Witch hunts and the weaponisation of moral panic

Jamie Stantonian
Feb 26, 2015 · 8 min read

In his history of European Witch Hunts, historian Norman Cohn traces the history of demonic moral panics and delves “deep into the sociology and social psychology of persecution”. The story he tells is one of gullibility, ignorance and the abuse of power that seems particularly relevant to our outrage-prone hyperconnected age. It is also a lesson on the long term consequences of fuelling moral panics and how cottage industries grow to sustain them.

Underground sex parties

It is a great irony for Cohn that many of the salacious stories of demon-fuelled orgies and debauchery popular in the Medieval period have their origins in Roman gossip around the Christian cults of the first to third centuries. Not grasping the subtleties of transubstantiation, the Romans thought the Christians practiced cannibalism when they talked of “eating the body” of our Christ. The rumour mill furthermore regarded their touchy-feely references to “brother” and “sister” as signs of incestuous, peadophilic sex-parties and even worshipping the penis of the priests. A few confessions tortured from weary servants provided ample “evidence” of these beliefs during the Roman persecution of Christians.

Bacchanalia were giant festival held during the Roman period, which were later associated with anti-state conspiracy theories and shut down. Livy’s accounts of them were particularly spicy, and are likely evidence of a moral panic during the time.

These groups were also subjects of conspiracy theories; why else would they meet in secret? This stereotype began with the cult of Bacchus, whose apparently wild booze-fuelled parties became the focus of hard-hitting legislation in the late second century. It is possible that the erotic tales of Bacchic orgies detailed by the historian Livy were no more than a Roman version of a “rainbow party” but the image would stick in the public imagination for a long, long time.

Jews too were the subject of conspiracy theories, especially from the Egyptian historian Apion who claimed they practiced human sacrifice and — like comic book villains — vowed to overthrow their host nation of Greece as they did so. Others such as Marcus Minucius Felix claimed the Jews worshipped a Donkey-god, which was as comical to Romans as it is to the modern reader. The point Cohn wishes to make is that by the first century;

“Erotic orgies of a more perverted kind belonged to the stereotype of a revolutionary conspiracy against the state.”

A thousand years later, long after Christianity had in fact taken over the Roman State and run it into the ground, these myths still persisted in Europe’s oral history. In that time the dominant ideas of the classical world — Polytheist mystery cults and central European shamanism — had evolved into a grim new cosmology of a world steeped in evil forces.

Demonology had become the new folklore, and village life buzzed with stories of malevolent entities that could inhabit you through your body cavities and induce you to perform all manner of misdeeds and evils. The Cistercian abbot Richalmus of Schönthal elaborated on these ideas, writing that Demons had a dull political hierarchy (much like the Church!), and that the “chatter” of these malicious entities could be heard in the mundane sounds of birdsong and coughing. Demons, for Richalamus, were responsible for making monks sing out tune and fall asleep during service.

This was the surreal and oppressive psychic landscape that existed when the first persecutions began.

Titivillus was a demon responsible for typos and other errors in replicating manuscripts.

The fire rises

The persecutions were the combination of both genuine fanaticism and the more practical goal of crushing political enemies of the Church. It was not, as popularly believed, primarily aimed at the pagan “indigenous” cultures of Europe. In fact, the heretics were almost exclusively minority Christian groups who did not recognise the authority of the Pope. In the early 13th century these were groups like the Cathars and the Waldensians, the latter of whom were sworn to a life of poverty and despised the riches and decadence of the papacy.

A religious fanatic by the name of Konrad of Marburg had convinced himself of the evil nature of these heretics must have gone beyond mere disdain of the Church. In whipping up public hatred of the heretics, he drew on the ancient stereotype of sinister incestuous sex parties, in which babies were burned alive, and their ashes mixed with wine in a demonic sacrament. These groups, he convinced himself, must be plotting to overthrow the Church.

Like any startup, Konrad’s proto-inquisition had little in the way of resources and relied on enthusiastic “freelancers” to become actively involved. In Germany, these grassroots inquisitions were led by two apparently reformed heretics, Conrad Torso and a mysterious one-armed man known simply as “Johannes”. These two suspicious characters had the superpower of being able to identify heretics by appearance alone, and once judged as such, people were typically burned alive that very day.

