Is the culture of witch trials returning to the West?

6 May 2019

“WITCH HUNT!”, cried Donald Trump over Twitter back in January, as the frustratingly inconclusive Mueller investigation was approaching completion. The report, designed to sniff out suspected Russian influence over America’s 2016 election, has provoked the bombastic President to deny collusion 55 times, according to The Week. But while Trump remains in the doghouse, it’s possible his tweets aren’t totally unfounded. In fact, he may have exposed a link between our current political climate and the outlandish practise that broke out across Europe more than 400 years ago. 


Nowadays, the term ‘witch hunt’ implies the equivalent of a wild goose chase – though with more malice behind its motives. In Trump’s eyes, fake news and the liberal left legions of the world are out to condemn his term in office. For Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the term applied more to the sporadic outbreak of accusations, forced confessions, torture and executions that claimed tens of thousands of lives, the vast majority of whom women.


These are a series of events in history wherein the line between fact and fiction are blurry. Why did a population, who once supported the idea of ‘white’ medicinal magic, and ruled by both secular and religious authorities that had, until then, mostly ignored the idea of witchcraft, bring age-old stereotypes back from the dead?


Scholars jostle endlessly for an answer. Claims circulate of socio-economic tension, global warming, natural disasters, gendercide; even a population on drugs. Yet there’s one main factor that many overlook as a motivation for the ducking stool: change.


There are plenty of similarities between us and our early-modern predecessors. At the time, Europe was experiencing a tumultuous period of modernisation. The capitalist system was beginning to take a foothold globally; the result of America’s ‘discovery’ and ensuing international cooperation over the slave trade. Cities were cropping up left right and centre, facilitating a population boom that led to widespread urban decay, whilst Martin Luther’s Protestant challenge had begun to take shape, spiking fear in a Catholic church that had its fair share of internal contentions.


In the 21st century, globalisation’s greatest advancements are predominantly social and political. In retaliation, however, a populist wave now rolls slowly across Europe, one that mawkishly draws back from international institutions and the suspected corruption of national sovereignty. Of course, the satanic imagery has since disappeared, but could it be, as Trump states, that we’re seeing a rekindling of witch-hunting mentality?


The infamous Malleus Maleficarum, written by Heinrich Kramer somewhere in the late 1470s, is a witchcraft manual that encapsulates the mindset of early moderners for many historians. Alongside its vitriolic attack on women, the former inquisitor depicts a declining society, a view that has gained prominence again today. In 2017, Ipsos MORI found that around half of British people do not trust prominent establishments, such as the media, banks, and the justice system. Around the same figure believe that society in general is in decline. Statistics like these are uniform across Europe.


We have grown increasingly sceptical since our brutal initiation with fake news, financial crises and globalised dissidence. This is not a bad thing. It’s also a natural human response to be anxious about change, especially on such an unprecedented scale. However, scapegoating is cheap get-out clause; a way of shifting blame onto a target when the reality is nowhere near as simple. 


Anxiety and distrust, as any witchfinder could confirm, have real world effects. It has been seen in the rise of racially charged attacks, such as the horrific Christchurch shooting in March, of which the perpetrator’s ‘manifesto’ closely resembled that of Kramer’s, in the cases of measles throughout Europe, which tripled during 2018, and in Facebook’s ongoing bloody battle with fake news. Instead of collusion with the Devil, it’s with the Russians or the Chinese. We no longer live in deep suspicion of elderly women eyeing up our crops, but of the media, migrants and vaccinations sabotaging our freedoms.


Distrust is useful for politicians such as Donald Trump. What better a way to obscure your wrongdoings than under the guise of scepticism? The early modern Church also used the population’s anxieties to their advantage. Historians Peter T. Leeson has argued that both the Protestant and Catholic church used European hysteria to market themselves in ‘confessional battlegrounds’, at a time when the Reformation was threatening social norms. The question was not about right or wrong, but rather, over which competing aspect of Christianity could protect the common people from Satan best.


Similarly, politics has been splitting since the 70s, as voters have gradually moved their support away from mainstream parties. In response, marginalised or more radical political groups are exploiting distrust and subsequently legitimising it, in order to further their quest for power. Mainstream parties are simply realigning their manifestos to suit their own ends, rather than paving a third way.


The end of the witch trials came with the dawn of the Enlightenment. This monolithic intellectual movement, born during the 18th century, gave birth to liberalism and secularism and effectively put a stop to the trend (aside from a sputtering of later cases, most famously in Salem, Massachusetts). The progression that sowed the seeds of modern Europe stifled paranoia over rapid societal change, and likewise, witchcraft. Those in power finally said, ‘enough is enough’. They set up public debates, supported innovative thinkers such as Frederick Spee Von Langenfeld and introduced new, reformed laws. Eventually, society followed suit.


It seems that we also need to fight for our precious sensibility. It’s unlikely that we’ll return to the burnings, boilings and hangings of early modern Europe, or live in fear of secret sabbath sex cults. But by cowering from our anxieties and distrust over change, in the comfort of our scapegoats, we may be turning our backs on a second enlightenment. One that could be just around the corner.

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