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Wednesday 28 July 2010

Modern Witchfinders: Another Reflection

"The Witch, No. 1"Image via Wikipedia
Not long after I wrote a piece reflecting on the anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials, I saw an episode of Channel 4’s “Dispatches” entitled “Britain’s Witch Children”. This was an investigation into the persecution of children and others by extremist pastors who labelled them as witches. This often resulted in brutal beatings and even murders, sometimes perpetrated by close family members and even parents.
The programme prompted me to consider how much we kid ourselves that the civilized and developed world no longer has to worry about harmful superstitious beliefs and fears. 

Back in 2008 “Dispatches” won a BAFTA and Emmy for its documentary “Saving Africa’s Witch Children”. The show prompted international action in Africa’s Niger Delta and led to some severe law changes, such as the offence of labelling anyone of being a witch. This rather zealous reaction is perhaps comparable to the banning of the swastika in Germany and makes one wonder whether this will have other unconsidered consequences. A year later “Dispatches” followed up the story with “Return to Africa’s Witch Children”, which revealed that although visible changes seemed to have made the situation better, some children still faced irrational stigmatization and extremist religious leaders continued to operate.

Britain’s Witch Children” brought the issue back home. It is easy for those in the developed world through patronizing eyes, but the dark side of human nature has a funny way of popping up through the cracks of even the most sophisticated of societies. Much like the infamous Reverend Jim Jones, who’s extreme Christian People’s Temple cult ended in a mass suicide, footage and accounts are revealing many pastors who are exploiting and abusing their flock by encouraging their belief in demonic possession and the existence of black magic wielding witches in their midst. Like David Koresh of the notorious Branch Davidians and other cult leaders, these pastors allegedly not only extract hefty sums of cash from their congregation for performing exorcisms and the like, but also using sex as a method for “cleansing” the body of evil. Like the situation in Africa much of the abuse is proximate and not a single conviction has stood against one of these pastors. One father was imprisoned for mercilessly beating his son, having been convinced by his pastor that his son was a wizard.

I am fully aware of the way documentary makers sensationalize and edit their works. In some respects these documentaries are no different. The approach certainly has the feel of objectivity and it would be pretty hard to deny what the filmed religious leaders are unambiguously telling their congregations, but we should also be aware that this is still a type of grim entertainment and rational scepticism should be exercised. There is also the argument that as not a single conviction has been laid against these religious leaders and I should balance this with my assertion in my Salem article regarding the fact that not a single Satanic group has been convicted of ritual abuse either.

The difference is that no one is denying the existence of these extreme Christian groups or even the superstitious nonsense and fear they are propagating whereas the Satanic groups accused during the infamous SRA hysteria of the ‘80s and ‘90s (and unfortunately still believed to some degree by many to this day) have never been proven to exist. Occult and Satanic groups do exist and flourish, but none of them have been connected or even properly accused of committing ritual abuse. The groups that are accused of the crimes just don’t seem to have any basis in reality. No credible evidence has been produced. Worse still, clearly manufactured evidence just seems to further condemn the reliability of the claims.

The lack of prosecutions is not without effort. As we have seen, big changes were made in Africa. In the UK, however, minority immigrant communities tend to be incredibly tight knit. This hasn’t stopped all this information from coming out and for members of the community to be making the accusations anyway. When you look at cover-ups of this nature it also helps serve as an interesting lesson in human group dynamics and why the concept of the conspiracy theory is so often wrong. Even in small tight knit groups the truth always comes out from people at or very close to the source. My view is it will only be a matter of time that prosecutions will happen as they did in Africa.

There is a strong urge by many that live in the developed world to still dismiss the direct threat of witch hunting might have to their society, even if the crimes are being committed their own country. Like the upper-middle classes of Charles Dickens’s fiction who discuss the plight of the impoverished, they offer their sympathies but really see the whole issue as a very abstract tragedy. If we are to be honest this probably is compounded no small amount of closet racism either. The African immigrants who behave like 17th century Puritans is not really that surprising to the eyes of these people. After all are they not just bringing their primitive practices over here and operating in their own communities. What bearing does that have on mainstream British people? What bearing does it have on sophisticated and intelligent people?

Well, the truth is that exorcisms still go on today and many intelligent people believe in the literal existence of supernatural entities. This is often the form of a wary concern for Ouija boards or the haunting of some place or another. Belief in a moderate religion can often mean the belief in literal life after death in some way.  In alternative circles it can spill out into hobbies that involve a lot of ignorant use of electrical equipment and running around graveyards. Unfortunately people can also be seriously misled and manipulated by those who use forceful and extravagant methods to sell their own particular brand of religion. The moderates can often suffer from their apparent vagueness and ambiguity, which some members of a congregation can see as weak and wishy-washy. This makes such worshippers more susceptible to being led astray by a leader who promises more exact revelations and literal meanings to his preaching.   

