Monthly Archives: June 2012

African-American WWII Marines Finally Honored

Article by Jim Michaels for, June 28, 2012:

Some relied on walkers, others canes. But they all struggled to their feet Thursday as the color guard passed and the Marine Band began playing in their honor.

Under hazy skies, the Marine Corps honored more than 400 African-American Marines, many of whom served during World War II and are now well into their 80s. The men went to a segregated boot camp, called Montford Point, and served in all-black units afterward.

“I never thought this day would ever come,” said George Kidd, 87, who entered the Marines in 1943 and was sent to Montford Point. “They could never bestow any greater recognition than this.”

The Montford Point Marines, as they are sometimes known, received the Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday. William “Jack” McDowell of Long Beach accepted the medal on behalf of all Montford Point veterans.

During a ceremony Thursday at the Marine barracks not far from the Capitol Building, Marine general officers walked down the ranks of Montford Point Marines, presenting replicas of the medal — the nation’s highest civilian honor — to each veteran.

The Montford Point Marines never had a prominent place in history like the Tuskegee Airmen, black pilots who flew during World War II, or the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American units that fought during the Indian wars. In recent years, the Marine Corps became determined to change that.

“I’ve been looking for this for 69 years,” said Andrew Miles, 86, pointing to the medal hanging around his neck. “I feel good now. I can go away peacefully.”

About 20,000 Marines passed through Montford Point from 1942 and 1949, when it was closed and recruit training was integrated. Most of the African-American Marine units were support or guard units, but that made little difference in places such as Iwo Jima, where everyone with a rifle fought.

Some encountered racism when they returned from overseas. Many tell of being refused service by Red Cross workers who were handing out free coffee when they traveled on troop trains in the United States. On the way to Montford Point they had to sit in special rail cars reserved for blacks.

The men who arrived Thursday did not appear to harbor bitterness, saying the Marine Corps simply reflected society at the time.

“Even though we knew we were not getting the same treatment as other Marines, we still loved the Marine Corps,” said Theodore Peters, 89, of Chicago.

Miles pointed out the presence of ranking black officers at the historic Marine Barracks, established in 1801.The Montford Point Marines helped pave the way for younger generations of African-Americans by proving themselves in training and in battle.

“That makes me feel good,” Miles said. “We proved to them we could do it.”


Leave a comment

Filed under Articles

Japan, South Korea Sign First Military Pact since WWII

From, June 29, 2012:

Japan and South Korea on Friday agreed to share intelligence in their first joint military pact since World War II.

The agreement is seen as a breakthrough in ties between two neighbors with a difficult history. Japan ruled Korea as a colony for several decades until the end of World War II in 1945, and Seoul has often been wary of Japan’s postwar military development, but the nations have many shared concerns, particularly North Korea and China.

The pact establishes a framework for sharing intelligence in such areas as missile defense, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Chinese military operations and other regional security matters.

It was previously approved by South Korea, and Japan’s Cabinet gave its final approval Friday ahead of a formal signing ceremony.

“Considering the security situation in east Asia, it is very significant for us to create the foundations for sharing information,” said Japan’s foreign minister, Koichiro Genba. “I think this is a very historic event.”

The pact reflects deepening mutual concerns that more cooperation is needed to enhance security readiness.

The two countries are increasingly concerned by potential threats from North Korea, which is developing its long-range missile and nuclear weapons capabilities. They are also closely watching the rise of China’s military.

North Korea heightened regional tensions in April with the launch of a rocket that was widely criticized as a test of long-range missile technology. The launch was of particular concern to Seoul and Tokyo because they are within reach of the North’s missile arsenal.

Such fears spurred the government efforts to cooperate more closely on intelligence sharing, though the pact remains controversial among some in South Korea.

“An accord for military-information protection with Japan is necessary given the ever-growing threat from the North,” South Korea’s JoongAng Daily newspaper said in an editorial. “The more quality information we have about the North, the better our security.”

But critics say the government in Seoul, fearing a backlash from opponents who don’t trust Japan, pushed the pact through without allowing enough public debate.

