Skip to content

Pardoning the innocent: the early modern witch hunt as traumatic heritage?

A History Month (Maand van de Geschiedenis) contribution by Peter Versteeg

We live in a time when calls for public apologies for all kinds of historical wrongs are everyday business. Recent attention to victims of witch hunts from the early modern period also fits within this trend. Several cities and parliaments have already apologized to this group of persecuted people and even initiatives for rehabilitation are being developed. What were the witch hunts? And how can we explain the current focus on rehabilitation?

Early modern Europe and North America were marked by large-scale religious and other social changes. It was also the time when the fear of witchcraft was increasingly systematically turned into the legal prosecution of alleged witches. In most cases, these were women. This was also the case in the Netherlands. It is remarkable that in some circles there is talk about apologies and even rehabilitation for the witches who were persecuted at the time. Roermond is the first Dutch city to take this step. Rehabilitation will take the form of educational programs in schools and possibly setting  up a lieu de memoire. As early as 2006, this municipality had already apologized for its part in the persecution of witches. In Roermond, at least 75 people were burned for witchcraft in 1613 and 1614. According to mayor Rianne Donders of Roermond, nowhere else in the Netherlands have so many people suspected of witchcraft been convicted and put to death (AD, October 8, 2022; NRC, 20 September 2022). The city of Cologne preceded Roermond in 2012 by granting rehabilitation of all convicted witches. Most recently, the Scottish Parliament pardoned several thousand people who had been put to death between the 16th and 18th centuries on charges of witchcraft. The parliaments of Norway, Switzerland and Catalonia also campaigned for legal redress for alleged witches from centuries past. Not only is there political attention for the early modern witch persecutions. The theme is also alive in the arts. For example, the actress Manja Bedner wrote the play De heks van Almen (The witch of Almen), with which she performs in places where witches have been burned. Also known is the modern witch and writer Susan Smit, who is an advocate of a “National Witches Pardon”.

Modern witchcraft, a new religious movement that emerged in the 1950s, saw the witch hunt as an ecclesiastical campaign to eradicate a pre-Christian religion. They borrowed these thoughts from the folklorist Margaret Murray, who claimed that a fertility religion existed in Europe until the early modern period, in which a goddess and a god were worshipped. This god was the Horned God, who was labeled the devil by the witch hunters. The sexual symbolism of the Witches’ Sabbath as it appeared in the court descriptions would also indicate a misunderstanding of pre-Christian fertility rituals. Modern witches, with Wicca as their best-known exponent, claimed that they were the continuation of this religion, which was forced to go underground because of the persecution. In other words, this theory of origin gave modern witchcraft a historical ancestry and right to exist. However, the existence of a pre-Christian fertility religion that is said to have been expelled by the churches has never been demonstrated. Later, the idea arose within modern witchcraft that it was a religion that was carried on by “wise women”, i.e. women with a certain influence based on their knowledge of nature. According to this story, the churches wanted to destroy this religion by portraying it as a devilish cult. According to the churches, one of its diabolic aspects was the fact that women played a prominent role in it. But here too there are no unambiguous traces. The vast majority of female victims is significant (more than 75%), but the extent to which these were influential women remains to be seen. It is more likely that they were marginal, less powerful people.

While the Murray thesis has lost some of its authority among witches and other pagans, lately we have seen the idea of ​​the persecuted “wise women” become more popular, especially among feminist researchers. For example, a group of Catalan historians speaks in a manifesto about the witch hunt as an institutionalized “femicide”. No, say other historians. Apart from the fact that men were also condemned, the churches had no agenda to oppress women; the fear of witchcraft was very real and witchcraft was seen as a major social problem. Moreover, women were already considered to be morally lower, so the authorities did not need the witchcraft beliefs to oppress them. However, religion without actors with interest does not exist, just as there are no power processes without imagination. Skeptical researchers would therefore do well to take misogyny more seriously as a factor in the witch hunts, while feminist researchers should perhaps distinguish between fact and fiction more critically.

What this case shows in any case is that the past apparently always raises these kinds of questions. There is the confrontation with matters that we now see as immoral and uncomfortable. In addition to the reactions that “it was all a very long time ago”, it is striking that the willingness to think about apologies to the persecuted is substantial. With regard to the persecution of witches, we can then ask ourselves whether apologies and rehabilitation can also concern a diffuse group of victims who are no longer present and who also have no clear next of kin (a difference, for example, with colonial slavery). In that regard, it is significant that there is an interest group that sees itself as the successor to a group of persecuted “wise women”.

Peter Versteeg teaches cultural anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit and is a member of the Standplaats Wereld team. His research interests include religion, anthropological theory and fiction.

Image: execution of an alleged witch in a Dutch city.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *