Witches of the West 2015

Early Modern and Modern Witch Hunting: Witches

Download here our program and our poster

You are invited to join The “Witches of the West” for presentations and conversations about ancient and modern witch-hunts: the two Witches days, February 6-7, open unexpected perspectives on the waves of moral panics and the endurance of prejudice in our self-declared enlightened societies. A dialogue between times, places, disciplines, and communities, this symposium is conceived as a provocation to thinking together about our blind spots and the functioning of collective fears. Following the thread of Witches, entwined with questions about women, religious minorities, media, libraries and fictions of threats, papers will address exclusions and discrimination that may not be perceived as such by their perpetrators and may even be our own. Which are the ways of reasoning, fabricating, instructing, spreading the delusions at work in persecutions which, at a said time, could seem legitimate to a community? How is a wave of panic subdued? What is the role of universities in the construction of open inclusive societies? What do you think about this? See https://mardinalia.wordpress.com/witches-of-the-west for more details (detailed program, overview etc.) and book the dates.

This symposium starts on the Friday afternoon, in the library, featuring a keynote lecture by Professor Andrew Gow (University of Alberta) on moral panics, now and then. The Saturday will explore the modernity of witch-hunts and will lead to an open conversation with the audience. Witches of the West is organized by the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, the Special Collections of Uvic Libraries, and the Program of Medieval Studies, with the support of the Faculty of Humanities. This symposium brings together researchers from many disciplines, students, and members from the community: consider being part of these conversations about who we are and what we do!

The event is free of charge and open to all: feel free to invite students, friends, colleagues. Thank you for sharing this information-information with your networks and circles. RSVP to csrs@uvic.ca by February 2 (so that we have seats for everyone).

A Provocation to think together about our own rituals of exclusion

Is barbarism medieval? Has it disappeared with the passing of history, swept away by our open and democratic society? If we believe the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who denounced the atrocities of the medieval Inquisition, then we believe that education, respect for the fundamental freedoms, and progress would ensure relief from persecution, from intolerance, and from blind condemnations. In one sentence, witch hunts would be a thing of the past, for medievalists only. Nevertheless, even in our advanced and free societies, modern logics of exclusion and new panics can be seen. While a widely accepted, though deceiving, prejudice relegates witch hunts to medieval times, a more rigorous examination shows that mass persecution and murderous madness grew in size and number of occurrences after the middle ages, precisely when science, art, and political regimes were more and more open and inclusive, precisely when people claimed times had brought enlightenment and human rights.

If “medieval” means barbaric and bloody, the sixteenth century of the Renaissance was more “medieval” in its witch hunts than the previous ones. In truth, as standards and models change, the dominant construction of collective identities, whether explicitly defined or not, continued its Inquisition trials long after the last fire of the medieval world, and well within the Enlightenment and the modern times. Modern states quickly found new victims for new public executions; they developed new tortures, such as the guillotine that killed in the name of the Republic.

For the insurance of public safety, the expansion of colonial conquests, and the silencing of socio-political unrest, not to mention the defense of national territories, massacres and persecutions have been committed in post-medieval civilizations. Perpetrators have justified their acts with the need to defend their country, their state, and their community against foreign threats. None of them saw their acts as unlawful or murderous: judges were following the rules, crowds were expressing their just anger, everyone believed in the common good and in the repelling of attacks against their communities, committed by individuals who were perceived as outside aggressors. In hindsight, the so-called heretics, witches, or strangers of the past look like members of the very communities who excluded them: dissenters, individuals in the fringe, and visionaries have been condemned as criminals who endangered social and moral order. Still, these very acts of persecution and violence often strengthened a collective sense of belonging, even though they were presented as mere reactions of defense, posterior to the constitution of a collective body. Victim, in these sad stories, is presented as culprit; persecution, as defense.


