Sunday, January 19, 2003

Over the past century dozens of historians, anthropologists, and theologians proffered theories to explain the medieval witch craze phenomenon. We can dismiss up-front the theological explanation that witches really existed for centuries prior to the medieval witch craze without the church embarking on mass persecutions. Secular explanations are as varied as the writer’s imagination would allow. Early in this historiography, Henry Lea (1888) speculated that the craze was caused by the active imaginations of theologians, coupled with the power of the ecclesiastical establishment. More recently, Marion Starkey (1963) and John Demos (1982) have offered psychoanalytic explanations. Alan Macfarlane (1970) used copious statistics to show that scapegoating was an important element of the craze, and Robin Briggs (1996) has recently reinforced this theory by showing how ordinary people used scapegoating as a means of resolving grievances. In one of the best books on the period, Keith Thomas (1971) argues that the craze was caused by the decline of magic and the rise of large-scale, formalized religion. H. C. E. Midelfort (1972) theorizes that it was caused by interpersonal conflict within and between various villages. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (1973) correlated it with the suppression of midwives. Linnda Carporael (1976) attributed the craze in Salem to suggestible adolescents high on hallucinatory substances. More likely are the accounts of Wolfgang Lederer (1969), Joseph Klaits (1985), and Ann Barston (1994), which examine the hypothesis that the witch craze was a combination of misogyny and gender politics. Theories and books continue to be produced at a steady rate. Hans Sebald believes that this episode of medieval mass persecution “cannot be explained within a monocasual frame; rather the explanation most likely consists of a multivariable syndrome, in which important psychological and societal conditions are intermeshed” (1996, p. 817). I agree, but would add that these divers sociocultural theories can be taken to a deeper theoretical level by grafting them into the witch craze feedback loop. Theological imaginations, ecclesiastical power, scapegoating, the decline of magic, the rise of formal religion, interpersonal conflict, misogyny, gender politics, and possibly even psychedelic drugs were all, to lesser or greater degrees, components of the feedback loop. They all either fed into or out of the system, driving it forward.

Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (103)

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