Heresy: Barbara G. Walker

by Barbara G. Walker

About the beginnings of the Christian era, Bertrand Russell wrote: “It is strange that the last men of intellectual eminence before the dark ages were concerned, not with saving civilization or expelling the barbarians or reforming the abuses of the administration, but with preaching the merit of virginity and the damnation of unbaptized infants. Seeing that these were the preoccupations that the Church handed on to the converted barbarians, it is no wonder that the succeeding age surpassed almost all other fully historical periods in cruelty and superstition.” (1)

There is a letter attributed to Clement, alleged bishop of Rome (i.e., pope) toward the end of the first century, although no contemporary documents support Clement’s reign or even his existence. Nevertheless, the church still claims him as the third pope after Peter, whose existence is equally dubious. Clement’s letter holds a definition of heresy that actually belongs to a much later century, after consolidation of the church’s temporal power. It says that “authority of reign” is designated by God to the priests, deacons, and bishops on earth, and whoever refuses to “bow the neck” to them is guilty of insubordination against God, and must receive the death penalty. (2)

On the basis of this probably spurious letter, the church declared war on all its critics: Gnostics, pagans, unbelievers, and other dissidents. Church father Irenaeus wrote: “It is necessary that every church should agree with the Roman church, on account of its preeminent authority.” Heresy was defined in Rome as “insubordination to clerical authority,” meaning that anyone who disagreed with anything a priest said was by definition a heretic. Of course the church fathers themselves argued bitterly on all points of theology, and murdered one another with considerable enthusiasm. One scholar points out that whenever the clergy met in large numbers, as at a council, they chose a town near a large body of water for disposal of the bodies. It was said that Lake Constance received some 500 corpses during the council that met there, and the Rhine River received many more. (3)

Christians persecuted other Christians with as much fervor as they spent on killing pagans. In 385 the pious Bishop Priscillus of Spain and six of his followers were first tortured and then beheaded for holding certain doctrines associated with the Manichaean heresy. (4) The fifth-century pope Leo the Great endorsed the death penalty for all “erroneous beliefs.” (5) Pope Urban II declared in the tenth century that all heretics must be tortured and killed; and Pope Innocent III (who was certainly not innocent) stated that everyone must obey the pope even if what he commands is evil. (6) He further stated that anyone holding a personal view of God that conflicts in any way with church dogma “must be burned without pity.” (7)

It is interesting, though, to note that of the eighty or so heresies during the first six Christian centuries, not one makes any reference to the claim to authority of the Roman pontiff, because no one had yet heard of it. Only the Catholic Church postulates an unbroken succession of allegedly infallible popes dating from St. Peter. There is no record of it anywhere else. (8)

Because church officials kept slaves, a fourth-century council ruled that anyone who encouraged slaves to rebel against their masters “under pretext of piety” — that is, according to Gnostic opinions of human equality — would be subject to excommunication and prosecution as heretics. Runaway slaves who took refuge in a church were captured and returned to their masters. (9)

The equality of men and women in most Gnostic sects particularly irritated the church fathers, who were sexist in the extreme. Tertullian called woman the gate of hell, the devil’s doorway, who should always wear rags and mourning garments in acknowledgement of her crime. St. John Chrysostom (John Golden-Mouth) called woman more harmful than any savage beast. St. Clement of Alexandria wrote that every woman should be overwhelmed with shame because of her gender. And the church council of Macon in 584 seriously debated the question of whether women could be considered fully human. After much argument for and against, the question was decided in favor of women’s humanity by a vote HERESY – 3

of 32 for, 31 against. So by the narrowest of margins — only one single vote — the prelates decided to consider women part of humanity. (10)

John Scotus Erigena stated that at the end of the world, however, the female part of humanity will be eliminated, and “that imperfection, that stain on the purity of creation, will be no more.” (11) Both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas declared that women are good for nothing but procreation and housekeeping. The fifth-century pope Gelasius noted that among Gnostic Christians women could serve at holy altars, which represented what he called “a contempt for divine truths.” (12)

