Thursday 28 October 2021
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Christianity Persecuted Women In Myriad Ways

Nithin Sridharhttp://indiafacts.org/
Trained civil engineer, journalist by passion, theologian

The power of popular media and marketing is such that every year when Christmas approaches there develops a festive atmosphere even in a country like India wherein Christians are less than 3% of the entire population. The festival of Christmas is often associated with fun, frolic, and merry-making, and this association is so strong that a large section of Urban Hindus has begun to consider it as cool and openly celebrate it. However, what is conveniently forgotten in this blind imitative celebration of an alien festival like Christmas is not only the fact that this festival is an appropriation of a polytheistic festival by Christianity, but the fact that Christianity has a bloody history, especially with respect to its treatment of polytheists, Jews, and women. The women were especially oppressed and hunted down because of their biology.

Here is an excerpt from my book Sabarimala ConfusionMenstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective, which documents how mediaeval Europe saw the genocide of innocent women who were accused of witchcraft because of their menstruation.

One of the most horrifying aspects of Christian history was the persecution of women under the pretext of witchcraft in early modern Europe. Between 1450 and 1750, for three hundred years, both Christian and secular authorities across Europe employed enormous resources to identify and execute witches[1]Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson, “Women and Religion: A Feminist Sourcebook of Christian Thought”, Page 119. Tens of thousands of people perished under witchcraft persecution. Glenda Lewin Hufnagel notes:

Estimates of the actual numbers of European women killed varies from scholar to scholar with the range from a high of nine million (Armstrong & Pettigrew, 1993) to approximately 50,000 (Briggs, 2007, 1996a, 1996b; Behringer, 2004; Canwell & Sutherland, 2007: Gaskill, 2005; Oldridge, 2008; Pavlac, 2009; Robisheaux, 2009; Roper, 2004;), with recorded attributions to 26,000 in Germany, 10,000 in France, 1,000 in England and four in Ireland. Persecution was repeated on a small scale in 1692 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Baker, 2007; Demos, 2008; Godbeer, 2005; Hill, 2002; LeBeau, 2009; LePlante, 2008; Norton, 2002; Roach, 2002, 1996; Roper, 2004; Rosenthal & Adams, 2009)[2]Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 25.

Among the victims, women constituted around 80% of those who were accused of witchcraft and 85% of those who were executed for it[3]Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson, “Women and Religion: A Feminist Sourcebook of Christian Thought”, Page 119. The persecutions were so severe that “after the Church executed individuals accused of practising witchcraft in many German villages, the female population was drastically reduced”, with two villages in 1585 being left with only one female inhabitant after the witch-trials[4]Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 25. Further, both witch-hunters, as well as the informers, were paid handsomely[5]Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 25.

The of this persecution has been graphically described by Miriam Simos in “The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess”. She writes:

The terror was indescribable. Once denounced, by anyone from a spiteful neighbour to a fretful child, a suspected witch was arrested suddenly, without warning, and not allowed to return home again. She was considered guilty until proven innocent. (A) common practice was to strip the suspect naked, shave her completely in hopes of finding the devil’s marks, which might be moles or freckles…In England, ‘legal torture’ was not allowed, but suspects were deprived of sleep and subjected to slow starvation, before hanging. On the continent, every imaginable atrocity was practised — the rack, the thumbscrew, ‘boots’ that broke the bones in the legs, vicious beatings — the full roster of the inquisition’s horrors…The accused were tortured until they signed confessions prepared by the inquisitors… Most cruelly, they were tortured until they named others until a full coven quota of thirteen were taken. Recalcitrant suspects, who maintained their innocence, were burned alive[6]Miriam Simos, “The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess,” Page 6, cited from ibid.

