A Brief History of Witch Hunts, Real and Imagined – Kate Harloe November/December 2017 issue


From moral panic in the Middle Ages to freakouts on Twitter.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, tens of thousands of women were rounded up and slaughtered for being outcasts in some of society’s earliest witch hunts. But fast-forward to 2017, and suddenly it’s rich white guys who are co-opting the term. After numerous allegations of sexual harassment surfaced about film executive Harvey Weinstein, his pal Woody Allen warned in an interview with the BBC that we might be heading into “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.”

As you let that sink in, let’s take a walk down memory lane to review how witches went from being persecuted to trendy:

1500s-1600s: Social upheaval and sectarianism lead to witch trials across Europe—tens of thousands are executed. Older women, outcasts, and healers are particularly vulnerable. The trials, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English note in their book Witches, Midwives & Nurses, were “a ruling class campaign of terror directed against the female peasant population.”

1641: Moral panic hits Massachusetts: “If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.” For Puritans, “witches explain the presence of not only illness, death, and personal misfortune,” historian Carol Karlsen later notes in her book The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, but also “behavior antithetical to the culture’s moral universe.”

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