“It was not what people did not know that proved their undoing; it was what they thought they knew that wasn’t so.”
Were witches losers in a reproductive game?
Speaking about the great which hunts, in Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets: Surviving the Public Spectacle in Finance and Politics, Will Bonner writes:
But there’s another sense in which the witch trials turn out to be about sex, after all. You could see them as a variation of the reproductive game, only this time not centering around the winners but centering around the losers—the kind of people it would be easy to blame if anything did go wrong somewhere.
Most witches were alienated from ordinary family life’t hey were seen as different by their neighbours; they were disliked and feared. It was easy for a housewife to imagine that the childless old woman in the shack outside her home was eaten up inside with envy and ready to do her in. Even more important, the outsiders often had land that could be grabbed if they were convicted.
… Witches were feared as plague spreaders, as poisoners, and as workers of black magic on the community. They were the losers in the reproductive game.
… And that is the problem with the neocortex. It can always find plausible reasons … cunning justifications … and impeccable logic to do what it means to do anyway, and means to do for the most senseless of reasons.
In fairness this is only part of Bonner’s explanation of the witch hunts. The other part is largely the same one Charles Mackay lays out in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds.
It was not illiterate fools who drove the persecution of the witches. It was the bigger semi-literate fools. It was not what people did not know that proved their undoing; it was what they thought they knew that wasn’t so.