Were the witches burned in the Middle Ages, in their majority, women resisting the power of men? Clarification on the remarks made by Sandrine Rousseau during a conference on the subject.
MP Sandrine Rousseau, who has been the subject of strong media attention for several months, found herself at the center of a recent controversy around the fate reserved, in history, for witches. During a conference devoted to ecofeminism, given on March 11, 2022 at the University of Louvain, and available on Youtube, the Green MP evokes the fate of 150,000 women who were “tortured” and “burned alive”, and between “one and a half million to three million women” who were “either locked up or deprived of their land, either displaced or punished”, by the “witch movement” in Europe. An excerpt from this conference was relayed and questioned massively on social networks in early September.
The argument of the deputy in fact takes up that of an Italian author, Silvia Federici, as she indicates herself. A demonstration which contains several assertions which can be questioned, if one questions Ludovic Viallet, teacher at the university Clermont-Auvergne. This writer, author of several works such as Witches! The Great Huntanswered questions from La Dépêche.
Were those convicted “overwhelmingly women”?
TRUE. Sandrine Rousseau puts forward the figure of 80% of women burned among those convicted, a figure confirmed by Ludovic Viallet. “At the beginning of the 15th century, we were on a half-woman/half-man ratio, but then we witnessed a ‘feminization of the crime of witchcraft’, with two thirds, even between 75 and 80% of witches in central Europe”.
The figure of 150,000 witches burned is also valid: “By studying the archives of certain departments and cities, such as Isère and Grenoble, for example, one can find dozens of trials on the question. By putting together all the estimates In Europe, there are between 100 and 150,000 cases of burning at the stake over 4 centuries, between the 15th and 19th centuries, but also of drowning, sometimes used instead of the burning at the stake. This method was preferred “because witchcraft was the ultimate crime: we therefore sought to make everything disappear from the condemned person”. It also corresponds to “an objective of terror, which Sandrine Rousseau explains, in order to frighten the faithful”.
Were the witches an organized movement?
FAKE. The Green MP presents the witches as an organized movement from a social point of view, forming in particular in resistance to the system of enclosures : this English term corresponds to the agricultural revolution which made pass the model of division of ground without physical limits between the grounds to a model of private agricultural exploitations.
But this position on the supposed organization of witches is erroneous, according to Ludovic Viallet: “The witch hunt must be contextualized. Its effective beginning, during the 15th century, is due to a context of plagues, wars, and a paranoia of the leaders visible in the texts of the time, in particular from the 1420s and 1430s. This is especially the case with the Catholic Church, which presents itself as a besieged citadel facing a satanic plot, a sect of organized witches and wizards, although witchcraft is a much older and global phenomenon, not just Western. Today, we have similarities with Qanon [organisation “secrète” dénoncée par des complotistes extrémistes américains] on this model of conspiracy which would include several communities, in particular the Jews”.
It is therefore anti-witchcraft propaganda which presents them as an organized movement. “The investigative model, based in particular on torture and the pervasive misogyny of the Church and society, made the faithful feel guilty, made them believe in this idea of a conspiracy, and pushed them to denounce several people, often women: hence the impression that there were real witchcraft organizations. This is what emerges from the transcripts of simple interrogations without torture, with witnesses seeming to adhere to the theses of a witchcraft conspiracy”, explains Ludovic Viallet.
Targeted “independent women”?
NOT REALLY. Sandrine Rousseau explains that the women accused of witchcraft were often “independent, widows, lesbians, detached from male authority in general”. The groups concerned by the denunciation are in fact very varied: there are many isolated communities, considered as deviant, but also more atypical cases, such as notaries, with strong decision-making power and therefore often targeted by settling scores. The denunciation model, which can be based on a single accusation, as claimed by Sandrine Rousseau, favored denunciations motivated by revenge.
According to Ludovic Viallet, “there are indeed a large number of healers among the accused, as Ms. Rousseau asserts, given that in the event of an accident, for example miscarriage, following the intervention of these women, the accusations were quick to fall”.
However, the charges could equally well target other groups, such as Jews, or occupations placing individuals on the margins of society, such as foresters. Historical truth is therefore much more complex than modern popular culture conveys, in particular because of the geographical and temporal spread: as the historian reminds us, the hunt for witchcraft took place for four centuries in an organized manner. in Europe as in America.
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TRUE OR FALSE. Were the witches “tortured and burned alive” “women without a man” as claimed by Sandrine Rousseau?
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