Heretics, Witches, Homosexuals and Jews: A history, and a present, of persecution

One of the reasons I started writing my Dark Apostle series was the number of times that this list appeared during my research.  It is the historical equivalent of someone saying, “Round up the usual suspects,” whenever anything goes badly wrong.  I wanted to question some of these overlapping categories of persecution.  The research led me to some surprises about the assumptions we make about the Middle Ages, as well as to some surprises about the ways we think now.

An early tag line I considered for the series was:  What do Witches, Jews and Homosexuals have in common?  When the stake goes up, they are the first ones to burn.  Sadly, they still are–although there has been less interest in the persecution of pagan religious practitioners of late, at least in my awareness.

One of the first big reviews I got for Elisha Barber chastised me for making Elisha too modern because he fails to be homophobic, but did not remark upon the fact that he also fails to be anti-Semitic. During the period in which I’m writing, anti-Semitism was much more rampant and virulent than homophobia.  Still, the origin of the slur “faggot” is a reference to firewood originally applied to heretics.

I chose to frame Elisha as centered in his medical knowledge:  that all men are the same beneath the skin, and his task is to heal them as best he can.  He is dismayed to discover the overlapping prejudices of the various groups he encounters. So, when his mentor, Mordecai, a Jewish surgeon, is injured, some of the witches refuse to help, in spite of the fact that they, too, represent a persecuted minority.

This paranoia about groups perceived to be different increases when the dominant culture feels increasingly insecure.  So during the Black Death (referred to prior to the 17th century as The Great Mortality) struck, the rumors flew–mostly about Jews and all of the hideous and horrible things they were said to have done to bring about the disease, none of which were remotely true.

However, they were the primary money-lenders of the time (thanks to that line in the Bible about how Christians shouldn’t make money off loans to other Christians, and to the fact that they were, in most places, so limited in the professions open to them). It’s pretty convenient, when looking for a scapegoat, to point the finger at the people to whom you owe money, thus making your debt vanish.  Phillip the Fair of France did something similar when he accused the Templars of heresy, and thus claimed their lands and property.

Both the Templars, and some leading Jews, when tortured, admitted to all sorts of terrible things to make the pain stop.  These confessions provided “evidence” that the accusations were true.  Even in the Middle Ages, it was widely known that torture rarely produced what we would term actionable intelligence. While torture sometimes does produce bits of truth, they are often mixed with falsehoods and inventions, either deliberately, or in a panic.  People under enough stress will say anything to make it end.

And by now, you will have noted certain similarities to current events, and to events around the time the series began.  Because when I started looking into the history of torture, which many of my characters might have faced, most of the information I found was, in fact, contemporary.  The images from Abu Ghraib were coming out, and later on, the report about possible torture perpetrated by the US government.  At the same time, hate crimes against randomly selected people said to represent some reviled group or another cropped up across the nation, and around the world.  Just today, I saw a news blurb about a Muslim man dragged from his house and beaten to death because his Hindi neighbors had heard a rumor that he had killed and eaten a cow.  Rumors and lies.  Would he have confessed, if he thought it would make them stop?

Just as many of these same prejudices and accusations are being floated in the world today, some people seem determined to add groups to the list, rather than abolishing the list.  Muslims, immigrants, refugees, Sunnis or Shi-ites, African Americans, police officers, Liberals, Republicans. . .

The Nazis placed gypsies and Catholics alongside Jews and homosexuals on their list, and I came across another article about someone casting acid on gypsies in Scandinavia, which is often considered a bastion of rationality and non-violence.

The more I studied history, the more it became clear that the old saw about history repeating itself is true.  Humanity rumbles on toward the future, clinging desperately to the reactions of the past, the biological distrust of the other which is ready at any time to burst into flame.

One reason I write fiction is to imagine a world where we could do better than this, where hatred would be of an individual who had wronged you, rather than a category of people who have done, and mean, no harm.  Where accusation, arrest, interrogation and prosecution would be based upon an examination of the facts–and the process would be halted and abandoned if the facts did not support conviction.  I would like to imagine it could be this world.

A curious ray of hope, then and now, comes from an unexpected direction:  a pope, the leader of the Catholic Church, speaking out for tolerance.  Will Pope Francis make a difference?  It’s hard to say.  During the time of the Templars, Pope Clement V tried to resist the persecution, but eventually surrendered to the will of the king.  During the Black Death, Pope Clement VI wrote a bull demanding that his followers stop persecuting the Jews, and he allowed Jews to settle safely in Avignon.  So the track record of papal tolerance is rough, but could lead somewhere. (more about the Inquisition on another day. . .)

Perhaps my work is, after all, escapist.  I frame a narrative of humanity striving for dignity in a setting of darkness, despair and danger.  Because, all too often, the Middle Ages seem much more inviting than today.

 

 

 

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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