Witch hunts grew from a stew of emotions, notably fear of female sexual power. They have no place in a modern Italian court
The Guardian, Tuesday 27 September 2011
Here are the news headlines for 1486: in the fair city of Perugia, a she-devil hath falsely accused an inn-keeper of murder most vile … Sorry, let me start again. This isn’t the 15th century, when “witches” were being hunted all over Europe, tortured into confessing and burned at the stake. In 2011, no one seriously believes that women go mad with lust and sell their souls to the devil – or do they?
Astonishingly, exactly that accusation has been made in an Italian court this week by a lawyer called Carlo Pacelli. He used the occasion of an appeal by the American student Amanda Knox against her conviction for the murder of a British student to call her an “enchanting witch” and attack her in terms that would be instantly recognisable to a mediaeval witch-finder.
The idea that women are natural liars has a long pedigree. The key document in this centuries-long tradition is the notorious witch-hunter’s manual, the Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of Witches, which was commissioned by Pope Innocent VIII. The book was written by two Dominican monks and published in 1486. It unleashed a flood of irrational beliefs about women’s “dual” nature. “A woman is beautiful to look upon, contaminating to the touch, and deadly to keep,” the authors warned. They also claimed that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable”.
It’s not difficult to see these myths lurking behind Pacelli’s description of Knox: “She was a diabolical, satantic, demonic she-devil. She was muddy on the outside and dirty on the inside. She has two souls, the clean one you see before you and the other.” The lawyer’s claim that she was motivated by “lust” could have come straight from the Malleus, which insists that women are more “carnal” than men.
You might imagine that the crime for which Knox and her then boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were convicted in 2007 was unpleasant enough without dragging in a lot of medieval mumbo-jumbo. Knox’s flatmate, a Leeds University student called Meredith Kercher, was found in her bedroom in a pool of blood after Knox and Sollecito took part in what the prosecution described as a drug-fuelled sex game that turned violent. Knox is serving a 26-year sentence for the murder of Kercher, while Sollecito got 25 years.
Knox initially accused a Congolese bar-owner, Diya “Patrick” Lumumba, of the murder and he was held for two weeks before being released without charge. Rudy Guede, a drug dealer from the Ivory Coast, was separately convicted of taking part in the killing “with others” and sentenced to 30 years in prison, which was later cut to 16. The lengthy court proceedings have clearly been immensely distressing for everyone involved in the case, not least Kercher’s parents who have asked people to remember their “beautiful” daughter.
Pacelli is representing Lumumba at the appeal, and his outburst brought into the open a strain of irrationality and misogyny that exists as an undercurrent in many headline-grabbing criminal cases. Behind such insinuations – regardless of whether the woman in question is a victim or a perpetrator – lie irrational and indeed medieval assumptions about the untrustworthiness of women. The Malleus traces this “fault” all the way back to Adam and Eve, claiming that woman was created from a “bent” rib and is therefore defective: “And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”
Witch hunts grew out of a stew of emotions, notably fear of women’s sexual power over men, to the point where stories circulated all over Europe about witches supposedly depriving men of their “virile member”. Probably the most infamous witch trial in history took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and resulted in 19 people being hanged; 14 of them were women. Two and a half centuries earlier, in 1446 to be exact, a woman was burned to death in Perugia for “divination and sorcery”. Whatever you think about Knox, this species of hysteria has no place in the modern courtroom.