It is the spring of 1611. Church-goers gather in the German city of Ellwangen for Easter Mass. Religious rituals usually create a sense of unity and connection among residents, but this year it is different. Seventy-year-old Barbara Ruffin from the nearby village of Rindelbach was seen spitting on the host while on duty. The Catholic community is upset. The old woman in her village has always been famous for witchcraft. It is said that she used ointments to kill cattle. Why do you now reject the Holy Host? Could you be a witch?
The Ruffin incident led to a series of gossip. They reached the authorities in Ellwangen and decided to start an investigation. They torture women. After a few days, she broke down and confessed everything: that she had been lured by a demon, that she had made a pact with him, that she had used harmful magic and had attended the witches’ sabbath.
That it was on the Sabbath means that there are other witches. She is forced to call other names. Steije Hofhuis says her confession unleashes a witch hunt for hundreds of people that ultimately rips apart the social fabric of society.
He is a historian and received his Ph.D. from Utrecht University in September in hypothesis Specific Darwinism: An Evolutionary History of Witch Hunting. In this he searches for a new illustrative paradigm for the fear of magic, Darwinian cultural evolution. He studied the interaction between witchcraft beliefs and persecution in Germany from 1560 to 1630, a time when persecution of witches in Europe reached its peak. According to Hofhuis, the concept of witchcraft was partly the result of a Darwinian selection process: the phenomenon of witch hunts developed not to serve human interests, but above all to preserve itself.
A witch hunt suddenly occurred, then disappeared, and after that nothing happened for a long time
Why did you choose witch hunt as a case study?
“In the past, historians often believed that the system of witch hunts was so well laid out that it had to be cleverly designed. For example, it had to have inquisitors, rulers, and men behind it who wanted to achieve a certain goal with it. But what historians have discovered so far is the lack of Having such a clever determination.The witch hunt came suddenly, then disappeared, then nothing happened for a long time, until the persecution appeared elsewhere.It was also very variable who took the initiative and who became the victims.
But the question then is: How did this phenomenon come together so well? To answer this question, I proposed and researched Darwinian cultural evolution as a model.”
In extreme cases, persecution claimed hundreds of lives. This seems to make no sense
What do beliefs about magic look like?
“He believed in the idea that witches knew each other from the Sabbath of witches. So if you think you have a witch, you have to know who saw them all on the Sabbath. This can create chains of accusations. This belief in the Sabbath had a beneficial effect on the outbreak of the hunt. Witches. People also believed that witches could fly to the Sabbath, which made it even more terrifying because they could communicate over great distances. Other towns and villages were informed of this, and then the witch hunt began there as well.”
How did these ideas spread?
Cultural phenomena can adapt without our realizing it. They can spread like some kind of epidemic disease. If you look at the witch hunt from this premise, it suddenly makes sense. The hunt for witches led to dire consequences, and disrupted societies. In extreme cases, persecution claimed hundreds of lives. This seems meaningless unless you look at it from a new angle, namely, the reproductive significance of the phenomenon of magic itself. Then suddenly this phenomenon became very functional. Witchcraft was persecuted by witchcraft.
“The primary promoters are the people in the village communities who spread rumors about other people in their communities. Other important publishers were the lawyers and religious scholars who attended the persecution and wrote books about it. The people produced magazines with news of witch persecution. Intellectuals put the danger of the witch on the agenda with leaders.”
People burn a witch because they then get rid of it. If she was rescued, a witch hunt wouldn’t make much sense
Were there also less successful witch hunts?
“I searched scholarly writings, sermons, trial documents, newspapers, and records for various kinds of witch hunts which did not repeat well. I loved the most beautiful paper from 1555. I was told that in a small town in Germany two witches were burned at the stake, but When the fire caught both of them, it was said that a demon had saved them from the fire.These witches were to come back a few days later, kill a person and dance around the fire.
“The fact that they were rescued was exciting, but it’s not good for witch-hunting survival. People go hunting and burn the witch, because then they get rid of her. If she’s rescued, the witch hunt would be of little use. So this was an unfavorable variable for witch-hunting breeding” .
When did the persecutions end?
“From 1550 there were major economic problems due to the Little Ice Age, but at some point the climate stabilized. Population shrinkage has also reduced pressure on livelihoods, easing tensions. Legal systems have also become more prudent. The persecution of witches is no longer It fits well with this new environment.
Sometimes viruses are so aggressive that they hinder their reproduction. Why, for example, did Ebola not become so big? People are dying too quickly and can no longer spread the virus properly. Witch hunts exploded in a big way in Germany at one point. Then it was no longer only old women like Babara Rufin who were oppressed, but also the wealthy, elite and middle class men. This phenomenon was exaggerated in his hand. There was room for more doubt. The turning point came around 1630. The elite thought: This is getting out of hand. Then this phenomenon proliferated less because many parties stomped on the brakes.”
A version of this article also appeared in October 24, 2022
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