Social Psychology

The Medieval Witch Hysteria Teaches About Today’s Pandemic and Stolen Election Hysterias


We are struggling with a significant minority of our population suffering from mass psychosis. They are held under the delusion that the #COVID19 pandemic is either not real, not as severe as it is, or that it can be treated and cured with a variety of methods that it simply cannot be. They are similarly deluded that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, that election fraud was rampant, and our elections are unreliable unless the Republican wins. There are many similarities between the hysterics of MAGA Nation and those of the witch hysteria in the Late Middle Ages.

  1. Religion was an important galvanizing force of those suffering from both hysterias.
  2. Scapegoating an Other was an important factor in both hysterias.
  3. Those affected by both hysterias have been living for decades with extreme stress and experiencing continual fear and outrage.
  4. The world had changed so radically for both groups of hysterics that they had to take radical steps to feel as if their world hadn’t changed.
  5. Not everyone living in Medieval Europe was equally affected by the hysteria just as the hysterics surrounding the #COVID19 pandemic and the Big Lie have only affected a significant minority of our own population.

By having an appreciation for the circumstances that led to the witch craze or witch hunt, the reasons it swept the population up in mass psychosis, and how it ended, we can gain some insights into the mass psychosis that has gripped our very own MAGA Nation.

Mass Psychosis

Mass psychosis is the product of a population suffering from continuous extreme stress over a long period of time. As described by Silvano Arieti, these steps are necessary:

  • THE PHASE OF PANIC. The individual begins to perceive the world is not as they think it should be, so they react with increasing panic because they cannot explain why the world just ain’t working right no more. In the Middle Ages it was the disaster of losing up to 60% of the population to the Black Death and in our time it was explaining how known devils like Bill Clinton and, yea gods, a BLACK MAN, could be elected president. How Black people could have rights EQUAL to those of white people. You know, like that.
  • THE PHASE OF PSYCHOTIC INSIGHT. The individual engages in some next level cognitive dissonance to make the world make sense again. Somehow, they have to interpret what they are seeing so that it jibes with what they’re thinking. The alternative is to alter your interpretation, but when you are as certain that you are right as conservative Christians and white supremacists are, you can’t alter your interpretation, so you have to alter the way you perceive reality. It helps alleviate your anxiety, but it really screws up your grip on reality.
  • THE PHASE OF MULTIPLYING SYMPTOMS. Since the people now trying to cope with the changes to their world are no longer dealing with reality, the way they’re trying to solve their problems isn’t effective. Problems begin to grow exponentially, which initiates a self-reinforcing feedback loop which causes societal dysfunction to spiral out of control. Essentially, you keep doing more of the same expecting different results, but things just keep getting worse. Kinda like people keep dying of #COVID19 even though you’re doing everything you’re supposed to like believing it is no worse than the flu, a hoax, and taking horse dewormer when you get sick.

She Turned Me Into A Newt!

Other than struggling to recover from the devastating depopulation of the continent, what led to the witch hysteria? In 1486, two German inquisitors wrote a tome, Malleus Maleficarum giving instructions to identify, hunt, and interrogate witches. It gained such popularity that for the next hundred years it was as popular as the Bible in terms of book sales and was reprinted thirty times. It was the Facebook of its time.

There is no explaining why these guys hated witches so badly. It wasn’t a popular thing back then. It was kinda like the mainstreaming of the John Birchers and Christian coalition that Reagan ushered in. Perhaps it was the desperation that was ushered in by Nixon’s utter humiliation and Republican shattering defeats after Watergate that convinced them that the only way to win again was to make a deal with the devil.

However, targeting witches came naturally to both the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church was fighting with the Protestant Reformation over control of Europe, so the idea that if you turned your back on the Church, you were a heretic, you were turning your back on god, became prominent among Catholics. The Protestants lacked the social control of the hierarchical structures, so they relied on fear of the devil to keep their populations behaving. That fear could easily be transferred to the agents of the devil here on earth, witches. Thus, for both sets of believers, it was imperative to seek out the unbelievers. Sound familiar? Who is needing to re-exert control over the country as our demographics shift away from them?