On the question of female clergy the church has not yet progressed beyond the fifth century. In 1917 the book of canon law, Corpus Iuris Canonici, declared that no female person may approach an altar for any reason, not even a nun serving her sisters at chapel mass; and Pope John Paul II said “women are not allowed the functions of a mass-server” in his instruction curiously entitled “A Priceless Gift.” Pope Pius X, now declared to be a saint, in 1903 reaffirmed the traditional ban on women’s voices in church choirs, saying that only boys may be used as sopranos. (13). Throughout most of the Christian centuries, church choirs included castrati, talented male sopranos who were castrated before puberty to preserve both their virtue and their voices, because (it was said) God was more pleased with them than with the “impure” female voice. (14)

Early churches, both Gnostic and orthodox, had many leaders advocating rigid asceticism, claiming that men could be saved, or could attain true spirituality, only through total avoidance of contact with women. By the fourth century B.C.E., the ideas of Jain Buddhist eremites had penetrated Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, and many other middle-eastern areas, touting the wonders of self-denial in the development of spiritual and magical powers. (15) Similar ideas evolved among the Essenes and other sectaries. Strict celibacy was said to enable the enlightened ones to walk on water, to fly, to heal lameness and blindness, to turn base metals into gold or water into wine, and to perform many other Messiah-like miracles. The orthodox church reasoned that man fell from grace through woman, therefore man could return to grace only by renouncing HERESY – 4

woman. (16) Once St. Augustine had labeled sexuality as the pipeline of original sin, and marriage as a moral crime, the old pagan respect for the institution of marriage was on its way out.

St. Ambrose called marriage a crime against God, because God had intended every person to maintain the state of virginity that came with birth. (17) St. Jerome said the primary purpose of any man of God was to “cut down with the ax of Virginity the wood of Marriage.” (18) Tertullian called marriage “an obscenity” and a moral crime “more dreadful than any punishment or any death.” (19) There were churches in Syria that accepted only celibate men, and refused to baptize any man who had ever been married. (20) In 251, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage praised the currently spreading plague because it allowed Christian youths to die while still in a state of virginity. (21) The Council of Trent ruled that a person who even hinted that marriage might be more blessed than celibacy was a heretic and must be declared anathema — that is, formally cursed and excommunicated. (22)

Marriage was not to be saved even by dutiful production of offspring, according to Pope Gregory the Great, who wrote that “babies are born as the damned fruit of the lust of their parents. From the first, they are the offspring of hell; they are justly children of wrath because they are sinners. If they die unbaptized, they are condemned to everlasting torments for the guilt of their birth alone. Existence is itself a state of sin.” (23) These harsh pronouncements were later contradicted (despite the doctrine of papal infallibility) by the invention of limbo or purgatory, when it was found that people would pay handsomely for priestly rituals purporting to parole their dead relatives out of hell or keep them in a less uncomfortable after-life.

There was no Christian marriage sacrament until the sixteenth century. (24) A Catholic scholar writes that “nothing is more remarkable than the tardiness with which liturgical forms for the marriage ceremony were evolved.” (25) In fact they were not so much evolved as copied from the common law long established under paganism, and had more to do with the sharing of property than the sharing of love. One authority HERESY – 5 says that in the modern Greek Orthodox Church, the religious wedding service is “intrusive, no real part of the ceremony of marriage, but an elaborate way of calling down a blessing on the ceremonial, or what is left of it, which constitutes the real wedding.” (26)

In the first half of the Christian era, women could still be major property owners. The ever-practical church began to favor clerical marriages after all, when it perceived that a rich wife could be very handy. From the sixth to the eleventh centuries, the majority of priests were married, and thus gained ownership of women’s property. (27) Then it was noticed that when married priests died, they tended to bequeath their property to wives and children instead of to the church. All of a sudden, clerical marriage became a heresy.