Along with bitter memories from Japan’s often brutal colonial rule of Korea, the two countries remain at odds over a territorial dispute that has marred their relations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles

Thessaloniki Subway Work Unearths Ancient Greek Road

Article by Costas Kantouris for Associated Press, June 26, 2012:

Archaeologists in Greece’s second-largest city have uncovered a 70-meter (230-foot) section of an ancient road built by the Romans that was the city’s main travel artery nearly 2,000 years ago.

The marble-paved road was unearthed during excavations for Thessaloniki’s new subway system, which is due to be completed in four years. The road in the northern port city will be raised to be put on permanent display when the metro opens in 2016.

The excavation site was shown to the public on Monday, when details of the permanent display project were also announced. Several of the large marble paving stones were etched with children’s board games, while others were marked by horse-drawn cart wheels.

Also discovered at the site were remains of tools and lamps, as well as the bases of marble columns.

Viki Tzanakouli, an archaeologist working on the project, told The Associated Press the Roman road was about 1,800 years old, while remains of an older road built by the ancient Greeks 500 years earlier were found underneath it.

“We have found roads on top of each other, revealing the city’s history over the centuries,” Tzanakouli said. “The ancient road, and side roads perpendicular to it appear to closely follow modern roads in the city today.”

About 7 meters (23 feet) below ground in the center of the city, the ancient road follows in roughly the same direction as the city’s modern Egnatia Avenue.

The subway works, started in 2006, present a rare opportunity for archaeologists to explore under the densely populated city — but have also caused years of delays for the project.

In 2008, workers on the Thessaloniki metro discovered more than 1,000 graves, some filled with treasure. The graves were of different shapes and sizes, and some contained jewelry, coins or other pieces of art.

A massive excavation project also took place during the 1990s in the capital, Athens, before the city’s new metro system opened in 2000.

Thessaloniki’s new subway is already four years behind schedule, due to the excavation work as well as Greece’s financial crisis. Thirteen stations will operate initially, before a 10-station extension is added later.


Leave a comment

Filed under History Weblinks for Students and Teachers

Non-Fiction History Books for Youth

Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007)
Janey Levy, Genocide in Darfur (2008) [ages 14-17]
Kimberly L. Sullivan, Muammar al Qaddafi’s Libya (2008)

Philip Caputo, 10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War (2005)
Kathlyn Gay, The Aftermath of the Chinese Nationalist Revolution (2008) — grades 9 and up
Ji-li Jiang, Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution (1997) [grades 5-9]
Moying Li, Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China during the Cultural Revolution (2008)
Carter Malkasian, The Korean War (2008)
Charles Pellegrino, The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back (2010) [high school and up]
Yaeko Sugama-Weldon, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight: Memories of a Japanese Girl (2005)
Dang Thuy Tram, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram (2007)
Michael V. Uschan, China Since World War II (2008) [grades 7-9]
Matthew S. Weltig, Pol Pot’s Cambodia (2008)
Ting-Xing Ye, My Name is Number 4: A True Story from the Cultural Revolution (2008) [Grade 8 and up]
Ange Zhan, Red Land, Yellow River (2004)

Pierre Berton, Canada Moves West (2004) [grades 5 and up]
Tim Cook, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War [ages 15 and up]

Margaret Ahnert, The Knock at the Door: A Journey Through the Darkness of the Armenian Genocide (2007)
Thomas Buergenthal, A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy (2009) [high school and up]
Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow (2005)– grades 9 and up
__________., Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (2001) grades 9 and up
John Fleischman, Black and White Airmen: Their True Story (2007) — grades 7 and up
Rudolf Frank, No Hero for the Kaiser (1931; reprint 1983)
Elly B. Gross, Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust (2007) — grades 7 and up
Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia (1995)
Laura Hillman, I will plant you a lilac tree: a memoir of a Schindler’s List survivor (2005)
Byron Hollinshead and Theodore K. Rabb, I Wish I’d Been There: Book Two (2008)
Rutka Laskier, Rutka’s Notebook: A Voice from the Holocaust (2008) [ages 12 and above]
Sharon Linnea, Raoul Wallenberg: The Man Who Stopped Death (1994)
Anita Lobel, No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War (1998; 2008 reissue) — ages 10 and up
Carla Hillough McClafferty, In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry (2008)
Senan Molony, Titanic: Victims and Villains (2009)
Susan G. Rubin, The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin (2006) — grades 3-6
Wolfgang S. E. Samuel, German Boy: A Child in War (2001)
Serge Schmemann, When the Wall Came Down: The Berlin Wall and the Fall of Communism (2006)
John Severance, Winston Churchill: Soldier, Statesman, Artist (1996)
Jane Shuter, The Camp System (Holocaust) (2008) — grades 9 and up
Peter Sis, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (2007)
Peter Lane Taylor & Christos Nicola, The Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story (2007) — grades 9 and up
Jacqueline Van Marsen, My Name is Anne, She Said, Anne Frank (2007)
Allen Zuvo & Mara Bovsun, True Stories of Children in the Holocaust (2005) [ages 9 and above]


