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Witch trials in the context of the Reformation

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wolfyhuntsasmell in reply to Joe Marlowe

It sounds like you, Joe, went on a witch hunt, by linking Donald Trump to the witch trials. Then you go Grammar Nazi on the article???
I see tremendous value in this article. Yes, it may be limited to the Christian witch hunts, which may feel isolating if the article struck a nerve. It saddens me greatly to read this article. Innocent people died because of these propaganda-filled "trials".
People, today still, get drunk off of being part of the masses crying out for justice being doled out on a scapegoat. Imagine what it must feel like to be isolated due to being "touched" with darkness 500 years ago; we now label that as autism, bi-polar, schizophrenic, schizoaffective, or a bad drug experience.
What do you think it would be like to be the one who had all of the fingers pointed at them when you know you did nothing but be yourself?

ashbird in reply to guest-aaiemaea

Your point on "a net improvement in judicial systems" is 100% correct and deserves highlighting, IMHO.
Took a lot of burnt women to bring about that "net improvement in judicial systems". (Refer to the figure in Erasmus' article)
If one wants to make a case of it, one could say that men, as a gender, is a mighty slow-learning group in the context of Evolution. There is no foolishness more self-compounding than uterus-envy.


Thank you, Erasmus, for an excellent essay on an intriguing subject which has troubled Homo Sapiens for a long time if not since Time Zero.
As well for the respectably researched FACTS used in the essay, and the thoughtful conclusion at the end. (By "thoughtful", I simply meant no discernible attempt was made to incite, effect, suggest, or variously bring about, another round of Witch Hunt in Time Present.)
I cannot articulate the same better or more eloquently than what was observed in your last paragraph, which was read by this reader-commenter before proceeding with commenting. The reading obviously began with the title also.
With your indulgence, I repeat below the last paragraph verbatim:
What has changed?* As a general rule of thumb, it might be said that religion either makes people look inward, in search of a better understanding of their own weaknesses, or it makes them look outward, in a quest (which can easily become fanatical) for external sources of evil. One impulse can tip over into the other very easily, and that danger never goes away. (*asterisk mine for emphasis, implying by reference “between Time Zero and Time Present”.)
I note also “inward” and “outward” (in quoted last paragraph) are two words not entirely mastered, on the mere level of linguistics, by trigger-happy witch-hunting subspecies in Homo Sapiens.

Joe Marlowe

"Any modern practitioner of the Protestant or Catholic faiths will shudder at the horrific purposes to which their beliefs were once put."
Only Protestants and Catholics?
Why would Atheists, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Druids, et al., not also be disgusted?
Further, notwithstanding, e.g., the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, one might reasonably ask how those deeds were of greater long term menace than the present day institutionalised hypocrisy of white evangelical Christians in America?
For the sake of their mindless obsession with abortion, white evangelical Christians in America have allowed themselves to be duped and manipulated by both the Republican Party and a hostile foreign power to debase the Supreme Court, to undermine NATO, to endanger national security, to endanger the planet, to cripple public finances, and to decapitate democratic government by putting a lying, incompetent, Orange Clown in the White House.
"... were once put."
Wrong verb tense.

ashbird in reply to ashbird

BtW, a bit of input drawn from my esoteric interest in the biographic information of minds behind writings that strike me as exceptionally good, which Peter Leeson's are, to me, cited here by Erasmus.
Peter T. Leeson (b. 1979, age 38) is the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University. Listed by Big Think as one of 8 of World’s Top Young Economists. Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. First publication on Economics at age 23. Known for extending rational choice theory into unusual domains, such as to the study of bizarre rituals and superstitions, and behavior of Caribbean pirates. Previously held faculty position at University of Chicago. Visiting Fellow in Political Economy and Government at Harvard University. F.A. Hayek Fellow at the London School of Economics. As an 18-year old, Leeson was invited by an economics professor at Northwood University to lecture in his course.
Based on this curriculum vitae, I make a safe (safe to me) assumption Lesson is not a stupid academic as one commenter appears to imply. Also, If you look at his picture on Wiki, he is neither pale-faced nor covered by dandruff. But he is one of those abominable “Liberal Progressive Mentally-ill Elite”. Sorry.

ashbird in reply to twoprofs

You noted a great point! Ain't no "fake news". :)
Quip: No wonder all the hermaphrodites and 800 years later out-of-closet male-to-female transgends stuck with a lot of grubby beards.


There is also the sexist element -- husbands died, leaving widows with chunks of property that were coveted by neighbors. How better to acquire the land but by denouncing the woman as a witch? Get rid of her and the local property market got a bit more liquid. The trials were all about women, though I assume the Devil could equally posses men. But it was women who got burned, not men. Older women, with no male protection in court, and a nice little meadow that the neighbors wanted.

Great point. I share. The "Church", when its belief is warped and bent all out of shape ("bent all out of shape" represents my personal view, no one has to share or endorse it), is loathe is give credit to Good Samaritans when Samaritians do good - things as simple as a physician who is a nonbeliever or a scientist who attributes causations to entities other than the "Christian God". I have also noticed they claim Copyright and Patent right to all human virtues under heavens.

Fellow Traveller in Time

Another related comment is that the church looked on the "witches" as competition. Usually they provided expertise in herbal remedies developed over eons and, because of this, earned the respect and loyalty for these women. The church felt this put them in a competitive position and a danger to the church's authority.

