Words matter, so let’s retrieve the true meaning of the term witch hunt

Isn’t it time to reclaim the term “witch hunt”, the well-worn metaphor dear to struggling politicians, and give it back to the tens of thousands of women who were hanged and burned at the stake of the real witch? trials from the 15th to the 18th centuries?

I always think of this dark story at this time of year when Halloween is approaching, and with it, we talk about witches.

Perhaps this will be the year we move on from the season’s familiar witchy kitsch and recall the violence, torture and murder that was inflicted on some 60,000 people – 80% of them women – at the start of the modern period.

The news that a memorial to the eight women accused at the Islandmagee witch trials in Antrim in 1711 is to take place, could not come at a better time. Last Friday Maeve Donnelly, Larne Lough councilor at Mid and East Antrim Council, tweeted:

I am delighted that the memorial commemorating the 1711 Islandmagee Witch Trials (the last witch trials in Ireland) is finally moving forward after being approved in 2015 by the then Larne Borough Council.

She thanked author and journalist Martina Devlin who, since the publication of her evocative novel based on the trial ( The house where it happened), campaigns for justice to be rendered to these women convicted of witchcraft on the basis of weak evidence.

Ireland’s Last Witch Hunt

Eight women were convicted of witchcraft in 1711 after Mary Dunbar reported being tormented by witches in the locality.

She spoke of apparitions of demons, attacks and convulsions, levitating household items and vomiting of pins and feathers; the kind of “evidence” that has been used in Europe and parts of America to send thousands of innocent women, and a few men, to their deaths.

In the book possessed by the devilDr Andrew Sneddon, an expert on Irish witch trials, offers a real-life account of the trial, placing it in the context of a wider European society that truly believed the devil could take control of a person and wander among she.

While the women of Islandmagee were convicted, they were not executed. Indeed, in Ireland, unlike neighboring Scotland, witch trials were rare. Like a recent TG4 documentary A Diabhal Inti (The devil is within her) reminded us, the death toll was low, but that should not ignore the fate of Alice Kyteler’s servant, Petronella de Midia in Kilkenny in the 14th century, or Florence Newton in Kinsale in the 17th century, and others.

Our experience, however, contrasts sharply with that of Scotland, where women were routinely blamed for everything from crop failures to unexplained deaths. I was shocked when Gill Ryan, a tireless pursuer of women’s history and one of the curators of the fascinating blog wildgees.com, sent me a scanned card putting the names of the thousands of murdered women as ” witches”.

Scotland, she says, “has the dubious honor of having executed more witches than any other country. Over 2,500 of them in fact. Inverkeithing, a small town in Fife, managed to murder 51 of its women. Many women were condemned for healing, brewing, harassing, scolding, or failing to conform to traditional gender roles and restrictions in their Puritan communities. At least now we have a map of this cruelty. The Wikidata Witch Research Internship, organized by the University of Edinburgh and their Wikimedian-in-Residence Ewan McAndrew, mapped and named all of the women found to be witches in Scotland.

It lays bare the true horror of a society with an enthusiastic witch hunter at its head. James Vl (later James l of England) even wrote a treatise on the subject and truly believed that people – mostly women – were able to perform malevolent magic after making a pact with the devil. In Germany, the Malleus Maleficarum, a European guide to identifying, hunting and punishing witches, has only been surpassed by the Bible.

Today, at least, the heinous crimes of the past are widely acknowledged. On International Women’s Day this year, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, issued an apology to ‘all who have been accused, convicted, libeled or executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563’ .

This followed a campaign by the Witches of Scotland to bring justice to all women – and men – convicted of witchcraft. They wanted a legal pardon, an apology and a national memorial.

In other countries, it is done slowly. There are memorials in Germany, the French and Spanish Basque Country and soon there will be one here too.

A sentence to throw away

Given the welcome emphasis on this bloody past, why do politicians still use this term when under pressure?

One of the main offenders is former US President Donald Trump. He uses the words “witch hunt” an average of 1.3 times a day, according to a journalist count.

He did it again last week when he received a subpoena to testify under oath about the Jan. 6 riots at the United States Capitol. But like the boy who cried wolf, he is not taken seriously. Or so we might hope.

The term is also used much closer to home. In April, for example, Taoiseach Micheál Martin described an attempt to bring Robert Watt, general secretary of the Department of Health, before a committee of the Oireachtas as a “witch hunt”.

John McGuiness, chairman of the Oireachtas finance committee, took him to task, saying the committee was only interested in transparency and accountability.

It’s a familiar ding-dong in public life where everyone among politicians on all sides and a number of interest groups shout “witch hunt” when the piercing gaze of the investigation is upon them.

When the term was first used in a metaphorical sense, it was describing the pervasive fear and mass hysteria that characterized McCarthyism, the US government’s campaign of the 1950s to seek out would-be communists and blacklist them. .

This, however, was an apt representation of the kind of insidious belief systems that informed the infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts several centuries earlier, a point made very forcefully by Arthur Miller in his play. the crucible.

Since then, however, it has been used in thoughtless remarks by groups ranging from winemakers and taxi drivers to bookmakers and, of course, politicians who are quick to play the victim when they are, too often , the aggressor.

Isn’t it time for this to stop? Their flippant – and, I think, cynical – use of the term belittles the violence inflicted in the very real witch trials that continue in some parts of the world to this day.

It also hides the fact that metaphorical witch hunts are still very much with us; those moral panics fueled and inflamed by social media that are very often based on misinformation and aimed at “altering” vulnerable groups.

Words matter, so let’s retrieve the true meaning of the term witch hunt. Maybe in years to come, we’ll even set Halloween aside as a day of remembrance for all those who died because of whispering campaigns and the wickedness of misinformed words.

About Ryan Headley

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