we have information on how sheep commonly danced?


  2. Ironically, that Saudi article about the condemnations of horoscopes and fortune telling put me in mind of another Heinlein quote by the time I got to the end:

    A fake fortuneteller can be tolerated. But an authentic soothsayer should be shot on sight. Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved.

  3. "if the Accused were weighed in Scales against a Bible..."

    Well, there's the mistake: the correct test is to weigh the accused against a duck...