Witch hunting – the history of a meme

July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

“In Trevor-Roper’s view, the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries were part of the reaction against growing doctrinal pluralism, and were ultimately traced back to the conflict between the rational worldview of such thinkers as Desiderius Erasmus and other humanists and the spiritual values of the Reformation.”

History was an art, insisted Hugh Trevor-Roper, but even he was not free of the historian’s occasional ambition to be a “scientist”: in his The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries Trevor-Roper proposed a kind of thermodynamic theory of witch hunts:  as the social pressure rises, things begin to boil (you know: p = tv etc.).  Presumably it follows that the wearing off of the witch hunts would serve as a gauge of some kind of lowering in the “social pressure” — social pressure remaining undefined.  But both the rise and the wearing off of witch hunts had direct causes minutely and clearly described in Roper’s essay — though wholly unnoticed by its author — which in all likelihood had nothing to do with any “social pressure”.

In fact, instead of the (very vague) thermodynamic model, an epidemiological model is called for:  the witch hunting meme is like any other virus in his native environment:  it is a disease vector which under normal circumstances is under control — lies dormant in harmless fairy tales and, in our own times, TV mini-series — but give it a chance and it begins to replicate geometrically causing a break out of the disease. Why it should break out so easily is easy to understand:  we are wired by nature to suspect that people within our midst are secretly conspiring against our interests because in fact this is the case — think of the most obvious (and relatively “harmless”) examples:  brewers secretly manoeuvre to corner the beer market, doctors the prescribing of medicines, etc.

But better yet is the economic model.  (As any accountant will tell you: when you wish to understand something, follow the money).  In the 17th century, the witch hunting meme began to replicate suddenly when some enterprising genius — acting in his best understood self-interest — discovered that it could be used to achieve money and status.  Trevor-Roper describes the way in which witch hunters — all self-made, self-proclaimed men — made money and gained social status, chiefly by blackmailing and extortion (though also to some extent by rewards of property seized from their victims) — he even describes the public displays of wealth by their wives, but — perhaps historians by their nature are blind to the profit motive — he fails to see money as the driving force of the phenomenon.  He can’t imagine that the witch hunters were pursuing profit and proposes that they were merely responding to some kind of “social pressure”.

Likewise, he describes how the field soon became crowded with many practitioners competing for the business and how eventually they turned on each other.  (This was another brilliant exploitation of the meme:  how come this witch hunter know so much about witches?  perhaps he himself has secret dealings with the devil?).  When witch hunters themselves began to burn at the stake, the business became too dangerous and quickly emptied of volunteers.

If you look at every other witch hunting phenomenon — from Roman persecutions of Christians, to Moor hunting in Iberia, to Jewish ritual murder cases, to McCarthyism — they all follow the same structure:  someone discovers a “secret plot” scheme which he can exploit to his advantage; soon others get on his bandwagon and the thing becomes a huge money- (and tragedy-) maker; eventually infighting causes the entrepreneurs to turn on each other and the phenomenon dies out.

Viewed in this light civilization — “progress” — is really a kind of arms race between human inventiveness on the one hand (people inventing ever new ways to exploit ugly aspects of human nature for personal profit) and human inventiveness on the other — the commonwealth trying to adopt ever new rules to prevent the same bad habits from wreaking havoc.


The interesting thing about this phenomenon is that none of the really successful witch hunts ever sports a meme about money:  in other words, there has never been a witch hunt against monopolistic connivings of drug companies for instance.  It is always about some weird and disgusting thing:  people stealing babies to drink their blood, etc.  Why?  I think the explanation is that the entrepreneurs who drive the witch hunts go out of their way to hide their own money motive.  Therefore the theory of the evil “them” cannot involve money.  In the words of Borges:  “What is the single word prohibited in a riddle about chess?  Chess.”





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