Up until the end of the 15th century nobody really thought about witches, some people believed in them but they were seen as a minor fact of life, nobody bothered much about them. If someone was found to be a witch the usual punishment was a day in the stocks and then release. But then in 1484, a Dominican clergyman, Heinrich Kramer, made an attempt at prosecuting alleged witches in his Tyrol region.
It was not a success, mostly because of Kramer’s obsessive sexual interest in one of the accused, Helena Scheuberin, which led the other tribunal members to suspend the trial. He was expelled from the city of Innsbruck and dismissed by the local bishop as “senile and crazy”.
So, obsessed with witches, Heinrich Kramer wrote a book in 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum, usually translated as the Hammer of Witches. It is full of crazy ideas;
• Woman become witches by sleeping with the devil and signing a pact on his anus.
• Witches deprive men of their viral member and keep nests of penis’s in trees.
• Witches kill and eat new-born babies.
Midwives, with their unquestioned access to newly born (and hence unbaptised) children, at a time of high infant mortality, were an easy target for conspiracy theories. The book contains details instructions on how to capture, torture and kill witches. The best theologians of the time condemned the book as recommending unethical and illegal procedures, as well as being inconsistent with Catholic doctrines of demonology. The Clerical establishment by and large think Kramer is nuts and he is denounced by the church.
There are very few copies of his book, twenty at most, but then a new technology arrives.
The Printing Press.
Because of this new technology, Kramer’s dark fantasy, that every town, every village is riddled with sex obsessed witches goes viral. For nearly two hundred years sales of his book are second only to that of the Bible. And because of relatively easy access to the book, witch fever grew, spreading via major trade routes across Europe and to the New World.
There was not a shred of evidence that anyone was actually guilty of satanic witchcraft during the witch craze. People were convicted on the basis of malicious gossip, natural phenomena such as animals and children dying, animals appearing near their houses, the use of traditional herbal remedies, and the exchange of cross words. The accused would frequently say anything to escape the agonies of torture.
Turns out the invention of this new technology, the printing press, was a double edged sword. It obviously allowed the education of the masses (slowly, but surely) but at the same time for two hundred years hundreds of thousands of innocent people, nearly all woman, were tortured and burned alive.
Mark Twain is alleged to have said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”. And now we have the invention of the internet and with it some mad COVID theories; 5G networks are causing it, COVID doesn’t actually exist, all those doctors and nurses are in on the act, the vaccine is a way of implanting Bill Gates microchips in the population, etc etc.
Even though all these stories were quickly debunked and proven untrue, the pervasiveness of misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media and in the news cycle has led the Director-General of the World Health Organization to warn that “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous”.
There’s an old Chinese curse which translates as “May you live in interesting times..”, we certainly are, aren’t we?