May we burn her?

Ugh, witch trials. Gotta hate those Middle Ages, right? Like the one of the “Samlesbury Witches” held on August 19 of 1612 in Lancashire where…

Wait a minute. 1612? That’s not the Middle Ages. They weren’t just this bad period back then somewhere when people weren’t smart and kind like us. They were a very distinct period from either the Fall of Rome if you include the Dark Ages in them, or from around the 10th century if you don’t, down through about 1500 and then we had the “Renaissance” and the “Enlightenment” and after all that dumb superstition the lights came back on and classical knowledge and attitudes were reborn.


Now there are a lot of things I could say about this view, like that it’s totally ridiculous. I have often cited Tony Blair’s foreign secretary Robin Cook saying that Slobodan Milosovic’s forces putting Albanians into concentration camps “belongs to the Middle Ages. It does not belong to modern Europe. We are right to fight it.” So you’re saying concentration camps were a feature of Edward I’s England not Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany. And you learned your history where exactly?

The answer appears to be Aberdeen Grammar School, Royal High School and the University of Edinburgh where, to be fair, he studied English literature. But it sounds as though it could have been Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And since for many people it was, the prevalence of this “Terrible Middle Ages” idea makes it necessary to take it a bit more seriously in order to demolish it in detail.

Like they thought the Earth was flat ha ha ha. Elizabeth May recently ridiculed our “First Past The Post” electoral system by saying it was invented when “people thought the Earth was flat”. Except they didn’t. Indeed, John Sacrobosco’s best-selling Tractatus de Sphaera (he was so dumb he wrote in Latin which we would never do) presented not merely the doctrine that the Earth was round but several simple compelling proofs. I’d like to hear a typical modern student do that. (Since you ask, three of them are that stars rise and set sooner in eastern than western places, people in the northern hemisphere can always see some stars including the Pole Star that you can’t in the southern but you can see others and the list changes gradually as you travel south or north, and that as a ship sails away from shore, people on deck lose sight of land before those at the top of the mast. Clever, huh?)

Now let’s consider witches. They burned them in the Middle Ages because they were dirty dumb and religious, right? Uh, wrong again. The first explicitly attested witch trials were in the 14th century, but they really got going in the 16th and went over the top in the 17th. Remember Salem, the famous non-medieval outbreak? Even England, not as bad as France, Germany or Scotland, executed somewhere under 500 witches between the early 15th and the mid-18th century, versus a couple of hundred a year in Scotland in the late 16th century and what seems to have been thousands in Germany.) And evidently the upsurge in concern about witches in 17th-century England was partly the work of James VI/I, as if he needed more blots on his escutcheon; the first Stuart king of England was convinced Scottish witches were conspiring to harm him and in keeping with his not entirely fanciful self-conceit as an intellectual had written a book Daemonologie in 1597 justifying witch-hunting. Thanks, Jim.

Now in fairness I should note that the Samlesbury Witches were actually acquitted. (And that the infamous Spanish Inquisition took a very dim view of accusations of witchcraft.) But eleven other witches tried in the same Assizes were executed. And the last execution of a witch in England was in 1716, involving a woman and her nine-year-old daughter.

Thank goodness they didn’t live in the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church insisted that the faithful … not believe witches could fly. Unlike its Renaissance version which insisted they believe it.