The eleventh-century Gregorian Reform Movement forced clergymen to cast out their wives and children, or else lose their ordination, benefices, and salary, and become subject to fines, physical harassment, or imprisonment. The children were disinherited and declared illegitimate. Historian David Noble writes that most of the abandoned women “suffered horribly, reduced to poverty, homeless, exiled; others mutilated, tortured, murdered. Clergymen were abused and deposed, but their wives were destroyed. Abandoned by the church to utter destitution, they and their children confronted the horrors of starvation, prostitution, servitude, murder, and suicide.” (28)

By the twelfth century it became a firm rule that all who entered holy orders must turn over all their property to the church. Wealthy female landowners who had joined convents in order to keep their property to themselves were now threatened with excommunication and prison. Some groups of nuns, such as the well-endowed and enlightened teaching order of Beguines, were forced to integrate into papally approved orders where education of, and teaching by, women was forbidden, and all real estate and other valuables were appropriated by the church. Frequently, the formerly female-owned buildings were converted into dwellings and prison-houses for the Inquisition. (29) Such rules, together with its crusades and wars of acquisition, made the church HERESY – 6 the owner of nearly half of all the feudal lands in Europe. Here began the era of Renaissance heresy-hunting, when the greed and corruption of the church were at their height, and critics were attacked with the most ruthless cruelty ever seen in the history of civilization, surpassing even the Nazi holocaust of the twentieth century. That holocaust lasted less than ten years. The church’s version lasted more than five hundred years, and its Inquisition is still nominally part of the Holy Office.

The Inquisition was created to win the war between the church and the disillusioned public, during the period when ecclesiastical corruption was at its height. It was established by a series of papal bulls, notably the 1251 Ad extirpanda of Pope Innocent IV, described by J.B. Russell as “a terrible measure against heretics… authorizing seizure of their goods, imprisonment, torture, and… death, all on minimal evidence.” (30) The “minimal evidence” was usually obtained by torturing previous victims until they gave names of so-called accomplices, who were then arrested and tortured to contribute more names, and so on, until whole villages were implicated and everyone went in terror of the devil on the one hand, and the church on the other.

Only a few decades ago, Catholic manuals mendaciously claimed that the Inquisition was a purely civil tribunal, established to punish secular crimes. (31) Actually, the Inquisition was not interested in secular crimes except as they might relate to heresy, the one offense whereby otherwise law-abiding citizens could merit the death penalty. Even today, Catholic sources continue trying to falsify the staggering numbers of legal murders committed by the Inquisition and the extraordinary cruelty of its methods.

The great historian Henry Charles Lea considered the Inquisition “a standing mockery of justice — perhaps the most iniquitous that the arbitrary cruelty of man has ever devised…. Fanatic zeal, arbitrary cruelty, and insatiable cupidity rivaled each other in building up a system unspeakably atrocious. It was a system which might well seem the invention of demons.” (32)


Here’s how it worked. 1. All procedures were kept secret. 2. “Common report” and hearsay were accepted as proof of guilt. 3. The accused was never told of the nature of the charges nor allowed legal counsel. 4. Witnesses were kept concealed. 5. Perjurers, excommunicates, or children could give evidence. 6. No favorable evidence or character witnesses were permitted. In any case, anyone who spoke for an accused heretic was arrested as an accomplice. 7. Torture was used always, without limit of duration or severity. (Official sources said that torture could be used “only once,” but weeks or months of daily torturing were simply described as “continuations.”) Even if the accused confessed before torture, the torture was applied anyway, to “validate” the confession. If the accused died under torture, the record stated that the devil broke his neck in prison. 8. The accused was forced to confirm under torture the names of “accomplices” suggested to him by the judges. 9. No accused person was found innocent. (33)

The rule of confiscation was what made the Inquisition so enormously profitable. All the property of an accused heretic could be seized by the church immediately upon his arrest. The popes praised the rule of confiscation as a prime weapon against heresy. (34) Victims were expected to pay the expenses of their own imprisonment as well, even to pay for the ropes, wood, and stakes used to kill them. There was a schedule of fees for each torture operation. Those without money could starve to death in prison. Pope Gregory XI wrote that too many accused heretics were dying of starvation in prison before they could be brought to the stake, and he offered indulgences to all who would donate food to them. Lea comments: “There is something so appallingly grotesque in tearing honest, industrious folk from their homes by the thousand, in thrusting them into dungeons to rot and starve, and then evading the cost of feeding them by presenting them to the faithful as objects of charity, that the proclamation which Gregory issued August 15, 1376, is perhaps the most shameless monument of a shameless age.” (35)

