The witch craze: no laughing matter
I was alarmed when a recent episode of one of my favorite shows, Global Village, visited the Alsatian town of Rouffach to report on its annual witch festival. This festival commemorates women who were burned at the stake 400 years ago. A guide cheerfully takes visitors to a hill behind the town where witches supposedly gathered for a regional meeting called a Sabbat where new members were initiated followed by wild orgies. Visitors are encouraged to take a trip down “Scary Alley” where men and women accused of witchcraft were tortured to ensure that they would confess at their upcoming trial. At the end of the day, a massive bonfire recalls the fiery end of thousands of innocent men, women and children. Frankly, I was disturbed that a town would turn one of history's grossest, vilest, most obscene episodes into a forum for entertainment and money-making.
True, biblical law said, “You shall not permit a sorceress [KJV: witch] to live” (Ex. 22:18). But the kind of sorcery God was talking about bears little resemblance to the broomstick-riding, spell-casting, copulating-with-demons witches supposedly common in medieval Europe.
No doubt some people in Europe claimed to be witches; and in all likelihood some
practiced the kind of sorcery God condemns. But as one expert interviewed on Global Village put it concerning medieval conceptions, there was no such thing as witches, only a belief in them.
Untold thousands of innocent people were tortured and murdered, from about 1050 to the end of the seventeenth century, simply because someone with a grudge accused them of practicing witchcraft. All kinds of outlandish accusations were made; John Cleese fans may remember the scene in which a man accused a woman of witchcraft on the grounds that he had seen her (through a window) turn someone into a newt. In reality, it's not a laughing matter.
Why did such folly persist over such a protracted period? Some historians finger the Church, pointing out that priests were heavily involved in driving accusations and prosecutions. Others believe the church was as much a victim of ignorance as the masses. If blame is truly to be apportioned, let it be laid at the feet of us all, for the sin of injustice is common to sinful mankind. “For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin” (Eccl. 7:20). We would be just as quick today to condemn the innocent, should circumstances allow, as our forbears were.