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High Takes Students Back to the Beginning of Witch Hunts

Published: October 13, 2008

Jeffrey High 2008

Photo by Victoria Sanchez

“A free society is one where it is safe to be unpopular.”
– Adlai Stevenson

Witch hunts may seem like a timely topic for a 21st century election year, but this fall, CSULB’s Jeffrey High takes back the hunts to where they began.

High, a member of Romance, German and Russian Languages and Literatures (RGRLL) since 2002, is teaching “The Witch Hunts in German-Speaking Europe” this fall. The course traces the persecution of heresy, witchcraft, and devil worship in German-speaking Europe from the late Middle Ages through the 17th century, focusing on the historical documents of the witch phenomenon and examining the necessary conditions of the European hunts as well as the social, cultural and political forces that informed the construction of the early modern concept of the witch. Students will research records of the persecutions and trials as well as their literary representations, scholarly analyses of witch-related phenomena and secondary literature on midwifery, theology and contemporary witch persecutions.

“I want to show the students how the hunts came about, their scope and impact on innocent individuals and the many misperceptions involved in their reception, first, whether Europe had a witch problem at all. It did not,” said High. “There are dozens of theories about the hunts. There are theories that focus on the economy, gender, crop failures, legal change, immigration and repopulation efforts. These are all pieces of the equation. The witch hunts had different causes in different regions and different times. The rise of the devil as a person of interest and the rise of the Inquisition as his foil are more immediate explanations. For many years, it was against church doctrine to believe in night flights or witches’ Sabbaths. Then, all of a sudden, it was against church doctrine to deny they existed–there were conspiracy theories about night flights and witch’s Sabbaths all over the place, especially in sermons and popular culture. The conspiracy was seen as composed mostly of women who joined the devil in a campaign against Christ’s rule on Earth. This was, of course, utter madness.”

Some estimates of witch hunt victims rise as high as 90,000 burned at the stake for Satanic crimes.

“They had done nothing of the sort,” High said. “The large majority were uneducated people standing trial and facing torture for a combination of unpopularity and defenselessness in a courtroom prosecuted by university-trained lawyers. No way out but confession.”

One of the giveaways to the conspiracy seemed to be dancing. “Society was seen to be threatened by the early modern version of dirty dancing,” he said. “But, aside from coerced confessions, there was never any evidence of that. It was just fear. For instance, Satanic dances were believed to be held in forests but most of the accused witches lived in cities. That’s where night flights came in. The only way to reach the woods from the city and return by morning would be to fly. Otherwise, black Sabbaths, eating babies, Satanic dances, bestiality and rural orgies were geographically implausible.”

One of High’s students described the cradle of witch hunts, the 17th century, as “the stupidest century,” and High is tempted to agree to some extent. “We’ll see. You could make a case for many, if not most centuries. Look at the one that just ended–war and genocide reached new lows. However, in the fifth century, Germanic societies were composed of tribes sacking and stealing, but when it came to trials, they were more civilized than their 17th century counterparts, and their legal system — such as it was — provided better protection.”

The Thirty Years War (1618-48) is estimated to have reduced the German population by 30 percent, killing more than half the residents in some regions. “Location, location, location is the gift and the curse of German-speaking Europe. In a war ostensibly between northern Protestants and southern Catholics, you don’t really need a map to see where the combatants — for example French, Swedes, Danes, Bohemians, Spaniards, and Austrians — are likely to meet,” he said. “Half of Europe was either fighting or being victimized. As was the case after the crusades and the plague, one of the consequences was that the male population was smaller than the female. Religious and sexual anxiety are the secret ingredients of witch hunts.”

When male populations rebounded from losses caused by wars and the plague, women were systematically removed from a number of professional roles and theaters, notably marketplaces or in medicine. “Because there were less men, women worked in the markets and women had traditionally held many medical responsibilities,” he said. “Medicine, including projects women obviously knew more about–childbirth and birth control–was left to women through much of the 13th century, but by the 14th century, when church officials sought repopulation, doctors had to be university trained and that meant male scientists replaced female healers. And if healing is a form of magic, then the early modern source had to be the devil. That’s when midwives as birth control experts suddenly came into disrepute by association and were portrayed as baby thieves. This change predictably led to both a displacement of some professional women and an early modern baby-boom.”

During the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, witch hunt victims were caught in an “escalation of piety,” High said. “Politics. On the one hand, Protestants blamed Catholics and Catholics blamed Protestants. On the other, each side tried to prove it was harder on witches. But from the beginning, there still were critical voices among influential scholars, priests and ministers who saw the insanity for what it was.”

With our image of Halloween witches making the night hideous with their screams, the actual witchcraft of yesteryear can seem a little, well, silly. “A woman in Boston was accused of witchcraft when one of her neighbor’s cows died, as if there were no other reason for cattle to die but a curse,” High explained. “Another Massachusetts woman was accused of making butter turn sour, another of yawning in church. It would be laughable if people hadn’t been hanged.”

What High hopes his students take with them is a better understanding of the role of human nature and manipulation of the masses in history. “All of my courses revolve around the same phenomena–when the state forgets or denies that the individual is the purpose of the state, and treats the citizen as the enemy of the state–persecution and the loss of individual rights. For example, I want to point out to students how hysteria is a conscious tool of persecution. In hysteria, the individual loses–or the government removes–access to constitutional guarantees or even tribal traditions,” he said. “Hermann Goering said the key to silencing critics was to enforce the lie, make critics seem unpatriotic and thus make them unpopular–that is to make accurate criticism seem heretical, to make mindless adherence seem pious, and to convert being unpopular into a criminal offense. Unfortunately, his recipe for state-sanctioned hysteria was as accurate then as it is now. I hope an awareness of this formula helps students combat its repetition in any form.”

High is an expert on revolution with a special focus on the 18th century dramatist, historian, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller. He is the author of Schiller’s Rebellionskonzept und die Französische Revolution (New York: Edward Mellen Press, 2004) and he plans to host a campus conference on Schiller in September 2009 to mark Schiller’s 250th birthday. Every summer, he co-directs the German Summer School of the University of New Mexico. His next book will be Schiller’s Literary Prose Works: New Translations and Critical Essays, due from Camden House. The Massachusetts native earned his B.A. in German and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts. He was coordinator of German Language at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis for six years before joining CSULB.