The only way to escape this brutal fate was public shaming; to have their heads shaved and made to admit to the perverted heresies and evil conspiracies in front of their community. To admit to such salacious activities — framed as repentance — would ruin the reputation of those accused, but it was preferable to the fiery alternative.

These dramatic public events of course provided “evidence” that the threat imagined by Konrad was real, further fuelling the persecutions and his warped fantasies. At first, those accused of witchcraft were people of no importance. They were the most downtrodden people in society; mostly peasants and poor villagers. However our heroes soon grew bolder, especially after an arrangement with German King Henry VII that meant that those accused of heresy would forfeit their inheritances to the state. After this, suddenly heresy was found amongst influential and wealthy individuals, and rival members of the aristocracy.

“Hanging” — A popular means of getting a confession during the early persecutions — resulted in torn muscle and dislocated shoulders.

It is hard to overstate the role gullibility played here, not just amongst the general public but amongst the heresy hunters themselves. Cohn writes that;

“Whatever they told him he accepted blindly, without troubling to check it; and this casual approach led to endless abuses.”

People began to abuse the system, accusing rivals of heresies so they’d be burned or humiliated. In the same way tribes exploited the gullibility of hapless US and British forces in Afghanistan; “That tribe over there, they are Taliban!”

Some of the accusations from this period were truly surreal. Count Henry of Sayn was accused by Konrad of riding around on a giant Crab during one of his routine orgies. This particular case however collapsed, but not because the story was unbelieved, but because overconfident heresy hunters were starting to pick the wrong targets. After the defeat, the furious Konrad did not learn his lesson, and in his hubris continued to accuse more and more important nobles.

In the end, he was murdered on a highway by an unknown assassin. Soon after, Conrad Torso was also stabbed to death and Johannes was lynched. But not before countless men and women were burned alive in a year and a half of unprecedented brutality. In recounting the part played by Konrad of Marburg, Cohn writes that “Clearly the Satanic menace had no real existence but was the creation of a single obsessed mind.” But these absurd erotic fantasies became a reality in the minds of millions and persisted for centuries. He continues;

“Each new persecution in turn lent fresh credibility and authority to the fantasies that stimulated and legitimised it, until those fantasies came to be accepted as self-evidently true — first by many of the educated, and in the long run by the bulk of society.”

This is a classic example of a social contagion, when something is believed to be true simply because it is everywhere. And now that the narrative had been dragged to the forefront of the public imagination, this was not the end of the terror, but a prelude to greater horrors in the coming centuries. Following the death of Konrad, in 1233 Pope Gregory XI released a Papal Bull know Vox in Rama which outlined in full the bizarre delusions of the Inquisitor. It spoke of initiation rites of the heretics which involved a giant toad and culminated with kissing a cat on the arse before engaging in the customary orgy. It was a also a call to arms against these imagined depraved heretics.

In his exhaustive research on the subject Cohn found not a shred of evidence of the devil-worshipping cults described by the Inquisition. Nevertheless these delusions and conspiracy theories turned Europe into a playground for sadists and sociopaths for the next five centuries, and led to innovations in the technology of cruelty.

The Pear of Anguish was inserted in mouth, anus or vagina and opened to cause massive internal damage. One of the many innovations in torture technology during this era. Drawing by Sverre Malling.

It is also important to note the dimension of entrepreneurship played in witch-hunting. A study released by the Professor Agostino Borromeo in 2004 estimates the Church was directly responsible for only a small fraction of killings, and that only about 1.8% of those accused were put to death. Indeed it was true that in the early Inquisition, the Church handed over the accused to secular authorities to be burned, thus evading blame for the deaths. But they were still burned.

This research, which was done by the Vatican itself, sidesteps the related issue of the killings done by freelancers like Conrad Torso. People were enabled by the continent wide moral panic that the Church fuelled in order to retain political power. By the 17th century, according to historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, witch-hunting had become a profitable profession and a route to wealth, fame and influence. Like so many Televangelists, their wives were known to swan around town in the finest clothes, bought by wealth confiscated from the guilty heretics.

This is perhaps the most alarming aspect of the European witch hunts, that once the narrative was been embedded in people’s minds and simply accepted as fact, it took on a life of its own. And an atrocity industry, build on delusion, greed and fanaticism, continued to grow and sustain itself far into the future.

Jamie Stantonian

Written by

UX Architect who studies the history of ideas.

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