Today is the Worst Day of the Butcher’s Life

The Butcher is literally at home hiding in the dark because terrible things tend to happen to him on August 1st.  I can’t remember them all, but arrests, accidents, losing jobs, etc.  The rest of August has been known to not be so great for him, too, but if he can make it through today, we will, hopefully, be over the worst of it.

Of course, knowing that today is notoriously a day when bad things happen in the Butcher’s life, I’m trying to be exceptionally cautious while driving, shuffling my feet, or standing under tall trees.

I don’t know why the Butcher has such a hard time on Lammas Day.

Here’s what I wonder*.

There are eight solar holidays on the pagan (of European descent) calendar.  Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Midsummer, Lammas, Mabon, and Samhain.  He was born right before Samhain.  I wonder if that sheds any light onto why Lammas is so difficult for him.

*Okay, that’s not entirely true.  Readership, here’s what I’ve been wondering and I know some of you are going to know the answer to this.  How many women through out the history of Christian Europe actually considered themselves witches?  I guess I don’t want a number.  I want to know what kinds of evidence we have for women (and men) actually practicing what they understood to be witchcraft of sorts.  I know Maria Romero in 1702 in Spain told the Inquisition that she cast spells and read cards and understood this to be witchcraft.  But I just wonder how you sort out, or if it’s possible to sort out, who was actually practicing witchcrafts of various sorts and who was being accused of it.

14 thoughts on “Today is the Worst Day of the Butcher’s Life

  1. “What they understood to be witchcraft of sorts” is a really problematic formulation. There’s a lot of evidence of people (men as well as women) doing things we might describe as spell-casting and/or shamanism throughout the middle ages. But it’s not likely that they understood these behaviors as witchcraft, since witchcraft was perceived as evil, and they saw themselves as good (motivated to help others, not contravening religion as they understood it, creating good and not in harm). Sometimes (mostly in the later middle ages and especially afterwards, during the early modern period) their specific practices came head to head with inquisitions or preaching against witchcraft, and sometimes the practitioners themselves were brought to agree that they had (however innocently) been practicing witchcraft. Often, though, the practices were too benign or too negligible to draw hostile attention, and are still around today in the form of sayings and superstitions — most often connected with agriculture.

    A great study of local (male) “good witches,” known as benandanti, and the ways a local inquisition convinced them that they were practicing magic and were therefore doing evil is Carlo Ginzburg’s The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. William A. Christian has a couple of books that cover Iberia in roughly the same period, with more attention to the interplay of orthodoxy and folk beliefs in the community at large: Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain and Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain. Robert Muchembled has some thought on the matter for France in Popular Culture and Elite Culture in France, 1400-1750 and (I think) The Mind of Modern Man.

    You’ll notice that these books mostly don’t touch on anything before about 1450. There’s not much evidence, and it isn’t clear whether that’s because these were actually late-medieval ideas that hadn’t been mentioned before because no one thought them; because the enforcement of orthodoxy was more rigorous from the 15th century on than it had been before, and therefore literate people were more concerned with the ideas; or simply because they were just as important earlier but the documents haven’t survived. Valerie Flint’s The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe is a fairly encyclopedic treatment of the topic of magic from an earlier date. It suffers from covering too much territory over too much time, but with allowances for overextension it’s a pretty good picture of what we actually do know about it.

  2. Perhaps you missed the end of the discussion on the Charlemagne thread, where it is revealed that no one can resist my heaving bosom. I just didn’t want to inadvertently tempt you like that.

  3. In the colonial American realm, there’s also considerable debate about “what they understood to be witchcraft” and how it might differ from the world of the marvelous, supernatural, or just plain inexplicable. The best couple books are all New England-centric, as this is where literacy and population density conjoin with explicit discussions of lay religious life. Given the transAtlantic replanting of Puritan communities, this also helps because you can connect the dots from something like Keith Thomas’s Religion and The Decline of Magic (17th century England) to David Hall’s *Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (argues that lay practice and understanding differed markedly from orthodox Puritan theological teaching — most saw signs and portents everywhere, a way that God communicated and by which humans could understand His will; also says that these lay and clerical/theological realms were largely coexistent without dramatic conflict). I’d probably also recommend Richard Godbeer’s The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England (argues that belief in magic was widespread, as otherwise it would have been hard to believe in witchcraft, no? also argues that when people wrote about magic, the force was clearly associated not with benign supernatural power or with knowing God’s Will but with the Devil) and Erik Seeman’s Pious Persuasions:Laity and Clergy in Eighteenth Century New England (stressing conflict between laity and clergy over the supposed benignity of magical practice, among other things, as a central way that a communal piety was formed).

    There’s also a shit-ton of academic work about Salem and other witch-crazes that increasingly have turned to social history and gender history rather than cultural/religious/legal history to interpret the events.

  4. That’s kind of a loaded question, or at least a tough one. You can’t have “witchcraft”, at least the kind where someone is persecuted for being a witch, until you have christianity to condemn them. In other words, wasn’t pretty much everybody in europe a “witch”, if you go back far enough?

    Were the Druids “witches”? I doubt they had the same idea of the word as those who came later.
    The tough part is, “Where do you start counting?”

  5. I think I could spend a happy afternoon cuddling NM, Bridgett, and Exador, so hugs for everyone in this thread.

    And, yes, Ex, you hit on a problem, for sure with how I’m formulating my question. Practicing magic doesn’t necessarily equal practicing witchcraft. “Witch” has a specific negative meaning.

    I think there’s some sense that the negative practice of magic–witchcraft–was regularly condemned even before Christianity. But maybe we could argue that the prosecution of people who practiced benign magic as being witchcraft came with Christianity.

    So, no, I don’t know where to start counting and I’m especially not sure what I want to count.

  6. I’m not an expert in pre-colonial Africa by any means, but it seems to me that “witchcraft” in that context meant that you were harnessing supernatural power for selfish or harmful ends rather than for the good of the community. And that was a non-Christian context…so…

    Well, shoot. An interesting discussion, but it’s time to take Kid to dance class. Carry on, carry on….

  7. Well, the problem with “all the persecution started with Christianity” is that the distinction between magic (which could be good or bad) and witchcraft (which is malevolent in intention and harmful in outcome) is older than that, and so is the punishment. The Romans certainly had ideas about evil magic, which charioteers and gladiators were prone to use. Charioteers could be disqualified from racing for using it, so clearly it was considered to be worthy of punishment. The Greeks were aware of the misuse of spells and religious oaths (which were dangerous because they could double back and harm the user). The Witch of Endor is even older than that, and you know what happened to Saul. So I’m going to speculate far, far beyond my knowledge here, and go with the idea that certain kinds of magic were always seen as bad and their users punished, and other kinds of magic (mostly pertaining to rebirth/fertility) became considered bad as fertility religions were replaced by sky religions. (I.e. when the men took all the religious toys away from the women.)

  8. Oh, and persecutions of Jews and later of Christians by pagan rulers was partly because since they wouldn’t sacrifice to the official gods they had to be doing some nasty magic in the services they did attend. I think Norman Cohn talks about this a bit in Europe’s Inner Demons and Robin Fox deals with it in Pagans and Christians but I know there’s a lot more recent scholarship on the question.

  9. I’m not sure it would be possible to sort it out because it is my understanding that many of the “witches” prosecuted were, in fact, healers and midwives, practicing with herbs and plants for medicinal reasons. I also suspect (although I am not nearly so well read and informed as your other commenters) that many more women than men were prosecuted as “witches” due to simple misogyny.

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