Eduardo F. Calcines, Leaving Glorytown: One Boy’s Struggle against Castro (2009)

James R. Arnold, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (2008) [grades 9 and up]
Fethiye Cetin, My Grandmother: A Memoir (2008) [grades 9 and up –about Armenian Genocide of 1915]
Mark Greenwood and Fran Lessac, The Donkey of Gallipoli: A True Story of Courage in World war I [ages 10-12]

Thomas B. Allen, George Washington, Spymaster: How Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War (2004) [grades 6-9]
Thomas B. Allen and Roger MacBride Allen, Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War: How the North Used the Telegraph, Raidlroads, Surveillance Balloons, Iron-Clads, High-Powered Weapons, and More to Win the Civil War (2009) [ages 10 and up]
Thomas B. Allen, Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent (2008) [grades 5-8]
American the Beautiful (state series for grades 4-8, published by Children’s Press, 2007 — )
Marc Aronson, Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials (2005)
__________., The World Made New: Why the Age of Exploration Happened and How
it Changed the World (2007)
Marc Aronson and Patty Campbell eds., War is . . . Soldiers, Survivors and Storytellers Talk about War (2009)
Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Kids on Strike (2003) [grades 5 and up]
__________., A Coal Miner’s Bride: The Diary of Anetka Saminska (2002)
Margaret Whitman Blair, The Roaring 20: The First Cross-Country Air Race for Women (2006)
Benson Bobrick, Testament: A Soldier’s Story of the Civil War (2003)
Tonya Bolden, Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl (2005)
Tonya Bolden and Lumet Buckley, American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm (2003)
Penny Colman, Thanksgiving: The True Story (Henry Holt, 2008) — grades 4-8
Chris Crowe, Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case (2003)
James Bradley, Flags of our fathers: Heroes of Iwo Jima (A Young People’s Edition, (2005)
Philip Caputo, 10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War (2005)
Ina Chang, A Separate Battle: Woman and the Civil War (1996) [grades 5-8]
Barry Clifford et al., Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah, from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship (2007)
Sheila Cole, To be Young in America: Growing Up with the Country, 1776-1940 (2005) [grades 5-8]
Michael L. Cooper, Remembering Manzanar: Life in a Japanese Relocation Camp (2002) [grades 5-8]
__________., Dust to Eat: Drought and Depression in ithe 1930s (2004) [grades 5-7]
Nicholas Dawidoff, The Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg (1994)
John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1995) [high school]
Barry Denenberg, Lincoln Shot: A President’s Life Remembered (2008) [ages 9 and up]
Norman H. Finkelstein, Three Across: The Great Transatlantic Air Race of 1927 [grades 4-6] (2008)
John Fleischman, Black and White Airmen: Their True Story (2007)
Candace Fleming, The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary (2008) [grades 6 and up]
John Hope Franklin & Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (1999) [grades 10 and up]
Russell Freedman, Washington at Valley Forge (2008) [ages 10-14]
__________., Children of the Great Depression (2005)
__________., Give Me Liberty: The Story of the Declaration of Independence (2002) [grades 4-7]
__________., Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1990) [grades 6-12]
__________., Eleanor Roosevelt (1997) [grades 6-12]
Connie Goldsmith, Lost in Death Valley: the True Story of Four Families in California’s Gold Rush (2001)
Emmanuel Guibert, Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope (2008)[grades 10 and up]
Joyce Hansen, Freedom Roads: Searching for the Underground Railroad (2003)
Harold Holzer and Joshua Wolf Shenk, eds., In Lincoln’s Hand: His Original Manuscripts with Commentary by Distinguished Americans [high school and up]
Deborah Hopkinson, Shutting out the sky: Life in the Tenements of New York, 1880-1924 (2003)
Suzamme Jurmaine, The Forbidden Schoolhouse: The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students (2005) [grades 5-8]
Karen Lange, 1607: A New Look at Jamestown (2007)
Suzann Ledbetter, Shady Ladies: Nineteen Surprising and Rebellious American Women (2006)
Andrew B. Lewis, The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation (2009) [high school and up]
Cathy Luchetti, Men of the West: Life on the American Frontier (2006)
James M. McPherson, Fields of Fury: The American Civil War (2002) [ages 9-12]
Philip Margulies & Maxine Rosaler, The Devil on Trial: Witches, Anarchists, Atheists, Communists,and Terrorists in America’s Courtroom (2008) [grades 10 and up]
Albert Marrin, The Great Adventure: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America (2007)
Mary Elizabeth Massey, Women in the Civil War (1994) [grades 9 and up]
Robert H. Mayer, When the Children Marched: The Birmingham Civil Rights Movement (2008)
[grades 7 and up]
Kadir Nelson, We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (2008) [ages 10 & up]
Joanne Oppenheim, Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference (2006)
Neil Philip, The Great Circle: A History of the First Nations (2006)
Brian Prince, I Came as a Stranger: The Underground Railroad (2004) [grades 7 and up]
Delia Ray, A Nation Torn: The Story of How the Civil War Began (1996) [grades 5-8]
Edward Renehan Jr., Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (2007)
James I. Robertson, Robert E. Lee: Virginian Soldier, American Citizen (2005)
Martin W. Sandler, Lincoln Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Shaped an
Extraordinary Life (2008) [grades 5 and up]
Mary Stanton, Journey Toward Justice: Juliette Hampton Morgan and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (2006)
Ken Stark, Marching to Appomattox: The Footrace that Ended the Civil War (2009) [ages 9-12]
James L. Swanson, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer (2009) [ages 12 and up]
Yuval Taylor, Growing up in Slavery: Stories of Young Slaves as Told by Themselves (2005)
Leonard Todd, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave (2008) [grades 9 and up]
Elizabeth Varon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (2005) [grades 9 and up]
Paul Robert Walker, Remembering Little Bighorn: Indians, Soldiers, and Scouts Tell
Their Stories (2006)[grades 4-8]
Sally Walker, Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley (2005) [grades 6-10]
__________., Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland (2009) [grades 6-9]
Carole Boston Weatherford, I, Matthew Henson (2007) [ages 6-11]
Neil Waldman, Voyages: Reminiscences of Young Abe Lincoln (2009) [for middle schoolers]
Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
(1998, 2nd edition)
Daniel Wolff, How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations that Made Them (2009) [grades 9 and up]

