Monday 20 April 2015

How religious fanaticism exacted a dreadful toll in 17th century Europe

There’s a fascinating series running on BBC2 called Sex and the Church. In the second programme, Prof Diarmaid MacCulloch tells how perhaps 65,000 women were executed as ‘witches’ in Europe between 1500 and 1660. About 15,000 men were also killed. Any who tried to deny their ‘offence’, which often included some lurid tale of sexual intercourse with the devil, were tortured or threatened with torture, and that usually did the trick.

The worst place was what is now Germany, where 26,000 lost their lives. It was probably no accident that this was the place where the Reformation began, and where the battle lines between Protestants and Catholics were most clearly drawn, notably in the mindbogglingly devastating 30 Years War.

At first, the Protestants were less repressive than the Church of Rome, allowing priests to marry, for example, while the Catholic hierarchy decried all sex as sinful, even within marriage. (Controlling people’s access to sex, of course, is a very good way of controlling them.) But soon the Protestants were burning witches with as much enthusiasm as their enemies.

As part of the Counter-Reformation, its fightback against Protestantism, the Catholic Church also started running schools for poor boys. And what do you know? In no time, there was a scandal about sexual abuse. And how did the Church, right up to the Pope, react? They tried to hush it up. The first two episodes of Sex and the Church are still available on I-player.

*My account of the greatest volcanic eruption of modern times at Tambora (see my blog of April 11) in my book, Historia mundial de los desastres (A Disastrous History of the World) is quoted in this article on a Spanish website -

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