The Malleus Maleficarum caused witchcraft to go from being a harmless useless practice by some to criminal devil worshipping. Because the Malleus Maleficarum defined witchcraft so vaguely, anyone could be accused of witchcraft. Accusations quickly expanded from those practicing witchcraft to those who knew of their practice — Sound familiar? Like a certain state’s anti-abortion law? In essence, they weaponized a community’s fear of the devil, which was real given Medieval culture’s emphasis on defining all of life through religion and doing god’s will.

Witch hunts occurred in two waves: late 15th to early 16th century coinciding with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum and in the 17th century.

The number of witch trials and executions varied widely across Europe and can be attributed to the beliefs and legal systems of those regions. For example, in Italy, Spain, and France very few trials were held because the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions simply didn’t believe that witchcraft could be proven — it didn’t necessarily stop them from torturing confessions from heretics before they executed them, though. In England, the jury system prevented prosecutions from coming before the courts — again, it didn’t mean that people weren’t executed extrajudicially. In the ecclesiastically dominated regions of Southern Germany and the Alps, i.e. Switzerland, as well as Scotland, things were different. Real panics and hysterias swept through those areas and many were put on trial, tortured for confessions, and executed by hanging or burning. All in all, it is estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 people were executed for witchcraft, 85% of them women.

The end of the witch hysteria was gradual and slow. The end came essentially because the times had changed. The politics, social morays, philosophies, and institutions had all changed, but it took three hundred years. Slowly, political authority, government, reasserted control over most areas of Europe. Social morays changed, too. As the Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas began to develop, people became more tolerant of the marginalized and poor women who made up most of the victims of the witch hunts. A more stable and prosperous society was better able to support and tolerate those who were less like the norm. As the ideas that would become the Enlightenment continued to develop, such as rational secularism, the intelligentsia turned against witch hunts and spoke out against them. Also, the doctors who were employed to examine the accused for the “mark of the devil,” the scars, boils, and moles that were thought to signify contact with the devil, they realized that people of good moral character also had them. The practice could not stand up to scrutiny. As all of these changes occurred, the laws began to reflect them. Witchcraft was no longer illegal.

Parallels to Our Own Times

When we think about how similar our time is to that of the Late Middle Ages, we can see so many parallels:

  • The lawlessness and lack of authority that was the result of the decimation of the population due to the Black Death , the Great Famine, and many wars is paralleled in MAGA Nation’s waning confidence in our governmental institutions and government authority.
  • The rapid decline in population also helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation — god didn’t answer the prayers of the suffering, the Church couldn’t manage the plague — which loosened the grip of the Church over the populace, but the Protestants didn’t fill the vacuum adequately. The once highly structured social hierarchy of the Middle Ages was no longer as strictly structured. The assumptions about the role of god in the lives of people were no longer borne out in direct experience. With the advent of #COVID19 and extreme weather, some of us lost confidence in science to protect us from the worst of nature’s ravages. Despite the warnings of scientists over the decades, now that these things are here, many people are upset that they didn’t stop it from happening, especially as these confusions and doubts were exploited by fear mongering Republican politicians and conservative media.
  • The stress of living through the chaos of the deaths of 30 – 60% of the population and repeated wars left much of the population confused, angry, and uncertain. They looked for a way to restore some sense of control over their lives, and it became the scapegoating and persecution of “witches,” marginalized poor women who just didn’t fit in. Conservatives have been living in a sour stew of grievance, fear, and anger over the declining white population and the growing communities of color. The election of a Black man as president was more than many of these closeted white supremacists could take. They needed some way to return the old order to their world. Defying the government and targeting people who are vaccinated and masking, PoC, immigrants, and liberals, i.e. owning the libs, has become their way of restoring their perception of order.