Leave a comment

Filed under Non-Fiction History Books for Youth

History Teacher’s New Approach

Article by William J. Bennet, former US Secretary of Education, in, June 21, 2012L 

In a typical, unassuming classroom at Rosemount High School in the suburbs of Minneapolis, U.S. history teacher Josh Hoekstra had a very novel idea about how the subject is taught.

The 39-year-old husband and father of three has been teaching U.S. history for 13 years. He’s seen firsthand the demise of U.S. history education, now our high school seniors’ worst subject.

This school year, after watching his students’ intense interest in college basketball’s March Madness tournament (rather than school), Hoekstra invented his own teaching curriculum, calledTeach With Tournaments, to transform U.S. history content into a similar competitive, student-driven tournament.

William Bennett

William Bennett

“There is no reason that teaching U.S. history in the 21st century cannot be an amazing experience for all involved,” Hoekstra told me. “Kids need to make a personal connection with the people they are studying. Kids who ‘hate history’ are the ones who never were exposed to the human side of the people they are studying.”

The goal of Teach With Tournaments is simple — immerse students in the personalities and character of the great men and women of history through competition. For this school year, the tournament focused on one theme: the most courageous figure in U.S. history.

Each student chose a historical figure he or she thought best embodies courage in U.S. history, from military heroes such as Alvin York to civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks to humanitarian pioneers such as Clara Barton. Each choice was then paired off in the bracket system.