The title of Inquisitor was applied for the first time to the judges who investigated the Albigensian heresy in the south of France, which was “the most civilized land in Europe” in the twelfth century, according to HERESY – 8

Briffault: “There commerce, industry, art, science had been far in advance of the age. The cities had won virtual self-government, were proud of their wealth and strength, jealous of their liberties… The nobles, for the most part, were cultivated men, poets themselves or patrons of poetry, who had learned…that municipal liberties were a safeguard rather than a menace to the wise ruler.” (36) The church’s problem was that these enlightened people paid no allegiance to Rome, followed Gnostic beliefs concerning reincarnation and the demonic nature of the biblical Jehovah, condemned idolatry, denied the Trinity, and refused the sacraments of the Roman Church, which they called the Synagogue of Satan.

In 1209 Pope Innocent II preached a great crusade against the Albigensians (also called Cathari), which resulted in the extermination of half the population of France. When the papal legate was asked how the crusaders might distinguish the heretics from the faithful, he answered: “Kill them all — God will know his own.” (37) It has been written that more than a million people were slaughtered. (38) Briffault says, “A people of rare gifts had been tortured, decimated, humiliated, despoiled… The precocious civilization which had promised to lead Europe in the path of culture was gone, and to Italy was transmitted the honour of the Renaissance.” (39)

A nineteenth-century prelate tried to defend the church’s actions against the Albigensians by saying that their heretical opinions “brought violent disturbance into men’s minds,” in keeping with the traditional ecclesiastical definition of any theological diversity as violent disturbance. (40) However, a massacre on the scale of the Albigensian crusade may be considered a disturbance considerably more violent.

The riches brought into the church by this campaign encouraged further forays against heresy in all the countries of Europe. Mass executions became commonplace, one inquisitorial chronicler

describing the burning of 180 people at once as a “holocaust very great and pleasing to God.” (41) Popes praised the Inquisition’s soldiers, as when Pope Gregory XIII sent congratulations on the slaughter of ten thousand French Protestants: “We rejoice..that with the help of God you HERESY – 9

have relieved the world of these wretched heretics.” (42) Of course it was not the world but the church that was worried about their existence.

Heresy, or dissatisfaction with the church’s ways of thinking and doing, was actually spread instead of stifled by the violence of its punishments. Here and there a few honest clerics spoke up against the abuses of their superiors; some paid with their lives for their boldness, like Brother Raymond Jean, executed for preaching: “The enemies of the faith are among ourselves. The Church which governs us is symboled by the Great Whore of the Apocalypse, who persecutes the poor.” (43) Nicholas de Clamanges, rector of the University of Paris, said in an open letter that the popes were ravishers rather than pastors of their flocks: “The priesthood has become a misery reduced to profaning its calling… Who do you think can endure, among so many other abuses, your mercenary appointments, your multiple sales of benefices, your elevation of men without honesty or virtue to the most eminent positions?” (44) Even the revered St. Bernard deplored the church’s greed: “Whom can you show me among the prelates who does not seek rather to empty the pockets of his flock than to subdue their vices?” (45)

The Spiritual Franciscans, or Fraticelli, were declared heretics when they withdrew from the orthodox Franciscan order and claimed that the pope and all his kind were tainted with the sin of simony; that because of its evil, the church had been excommunicated by God, and the pope was an Antichrist. In direct opposition to the church’s official declarations, they insisted that Jesus was a poor man, and good Christians should be similarly free of acquisitiveness, as St. Francis himself had taught.

Needless to say, these well-meaning heretics didn’t last long. A whole town in Italy, Magnalata, known to be one of their centers, was leveled to the ground by order of Pope Martin V, and every inhabitant of the town was slain. (46) Other Franciscans, however, continued to supply judges and other personnel for the Inquisition, along with the Dominicans, who earned the punning title of Domini Canes, the Hounds of God. In 1325 Pope John XXII issued a bull “infallibly” declaring it heretical to say that Jesus and his apostles owned no property, and ordering inquisitors to HERESY – 10

prosecute those who called Jesus a poor man. The pope had 114 Spiritual Franciscans burned alive, just to drive the point home. (47)

The legend of St. Francis also inspired an Italian peasant named Segarelli, who tried to join the Franciscan order and was rejected. Still, he believed himself a true spiritual son of St. Francis, and founded his own order, which was named the Apostolic Congregation, preaching against the worldly wealth of the church. Segarelli was caught and burned, but the Apostolic Congregation continued under the leadership of Fra Dolcino, hence they came to be called Dolcinists. They welcomed women to their order and granted their “Sisters in Christ” the same right to preach and lead prayers as the men had. They claimed to renounce sexual relations, so when Fra Dolcino’s particularly beloved Sister in Christ, Margherita, bore him a child, it was announced as a miracle brought about by the Holy Ghost.