In our contemporary society, defined by openness and by respect for the law and for fundamental freedoms, by tolerance and the value placed in diversity, are old panics truly part of the past? A look through history does not always teach clear lessons. It allows, nevertheless, measuring our own obsessions or illusions. Our fascination for medieval witch hunts speaks to our rejection (in a faraway pre-modern time) of unjust and irrational persecutions: it also tells us of our propensity towards exclusion, even though our enlightened ideology abhors the idea of persecution. The medieval images stand for what we would have left behind, heading towards a right society.

In the distant past, the act of killing thousands appears to us as an imaginary construction, one to be dismissed by good sense and reason. Yet, though the committers claimed they strove for justice, salvation, and safety, nobody ever truly flew over a broomstick under the full moon. Studies reveal other motives, unclaimed, often kept silent, such as gender (witches became exclusively females in Early Modern times, for instance), class (labourers were deemed more dangerous than the rich elites), and ethnic ascendances. The different disciplines of Humanities allow us to see through collective blind spots and bring awareness of biases and assumptions. This analytical take on what remains unspoken and often occupies the blind spots of introspection is achieved through the examination of documents, texts, objects, events, and public and academic reception of these very sources. Rigorous and methodical research on the past can then provide a key for understanding our own categories and zones of panic. In this sense, Humanities provide the tools for a lucid and open society, mindful of collective scares and delusions.


The present symposium is a segue to the Annual Medieval Workshop Burnt at the Stake, which examines the status and symbolic value of pyres in the medieval times: fire was not only meant to destroy books, men, or women, but also to purify from sin and sinner, performed in presence of a gathered community. In some ways, it was a legal sacrifice, a Biblical punishment for crimes greater than disobedience to human laws. The horror that affects us when envisioning the torment of the victims leads some of us to follow the optimistic discourse of the Enlightenment, which reassures us with the notion of progress: modernity would establish, gradually, justice and humanity. Early modern and modern times do not follow this unidirectional plan, though. Witches’ day, on February 6th and 7th, are “post-medieval” and explore the uncomfortable links between the rise of open societies and the waves of collective cleansing.

The presentations explore the modernity of barbarism: against witches, first, in the Early Modern times, and then against different victims. After all, not all witch hunts are recognized as such, not all victims are seen as such either.

From 16th-century Europe to 18th-century England and France, and to modern Canada, the symposium starts in the Special Collections of the University library. The wondrous Seghers Collection, on loan from the Catholic Diocese, holds a number of beautiful books written by Inquisitors. They are placed on the shelves close to books on witchcraft and books of magic, since books can hold freedom as well as censure and silence. The first papers will illustrate the ambiguous and fascinating power of libraries, where communities can gaze at themselves and construct their own worlds. A place for freedom, the library is ambiguously the place for exclusion too: the first session features a presentation on unexpected rituals of exclusion in the Digital Humanities Library communities, where one could expect the most open and inclusive practices. There could not be a better place than the Special Collections for the following talks, presenting books on witchcraft and the long musical and visual afterlife of Macbeth’s Witches. This first day will be closed with a keynote address, delivered by Professor Andrew Gow (University of Alberta): “’Witch hunting’ and moral panics: Why studying the late medieval and early modern witch crazes can help us make sense of moral panics and other ‘witch hunts’ both in the past and today.” The second day proposes other perspectives: first, those of the so-called witches, with a talk inspired by a poem by Anne Sexton, with the true story of a victorious Irish witch and a presentation on the last witch executed in Europe, in 1782. The rest of the morning will present the Early Modern persecutions in Geneva, England and France and the performance of ritualistic justice. The afternoon is resolutely modern, with exclusions closer to home: the portrayal of vamps and vigilante women (‘witches’ in the popular imagination) in Early Modern comedies and satires, in popular Indian cinema, in African cinema, will be followed by a session illustrating the complementarity of amalgamation and exclusion (Human Rights, Religious Tolerance). The last session is … action: teaching is an engagement and commitment against persecution. This session will address the demonization of feminists and the importance of gender studies. The day ends with an open conversation (moderated by Paul Bramadat).

The Witches of the West symposium is named after an original manuscript detailing the first witch hunt of the modern times (in Arras, France, end 15th c.), kept in Edmonton, which will be at the core of the keynote address.