Students were required to research their character’s accomplishments and then defend their choice in front of the class. Afterward, the class voted and the winners moved on to the next round, eventually narrowing the field of 64 to one champion.

Josh Hoekstra and his family
Josh Hoekstra and his family

The genius of Hoekstra’s plan is that his students are required to use new arguments for each round. Like a good coach draws up a new game plan for each opponent, so too must students innovate and dive deeper into their research.

It wasn’t long before their competitive juices kicked in. In the first round of the brackets, Tom Burnett, one of the heroes of Flight 93on September 11th, lost by the slimmest of votes to U.S. Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor recipient Michael Murphy. The girl who represented Tom Burnett was in tears over the outcome.

“This is a student who had become deeply connected to the person she was researching and was overcome with emotion. To see this type of passion from a 16-year-old girl in a public high school classroom is rewarding beyond words,” Hoekstra said.

Over the school year, the brackets whittled down to two final characters, the aforementioned Murphy and WWII hero and Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone.

Before the final vote, Hoekstra asked his class for any last arguments. A student with special needs raised his hand and spoke on Murphy’s behalf. He praised Murphy for sacrificing his life to save his team in Afghanistan, but he said what really makes Murphy his choice was that when Murphy was in 8th grade, he defended a special needs student who was being bullied.

“For this young man a personal connection was made beyond what was in the headlines,” Hoekstra recounted. “Everyone in that room, including myself, learned something because that one nervous student with a shaky voice was emotionally invested in the material.”

One special needs student discovered what millions of our students are missing — a deep, personal connection to American history.

In the course of human history, the American story is great and unique, one filled with men and women of courage, character, and compassion. We must bring it to life for other students like Hoekstra did for his.

His Teach With Tournaments innovation may very well be one of the tools. Already teachers across the country are using it, Hoekstra says, and it’s replicable for any subject or any classroom.

Teachers like Hoekstra are a great influence on their students. Education expert Eric Hanushek estimates that the difference between a great teacher and bad teacher in a child’s lifetime earnings is hundreds of thousands of dollars. But more important than paychecks, a great teacher instills in his students character and a passion for self-instruction.

In one of Hoekstra’s brackets, WWI hero Audie Murphy lost to Louis Zamperini, the brave prisoner of war survivor and subject of the book “Unbroken.” The young man representing Murphy was heartbroken that he didn’t win. Audie Murphy was more than just a war hero, this young man argued. At a young age, Murphy’s father left him and his family, leaving Murphy to hunt for food and provide for his many siblings.

At the same time, back at his home, this particular young man was watching his own father slowly succumb to cancer. He would soon be without a father and in a similar position as the young Audie Murphy. Like great teachers do, Hoekstra was preparing this boy for more than a history exam.

He was preparing him for life.


Leave a comment

Filed under History Weblinks for Students and Teachers

BBC Radio 4 Plans First World War Drama

Ben Dowell for The Guardian, June 20, 2012:

BBC Radio 4 is marking the 100th anniversary of the first world war with a drama to be broadcast over the timespan of the original conflict – four years.

The drama, which has the working title Tommies and is believed to be the UK’s biggest ever one-off radio drama commission, will be scripted by a writing team led by Jonathan Ruffle and will tell the story of signals corps soldiers’ experiences during the war in real time.

Tommies – the nickname for British soldiers – is still in the planning stages but is expected to begin broadcasting around the summer of 2014 and follow the group as they prepare for the war, which broke out on July 1914.

The as yet uncast drama will follow the trajectory of the conflict in real time and finish broadcasting in the autumn on 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of the conflict, which claimed about 900,000 British lives.

Already two years of the drama have been sketched out. Current plans take the unit up to 1915 and the Battle of Loos, the British offensive which marked the first major example of trench warfare in the conflict and the first time the British used poison gas on the enemy. This will be aired in 2015.

In 2016, the Battle of the Somme is also expected to be marked 100 years after it started on July 1916, and some of the soldiers featured in the drama will inevitably be killed as the war progresses.

Radio 4’s heard of drama, Jeremy Howe, said the signals corps was chosen because these units, responsible for communications, were more mobile than most and as a result the drama would be able to give a more varied portrait of the conflict.