Many people have said that as the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers get sick and watch relatives and loved ones die, they’ll change their minds. Don’t be so confident. One of the big lessons from the witch hunts is that people were burning women they loved. The number of women who were murdered during the height of the witch hysteria in certain areas — Switzerland — could mean that nearly every woman in the area was accused. If burning your mother as a witch didn’t break the fevered grip of mass psychosis on a person, how could you imagine that watching the West burn, the South hammered by hurricanes, the Midwest and Northeast drowned in floods, the loss of our democracy, or the deaths of a million or more Americans will break the mass psychosis of MAGA Nation?

It seems that we have a lot more crazy to go through before the changes that are needed to rein in this reign of willful stupidity will come to an end. It may be that we have to live through the natural atrophying of their number through premature #COVID19 deaths and shifting demographics to temper their delusion. The problem is that they will continue to vote and the GQP has engineered election laws that will allow them to win with 40% of the vote.

To defeat the mass psychosis of MAGA Nation, we have to have everyone turn out and vote Democratic. We’ll see if the what is left of the sane portion of the country and contain the hysteria that has gripped MAGA Nation.

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Image Attribution

“Witches burned at the stake” by ancientartpodcast.org is licensed under CC BY 2.0

25 replies »

  1. As an unrepentant tree-hugging Nature-loving hippie freak (but not commie) Wiccan, I can confidently state that no, witches can’t fly on brooms – maybe parasails, but I’m afraid of heights unless in a fully-enclosed aircraft.

    I have grandkids and I’d love for them to have a planet to live on without needing SPF 2000000 sunscreen and a Hazmat suit. I’d also love for them to have a functional country (assuming there’s such a thing) where not quite half the population is happy to burn everything down to ‘own the libs.’

    Do you think there’s any way at all that we can be relatively re-united as one nation? I fear that it will take some massive horror of the “an asteroid is coming directly at us and it can only be deflected if we ALL work together” variety. Or maybe an alien attack – the outer space variety, not the “illegal immigrant” kind of alien. Maybe if the aliens SENT the asteroid and are right behind it ready to colonize the smoking cinder that would be left behind…..

    Seriously. What the bloody hell can we do?

    Ruth

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Ruth!

      One of the reasons Ye Olde Blogge exists is to answer the question, what the bloody hell can we do? Over the years it has shifted its focus, but that is essentially it… using science of course.

      One of the lessons that I found striking from the Medieval Witch Hysterias is that they took 200 hundred years — TWO HUNDRED YEARS! — for them to die down. The cause? The culture and times changed. And, they were extreme in their killing. There were villages where 80 to 90% of the women were killed. Mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends were all put to the torch just like that fella in Maryland the other day stabbed his mother to death and then murdered his brother and sister-in-law all because his brother was a pharmacist dispensing the vaccine and “knew something.” It is that kind of extremism that we’re up against.

      However, knowing that the reason that kind of cray cray takes root in a population is because of the extreme anxiety and stress they’ve been living under for the past few decades leads them to literally not be able to think clearly any longer and accept just any old lie as the truth. That struggle to make sense of a world that has changed and no longer makes sense leads to kind of crazy ideation and extreme behavior.

      Certain of the Republicans like Bannon and the Koch Bros know this so they’ve ginned up the useful idiots like Ted Cruz and Kevin McCarthy to continue rile up the base.

      Our job is to try and calm the environment so that they are not so agitated all the time and to keep flooding the zone with the truth. We should not be arguing and fussing and fighting with these folks. We should only calmly and clearly state the truth and then walk away. We should turn out the vote in 2022 and vote in more Democrats across the spectrum. We should pressure the Senate to abolish the filibuster and pass Biden’s legislation. We should join peaceful mass protests whenever possible.

      That’s about it really. None of it is sexy. None of it is particularly fun unless you work at making it fun like holding call your members of Congress parties.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Like

  2. I read somewhere once the iconic witches of yore were beer-brewers of the public market place, their conical hats advertisement, the broom to keep things swept up around and black cat to keep the mice away from their bubbling caldrons, their beer-brewing operations.

    As plausible as any …

    Liked by 2 people

    • Howdy Ten!

      I KNOW that women were the brewmasters on the feudal fife. There wasn’t much competition in those days feudalism not being capitalism and all… just more extreme exploitation, so I don’t know about the conical hats. Although, they had some fanciful hats and sense of style in general if the plague doctor outfits are any indication.