At the heart of these witch-hunts were the mediaeval Christian blood beliefs, especially those regarding menstruation. Francesca Matteoni notes that “theories regarding the body played an important part in the complex of witchcraft beliefs which nourished the period of the trials and persecutions in Europe[7]Francesca Matteoni, “Blood beliefs in early modern Europe”, Page 27.” Both commoners and the educated perceived the witch-body as “the evidence of a dangerous power” with blood being considered “the means of exchange between a supernatural force and the physical world[8]Francesca Matteoni, “Blood beliefs in early modern Europe”, Page 27”. Matteoni further notes that blood was at the centre of “a discrimination process, which catalyzed religious and social conflicts, individuating the ideal enemy in different kinds of social groups: the Jews and then women, old or poor people, categories which were ascribed to the witch-stereotype[9]Francesca Matteoni, “Blood beliefs in early modern Europe”, Page 27.” It was in this context that menstruation was used as a “vehicle for blaming women for all that was believed to be evil in the world[10]Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 27”.

The Western Christian Church, which introduced the reformulated Greco-Roman ideas of menstruation into Christian society, used these reformulated ideas, especially those from Pliny, etc. to disparage women. Shuttle and Redgrove, who made a comparative study of folklore descriptions of witches and Pliny’s description of menstruating women, found many similarities between them, especially in how both of them were believed to have the power to cause sickness in cattle or cause destruction of crops through rains or hailstorms[11]Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, “The wise wound: Eve’s curse and everywoman”, cited in Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 21. They note that the image of the witch is an “image of the transforming and changing menstrual cycle; it occurs all over the world because women occur all over the world,” and these images are “very, very old in human history because menstruation is as old as Eve; it is thought to be evil because men fear the powers and abilities of women[12]Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, “The wise wound: Eve’s curse and everywoman”, cited in Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 21-22”. This equation of menstruation to witchcraft contributed to further vilification of women as an embodiment of sin in medieval Europe. As Monica Sjoo and Mor Barbara observe, such beliefs led to “the myth of ‘feminine evil’ which dominated the Western world for over two thousand years, led logically to the religiously targeted murder of women as witches during the Great Inquisition of Europe[13]Monica Sjoo and Mor Barbara, “The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth,” cited from ibid.”

It is important to note that the notion of witches or witchcraft as such was not unique to medieval Europe, but instead can be found across almost all cultures and traditions across the world. But, it was the persecution of those believed to have practised witchcraft which was a new development during the late medieval period. As Matteoni observes: “The witch itself was not an original invention of the early modern period. Witches or sorcerers accused of maleficium, that is the capacity to harm other individuals by supernatural means, had operated in the known world since antiquity, but the presence of such people did not imply their persecution. It is during the late medieval period, that the witch started to be seen as the personification of the theological evil, becoming not just a single malevolent person, but the member of a sect of devil worshippers, which through and beyond the physical body of society, attempted to destroy its spiritual order. Even if the Catholic Church was primarily responsible for creating the diabolic witch, consequently both Catholics and Protestants fought witches in the attempt to Christianize Europe, and especially its rural people, among whom magic and ancient pagan beliefs still diffused and mingled with Christian ideas[14]Francesca Matteoni, “Blood beliefs in early modern Europe”, 4.

Thus, in his “The Satanizing of Women”, Savramis rightly calls the medieval witch-hunters “representatives of a theology that Satanises sexuality as such, equates women with sexuality, and seeks to destroy the female sex in order to eliminate ‘wicked’ sexuality in favour of a man-ruled Christian world[15]Demosthenes Savramis, “The Satanizing of Woman: Religion versus Sexuality,” Page 22, cited from Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 22.”

References

References
1, 3 Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson, “Women and Religion: A Feminist Sourcebook of Christian Thought”, Page 119
2, 4, 5 Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 25
6 Miriam Simos, “The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess,” Page 6, cited from ibid
7, 8, 9 Francesca Matteoni, “Blood beliefs in early modern Europe”, Page 27
10 Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 27
11 Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, “The wise wound: Eve’s curse and everywoman”, cited in Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 21
12 Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, “The wise wound: Eve’s curse and everywoman”, cited in Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 21-22
13 Monica Sjoo and Mor Barbara, “The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth,” cited from ibid
14 Francesca Matteoni, “Blood beliefs in early modern Europe”, 4
15 Demosthenes Savramis, “The Satanizing of Woman: Religion versus Sexuality,” Page 22, cited from Glenda Lewin Hufnagel, “A History of Women’s Menstruation From Ancient Greece to the Twenty-First Century”, Page 22

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