“It’s the biggest drama because of the length, certainly,” added Howe. “When I pitched it I asked [Radio 4 controller] Gwyn[eth] [Williams] what she was doing in Christmas in five years’ time and that is the length of the war – the scale is big.”

Howe added that Ruffle will lead what he called “the bravest and the best” writing team. He said Ruffle has experience of a similar but smaller project, having written a “real-time” dramatisation of Len Deighton’s documentary novel Bomber for Radio 4 in 1995.

 Williams said she was “working out how the schedule” the drama but confirmed that “while it was early” in project’s development, it had been green lit.


The commission is part of Williams’ attempt to give drama a higher profile on her station. Earlier this month Radio 4 broadcast an ambitious five-and-a-half-hour adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, spread across its Saturday schedule.


Promising a series of new commissions, Williams told a press briefing last month that she wanted Radio 4 to become more of a “playground for artists and writers”.

Leave a comment

Filed under History Weblinks for Students and Teachers

17th Century European Witchcraft Craze Explained

Written by historians at

If witchcraft today seems a frivolous subject more appropriate to Hollywood horror movies and Halloween costumes, four centuries ago it was a deadly serious business. The period between 1550 and 1650 in Europe witnessed a widespread and concerted effort to discover and eradicate witchcraft, and though estimates vary it is reasonable to conclude that–at a minimum–more than 100,000 people were prosecuted for the crime, and some 40,000 executed for it. Concern with witches, of course, predated the sixteenth century.

In Classical antiquity we find reports of strange behavior, such as Roman complaints about “Strigae,” women who could fly when they turned themselves into owl-like creatures and went about stealing babies. The cult of Diana involved nocturnal women on horseback, and stories circulated about peculiar pagan fertility cults. Moreover, there was a long-standing tradition of popular belief in various forms of magic, practiced by many lay people, and often to helpful ends. Cunning women, diviners, healers, and astrologers were among those who ordinary people might consult in the belief that these “specialists” could utilize the magical properties that reputedly were inherent in nature and not the monopoly of the Christian Church. On occasion, such people might turn their talents to more destructive ends (practicing bad magic or “maleficia”) and others might be more inherently or persistently malicious, but they wouldn’t seem to pose a serious enough threat to alarm Europe’s rulers and prompt them to mobilize the full weight of their judicial machinery to execute tens of thousands of their subjects. What underlay the witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth century was the fusion of this popular tradition with elite concerns over the devil’s agency and power, turning what could have been dismissed as bothersome local nuisances into manifestations of a mortal threat.

In the late Middle Ages, the Church was troubled by theological and social rebellion: the emergence of new forms of heresy such as the Cathars and Waldensians, and the outbreak of a series of peasant rebellions. The introduction of printing helped to advertise and spread such concerns among literate elites, as in the publication in 1486 of the (in)famous witch-hunting manual, Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of Witches], by the German Dominican monks Heinrich Kraemer and Jacob Sprenger. It was less concerned with the popular tradition of natural magic than with diabolism, that is covenants by disorderly people with the devil so they could exercise evil magical power against Christianity. This witches’ brew of worries about heresy, diabolism, maleficia, and nocturnal activity took on added significance because of changes in parts of continental Europe in judicial practice, especially the revival of Roman law and emphasis on inquisitorial rather than accusatorial procedure. Victims could not rely upon surviving an ordeal to prove their innocence; instead, it was incumbent on the judge to seek evidence and employ torture to elicit confessions, confirming guilt and implicating other victims.

Who were these disorderly people and how did they manage to be prosecuted as witches? The first point to make is that very few of them were actually attempting to practice any form of witchcraft; they were victims, either of judicial fantasies, popular hysteria, or their own anti-social behavior. It is also worth noting that our stereotype of the witch — an ugly old woman living alone, shunned and feared by her neighbors — offers important clues about who was likely to be accused and why.

A typical witchcraft case began as a result of personal misfortune. Perhaps somebody’s seemingly healthy child or animal suddenly died. Maybe they became lame or ill, or their crops were ruined by an unexpected hailstorm, or they suffered from any of the challenges that were so common a feature of the precarious balance of life in early modern Europe. Searching for an explanation, the afflicted person suspected witchcraft, and more often than not, knew just who they suspected. Overwhelmingly, though not inevitably, the suspect was female (about 80% overall were women). It was generally assumed that women were weaker, morally as well as physically, and so more likely to resort to magical means to even the score. They were also presumed to be more lustful, and thus receptive to the devil’s sexual advances. On a practical note, women were, as cooks and midwives, more frequently associated with bodily health, and more vulnerable to accusations of sorcery in cases of infant mortality, food poisoning, or sudden illness.

