Monday, 18 March 2013

Anabaptists, witches and terrorists: who's next?

I keep thinking (it's not an original thought) that the Anabaptist kingdom of Münster and the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US have a lot in common. Both were immensely shocking, immensely newsworthy atrocities which permanently changed the worldviews and the policies of a lot of people in or close to positions of power when they happened. The Münster episode, for those who aren't familiar with it, was when this German city was taken over by an apocalyptic sect in 1534-5: they declared the end of the age, imposed polygamy and community of goods, killed or exiled their opponents. The city was beseiged and in the end they were all slaughtered. And 9/11 ... I take it we all remember that one.

The reason both episodes had such an impact was not because of the immediate damage they did. If the twin towers had collapsed in some sort of accident, that would have been awful, but it wouldn't have transformed Western politics for a decade. But in both cases, the political establishments thought they'd glimpsed the future. These were warnings of much worse atrocities to come, and so it was essential to strike against the ideology responsible, hard and relentlessly. Otherwise Anabaptists / Islamists were going to destroy civilisation.

Now maybe those counter-strikes were in fact decisive in neutering existential threats: we'll never know. But in retrospect both atrocities appear like ghastly one-offs, rather than the beginnings of some new paradigm. Of course violent Anabaptists and violent Islamists both continued to exist, but with the passage of time the one event no longer looks quite so world-shaking.

OK: so what? Here's where a book I much admire, and have been re-reading, comes in: Gary K. Waite's Eradicating the Devil’s Minions, published back in 2007. Waite's book tackles one of the big mysteries of early modern history, the great witch-hunt, in which 60,000 or more people, mostly women, were put to death for an imaginary crime. It's long seemed obvious that there must be some sort of connection between the witch-hunt and the Reformation - the two coincide pretty closely - but what? Catholics and Protestants killed witches with equal enthusiasm.

Waite's theory, which I find very persuasive, is that the Anabaptists are the link. Catholics and establishment Protestants alike hunted Anabaptists, and (literally) demonised them as a diabolical conspiracy. And once they'd driven them underground, the paranoias of demonic conspiracy which had been legitimised took on lives of their own and began to look for new targets. In fact, the more the Anabaptist threat was eliminated, the more fear it engendered. After all, the fact that it had disappeared only proved that it was hiding more effectively.

So my question is: now that the Islamist terrorist threat to western societies has, mercifully, been both contained, and exposed as much less serious than was originally thought, what new victims will we find to satisfy the fears which we have conjured up?


  1. I fear it may be religion in general. I quite frequently see the extreme actions of Islamists or Christian fundamentalists cited as evidence that religion generally and its influence is a bad thing that needs to be rooted out and defeated.

  2. A.P. Roach considers Dualism to be witchcrafts precursor, seeing the short step of acknowledging the Devil as the creator of the world to worshipping him as one which could simply be made. Thus, when combined with earlier accusations of heresy, such as Tanchelm in the Low Countries which included the heretic engaged in sexual depravity and the outbreak of witchcraft at Rheims, heresy and diabolical activity are closely linked (heretical magic). After all the punishment for each offence is the same. You can also throw into the mix a heavy dose of misogyny; with prosecutions for infanticide (only the devil would make a mother kill her child) and the toughening of laws against prostitution. Women were viewed as weaker and much more likely to give into the devils charms. Thus, as Merry Wiesner-Hanks claims ‘Witchcraft became spiritualized and witches became the ultimate heretics: enemies of God’. Thus, the Anabaptists like other heretics could easily take on the appearance of a ‘diabolical conspiracy’. Demons, witches or heretics they are almost one in the same and the answer to this threat is to burn the lot of them. This joyous activity is one Protestants and Catholics alike could all enthusiastically engage in. In the Reformation there was even more heretics to go round.