Seeing Witch Hunters in England as Religious Terrorists

Article excerpt


The late Sen. Joseph McCarthy's frenzied pursuit of alleged communists in the 1950s put the term "witch hunt" into permanent American political coinage. Witch hunting is now interpreted as a ruthless vendetta against political opponents, but its true horror was beyond even the paranoid mind of the Wisconsin senator who was ultimately censured and disgraced by his peers. It is estimated that between the 14th and 18th century, witch hunts in Europe took from 50,000 to 100,000 lives of those accused - probably most of them unjustly - of dealing with the devil.

Malcolm Gaskill, director of history at Churchill College, Cambridge University, has written a chronicle of evil all the more haunting for his warning that the unreasoning violence spawned by conflicting religious ideologies remains a present and formidable threat in the age of technology. Witch hunters might be compared to to religious terrorists and although the author does not draw that parallel, his account of the medieval reign of terror inflicted by English "witchfinders" is also a reminder that witch hunting warps minds and claims lives in the 21st century.

Mr. Gaskill questions how much difference there is between the mentality of 20th-century zealots and those of the 17th century. Pointing at the continuing outbursts of ferocious bloodletting in Africa and India, he contends that the savagery of the developing world, is "startlingly similar" to that which occurred in England during a time when the nation was torn by civil strife and religious dissent between the forces of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans and the doomed King Charles I. "Then as now, witch hunts involved not just savage persecutors tormenting innocent scapegoats, but ordinary people who happened to believe in witchcraft powerfully enough to act out their most violent fantasies," he writes.

Within less than two years in 17th-century England, the dark crusade of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, "two godly men" led to the interrogation of more than 300 and the deaths of more than 100 by hanging, burning or torture. Mr. Gaskill offers bizarre testimony taken under torture b y the witch finders who were paid handsomely by local authority to brutally extract from terrified women admissions about "imps" with such names as Vineger Tome, a cat, and a black rabbit called "Sacke and Sugar" as well as revelations about sexual relations with Satan.

Physical deformities or problems like hemorrhoids were frequently interpreted as "teats" for suckling "impes. …