Living in an society which was non literate, many of the formulas were remembered in song/verse and can sometimes be discovered from playing music from the middle ages. Not unlike the timing of baking without watches or clocks and the duration could be calculated by the time it took to say prayers.

ashbird in reply to LexHumana

That was my point.
Sorry I was assuming a double-layered sarcasm understood. Clearly I failed to convey that. Apologies. But I do know my Hayek and rational choice theory.
The background of the sarcasm was the accusation routinely leveled by a contingent of Neo-Con Evangelical Christians (as they so self-identified) in 2018 America who throw out labels like that in attacking any person whose views differ from theirs. The accusation, read again and again on TE community forums, is this: "Anyone who reads a lot and values education of any sort - science, arts, humanities, law, medicine - is a 'Progressive Liberal Mentally-Ill Elite'".
Lately the stack of labels gained a few more: "International Fabian Socialist Elite money changers".

I don't make any of the stuff up. All those words appear on TE community forum pages. I call them 2018 Witch Hunt - Compliments of "Make America Great Again" America.


I wonder what a behavioral economist would think about this theory? Are people really rationally choosing a church based on its perceived harshness to evil? People don't usually start as a blank slate in regards to religion -- they are born affiliated (via their parents) to a particular denomination. Therefore, are people really "switching brands" based on the perceived quality of their burnings/crushings/dunkings?
I think that people were probably switching brands BEFORE any witchery, and the uptick in witch-trials were based on pressure to maintain doctrinal purity in the ranks. It is easier to keep the hoi polloi in orthodox behavior when you burn a few statistical outliers and strangers.

LexHumana in reply to ashbird

If he is a proponent of rational choice theory and a devotee of Hayek, I strongly doubt that he is anything like a "liberal progressive elite." I will leave any diagnosis of "mentally-ill" to the medical professionals.

A. Andros

Every generation or so some tenure-seeking scholar trundles out his or her theory on witch trials. One of the most inventive occurred forty-odd years ago when a professor wrote a monograph that insisted there actually were witches! Oh, nobody flew around on broomsticks but certain self-deluded types may have dabbled in spells and curses.
Lately, though, the "marginalized female" has been cited as the reason for accusations of witchcraft. Some sort of hocus-pocus misogyny, combined with widowhood or just plain shrewishness, we are told, caused certain women to go to the scaffold. And, so forth.
Why these theories, though, when all one has to do is pick-up the morning paper (if anyone still reads one) or, more likely, surf the Internet? At the moment, dozens of men are being immolated by unsupported accusations of "improper sexual behavior" and their careers ruined. Garrison Keillor, of all people, is now painted as some sort of ravening predator and Minnesota's hick public radio station fired him! Senator Franken was ruined because some babe said he had touched her butt and the media all but urged he be bound and thrown into Lake Superior to see if he floats (which proves the devil is with him.)
Right now the persecuting mania is directed at rich entertainment and media (pardon the repetition) stars and it requires no more than an accusation by one very young lady that after she had given the comedian who picked her up oral intercourse that she felt "uncomfortable." (Who would have thought that a blow job meant "No?")
Confederate statues, Confederate flags, cops, whites (and white cops) . . . these are just some of the objects of recent witch-hunts. Why do these sort of things happen? I dunno . . . ask Harvey Weinstein or the NYT.

guest-aaiemaea in reply to twoprofs

That may explain individual prosecutions, but not the wholesale and apparently infectious mania that struck in so many places and times, most famously in Salem.
I've seen this previously put down to the spread of the rationalist idea of trials as being a matter of sifting evidence, rather than merely divination. "Trial by ordeal", the classic medieval method, worked fine for individual cases, but it didn't scale. With "evidence", however - if you're going to prosecute or testify against one person, there's a huge economy of scale in testifying against a dozen people all at once.
So really, it can be seen as part of the growing pains of modernity. A side effect of something that was, really - I think we'd all agree - a net improvement in judicial systems.


My fellow academics are at their most foolish when they write books outside their areas of expertise. Knowing how much time and effort are required to achieve that expertise and the methodological training it requires, they might be expected to carefully avoid exposing their incompetence in a field about which they know comparatively little, and nothing exposes that incompetence more clearly than an entire book on that field. Yet the temptation for some is apparently too great to resist. Economists using terms like "no-price competition", "market share", "advertise", and "brands" to supposedly explain a medieval and early modern religious phenomenon are as ludicrous as theologians would be using terms like "original sin" and "predestination" to explain a current recession.


Ever hear of Occum's Razor? The simplest explanation for their apparent femicide is jealousy and hatred of all things femel/feminine. Wymin have "powers" and men, then and now, fear them:
A. An attractive femel changes male anatomy, among other biological things we do to them
B. Herstorically, men could not control femels' monthly Catamenia (now, they have technology that can and they do)
C. Femels have greater ability at abstract thinking
D. Femels more likely to have psychic abilities
E. Femels more likely to adhere to laws, rules
F. Femels have greater ability at multi-tasking, especially after having children
G. Femels exhibit more stable behavior
H. Femels do better academically, less likely to fail school

This short list makes it clear to me, that, in the past, men struggled to mentally understand how the femel could have such "special" abilities and emotionally accept them. Could jealousy be the root of misogyny/sexism/femel oppression?


I feel you, TE, should focus more on EXACTLY WHAT "... makes them look outward, in a quest (which can easily become fantastic;-) for external sources of GOOD.

Glib and not true. There was very little persecution of "witches" throughout nearly all of medieval history. People have been using herbal remedies since we fell out of the trees and everyone got along just fine.
In most of European history, at least to the start of the Modern Era, a person who accused another of witchcraft would be gently ignored by the local bishop -- who rightly assumed the accuser was a crank.
Witch-hunts were almost unknown until about 1600 and the whole business iasted not much more than seventy or so years -- even Cotton Mather admitted a few years after the Salem business that he had acted like a jackass.
So, no . . . Goody Brown (except in a Hawthorne story) didn't go the gallows because she was fooling around with poultices and birch-bark tea. Nice feminist lunge, though, on your part.