Three crusades were preached against these tenacious heretics. Finally in the harsh winter of 1307 they were trapped in a mountain hideaway, reduced to starvation, and slaughtered. After watching his dearly beloved Sister Margherita burned to death, Fra Dolcino was slowly torn to pieces by red-hot pincers on a cart that rolled along public roads, where everyone could see the edifying spectacle and learn the consequences of heresy. (48)

The Inquisition invented many new and ingenious ways to increase its treasures, such as accusing the dead of heresy in order to dig up and burn their remains, and take property away from their legal heirs, on the ground that heretics couldn’t own anything. (49) If a person fearing that he was about to be arrested should commit suicide to cheat the torturer, all his property was automatically taken by the church. Families were left destitute by this rule, and no one dared to help them for fear of reprisals. The Inquisition thus established the law of property seizure for suicides, which remained in force in most European countries until 1870. (50) The use of torture in ecclesiastical tribunals was officially sanctioned in 1257 and remained a legal recourse for the church for five and a half centuries, until it was abolished by Pope Pius VII in 1816. (51)


There was at least one inquisitorial judge who experienced a revulsion for his lifework and dared to say that his victims’ confessions were false, due only to the agony of the torture. His name was Dietrich Flade. His archbishop had him arrested and put on the rack until Flade admitted having spoken heresy because he sold his soul to the devil. Then he was burned. (52)

The Inquisition remained active until 1834, especially in Central and South America, where the “heathen” natives were tortured and killed for crimes against the true faith, such as not believing in it. (53) Many Native Americans were burned at the Mission of San Francisco before the tribes were persuaded to accept the Word of God. (54) As far away as India, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Inquisition killed nearly four thousand people in the district of Goa. (56)

And still the Inquisition has its defenders. At the beginning of the twentieth century a cardinal, endorsed by Pope Pius X, wrote: “The naked fact that the Church, of her own authority, has tried heretics and condemned them… shows that she truly has the right of killing… Who dares to say that the Church has erred in a matter so grave as this?” (57) Of course, quite a few have dared to say so, especially some women who were understandably annoyed by the linguistic habit of referring to this all-male and fiercely autocratic church as “she.”

One of the most famous victims of the Inquisition was Giordano Bruno, one of the best thinkers of the sixteenth century, a forerunner of philosophers like Leibniz and Spinoza. Accused of heresy at his monastery school, he fled to Rome, was accused again, and traveled through Switzerland, Germany, France and England as a teacher. He lectured on the theories of Copernicus, anticipating Galileo and Kepler. In his lectures on “natural science,” mathematics, and cosmology, he taught that the universe may contain many worlds. He was accused of holding opinions “contrary to the Catholic faith,” and condemned to death. He was burned in 1600 on the Campo dei Fiori in Rome, close to the Vatican, where his memorial statue was erected in 1889, funded by an international committee in spite of clerical opposition. (58)


Another notable heretic was the Spanish theologian and writer Michael Servetus, who was burned in 1553. He wrote works on medicine and pharmacology, and first recognized the circulation of the blood, later confirmed and elaborated by Harvey. He was arrested by the Inquisitor-general of Lyons for denying the trinity, opposing infant baptism, and publishing other heretical ideas. He managed to escape, and fled to the Protestant stronghold of Geneva — an unfortunate choice, because it was the theological territory of John Calvin, who had declared himself Servetus’s enemy. Calvin helped to arrange his second arrest, leading to his trial and execution. Calvin wrote that Servetus’s views were “such detestable heresy as to abolish the whole Christian religion;” and Servetus could “destroy all the fundamentals of the faith.” (59) So fearful are the faithful!