This sort of thing occurs in all sorts of communities and that includes white middleclass suburbanites, as the TV series “Derren Brown Investigates” recently revealed. The whole thing prompts me to remember the days of ITV’s “Central Weekend”, a regional late night pre-Jerry Springer debate show that was popular in the 1980s, and the times they had on various robed authorities claiming in the existence of vampires, zombies and also sorts of supernatural phenomena in literal form. They were and are the natural successors to a one Montague Summers.

Summers is proof that intelligence, education and a prosperous upbringing do not protect a person from the lure of irrationalism and superstition. Born to a rich banker in Bristol, England, Summers was brought up in the Church of England faith. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in theology and had intentions of serving in the C of E clergy. He was ordained as a deacon in 1908 and became a respected scholar of literature. He also taught Latin and English to several schools. Summers wrote a great deal of literature and also edited and translated a large number of books. He has won praise for his critical analysis on the Gothic novel and for rediscovering lost works from this genre. His original work included (intentional) fiction, poetry, drama, biographies on Jane Austen and Ann Radcliffe and a rather large amount of works on the occult. The preoccupation with the latter might have been partly what prevented him from being promoted in his religious community[i]. It all seems rather ironic considering that Summers’s interest in Satanism and the occult was not to indulge in them, but to take a disproportionate reaction to them. He might be considered to be the Christian answer to the great charlatan and occultist Aleister Crowley. Although it seems that Summers was more delusional than his modern witch counterpart.

Anyway, the middle-of-the-road and modern Protestantism was never going to hold the interest of someone with Summers’s temperament. He converted to Catholicism and wrote works of hagiography on Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Anthony Maria Zaccaria, but seems to have made even less an impression on the Catholic Church. Despite calling himself the Reverend Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Summers there is no official record that the Catholic Church ever granted him a status in their clergy.

His translations included the first modern English translation of the notorious Malleus Maleficarum (aka “The Hammer of the Witches”), a 14th century treatise on witchcraft written by the German Inquisitor of the Catholic Church, Heinreich Kramer. The very fact that Kramer and the Inquisition felt a need to produce a lengthy and detailed argument on the very existence of witches for the learned in a time where the mainstream attitude towards religion would be considered as very extreme by today’s standards is a worrying thought. It implies that there was scepticism then and prompts concern over how far we really have come as a society. Anyway, its principles are perfectly in line with the ideas that Summers would become famous for holding.

Without any sense of irony, allegory or metaphor, Summers believed that all the confessions obtained by the witch-finders and Inquisition of Western Europe were true[ii] and felt the practice of hunting witches should be returned. He also believed that the offence of practicing witchcraft should be considered a capital crime and guilty parties be put to death as they were during those dark days. Furthermore, he also professed in the literal belief of vampires and werewolves and published books claiming as much. Summers was no modern day Matthew Hopkins - the infamous Witchfinder General who ordained the torture and execution of countless villagers during the English Civil War - and there is no evidence to suggest that he succcessfully inspired any "Witch Hate" crimes in the western world. We have the legacy of the Enlightment to thank for that. However, during the 1980s when Satanic Ritual Abuse accusations were peaking it seemed that the tabloid press were not far from taking his works seriously. I read at least one "special report" that gave a Montague Summers successor his full 15 minutes of fame. Claims of the literal manifestations of vampires, werewolves and real witches were recorded with a degree of scepticism or even the pretense of balance. Pieces like this helped give these so-called holy crusaders their time in front of the cameras on shows like "Central Weekend" and at least parts of their stories will get printed in pulp non-fiction books that will be repeated without question for subsequent generations to read. 

Montague Summers sadly is not best remembered for his contribution to literature in poetry, fiction and drama. He is not given enough credit for his re-discovery of early 19th century classics or for putting the record straight regarding Jane Austen's works - it had been accepted that she had written a series of original short Gothic stories before Summers had them reprinted. Summers efforts in reviving signific 17th century plays is completely overshadowed by his peculiar
-->fanaticism. Instead his memory serves as something of a cautionary tale to those of us who feel that the education and civilization of our society are far removed from the burning torches of the savages of old. The works of Montague Summers are a fascinating read for anyone who would like to see a case study of how a brilliant mind can go so seriously wrong. Given that this was a 20th century Oxford don with a lot of influence it poses the question how far removed are we, as a civilization, from the cases of the Salem Witch Trials or from the "Witch Children of Africa and Britain"?

The writings of England's most famous Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins

The Hammer of the Witches

The eccentric works of Montague Summers


[i] However, it also worth considering that Summers was once accused but found not guilty of sexual impropriety with an adolescent boy in his charge, an accusation that some have some have linked with the fact that he published a book that focused on pederasty.
[ii] Summers wasn’t alone in his belief that the confessions of accused witches were true. Another scholar, Margaret Murray, and her followers believe that these confessions share too many similarities to be anything else other than proof of the continuing existence of the ancient nature religions of pre-Christian Britain. Her works are generally dismissed by the mainstream studies into the era, as most of the confessions were extracted under torture. Similarities would stem from universally held ideas of those doing the torturing.  
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