      Of course, I read a lot more about the witch craze as it is usually called and there were accusations of women riding all kinds of things in order to fly through the air like poles and chairs. Magic users, magicians, witches, and wizards were much more popular than what we’ve been led to believe. The Saints were all considered to be users of magic using the powers that god gave them. Most other magic users were thought to be charlatans, not evil. It wasn’t until the craze hit that (a) witchery became associated with women and (b) it became evil and caused by consorting with the devil.

      It does show you just how hard it is to figure out what actually did happen after the fact.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Even the maximum proposals to limit climate change, no matter how rapidly they could be enacted and the money appropriated both publicly and by private interests, they would take decades to accomplish and only put some sort of cap on how bad it would get. Until then, the process isn’t going to cut us any slack, no break from the increasing damage and uncertainty. Some will be convinced, some will remain in panic and try to explain why nobody has fixed the world yet (back to how it used to be, to “normal”). The truth is that normal times are over and not coming back for a very, very, very long time, a geologic scale long time, not a human society and history scale long time. One estimate I’ve seen (10 years ago) was that it would take 500 years for all the ice to melt and raise the sea level about 200 feet. What does that mean in terms of human social systems? Well, 500 years ago Henry 8th was king of England and still with his first wife.

    Yep, all we can really do for not is vote to hold the maddened at bay, and make sure those votes count.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Howdy Bob!

      I’m afraid your prognostication on returning to today’s temperatures is probably about right. Normal is gone in so many ways… if it was ever here to begin with. But, our climate is no longer normal and returning to those conditions will not come back again very soon. Our democracy is gone. We just don’t quite know it yet. It won’t be returning to us anytime soon, either. #COVID19 is here to stay. We will be living with yearly booster shots, vaccine-resistant variants, outbreaks requiring masking and social distancing, and new pandemics for the foreseeable future.

      Unfortunately, times of such upheaval and chaos usually do not support democracy. People have a tendency to turn to the simple answers and a strong arm to implement them with.

      The funny thing is that most days I have hope that we will re-exert our democracy, limit the rise in warming temperatures, and keep #COVID19 and subsequent pandemics under control.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Liked by 2 people

      • We have to maintain hope, in part that somehow we can get to a workable consensus on basic facts sufficient to make plans and take actions which have highest probability of mitigating damage and preserving the technical and cultural capital that make a modern way of life possible. How? I don’t know, but necessity has a way of overcoming fixed ideas.

        Liked by 2 people

        • The Witch Hysteria ended when the culture changed and government strengthened. People didn’t need it as a way of feeling in control of the uncontrollable. In that sense Biden is right: we have to prove that democracy can work. Unfortunately, the Republicans are constantly trying to stop government from working so people will be constantly angst-ridden and rise up in hysteria.

          Jack

          Liked by 1 person

          • There was a clip from Jannett Yellen’s testimony to congress warning of the consequences of a federal default in which a Republican responded, in essence, that he couldn’t believe her because she is part of a Democrat administration. She had criticized the GOP position that the Democrats must fix it on their own without GOP votes, or (unsaid) scuttle their entire agenda.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Howdy Bob!

              The Founding Fathers were right. They knew a democracy was a risk because they are vulnerable and fragile. Like Franklin famously, yet allegedly, said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” And to paraphrase Jefferson, it takes and engaged, educated, and informed electorate to maintain a democracy. We are seeing the effects of both of those warnings. Unscrupulous politicians attacking the institutions and stopping the government from working and an electorate willing to vote for them because of base emotional appeals that are getting more hysterical and baser.

              In many ways, our democracy is already dead. It is dysfunctional. Our government does not operate on democratic principles any more and hasn’t since the election of Obama and even with Dubya’s rah-rah illegal wars.

              Huzzah!
              Jack

              Liked by 2 people

                    • Howdy Bob!

