The Lying Times
Once upon a time I talked to a bookshop assistant who had told me that she had learned on a university history course that the whole business of “The Burning Times” was a complete myth. I was astounded by the fact that she appeared to accept this information. For I would have bet folding money that any female student “young enough to know everything” would have greeted this attempt at debunking with a torrent of abuse of the professor centred on the concept of “patriarchy” and possibly even changed courses on the spot to get away from the evil. After all, any attempt to deny “The Burning Times” must be equated with a desire to start them up again and take part oneself. Well, so I was wrong, at least in this one case. Whether the professor was female or a boo-hiss I did not ask, and have no insight into any background factors that predisposed this particular student to accept the falsity of everything she had been told since she could walk.
For I knew that she had indeed grown up in an atmosphere that made questioning of “The Burning Times” an occasion of incredulity, abuse and ostracism. Males knowledgeable in real history have told me that this was a subject they could not raise with their wives on pain of divorce. It would be as futile as convincing the average African that there was no God (which is, by the way, something I have tried), and for the same reasons: early indoctrination, social censure and the self-interest of powerful forces.
Where I live, it used to be six million witches burned. Over what time-scale, in which period, in which countries and on what charges, no one was ever able to say. They “just knew” that particular factoid, the same way the African just knows that giving money to the preacher will lead to health, wealth and happiness, even when it doesn’t. It had to be six million, apparently, because this figure is the same as for Jews killed by the Nazis, thereby allowing any doubters to be tarred with the brush of Holocaust Denial. In some countries the latter is a criminal offence, and it will only be a matter of time before criminalisation of the other form of Victimhood Denial in the USA. If you said that six million Jews were indeed killed in the camps but six million witches were never burned in early-modern Europe, you would not be listened to, the tram of the other party was already speeding down the no-platform-for-evil track. The Holocaust parallel was so potent and convenient that I was never sure why the figure for the dead witches was one day increased to nine million. Probably it was tracking the Consumer Price Index.
Of course, increasing the fiction to nine million did carry with it a certain risk of implosion through self-evident absurdity, in that such a megadeath would be clearly visible in the demographics. Indeed, the true believers could be told that we would have gone extinct. That is not actually true either, but since these people tend to be mathematical illiterates anyway, it might have given them pause. And they also have no clue about the duration of the witch paranoia: nine million in two centuries would be one thing, but nine million women killed in a short time would put China’s gender imbalance in the shade.
One person, who knew that it had to be true because she “had read it in a book”, did actually see the point about there being not enough women left to breed from, but switched the location and claimed that every woman in a particular valley in her region had been killed. Really, you’d think someone would have noticed!
Neither was it any use to place the witch trials in post-Reformation Europe where they belonged. Assigning them to the Middle Ages fitted too well with the history learned from Dungeons and Dragons by people who thought that the period had to be awful because it was spelled “Mid-Evil”.
An even bigger no-no was trying to tell people that men were executed as witches too. And the gods help anyone who talked about motives for denunciations, about inheritance, village feuds or poisoning – or even about a paranoid moral panic over the new poisons at that time arriving from the New World. The fact that under Roman law, the property of the accused fell to his accuser was similarly an alien language. In Germany, I was once told by a historian, the typical “witch” was the burgomeister, and the typical accuser was the man who wanted to be burgomeister instead. No, not interested.
All the young women were brought up with the absolute, unquestioned and not-to-be questioned conviction that all these witches were women, had all been burned by men, with all other women opposed. There would be no women-on-women unpleasantness, because women “are” by nature altruistic and cooperative and nothing is ever their fault. The students were similarly convinced that the witches had been burned because they were women, purely for being women. Particularly if they knew herbalism or enjoyed sex. It was simply assumed that the tracts about diabolism circulated by certain demented monks were not merely efficacious by themselves, but were the only cause of what was going on. The only reason they would admit for the whole two-century phenomenon was that “men” desperately hated women.
Which may give us a clue about what was going on in the minds of whole generations of women. First of all, there is a perverse satisfaction in believing that you are hated, especially if the fact that no one seems to be doing anything much about it makes it cost-free. This fits right into both the natural adolescent’s conviction that nobody understands her and the spoiled child’s conviction that the world is out to get her – read, out to deny her some of her wishes. For such juveniles, the attempted genocide of their entire gender causes a wonderful frisson and provides much narcissistic supply. For being even indirectly associated with genocide means that you must be important. Even though no one is trying to burn you personally at the stake, you may vicariously enjoy the righteousness always imputed to the victim in sub-Christian culture.
Secondly, this victimhood is not merely a matter of sentimental solidarity with women in a far-off time of whom you actually know nothing. This currency is fungible. Whenever a member of the enemy sex opposes you, inconveniences you, contradicts you, fails to believe you or neglects to give you the unconditional support and praise that a spoiled youngster requires, he may be firmly identified with the burners of witches. The question thus becomes what incentive there would be for abandoning the knee-jerk denunciation in favour of interest in facts and truth. Until I spoke to that bookshop assistant I would have said that the thing was impossible, because too much benefit was riding on the myth. I never did find out what kind of magical de-glamourising spell the professor used, or how the student carried on living without being able to blame all the men around her for nine million witch-burnings if they did not toe the line.
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Jews, Cathars, Gays And Witches