Mark Pendergrast

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Chapter 10: A Brief History: The Witch Craze, Reflex Arcs, and Freud’s Legacy

Woman! A she hell-cat, a witch! To prove her one, we no sooner set fire on the thatch of her house, but in she came running, as if the devil had sent her in a barrel of gunpowder.
–John Ford,
The Witch of Edmonton (1658)

What history teaches us is that man has never learned anything from it.
–Georg Wilhelm Hegel

“Today, more women are seeking psychiatric help and being hospitalized than at any other time in history,” feminist Phyllis Chesler wrote in her seminal 1972 book, Women and Madness . She attributed this intensification of an old trend to the “help-seeking” nature of the learned female role, the oppression of women, and role confusion in the modern age. “While women live longer than ever before,” Chesler observed, “there is less and less use, and literally no place, for them in the only place they ‘belong’–within the family. Many newly useless women are emerging more publicly into insanity.”

The female “career” as a psychiatric patient identified by Chesler has a long history, with women usually displaying the symptoms expected of them: depression, frigidity, paranoia, vague aches and pains, suicide attempts, and anxiety. Of course, when women have rebelled against their passive state, becoming aggressive and sexually active, they have also been labeled mentally ill. Chesler tacitly acknowledged this history with a wry observation: “No longer are women sacrificed as voluntary or involuntary witches. They are, instead, taught to sacrifice themselves for newly named heresies.”

In Western cultures, both men and women have suffered from bizarre psychosomatic ailments for centuries, always aided and abetted by the “experts” of the era, whose expectations determined which symptoms they would display. Because of societal bias, females, considered the “weaker vessel,” have traditionally been expected to act out the role of the “hysteric” more often than males. Women–almost universally repressed and abused, and sometimes powerless to do much about it–have often conformed to the role expectation, which at least allows them sympathetic attention and an emotional outlet for their suppressed and usually justifiable rage. The only thing that is relatively new about the Incest Survivor movement is its particularly awful slant–the virulent accusations against parents and other early caregivers. We will briefly examine several historical periods, looking for insights into our current crisis.

The Witch Craze

If its duration is any indication, the Witch Craze is frightening evidence that human beings are capable of maintaining sustained societal persecution based upon fantasies for a long, long time. For two centuries, the 16th and 17th, most of Europe engaged in a frantic search for evil witches, a process which bore an alarming resemblance to the modern hunt for pedophiles–except, of course, that there really are pedophiles, which makes the epidemic search for repressed memories more confusing and unlikely to disappear anytime soon. To the clerics, philosophers and lawyers of the 1500s, however, there was also no doubt that witches existed and exerted a malevolent force everywhere. Mostly, witches were older women with extraordinary powers who had formed an underground international organization and practiced hideous rituals involving bestiality, murder, rape, and other atrocities. As Hugh Trevor-Roper, a historian who has written about the period, noted, “some of the most powerful minds of the time” applied themselves to studying the witch phenomenon. “And the details which they discover, and which are continually being confirmed by teams of parallel researchers–field researchers in torture-chamber or confessional, academic researchers in library or cloister–leave the facts more certainly established and the prospect more alarming than ever.”

What such experts discovered was that elderly and not-so-elderly women were making pacts with the Devil, at whose command they ate boiled children, engaged in sexual orgies, and generally enjoyed themselves in revolting fashion. In between these witch’s sabbats, they rendered bridegrooms impotent, killed off neighbors’ pigs, and had sex nightly with the Devil, who aroused them as an invisible incubus . Thus, any sexual dreams or nightmares could be easily explained, though it was an unwise woman who was caught having such dreams or who reported them.

The zealous clerics and judges who ferreted out these evil witches had help from numerous manuals which described the symptoms of witchcraft in great detail. The first and most famous, the Malleus Maleficarum , or “Hammer of Witches,” written by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, was published in 1486. It is a remarkable document which, like The Courage to Heal , offers an internally logical and quite convincing way to identify the root cause of the problem. In this case, however, it was witchcraft rather than repressed memories of sexual abuse that wreaked havoc in people’s lives. “The Malleus lay on the bench of every judge, on the desk of every magistrate,” noted Montague Summers in his introduction to the 1948 reprint. “It was the ultimate, irrefutable, unarguable authority.”

The Malleus included compelling case studies. In the town of Ratisbon, for instance, “a certain young man who had an intrigue with a girl, wishing to leave her, lost his member.” He was not merely impotent. “Some glamour was cast over it so that he could see or touch nothing but his smooth body.” In need of a stiff drink, he entered a tavern, where he described his problem to a woman at the bar, “demonstrating in his body that it was so.” She immediately adduced that he had been bewitched and asked if he suspected anyone. He did. That night, he accosted an elderly woman in the neighborhood, who maintained her innocence and said she knew nothing of his missing penis. Thereupon he grabbed her, choking her with a towel wrapped around her neck. “Unless you give me back my health,” he exclaimed, “you shall die at my hands.” Not surprisingly, she submitted. “The witch touched him with her hand between the thighs, saying, ‘Now you have what you desire.'” And he was cured.

Compared to The Courage to Heal , however, the Malleus was in some ways a moderate, well-reasoned document. Take, for instance, the section entitled “Of One Taken and Convicted, But Denying Everything.” True, the accused should be kept “in strong durance fettered and chained,” and should regularly be visited by officers to “induce him to discover the truth.” But the authors cautioned the authorities not to “be in any haste to pronounce a definitive sentence.” Indeed, they should urge witnesses to “examine their consciences well.” Perhaps their memories were faulty, or “actuated by malice.” If the alleged witch maintained his or her denial for over a year, however, and the witnesses didn’t recant, the witch should be reluctantly turned over to the secular judges for sentencing and burning.

As Montague Summers wrote in his heavily ironic 1948 introduction, “What is most surprising is the modernity of the book. There is hardly a problem, a complex, a difficulty, which they have not foreseen, and discussed, and resolved. Here are cases which occur in the law-courts today, set out with the greatest clarity, argued with unflinching logic, and judged with scrupulous impartiality.” Summers did not know how germane his observations would be in another forty years, when The Courage to Heal would be published.

[Continued… To order the book directly from the publisher, Upper Access Books, click here.]