                      Trump got a higher percentage of the white vote in 2020 than he did in 2016 55% vs. 54% (probably not statistically significant, but psychologically devastating). That was just enough to put him within 44,000 votes or so of the electoral college. Unfortunately, our prosecution of violent conservative racist white extremists is pretty poor. Even Garland’s Justice Department is going soft in its prosecutions of the rank and vile insurrectionists.

                      Huzzah!
                      Jack

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • It will be interesting and diagnostic to see how the “All Trump, all the time” candidates do in ’22, especially in the districts that went for Obama in ’08 and/or ’12, and then for Trump in ’16 & ’20. Also, how such candidates do in primaries against “moderate” or less than enthusiastic about Trump Republican incumbents.

                      As for DOJ and rank and vile, many of the 1/6 in the hangers on and followers of the crowd categories are getting plea deals likely accompanied by pointed comments about repeat offenders. Those less committed to the cause can take the hint. Building cases for sedition and conspiracy is hard, and usually takes flipping somebody if the documentary and messages exchange evidence is less than slam dunk damning. They have a huge number of cases to clear in order to concentrate on the big fish. If I were in Garland’s shoes, I’d be looking for a witness flipping pathway to get to some members of Congress and White House operatives, and ultimately, Trump himself. Prosecuting a former President for politically related crimes is problematic, but if you can scare him enough he will throw everybody else under the bus.

                      Liked by 2 people

                    • Howdy Bob!

                      Yeah, the wheels of justice turn slowly and inscrutable kinda like the mind of god. I do trust Garland more than most to do the right thing and to do it right. To do it right will take much more time than most people are willing to give. I have to keep reminding myself that the “proof” in social media and in the public doesn’t necessarily stand up in court, and we have to trust the experts to bring the cases they are able to in the context that they are in. It is a struggle because everything feels so urgent and threatening.

                      The 2022 election will be very illuminating. The 2018 and 2020 elections showed some erosion of the white base of the GQP. Does that trend continue especially with the disastrous groupthink decisions on #COVID19 mitigation and abortion and spending/debt ceiling that the Republicans have taken.

                      Huzzah!
                      Jack

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Certainly, nobody at DOJ wants to bring a case to court they don’t think they can win, and Garland especially knows that they can’t afford to blow a big one. And, the way to present a plea deal and flip an important witness is, “We’ve got you. You’re toast. What have you got to offer?”

                      I have to think that the closer the Republicans push to the cliff on the debt ceiling and possible default, the more real money will be held back or go the other way. At some point some very rich people who would be badly hurt will stop seeing them as tough and principled and see them as stupidly stubborn. There are also a lot of business people who look at the money the Democrats want to spend with mouth watering anticipation.

                      Vaccinated swing voters are getting very tired of the anti-vacs and anti mask rhetoric and crazies. That is in those critical suburban “soccer moms” districts.

                      Liked by 1 person

              • Dear CalicoJack,

                Hello! I am back and surprised to find that you have been even more prolific. It is patent that you have been busy and productive indeed, so much so that there are many new posts and comments for me to digest!

                I can’t agree with you more regarding the vulnerability and fragility of democracy. My extensive and analytical post entitled “💬 Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: 🧠 Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity 🦠” has been significantly revamped. The last section named “Denouement: Democracy, Education, Legislation & Sustainability” specifically discusses this vulnerability and fragility. I would very much like to invite you to peruse this last section in its entirety and submit a detailed comment there. Hopefully, it is going to be so insightful and quotable that I shall incorporate your comment into the section itself for posterity, as I have done so with your earlier comment for the section named “Cognitive Biases: A Minefield of Mental Traps for the Unwary“.

                Yours sincerely,
                SoundEagle

                Liked by 1 person

                • My goodness, Sound! I am so honored. I will investigate your esteemed post. Luckily, next week is a holiday for us, so I should have some time.

                  Nowadays, I am busier than a bee in a bonnet. I’ve never been this busy. Probably why I’m writing so much. I just don’t have time to put it off.

                  I look forward to catching up with your analysis. I’m sure I will not be disappointed.

                  Huzzah!
                  Jack

                  Liked by 1 person

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