Curiously, this kind of language has been typical of anti-heretical writings, hinting at an admission that since God is made of human words, then human words alone might have the power to unmake him. The Quakers were often accused of “ungodding God,” or “robbing God of his glory,” or “deposing the majesty of God himself,” showing that on some level their critics believed God to be very vulnerable, a mere bit of ephemera capable of being blown away by a breath. Seventeenth-century England forbade publications that might doubt the Trinity, “to the great dishonor of God;” and even verbally denying that Jesus was God was declared a capital offense. (60) Believers’ most homicidal rage has always been aroused by those who suggest that belief may be unfounded.

As the intellectual level of Western civilization became a little more sophisticated, working up to the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the panic of orthodox theologians became even greater. Pope Gregory XVI in his 1832 bull Mirari vos said liberty of conscience is madness, and any work advocating freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, or freedom of education is “a filthy sewer full of heretical vomit.” (61) (So much for “American principles;” the papacy has “infallibly” condemned them.)


By 1870 only Czarist Russia was more wickedly run

than the Papal States. In them there was no freedom of

thought or expression, and no elections. Books and papers

were censored. Jews were locked up in ghettos… It was

frankly a police state flying the papal flag, with spies,

inquisitors, reprisals, secret police, and executions for

minor offenses commonplace. A small, corrupt,

lascivious, tight-knit clerical oligarchy ruled, in his

Holiness’s name, with a rod of iron. (62)

The second phase of the Inquisition had to do with the definition of witchcraft as a heresy, which didn’t occur until the fourteenth century. Witches were the doctors, midwives, spiritual counselors and wise-women for rural Europe throughout the first half of the Christian era, and the Frankish Salic Law of 500 C.E. officially recognized their right to practice their arts. An edict of 643 made it illegal to kill a witch, and in 785 the Synod of Paderborn said anyone who killed a witch must be sentenced to death for murder. (63)

The Canon Episcopi declared that fear of witchcraft was nothing but a delusion, and to believe in witches’ occult powers was heretical. But after the reign of Pope Innocent VIII, it became heretical not to believe in them. The Pope’s bull Summis desiderantes “infallibly” declared that witches blast crops, cause diseases in people and animals, prevent married couples from copulating, and generally “outrage the Divine Majesty.” (64) Apparently believing the Divine Majesty helpless to take care of the matter by himself, inquisitors undertook to do it.

The real reason for this reversal of ecclesiastical opinion was, as usual, economic. Declaring witchcraft a heresy enabled the Inquisition to survive as a money-making institution. In 1375 a French inquisitor pointed out that most of the rich heretics had been exterminated, so fresh confiscations of wealth wouldn’t be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. “It is a pity,” he said, “that so salutary an institution as ours should be so uncertain of its future.” Pope John XXII then empowered the inquisitors to prosecute any woman who worked charms, spells, or folk remedies, and HERESY – 14

the church began to develop its concept of witchcraft. (65)

From the twelfth century on, village healers had been in competition with the priests, who were forbidden to practice medicine on the ground that all diseases were caused by demons, and the only permissible cures must depend on prayer and holy water. (66) The wise-women’s procedures succeeded more often than prayer and holy water did; and this had not gone unnoticed.

Besides, the witches were predominantly women. “Any woman by herself knows more…superstitions and charms than a hundred men,” said the Dominican monk Johann Herolt. (67) The church distinguished between sorcery, which was generally acceptable because it was practiced by men, and witchcraft, which was heresy because it was practiced by women. Agrippa von Nettesheim’s books of sorcery were published under church auspices, accompanied by a statement of ecclesiastical approval; his instructor in magic had been an abbot named John Trithemius. (68) And one Pope Honorius was famed as the author of a popular grimoire (book of sorcery).

