Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
It’s that time of year again, when the days get shorter and the nights get longer, and the thoughts of children everywhere turn to pumpkin carving, pumpkin pie, and pumpkin spice lattes. That’s right, kids, it’s Spooktober, a time to enjoy that blandest of all squashes and deck the hall with vampires, werewolves, and witches—the latter of which might explain how Kenny Ortega’s 1993 cheesefest Hocus Pocus somehow just spent a week at number one at the box office. People just can’t get enough witches these days, from The VVitch (which I will always pronounce as “The Vee-Vitch,” and you cannot convince me otherwise) to The Witches (which, sure, that needed a remake, I guess) to Hermione Granger (whom Twitter informs me is the most evil of them all). Witches are prime consumer products these days, unlike in the Dark Ages when we just burned them.
As usual, you’re wrong about this, dear hypothetical reader. The idea of the medieval period as a “dark age” when the church oversaw a reign of terror, suppressing science and hunting anything not rich, white, and male to extinction is one of those popular misconceptions that’s so wrong it’s 180 degrees from the truth, right alongside stuff like “Columbus discovered America,” “The Civil War was fought over states’ rights,” and “Christmas was originally a pagan holiday.” Belief in witches is neither uniquely Christian nor uniquely European—it’s actually quite historically common throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas as well—and in fact, the medieval church did a great deal to suppress witch hunts, consistently teaching that belief in witches was a pagan superstition, basically from St. Augustine on. While there was a handful of witch hunts in the medieval period, they were almost exclusively of the “mob violence” variety, with almost no involvement of—and often direct opposition from—both church and state. In other words, witch hunts were actually extraordinarily rare in Europe.
Y’know. Until they weren’t.
It’s hard to say exactly when the switch got flipped from “witches aren’t even real, you guys” to “witches are everywhere and we need to kill them with fire now,” but it appears to have roughly coincided with the Renaissance. If there was a single trigger, it was the 1485 publication of Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-hunting manual by German inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, the title of which is usually translated as “The Hammer of Witches,” which, yes, is also the name of my metalcore band. In the Maleficarum, Kramer argued that, contrary to church tradition, witches could and did exist, and it was the duty of the church and the state to hunt them down, torture confessions out of them, and then burn them really good. Interestingly, this pamphlet seems to be the sole source of a unified understanding of European witchcraft—prior to the Maleficarum’s publication, beliefs about witches were, like most pagan beliefs, extremely parochial. Even if quite a few Europeans believed witches existed, no one could agree on what sorts of things they did, or how they did them; Kramer’s book changed that—and became an instant bestseller, to boot.
In any case, by the late sixteenth century, the number of witch trials in Europe had gone from basically zero to literally thousands. At its height, European witch mania claimed the lives of anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 people, about eighty percent of whom were women, and by the late seventeenth century, it had spread to the shores of America, leading to stuff like Salem (which was, of course, its own whole thing). As you’d probably guess, most of these trials were highly questionable in terms of how fair they were or how accurate the testimony presented at them was. And yes, there was all sorts of torture involved, because that’s what the Hammer recommended.Under such extreme stress, people were undoubtedly looking for someone to blame, which—hmm, that sounds familiar.
This sort of “we’ll torture you until you confess” approach to justice was obviously controversial from the beginning, but it wasn’t till the turn of the eighteenth century that cooler heads finally prevailed. In 1682, Louis XIV of France decriminalized witchcraft; in 1735, English Parliament did him one better by making it a crime just to accuse someone of witchcraft. And anyway, by then it was the Age of Enlightenment™, and there were new and better excuses to kill people, like “They have weird-shaped skulls” or “They’re living on land that we kinda-sorta-really want”—leaving those picking up the pieces to wonder how the sudden witch-burning fever had sprung up in the first place.
As to that question, well, there are a lot of theories, some of which are better than others. Almost definitely part of the explanation is just how thoroughly rocked by plagues and natural disasters early modern Europe was. The Black Plague killed a third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century (take that, pathetic little coronavirus), and it was followed by several less-impressive-but-still-deadly outbreaks in the centuries that followed. It was accompanied by a period of global cooling (often called the “Little Ice Age,” though it featured a disappointing lack of celebrity-voiced woolly mammoths) that led to crop failures across the continent. Under such extreme stress, people were undoubtedly looking for someone to blame, which—hmm, that sounds familiar.
While such a scenario certainly set the stage for witch hunts, though, it doesn’t entirely explain why people latched onto witches specifically, which has led to numerous other theories being proposed. Second-wave feminists, for instance, argued that the witch trials were mainly an excuse for the emerging class of professional obstetricians (who were almost exclusively men) to persecute traditional midwives. While that might make intuitive sense (women and children often died in childbirth, so you’d expect midwives to get blamed), it turns out midwives were actually rarely accused of witchcraft—and actually, the midwives’ guilds were often cheerleading the witch trials as loudly as anyone.
A popular theory in the nineteenth century was that there was a genuine pagan sect left over from ancient times that was mis-(?)-identified as witchcraft and persecuted during the time—a theory which raises far more questions than it could possibly answer: Where had this sect been hiding for a thousand years? Where did it go afterward? Why don’t the descriptions in Kramer’s book match up with any known historical pagan practices? Despite this theory’s dubious value, though, many of its proponents were responsible for the neopagan movement, attempting to reconstruct ancient religions from the less child-murdery bits in Kramer’s book—which, I dunno, that sounds kind of like attempting to reconstruct Judaism from Nazi propaganda, but you do you, neopagans.
The explanation best supported by the data, though, is also the most deceptively (?) simple: the aftermath of the Reformation. Obviously, there’s a lot going on there, including a sudden increase in spinsters brought on by the closing of convents (which… sure), but the simple reality seems to be one of good, old-fashioned free market competition. Or, rather, bad, new-fashioned free-market competition.
Hear me out on this one. Prior to the Reformation, there was essentially one religion in town (protestations of neopagans aside)—you went to the church closest to you, and that was it. With the rise of Protestantism, though, there were suddenly multiple faiths in Europe vying for adherents, and they all had to do… something… to distinguish themselves from the competition, so to speak. Burning witches might not be the most intuitive way to get there, but it was at least one way to publicly perform your commitment to orthodoxy—and possibly even prove the validity of your theology (i.e., “If Satan himself is against us, we must be the One True Faith™!”).
And, well, the raw numbers actually bear this out. In northern Europe, which was solidly Protestant, and in southern Europe, which was solidly Catholic, there were almost no witch trials. In places of high competition between Catholics and Protestants, though—such as in central Europe—they were digging through the ditches and burning through the witches like it was going out of style (which—it was, eventually). In fact, the epicenter of witch mania was exactly where this theory would lead you to expect: the Holy Roman Empire, which from Luther’s day on was a disastrous patchwork of Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic fiefdoms that were all constantly at war with each other, both literally and figuratively.
So, there you have it. Two factions that, from a certain distance, seem virtually indistinguishable from each other, both trying to win over increasingly jaded converts through merciless purity-testing and brutal enforcement of increasingly narrow orthodoxies, while the world burns around them and they’re both impotent to do anything about it. The whole thing just sounds… extraordinarily familiar, but for some reason, I can’t put my finger on it.