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Authors: John Demos

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In the middle decades of the 2nd century, fears for the future of the empire began to merge with actual events. “Barbarian assaults” were launched at several points along the frontier: in the east, by the Parthians (in what is present-day Iran), and, to the north, by Germanic forces crossing the Danube and pressing down toward the Alps. Most were thrown back during the decade of the 160s, but at severe cost to the victors. Plague, carried by returning soldiers, would soon ravage entire populations in and around Rome itself. Military struggle bred political conflict; the new emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was forced to repel direct challenges from his own generals. Moreover, the prosperity of the early 2nd century would gradually erode. Trade slowed, debt rose, the ranks of the poor increased.
These darkening conditions obtained, to a greater or lesser degree, throughout the empire. And they helped build a rising tide of persecution that was directed mainly against Christians. In 166, there was a brutal killing, of the bishop of the church at Smyrna. Similar violence occurred at Gortyna (on Crete), in Athens, and in Philadelphia (today Amman, the capital of Jordan) at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Other sites of martyrdom included Christian communities in the Anatolian Pontus, and perhaps Rome itself.
After some months, the imperial governor returns to Lyons from his journeying. Now he will hear the charges against the city's Christians. A crowd gathers at the amphitheater; the prisoners are brought in. As the hearing goes forward, a local dignitary named Vettus Epagathus can stand it no
longer and asks to speak on their behalf. They are innocent, he says; there is nothing “atheistic” or “impious” about them. But he is shouted down by the onlookers. The governor demands to know if Vettus is himself a Christian; he admits to at least a sympathetic interest, and is immediately condemned. The crowd mocks him as “the comforter of the Christians.”
Witnesses are summoned, including some who have been slaves in the households of the accused. Threatened with physical harm, they confirm the reports about their masters: again, the focus is “Thyestian feasts” and “Oedipodean intercourse.” At this, the crowd turns furious. Several among the accused, in their terror, deny their faith. But others are ready to confess, and suffer the consequences: a deacon from Vienne named Sanctus, a Roman named Maturus, an immigrant from Pergamon named Attalus, a local slave woman named Blandina. All are subjected to grievous torture: burning with heated brass, stretching on the rack, beating and choking. Presently the bishop of their church—one Pothinus, said to be “over ninety years old and very weak physically”—is dragged before the governor. Refusing to recant or yield in any way, he is savagely clubbed to death.
The proceedings continue for many days before an increasingly maddened public. And a new element is added: forced combat with wild beasts. Maturus and Sanctus are badly injured this way. Attalus is paraded through the amphitheater behind a placard on which is written HERE IS ATTALUS THE CHRISTIAN; later he will be torn apart by lions. The slave Blandina's steadfast faith serves only to goad the crowd to ever greater ferocity; after hours of excruciating torment, she is “thrown to a bull” and gored to death.
Eventually the governor, armed with new instructions from Rome, orders the beheading of “all who appear to possess Roman citizenship,” and sends the rest “to the beasts.” But even this is not the end of it. The corpses of the victims are devoured by dogs or cast into the fire. And whatever yet remains is “for many days watched with a military guard . . . all unburied.” Again the mob gathers; some “rage and gnash their teeth,” others “laugh and jeer . . . saying ‘where is their god, and what good to them was their worship?' ” When six more days have passed, there is one final burning, with the ashes “swept into the river Rhône”—to foreclose the chance that “they might ever rise again.”
To repeat, all of this comes to us from a remnant of Lyons Christians who somehow survived. Thus it reflects their viewpoint, their feelings—their sorrow, horror, outrage, pride. But how would it be remembered by the large majority of citizens who were pagan? The latter left no direct record, but one can easily imagine . . .
The Christians have gotten what they deserve. Their shameful beliefs and practices place them wholly beyond the bounds of human community. They are atheists—devils—saboteurs—scum. And they must be destroyed.
