Is being politically correct still politically correct? I think it's great we are unpacking everything and adjusting to avoid harm and prejudice, but I hope we leave some fun in the world. But in this vein, with Halloween two weeks away and the costume choices under scrutiny, my mind wandered to Halloween's history and wondering if witches would be offended if I impersonate them for the night.
A flash-back scene in The Nudest Detective - Book 3 in the series - was inspired by real life events. Jeanne Mance, who I borrow from history for my story, opened the first hospital in Montréal, Canada, in 1645. It was called Hôtel-Dieu. Prior to immigrating to New France, as that part of Canada was known then, Jeanne had served as a nurse during the European wars of the early 1600s, the most prolific era of the witch-hunts (1450-1750). Paranormal activity is a sub-theme in the story and such a strong woman (Jeanne) making a huge difference to that part of the world, combined with the witchcraft connection, was intriguing to me. With Halloween on the horizon, I decided to fact check, and see if my memory of the witch-hunt, which I associated with a misogynistic attack on millions of women, was sound. It turns out I was out of date.
I thought that "The War Against Old Women" (as it's been called) was mainly a misogynistic, religious persecution and ignorance/fear based and had resulted in the deaths of over nine million women. Although still debated, it seems most modern scholars would put the number nearer (a still horrific) 60-80,000 people, of which about 25% were men. That average doesn't reflect that in Germany most victims were women, while in Iceland 92% were men, as were 60% of the victims in Estonia. The reasons and gender bias varied greatly across regions. These estimates are based on formally recorded trials and executions across Europe and there also would have been many unrecorded kangaroo courts. The nine million number is interesting because it became an oft repeated data point for the (much needed) 19th century feminist movement and is attributed to the German author Gottfried Christian Voigt. It was repeated globally by a famous early feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage and it is still prevalent as an inaccurate, but seemingly credible, data point 140 years later. It was in my head at least.
What are modern scholars attributing the persecution of perhaps 20,000 men and 60,000 women to today? I'm sure misogamy was rife back then, an example of which is the claim from Nicholas Rémy, (c. 1595), who had 800 witches executed at his behest when he was a judge: "[It is] not unreasonable that this scum of humanity, [witches], should be drawn chiefly from the feminine sex" … "The Devil uses them so, because he knows that women love carnal pleasures, and he means to bind them to his allegiance by such agreeable provocations." Heinsohn and Steiger (1982) believed witch-hunts targeted people (mostly women) with midwifery skills and knowledge of birth control. Killing those with the knowledge to prevent and terminate pregnancies was a way to accelerate the repopulation of Europe following the Syphilis epidemic and bubonic plague (The Black Death) which between them wiped out half of Europe's population.
In England, up until 1772, it was illegal for newspapers to report on parliamentary debate and so much of the legal argument for the 1735 Witchcraft Act is not clear, but the Act reflected the 'enlightened' trend in Europe, making it an offense carrying a penalty of a year in prison to accuse any person of having magical powers and of witchcraft. The last person jailed (not convicted) under the act was Helen Duncan as late as 1944. Some believe she was targeted by superstitious military intelligence officers due to their fears that, having contacted the spirits of the recently sunk HMS Barham, she might reveal the details of the upcoming D-Day landings. She was arrested faking a séance (and creating ectoplasm using cheesecloth). She was charged with two counts under the Witchcraft Act (and two counts of obtaining money under false pretenses and three counts of public mischief) and served nine months in jail. The act was replaced in 1951 by the Fraudulent Mediums Act.
Sitting through yet another two-year-run-up to the US elections, perhaps bringing back a law disallowing reporting on politics might not be a bad thing.
So should I dress as a witch for Halloween? I was brought up as a Christian (lapsed now) and had always quietly wondered if celebrating a pagan event would lead me to hell. It seems I was wrong here too. Halloween's origins date back over 2,000 years to when the Celts of Ireland and Northern France celebrated Samhain, on November 1st. Samhain marks the end of summer, and heralds the cold seasons which were associated with death and disease. On the evening of October 31st, it was said that the barriers to the spirit-world thin, and ghosts and demons come back and attack the land, thus causing the seasons to turn.
By the 9th century, Christianity had spread to the Celts and Pope Boniface IV renamed the November 1st celebration All Saints day. A "hallow", the archaic name for a Saint, provided the basis of the term Hallow'een, i.e. the eve of All Saints day. Today most pagan-based faiths still promote November 1st while those who recognize Halloween on October 31st are more likely Christian.
I think I will dress as a witch for Halloween in a show of solidarity – I don’t think they will be offended. Did you know there is a movement in North America to move Halloween from October 31st to the last Saturday in October. I think they are focussing on the candy grab aspect and parents don’t want it to fall on a school night anymore. Are you for or against moving it to the last Saturday in October?