Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Church, Inquisition Actually Protected 'Witches,' Says Hutton

Goddess bless Ronald Hutton.

We all know the stereotypes: the Catholic Church, with its enforcer the Inquisition, burned witches, right?

Turns out that the Inquisition actually protected many people accused of witchcraft.

For some 300 years, between the 15th and 17th centuries, Christian Europe, both North and South, went wild with a massive witch-panic. One puzzling aspect of the Great European Witch-Hunt, however, has always been the huge disproportion between northern and southern Europe when it comes to executions.

The vast majority of people executed as witches in Europe during this period were executed in Northern—Protestant—Europe. Far, far fewer people were put to death as witches in the Catholic South.

In 1588, a teenaged girl brought before the Spanish Inquisition confessed to having had sex with the Devil. The previous year, a Sicilian woman confessed to having flown through the air on a billy-goat to a sabbat at which (interestingly) she worshiped a King and Queen who presided over a feast and an orgy (Hutton 200-1).

In England, such confessions would likely have merited the noose; in Germany, the stake. But the girl from Valencia, after receiving a beating, was sentenced to undergo religious instruction, and the goat-riding Siciliana was acquitted.


As Ronald Hutton explains in his 2017 The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present, the difference lay in pre-existing structures of ecclesiastical authority (201).

People were just as fearful of witches and their magic in Southern Europe as they were in the North, and just as likely to bring accusations against their neighbors.

But in the Protestant North, the civil authorities who tried these cases, lacking a higher religious jurisdiction to put the brakes on such trials, were frequently just as swept up in witch-mania as the accusers, resulting in a much higher rate of guilty verdicts, and hence executions.

In the Catholic South, though, ecclesiastic oversight acted as a restraint on civil courts.

“In 1542,” writes Hutton, “a central tribunal was established in Rome to oversee local Italian inquisitions, and by the 1580s this was advising caution in local trials of witches....Around 1600 the tribunal accepted a protocol which was sent out to most Italian inquisitors from the 1610s: all alleged deaths from witchcraft were to be investigated by medical experts...; suspects were to be held in separate cells to prevent them from mutually reinforcing their fantasies; and investigators were to avoid any leading questions, identify local hatreds operating in accusations, and consider only objective evidence. This made conviction for witchcraft practically impossible, and after 1630 papal authority effectively ended witch trials in the Italian peninsula (201).”

Historian Ronald Hutton is one of the Thirteen Living Human Treasures of modern Pagandom. His scholarship and—just as importantly—his storytelling skills enrich us all, even as he challenges us to revisit and rethink previous positions.

What makes Hutton different, though—Goddess bless him—is that he doesn't just slay sacred cows.

He sacrifices them.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Murphy Pizza
    Murphy Pizza Monday, 13 August 2018

    Well said!! (And a fantastic metaphor).

    And to think there are still folks in our community who believe he "destroyed" Paganism...not realizing that he sacrificed a good deal professionally to make sure we had our history straight...

    Thanks for this!

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 13 August 2018

    When it comes to the distinction between mythic history and historic history--surely we need both--I'm strictly a Weatherwaxite:

    "If you want to amount to anything as a witch, you've got to know three things: what's real, what isn't real, and what's the difference."

    Meanwhile, if I were drawing up a list of the Thirteen Human Treasures of Paganistan....

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