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Eradicating the Devil's Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe, 1525-1600.

Eradicating the Devil's Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe, 1525-1600. By Gary K. Waite. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. xvi + 320 pp. $65.00 cloth.

The executions by fire in the early modern era are a horrific burden on the claims to enlightenment and intellectual and spiritual liberation of the Renaissance and Reformation. This cruel form of official killing occurred especially for the crimes of infanticide, witchcraft, and heresy. Almost all those punished for infanticide were women, and three-quarters of the executed witches were women, but at least three-quarters of the executed heretics were men. William Monter, a pioneer in the comparative study of these varieties of "state terror," has advanced the very plausible thesis that there is a connection between the executions for heresy and those for witchcraft. He has remarked that, after the suppression of the German Peasants' War in 1525, state authorities took over the suppression of heresy in order to conduct it more effectively. He suggests that it is no coincidence that the last great outburst of witch persecution, in the century after 1560, occurred after most European countries had suppressed the heretical dissent connected with the Reformation. The engine of suppression was set up, and the witch hunt gave it a reason for continued existence.

Gary Waite's present book works within the framework of the Monter thesis, elaborating it considerably, and applying it particularly to a comparison of the persecution of Anabaptists and witches. The witch hunt began in the fifteenth century, when some Inquisitors replaced the notion that witch ideas were sub-Christian superstitions with an elaborate theory of demoniacal possession, which justified a much more serious prosecution of witchcraft. Waite points out that the new theory of the pact with the devil never caught on among Christian humanists such as Erasmus but later on became a weapon of the Tridentine Counterreformation. Anabaptists were extreme anti-clericals who denied the objective power of the Catholic cult: intercession of Mary and the saints, sacramentals like holy water and oil, and particularly infant baptism, thought to remove original sin, and the Lord's Supper, thought to be the real body and blood of Jesus Christ. The Anabaptists shared this opposition to sacramental realism with Reformed Protestants, and particularly with spiritualists, who heralded the ideals of tolerance of the Enlightenment. David Joris, a major Spiritualist Anabaptist, about whom Waite wrote an earlier book, went so far as to deny the independent existence of the devil, regarding Satan as a personification of human evil. From the standpoint of the Counterreformation this attack on the reality of the Catholic belief system was demonically inspired and tended toward atheism. Lutherans, who taught a more moderate form of sacramental realism, shared a similar view with Anabaptists and spiritualists. Particularly in eschewing the baptism of infants, Anabaptists were said to give children over to the devil; and Waite notes that witches, too, were accused of snatching babies from baptism and having their own "rebaptism" into the cult of the devil. Seen from this perspective, the suppression of the Anabaptists simply set the stage for the sacramental realists' continuation of their demonstration of the reality of their cult through the pursuit of witches.

The comparative study of Anabaptist persecution and witch persecution in a number of lands where Anabaptism flourished, such as in the Northern and Southern Netherlands, southern Germany, and the Tirol, adds weight to the Monter thesis that the last great outbreak of the witch hunt occurred in places where Anabaptism had disappeared and was conducted by some of the same authorities. Noteworthy exceptions are the decisions of Austrian Habsburg authorities to stop killing Anabaptists after 1560 and not to undertake a witch hunt; and, more important, the decision of the Dutch Republic to permit a religious diversity that included Mennonites and not to tolerate witch persecution.

To this reviewer, Waite is overly insistent about the connection between the motives and methods of Anabaptist persecution and the witch hunt that occurred in the period after Anabaptist executions subsided. First, the two cruel episodes are not of comparable dimension: 2,000 to 2,500 Anabaptists were executed, a proportionally greater mortality than that of any of the other contending groups in the Reformation and Counterreformation eras, but much smaller than the mortality of witches (Monter gives a realistically restrained estimate of 30,000). It is true that about one-third of the Anabaptist martyrs were women and that women had a bigger role in the Anabaptist/Mennonite martyrologies than in the comparable publications of Lutheran, Reformed, or Catholics. Still, women were not the main victims of Anabaptist persecution as they clearly were in the witch hunt--it is much harder to present a misogynist interpretation of the campaign to stamp out Anabaptism. Lastly, the argument that the Anabaptist and witch campaigns were above all launched by sacramental realists against deniers of the efficacy of baptismal water, exorcisms, and consecrated Hosts, in order to impress a skeptical public, does not quite work, since not only Catholics and Lutherans but also Reformed in Switzerland and Scotland were capable of conducting witch hunts. Waite's major assumption is that the primarily Catholic persecuting authorities sought to avert God's wrath on their communities by striking down agents of the devil, first Anabaptists and later witches. Supposedly widespread misfortunes like the onset of cooler climate after 1560 necessitated the suppression of witches in order to propitiate an angry God. Such broad speculations about the motives of the persecutors are not convincing. It is noteworthy that Anabaptists were not coerced into confessing things they did not do; many or most of the victims of the witch craze were. So we have two forms of "state terror," of different dimensions, with different sorts of victims, yet committed by the same sort of persecuting authorities. With full respect for the Anabaptist/Mennonite martyrs, who were rehabilitated in the eyes of their neighbors well before the governments stopped killing them, the madness of the European popular culture and elite culture was much the greater in the case of the witch hunt.

doi: 10.1017/S000964070800070X

James M. Stayer

Queen's University
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Author:Stayer, James M.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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