Who Burned the Witches? – an analysis of Lyndal Roper’s “Witch Craze” by Laura Miller


Image from Salon.com – source not attributed

I currently subscribe to a blog called Invocatio at which Sarah Veale does a weekly post of a variety of links on various religious and magickal subjects. Her posts are similar to The Wild Hunt’s “Unleash the Hounds – Links Roundup” where you can catch up on other news you may not have seen at the blogs you follow.

One of the links in Sarah’s most recent post is from an older article at the Salon website entitled Who Burned the Witches? which is an analysis by Laura Miller of Lyndal Roper’s book “Witch Craze”.

To quote from the first lines from the article:

“For years, feminist scholars have argued that witch hunts were inspired by a reactionary, misogynistic church. But new scholarship, like Lyndal Roper’s “Witch Craze”, reveals that the real villains were the neighbors”

This of course is a controversial subject both within the witchcraft community and within medieval historical research, and this is one view. I have not read this book so cannot give my my own review or total opinion on the subject, but i have always thought these horrid events were perhaps more complex, or maybe less complex, than many of the early writers conjectured.

11 thoughts on “Who Burned the Witches? – an analysis of Lyndal Roper’s “Witch Craze” by Laura Miller

  1. This is a really interesting topic, I read ‘Witches and Neighbours’ by Robin Briggs years ago and it looked at this aspect of witch persecution. Particularly that the poor/outcast/often female members of society would have often been subject to gossip and superstition for many years before accusations were levelled. In some cases they themselves would trade on such a reputation in order to survive.

    Similarly in the English Witch hunts of the mid 17th Century it often seems that neigbours (and changing economic/political situations brought on by eg Civil War) had as much culpability as the Church in causing persection of witches. I would recommend both Briggs book and ‘Witchfinders: a seventeenth century tragedy’ by Malcolm Gaskill.

    • Thank you for those recommendations for further reading. I have read somewhere that even in Salem when you get deep enough it all came down to a fight between two competing families over economic control of the town and church leadership. The whole town seemed to be afraid of many things from Indians to the Devil, and they relied so much on the hysterical imaginings of children and teens probably egged on by their parents and the attention they got in such a boring puritan society.

  2. I haven’t read much on the Salem Trials, although from what I understand that witch hunts were comparatively less frequent in American than UK/Europe, perhaps Salem was actually a very cynical land/power grab achieved by manipulating the supersitions of the townspeople? I must read more on Salem!

    What I find most interesting about Gaskill’s book is that he states that in some ways there is really little difference between the 21st Century world and the 17th century world in relation to persecution of witches. In countries where oppressive religious ideals coupled with social/economic/political unrest often their is a rise in persecution/murder of those percieved by society to be witches, which is a very worrying trend indeed.

    • Yes they are burning and stoning “witches” in Africa and Saudi Arabia to this day. And if a man is accused of adultery it isn’t his fault because he was “bewitched by that woman”, but the woman is stoned to death.

      • These things really get me so angry. I watched the Stoning of Soraya M, it was absolutely heart rending (again, local gossip and calumny played their part as much as religion). How anyone who professes any kind of religious faith can effectively dehumanise/demonise half of the population in that way is beyond comprehension to me.

        • I could not watch that, having worked in emergency medicine too long. Those who have the power, and the money, and the guns, and the backing of their patriarchal religious authorities, do what they want. Hopefully the civil authorities will be able to stand up eventually to protect everyone’s rights.

          • Yes, one can only hope. In the meantime its up to those brave enough to stand up to oppressive regimes to continue to do so, and those outside to offer support when and how they can. You would think that people would learn from history, but they never do.

            • Unfortunately most of the third world is now under 25 years of age. Many live in poverty with little education. Their history is taught them by religious and political propaganda, and by the blood feud stories of their parents about the last war, and the one before that, etc. But even in our fairly stable and educated countries only those students with good history teachers may learn and remember, as it is not all on the History Channel.

              • I know, human culture is a complex and competitive thing, which seems largely incapable of a live and let live attitude; especially at a relgious/dogmatic ideological level and history is often manipulated to perpetuate a dominant viewpoint . I would say Orwell summed it up quite succinctly when he said “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” The world needs more Gandhi’s and less bomb makers.

  3. Very interesting read, Yes this makes much more sense. You only have to look to the often brutal attacks that still happen today in places like Kenya. These are by their neighbours and sometimes friends, not a church. I am sure it will have been of a similar breeding ground for hysteria and superstition. Any local churches would have been run by men from the same village. Also just on going fights and pettiness I imagine could have been amongst many other reasons that people were accused of practising witchcraft. I have read somewhere that witch hunts were brought about at times to divert the public attention at a time of economic upheaval. So the witch hunts, accusations of heresy had many reasons behind them. Witchcraft was used as a scapegoat, makes me think that times have not changed that much

    • And the sad part is that once accused of witchcraft, or even of communism under McCarthyism, one is guilty automatically. And i am sure various civil and religious authorities used people’s superstitions for their own ends also. BTW i am going to re-blog your Beltane post closer to the holiday, so thank you.

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