Reasons for witch trials reinvestigated

Sarada Earnshaw

Any student who has read Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” has an idea of how out-of-hand witch trials can get. Listening to Professor Edmund Kern’s lecture, “The ‘Public Sphere’ and the Trial and Execution of Witches,” the audience was given yet another view of how and why witch trials took on a life of their own. The traditional view of the typical witch trial is a story of authority figures using their power to persecute people who had beliefs that were outside the mainstream. A newer view proposes that the trials were the result of villagers’ demands that they be freed from the threat the witch or witches posed to their well being.

Kern took the stance that the cause was a combination of the two. He also pointed out that, in the time and place his lecture covered, the authorities were not interested in persecuting everyone. In one case, the government refused to allow an execution, even though the popular cry was in favor of their deaths. The government was most concerned with eradicating threats to the common good.

Kern’s lecture came from his research in Austria during 1998 and 1999. It is part of a larger work, which he is in the process of turning into a book.