Witch-hunting Panorama, 150-1750
Perhaps it seems ironic that a history of witch-hunting should begin with the persecution and martyrdom of the early Christians, for the later parts of this history will feature Christians on the opposite side—as themselves the persecutors and martyr-
There may, however, be some dynamic linkage here. Done-to becomes done-by: such reversals are not uncommon in groups as well as individuals.
Admittedly, the parallels are inexact and incomplete. The early Christians were an actual, easily identifiable community, whereas the “witches” of late medieval and early modern times were no such thing. Still, in both cases, the element of scapegoating loomed very large. In both, highly stereotyped images rooted in fantasy served to energize a horrific chain of events. Both expressed a strong anti-conspiratorial bent, a conviction of dark doings hatched in secret places with deeply subversive intent. And both, finally, drew upon a similar reservoir of feeling: terror, rage, revulsion, hatred.
Of course, it took many centuries to accomplish the change from victims to victimizers. Christianity had to move from its initially beleaguered position—move, that is, in two directions, both
toward the center of the empire and
toward the margins of what was then called the civilized world. The conversion of the Emperor Constantine, and his founding of the city of Constantinople in 330 as a new Christian nucleus; the decrees of another emperor, Theodosius, which in effect equated orthodox Christian practice with good citizenship; the gathering momentum, from the 4th century onward, of missionary work among “pagan” peoples both within and beyond the imperial borders; the piecemeal assimilation during the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries of “barbarian” conquerors (Goths, Franks, Visigoths) to Christian faith and culture; thus the leading milestones enroute to eventual hegemony.
There were also deep challenges to confront and setbacks to overcome. Some reflected internal strains: for example, the proliferation of “heresies” (Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Pelagianism, Arianism) and the great schism that gradually divided East and West (Byzantium and Rome). Others came from outside, especially the steadily encroaching presence of Islam. The overall range of Church authority would contract significantly between the 6th and 13th centuries, as the Holy Land (Palestine) and adjacent parts of the Mediterranean east, Asia Minor, North Africa, and southern Spain passed into Muslim hands. Still, throughout its European heartland, Catholic Christianity gained and held the role of a state religion.
This was, in most regions anyway, a patchy landscape. Bishops, priests, and other clerics shaped doctrine, maintained Church properties, and sought to control worship practice, usually with some official backing from secular princes and potentates. Popular religion was another matter: Among the vast ranks of the pre-modern peasantry, Christian faith remained relatively shallow, and was variously interwoven with many still-lively vestiges of paganism. For most it was chiefly about “works” and ritual observance: attending Mass, genuflecting to religious authorities, going on pilgrimage, venerating the saints (or living “holy men”), and so on. Thus, as one historian has written, “it could complement rather than compete with animist beliefs and practices.”
Local cult activities, passed down from pre-Christian times, survived more or less intact in many areas. Typically, they focused on a host of immediate and practical concerns: crop fertility and weather; love, sex, and reproduction; protection of health and property; and all the vagaries of human relations. In some cases they included the worship of pagan deities; the Greco-Roman goddesses Hecate and Diana seem to have been particular favorites. These two were associated in popular belief with nocturnal rites—especially for women who might be magically transported over long distances through the use of special unguents or powders (or simple broomsticks). Indeed, this was a world in which magic of all sorts proliferated and flourished: philtres, potions, charms and incantations, the use of “sympathetic” imagery, fortune-telling, conjuring, and countless other practices so humble and obscure they left no traceable record. The substances used to arouse love, for example, included herbal potions and powders, pulverized bones, ashes, bathing water, menstrual blood, hair (especially pubic hair), and human feces. There were, moreover, specialists in such matters, known in everyday parlance as “cunning folk.” In centuries to come these would become targets of increasingly dark suspicion; but throughout the Middle Ages they operated quite openly and, at times, with genuine public appreciation. To consult them, to follow their prescriptions, was simply part of everyday survival.
In the same milieu flourished sorcery, though this was always harder to see and to specify.
the performance of harmful acts by supernatural means, was perforce a secret thing; we can glimpse it now only indirectly, through the manifest fears of those who wished to suppress it (for example, religious authorities) or to counteract it (the many ordinary people who considered themselves its victims). Often enough when misfortune struck—when the harvest failed, when hailstorms hit, when people or livestock mysteriously sickened—neighbors would turn on one another with accusations of dabbling in “the black arts.” We cannot tell, from the distance of a dozen centuries and more, where the truth lay in any specific case. We can, however, be sure that the idea of sorcery had wide currency. We can also infer that in such a climate of belief and opinion, some individuals must have tried their hand at it: must have fashioned the charms, cast the spells, uttered the curses, conjured the spirits against all manner of rivals and antagonists.
We can assume, finally, that one person or another within a local context would over time have gained a reputation for the practice of sorcery. Such a person would be feared, would be despised and condemned (at least in private), yet would also be treated with a certain respect. He—or, more often, she—might upon occasion become the focus of intense suspicion. The most likely stimulus was a particular experience of loss and suffering among the people who lived nearby. At such times the suspect might be forced to undergo rigorous efforts of scrutiny—perhaps leading to some official penalty (fines, incarceration, flogging—even, in rare cases, execution) or else to personal assault (up to and occasionally including a lynching, as we might call it). A lesser, and presumably more common, response would be the deployment of counter-magic: spells, charms, and the like, used in a protective manner. In some cases there need not have been anything “counter” at all; the supposed victim would simply approach the alleged perpetrator with a direct plea for redress. The result would be a kind of negotiation, ending, if all went well, with comity restored.
People of this reputation could be found in every corner of Europe from the 5th through the 15th centuries. Variously called
they can all be covered well enough by our own term “witch.” Usually, they were thought to cluster in families: a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter. Their powers and status would, in effect, be hereditarily transmitted. The danger they seemed to pose was considerable; yet it was not limitless. For long periods it could be managed, or at least mitigated. Witches and witchcraft belonged, then, to the regular business of life in pre-modern times.
Christianity's relation to all this was ambivalent; tolerance, not to say complicity, was frequently the norm. Individual priests might even double as conjurors, dispensing what were essentially magical remedies alongside their regular parish ministrations. It is also clear that some of the Church's own devotional practices closely resembled traditional magic: for example, prayers for saintly intercession; the veneration of sacred relics for the purpose of cure or other personal benefit; the hallowing of particular landscape sites; the use of outright charms like the widely-found
agnus dei
(a wax medallion made from paschal candles). Individual worshipers could move with relative ease back and forth between such ostensibly Christian maneuvers and the nostrums and devices of the “cunning folk.”
If this were the entire story of religion, magic, and sorcery during the early Middle Ages, there would be no particular denouement looming several centuries ahead—no point at which concern for witches would shoot upward and outward with such explosive force as to create a veritable “witch-craze.” But, in fact, there is more to the story, quite a lot more. And most of it involves the further evolution of the Christian Church.
Above and beyond its local operations, the Church was involved in a lengthy struggle for self-definition that would increasingly engage popular culture around witchcraft, diabolism, and the foundations of faith itself. Its core was nothing less than the problem of evil: how to account for the myriad, often surprising, always unsettling adversities that attend every human life. Its beginnings predated the Christian era. The Old Testament and related rabbinical texts had presented Satan (a Hebrew word meaning “obstructor”) as a lively, sometimes menacing, presence. Here, indeed, lay the origins of the idea that the Devil was a fallen angel—once a leader among God's deputies and princelings, but now His most determined enemy. Also in the pre-Christian era, and also directly foreshadowing some elements of Christian belief, classical Greek culture had posited the existence of
(demons), a category of supernatural beings that, in effect, mixed evil with good in roughly equal proportions. In fact, the chief gods of Greece on the their Olympian heights were similarly mixed—as much inclined to selfish wrongdoing as earthbound humans.
BOOK: The Enemy Within
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