When the church discovered that common folk couldn’t understand doctrinal subtleties and didn’t take much interest in fine points of theology, heretical or otherwise, persecution was extended into areas that the common folk knew well. For example, a late spring frost in 1610 ruined crops in the neighborhood of Bonn, and was officially described as an act of God. Twenty years later, after the witch judges had visited the area, similar natural disasters were blamed exclusively on witches. (69)

Two monks, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, were sent to Germany and other parts of Europe to “investigate” the phenomena of witchcraft, and to evolve plans for dealing with it. The result was their famous book, Malleus Maleficarum, “A Hammer for Witches,” which became the standard reference for inquisitorial procedures. A more atrocious piece of literature can hardly be imagined, particularly when one recalls that this was not a sadistic fantasy but a real directive for dealing with real people. It stated that a witch must be “often and frequently HERESY – 15

exposed to torture. If after being fittingly tortured she refuses to confess the truth, the inquisitor should have other engines of torture brought before her, and tell her that she will have to endure these if she does not confess. If then she is not induced to confess, the torture must be continued… She is not to be altogether released, but must be sent to the squalor of prison for a year, and be tortured, and be examined very often, especially on the more Holy Days.” (70)

Americans talk about the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, as if they were a great historic horror; but only nineteen people were killed, and it was all over in a year’s time. Europe’s witch trials went on for centuries and killed some nine million, most of them women — though some scholars consider this a low estimate. (71) Although the church has been quietly destroying records and will admit to only a few hundred thousand fatalities, the multiplicity of multiple burnings adds up to many more. We read of whole villages where only one or two women were left alive; of hundreds burned in a single day; and of stakes as numerous as a forest of trees. One bishop proudly claimed to have executed nineteen hundred in five years; and a Lutheran prelate, Benedict Carpzov, claimed to have condemned twenty thousand all by himself. Even in relatively permissive England, some thirty thousand witches were slaughtered. (72)

The women who were tortured and burned were

accused of crimes ranging from being a midwife, possessing

a cat, or having intercourse with the devil. Often, the

smartest, most outspoken, most beautiful, educated, or

wealthy women in a community would be singled out for

murder by the female-hating celibate clergy… Almost the

entire female population of a town would be immolated on

a single day. In one German city, 900 women were burned

in one day; in one French city, 400 were burned in a single

day… An inquisitor of Como, Italy, was quoted as having

burned 1,000 witches in a single year. The murders were

not carried out by disorderly mobs, but were well-ordered,

following a well-defined legal process involving sworn

testimony from local citizens, gathering of evidence,


extraction of confessions, and official ecclesiastical

judgments. (73)

When such reports are multiplied by thousands of inquisitors and five hundred years, the comparison with Salem, Massachusetts, seems somewhat unbalanced — for which the United States may thank its tradition of religious freedom.

In Europe, considering the severity of the persecutions, and the impossibility of fighting back against a hugely powerful and wealthy organization, it is hardly strange that Gnostic and other heretical beliefs, symbols, and stories went underground and were disseminated in whispers and clothed in disguises. In such forms, some of them unexpectedly survived. Remnants can be found in fairy tales and folk songs, alchemy and astrology, gypsy lore, bardic romance, Grail legends, the Cabala, the Tarot, commedia, poems, ballads, dances, nursery rhymes and children’s games as well as in secret societies. Since the pagan gods and goddesses of Old Europe were declared devils, one and all, those who continued to revere their ancestral deities became devil worshipers by definition, even as Christians were busily taking over many of their customs and all of their holy days. In fact, orthodox Christianity is a confused amalgam of many of the symbols and rituals it set out to destroy — which may be said equally of every religion arbitrarily purporting to be the one true faith.

Heresy means “choice.” But when worshipers are able to choose freely, there is no such thing as heresy. 


1. Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945, p. 366

2. Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House,

1979, p. 34


3. De Rosa, Peter. Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy. New

York: Crown Publishers, 1988, pp. 94-95

4. Levy, Leonard W. Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of

Blasphemy. New York: Schocken Books, 1981, p. 99

5. Muller, Herbert J. The Uses of the Past. New York: New American

Library, 1954, p. 184

6. De Rosa, op. cit., p. 97

7. Ellerbe, Helen. The Dark Side of Christian History. San Rafael, CA:

Morningstar Books, 1995, p. 77

8. De Rosa, op. cit., p. 206

9. Fox, Robin Lane. Pagans and Christians. New York: Harper & Row,

1986, pp. 298-299

10. Gaylor, Annie Laurie (ed.) Women Without Superstition. Madison,

WI: FFRF, Inc., 1997, p. 529

11. Noble, David F. A World Without Women. New York: Knopf, 1992,

p. 105

12. Ranke-Heinemann, Uta. Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. New

York: Doubleday, 1990, pp. 88, 132

13. Ibid., pp. 1322-134

14. Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and

Secrets. HarperSanFrancisco, 1983, p, 146

15. Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology. New York: Viking, 1970,

