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The Development and Effects of Paranoias
History of Basque Witchcraft
April 5, 1992
Why were the witches of the Basque Country persecuted? I think that there are many reasons behind those events of persecution, more than I can know of or that can be addressed in such a short paper as this, but I feel that there are certain important elements of the situation that surrounded the persecutions that I can mention. Some of what I will say is generally applicable to Europe as a whole and will be a repetition of what has been discussed in class but there are a few points I want to make which are more speculative on my part. My first point is very speculative but I wish to state it for the sake of completeness and for the fact that I think it is a viable idea. It is possible that the Spanish Inquisition needed to find and persecute witches because the Church needed to protect its image of a defender of Christianity. The Protestant areas of Europe were finding and killing witches everywhere. Perhaps the Church also needed to seem strong against witches but, at the same time, did not want to persecute its people - the Spanish people - so turned its attention towards Euskadi.
Now, I want to look at the political and economic description of the Basque Country at that time. Although, at the surface, it has a lot in common with the general situation of Europe, there are several details that I feel are important. Sometime before the trials of Logroño, maybe one hundred years or more, there had been passed in the Basque Country laws that gave all Basques the status of nobles. What this effectively did for the social/political situation was make all inhabitants of Euskadi equal before the law. However, at the same time, industry and urbanization were growing at a fairly rapid rate and this caused a growing gap between the upper and lower classes. As a combination of these two factors, anger and resentment grew, more so, I think, than if there had not been equality before the law because resentment grows more if you are said to be equal but obviously are not. The general situation in Europe and Spain in particular added to these feelings. It was the Age of Discovery which had witnessed the Birth of Science. The old view of the world, both physically and spiritually, was changing very rapidly and this caused, at the least, a sense of anxiety and confusion. Spain itself felt this mood more strongly because it was a once great empire that was now in decline. This is coupled to the fact that the Basque Country was one of the areas of Europe that was converted to Christianity the latest and, thus, in Euskadi, there was one world view change (pagan to Christianity) followed by another (Christianity to Darwinism) in a relatively short time span. I believe that the confusion this caused in the minds of the people led to among other things, a growing sense of distrust of that which surrounded them and, possibly, a slight renaissance of pagan belief since there were these new ideas saying that Christianity was wrong. It is possible that these feelings were directed towards the witches, who may have been seen as the cause and used as a scapegoat.
Related to the growing industrialization and urbanization of Euskadi is the wave of immigration that surely accompanied it, most of these immigrants coming from the south of Spain. As with all cases in which strangers move into a new area, especially when the immigrants do not speak the native language, there surely was resentment and anger between the Basques and the Spanish. This might have been even greater than normal since Basque is such a different language that Spanish and it would have been very difficult for the new residents to learn the language. This would have caused stronger feelings of distrust among the Spanish directed towards the Basques because they would have seemed so different, especially when a different language gives you a different outlook on the world. In this case, there would have been a clash between two different mind sets and world views (some have said that the Basque language develops a more monistic world view in its speakers.) This clash would have generated destructive feelings that could have been directed towards the witches.
The last idea, and what I feel is the most important, I want to suggest relates back to the pagan religion of the ancient (or maybe not-so-ancient) society of the Basques and also deals with the main aspect of the Basque witch trials that is very unique to Euskadi as opposed to the rest of Europe: the use of the testimony of children. As I mentioned, the Basque region of Spain was a relative late comer to Christianity. Because of this, there were (and probably still are) more remnants of their pre-Christian religion, which, of course, was pagan. I think these remnants were even stronger because of the known devotion the Basques hold for their beliefs and the fervor with which they worship them, as well as the fact that the region had a strong rural population and it is in rural areas that pagan beliefs are kept alive the strongest, this being done through oral tradition which ensures that everyone knows the stories. At the same time, the Christian religion was in the region by this time and worshiped with the same devotion and fervor. As a result, there was, I believe, a stronger mixing or synthesis of the two in Euskadi than in the rest of Europe. Of course, the pagan stories were told in the house and the Christian beliefs in the church, both being given the air of authority and truth. Children heard both belief systems and accepted both as true. They thus believed in people who had special powers, but, in the stories, these people were probably not judged or, if they were, they were equally judged as good as bad. However, in the church, children constantly heard sermons dealing with Sabbaths and witches which were described in minute detail. The children believed these sermons because the authority of the Church was behind them and they were accustomed to hearing stories of fantastic beings. The main difference between the two sets of stories the children heard was that the Church made the expressed point that the Sabbaths and witches were evil and condemned them. Because of this, as a result of a confusion, possibly, of pagan and Christian beliefs on the part of the children, they believed in and feared witches (in the form described in the sermons) and believed that they were evil. Why they were so willing to testify against others is probably a mystery, but I have two ideas that may help explain this phenomenon. The first one is linked to the noble status shared by all Basques. I have no idea how far it extended in relation to sex and age, but, if possessed by the children, they might have felt that they had the authority and power to bring charges such as witchcraft against their neighbors. Second, the Basques are known for their strong "competitive" spirit and the strong rivalries they hold. It could be that it was a method of retaliation against rivals, though I am not saying it was actually planned as malicious slander or something similar (though, I guess that could not be ruled out) but more as a process in which the rival first seemed to be a rival, then as someone bad, and then later as one of the worst things she could be: a witch. The children just said what their parents or the community thought. All of these ideas help explain the reason why, I feel, the Basque witches were persecuted. At that time there were feelings and a mood of confusion, anger, and despair, all of which were fueled by the examples I have listed before. I think that these feelings led to a paranoid fear of everything around the people. This fear was lashed out towards a group of women that had the characteristics we have discussed before in class: widows, women outside of the control of men, etc. The reason that this fear was lashed out at these women is probably because there was a feeling that someone had caused it and a desperate hope that if the suspects or agents of all the bad that was occurring were eradicated, maybe things would get better. However, I think the most important thing to look at here is how the circumstances surrounding the witch trials - the political, economic, and social conditions - led to such a paranoia of fear, confusion, and distrust that people were able to burn so many innocents and feel that they were justified in doing it. It is the way in which such paranoias develop that should be concentrated on in the study of witchcraft. I think the monistic view of the world held by the "witches" is also important, but we have seen already twice this century how paranoias can lead to attempts, some of which were very successful, to destroy whole groups of people, whether that group be defined by social class, political ideology, or race. We should, through the study of subjects such as witchcraft, try to educate each other in the development of these paranoias and how stupid they really in fact are in the effort to eliminate them in the future.
In this paper I have discussed some of the circumstances surrounding the Basque world at the time of the witch burnings. They are some of the things that I feel led to and fueled this paranoia that caused those burnings. I am sure there are many more and it is possible that some of my ideas are not based upon sufficient knowledge of the actual situation. However, I think that they are all useful and true to some, if only a little, extent. The thing I need to do now is examine my own condition and see what kind of circumstances are fueling my own personal paranoias. I think that should be the goal of everyone studying this subject, in addition to picking up pieces of the monistic world view.