Staten Island Web logo



On 10/27/99 11:43:19 PM, Art wrote:

>
>A lot of the "fairy tales" we
>all enjoyed were allegories of
>real, sometimes horrible,
>things that happened.
>
>Art
>

I think that's especially true of the "wicked witch," "fairy godmother," and "wicked stepmother," fairy tales. The story of the old crone who wasn't invited to the wedding, and who put a curse on the bride (Snow White?) was said, by Keith Thomas (In Religion and the Decline of Witchcraft, I believe is the name of his book), a historian of magic, witchcraft, and religion, to be a story following the great plague of 1348 which wiped out about a quarter of Europe, mostly in the overcrowded port cities. This is where the rats got off the boats and took refuge in the dwellings. Fleas on rats bit people, introducing the bacillus.

The effect of depopulating the cities was that now the serfs on the farms in the interior, spared the plague, now had a place to run away to in order to sell their now valuable labor, despite the rules against leaving the landlord's land.

This depopulated the villages and cause a general decline in the economy, Thomas explains. This caused many people to fall on hard times, and produced many beggars, mainly old women who were left with no means means of support when the young ran off.

If you gave to the beggar, she might say, "God bless you." If you didn't, she might say, "God damn you," or, "A pox on you," meaning the plague on you and yours.

If later, someone in your family caught the pox, you felt guilty, because if you had only given, the old woman wouldn't have cursed you and caused your family to get the plague. Actually you felt doubly guilty, first for being uncharitable and then for bringing on the curse.

So what did you do to assuage your guilt?

You accused the old woman of witch-craft, being in league with the devil, someone who caused plagues!

This made her a public enemy, in our very midst.

The outcry resulted in an excited populace who hunted down the witch and burned her in the town square. Purging the town of witches was an important thing to do to save the town.

This, according to Thomas, was the cause of the witch-hunts which plagued Christian Europe after 1348 and which lasted until the 18th century, when the "Enlightenment" caused various judges and public authorities to become more skeptical about unpopular old people being deemed witches on the basis of cursing followed by mischief alone.

He ascribed the witch-craft outbreaks, which took half a million lives, by some estimates, to a breakdown in the customary or traditional sense of mutual support and obligation amongst villagers that had been in place since the time of the Romans in Europe, or the advent of Christianity, or both.

When the old beggar wasn't invited to the wedding, curses would surely follow.

Halloween is in a few days, come to think of it.

Better be generous with the candy when the beggars come around. No treat? Then watch out for the trick!

-rs



Staten Island WebŪ Forums Index.