p. 146


16. Lederer, Wolfgang. The Fear of Women. New York: Harcourt

Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1968, p. 163

17. Briffault, Robert. The Mothers (3 vols.) New York: Macmillan,

1927, v. 3, p. 373

18. Fielding, William J. Strange Customs of Courtship and Marriage.

New York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1942, p. 82

19. Lederer, op. cit., pp. 162-163

20. Bullough, Vern L. The Subordinate Sex. Chicago: University of

Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 103, 112

21. Fox, op. cit., p. 359

22. Briffault, op. cit., p. 375

23. De Rosa, op. cir., p. 324

24. Fielding, op. cit., p. 233

25. Briffault, op. cit., pp. 248-249

26. Rose, H.J. Religion in Greece and Rome. New York: Harper &

Row, 1959, p. 206

27. Noble, op. cit., p. 79

28. Ibid., pp. 129-133

29. Lea, Henry Charles. The Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New

York: Citadel Press, 1954; unabridged version, Macmillan, 1961,

p. 226

30. Russell, J.B. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell


University Press, 1972, p. 155

31. White, Andrew D. A History of the Warfare of Science with

Theology in Christendom (2 vols.) New York: George Braziller,

1955, v. 1, p. 319

32. Lea, op. cit., pp. 60, 97, 257

33. Robbins, Rossell Hope. Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and

Demonology. New York: Crown Publisherss, 1959, pp. 13-14

34. Ibid., p. 229

35. Coulton, G.G. Inquisition and Liberty. Boston: Beacon Press.

1959, p. 151

36. Briffault, op. cit., pp. 487-488

37. Campbell, Joseph. Occidental Mythology. New York: Viking,

1964, p. 499

38. Smith, Homer. Man and His Gods. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.,

1952, p. 257

39. Briffault, op. cit., pp. 487-488

40. Coulton, op. cit., pp. 80, 91-92

41. Muller, op. cit., p. 241

42. Ellerbe, op. cit., p. 95

43. Lea, op. cit., p. 599

44. Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,

1978, p. 522


45. Lea, op. cit., p. 21

46. Ibid., p. 653

47. Guignebert, Charles. Ancient, Medieval and Modern Christianity.

New York: University Bopoks, 1961, p. 287

48. Lea, op. cit., pp. 614-623

49. Coulton, op. cit., pp. 132, 148

50. Smith, op. cit., p. 418

51. Robbins, op. cit., p. 269

52. Smith, op. cit., p. 292

53. Plaidy, Jean. The Spanish Inquisition. New York: Citadel Press,

1967, p. 165

54. Briffault, op. cit., p. 519

55. Lea, op. cit., p. 51

56. Ellerbe, op. cit., p. 88

57. Coulton, op. cit., p. 69

58. Cranston, Sylvia. Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery.

Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press, 1994, p. 256

59. Levy, op. cit., p. 139

60. Ibid., pp. 217, 219, 186, 290

61. De Rosa, op. cit., p. 146


62. Ibid., p. 130

63. Castiglioni, Arturo. Adventures of the Mind. New York: Alfred A.

Knopf, 1946, p. 233

64. Kramer, Heinrich, & James Sprenger. Malleus Maleficarum. New

York: Dover Publications, 1971, p. xliii

65. Robbins, op. cit., p. 8

66. White, op. cit., v. 2, p. 36

67. Bullough, op. cit., p. 177

68. Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. The Philosophy of Natural Magic.

Secaucus, NJ: University Books, 1974, foreword

69. Robbins, op. cit., p. 330

70. Kramer & Sprenger, op. cit., pp. 226, 249

71. DeMeo, James. Saharasia. Greensprings, OR: Orgone

Biophysical Research Lab, 1998, p. 312

72. Smith, op. cit., pp. 292-293

73. DeMeo, op. cit., p. 312


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