Women accused as witches tended to be somewhat older (often in their 40s and 50s), with a history of eccentric and contentious, unneighborly behavior. They were often widowed or single, and so were not “plugged in” to normal social networks, and indeed aroused fears that they were likely to disrupt established families (some historians speculate that these fears were aggravated in protestant countries by the reduction of approved vocations for older single women with the dissolution of convents). They were likely to be poor, and thought to be ready to resort to magic as compensation for their vulnerability. Sixteenth century Europe, beset by demographic growth, inflation, and increasing poverty, was thus a fertile breeding ground for denunciations of people who had, in the eyes of their neighbors, violated the norms of the community.

Once a witch trial began, however, the initiative swung to the judges, who, during the era of the witch-craze, were less interested in cases of maleficia than in the possibility of diabolism and a direct challenge to the faith. Primed by printed accounts and previous opinions, judges expected to find evidence along the following lines. The accused witch was presumed to have been tempted by the devil in some disguise (often as a well-dressed young man) and to have given herself to him both sexually and spiritually (signing a pact). The next step would be to travel in a unnatural way (by broomstick, on a animal, or transformed as an animal) to a nocturnal gathering, or sabbat. Riotous behavior would ensue, including a banquet of unappetizing food, worship of the devil and receipt of a “devil’s mark” (a strange mark on the body or spot that was insensitive to the touch), and a general perversion of Christian rituals. The witch would then be provided with the means to do harm, usually through some powder or paste.

Further investigation would usually uncover witnesses who could testify to the bad character of the accused, while torture would frequently elicit a confession from the hapless victim. What began as the arrest of an individual, however, could spiral into a panic as judges, convinced of the collective and collaborative nature of the crime (the nocturnal meetings and so forth), tortured suspects to reveal the names of their supposed accomplices in witchcraft. All too often, the suspects were willing to invent episodes and implicate the innocent simply to stop the pain. These were the circumstances under which a self-sustaining panic could take shape.

Were there any patterns to the entire process? There was no clear difference between the denominations, as Catholic Poland and Protestant Scotland were quite willing to prosecute and execute witches, while Catholic Spain and Protestant Holland proved more lenient. Areas of religious division witnessed the greatest concentration of prosecutions, such as the French/Swiss borderlines and in what is now southern Germany. Under the stress of the Reformation, trials escalated beyond the stereotypes, so that in Trier in the 1590s 306 people were executed, and in Bamberg the mayor and most of the city council met a similar fate in the 1620s.

With religious conflict at a fever pitch, fears of subversion were heightened. The Reformation’s emphasis on individual, personal sanctity may have made some people feel inadequate to the extent that they projected their guilt onto others and accused them as witches. The emphasis of both Protestant and Catholic churches on the necessity of superseding older superstitions with true Christian faith meant that the churches now claimed a monopoly over the exercise of sacred power. Many people, stripped of recourse to reputed practitioners of protective magic (such as cunning women or astrologers), could now only retaliate legally, against perceived witches.

Yet, as quickly as the witch-craze had erupted, it faded away. It wasn’t that the witches had gone away, but that the context had changed. In that sense, the witch-hunts tell us more about European society between 1550-1650 than about the witches themselves. The tensions that had fueled it began to recede. After the mid-seventeenth century, Europe experienced greater prosperity, less inflation, and fewer visitations of the plague. The Wars of Religion came to an end, and confessional boundaries appeared more settled. Above all, elites no longer viewed thousands of old, poor, widowed women as agents of the devil and an imminent threat to the survival of a Christian world. Confessions gained under torture now seemed less credible (although it worth recalling that about half of the accused were not convicted). The scientific revolution, advances in medical thought, and conceptions of a more rational, orderly world all undercut the hysteria that had blazed so fiercely. So ended an era; perhaps political dissidents would be the modern-day equivalents of the witches.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles