In the fourth century, the former bishop of Avila, a man named Priscillian, was executed. He was a heretic; his beliefs were largely Manichaean, he asserted the accuracy and doctrinal relevance of apocryphal scriptures, and his claim that lying in service of a greater good was no sin roused Augustine to issue a rebuttal. These were not the crimes he was executed for. The crime that earned Priscillian of Avila the sword in the year 385 was sorcery. Priscillian was killed for witchcraft, and he would not be the last. In 1324, for instance, Alice Kyteler, the Witch of Kilkenny, escaped a death sentence with the aid of her family, but her maid, Petronella of Meath, became the accused witch burned at the stake in Ireland. Pope Alexander IV had ordered investigations limited to those witches who were also heretics; in 1398, theologicians had decided that all witchcraft was innately heretical. In 1486, two experienced witch hunters published a manual, the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), and a new day dawned for witch hunters across Europe. The Malleus Maleficarum‘s starts at the beginning. Are witches real? If the heading ("The first part of treating of the three necessary concomitants of witchcraft, which are the Devil, a witch, and the permission of almighty God") doesn’t provide an answer, the very first sentence surely does: "Whether the belief that there are such beings as witches is so essential a part of the Catholic faith that obstinately to maintain the opposite opinion manifestly savours of heresy." And thus justified — and having warned against dissent — the witch hunts of Europe began. When the Reformation arrived, Protestants shed various aspects of Catholic theology, but they retained a belief in both witches and the need to suppress them violently. Martin Luther and John Calvin both understood the importance of Exodus 22:18.
James IV, king of Scotland, was an educated man. He had read the Malleus Maleficarum; indeed, for a long time, it was the second most widely circulated book in Europe. So it was with a well-tuned ear that he listened to the confessions of Agnes Thompson, who noted that the Devil,
being then in North Barrick Kerke attending their coming in the habit or likenes of a man, and seeing that they tarried ouer long, he at their coming enioyed them all to a pennance, which was, that they should kisse his Buttockes, in signe of duetye to him: which being put ouer the Pulpit barre, euerye one did as he had enioyned them: and hauing made his vngodly exhortations, wherein he did greatlye enveighe against the King of Scotland, he receiued their othes for their good and true seruice towards him, and departed… At which time the witches demaunded of the Diuel why he did beare such hatred to the King, who answered, by reason the King is the greatest enemy he hath in the worlde: all which their onfessions and depositions are still extant vpon record.
James IV of Scotland became James I of England, and there were more monsters in his kingdom in the seventeenth century than simply witches. For one thing, there were Catholics, the bogeymen to Anglicans since the reign of Bloody Mary; in 1605, Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot attempted to snuff out the stirrings of Puritanism and harsh anti-Catholic laws by destroying Parliament, killing the king, and fomenting rebellion. It failed, but the rise of Puritanism succeeded in toppling the king. When James’ grandson, Charles II, returned to the throne, he brought an Irish Catholic army with him, and the rumbling began again. When a firebreathing Anglican convert named Titus Oates announced that he knew of a Catholic plot to overthrow Charles so that his Catholic brother could become king, he found an eager audience. Persistant rumors that Catholic saboteurs were behind the 1666 Great Fire of London, a few mysterious deaths and corroborating witnesses, and the eager reporting of anti-Catholic politicians and the popular press were all that were needed to start the killings. The Forty Martyrs of England and Wales were largely martyred during the years Protestant reaction to perceived Catholic plots.
You don’t need witches for a witch hunt. You don’t even need people of ill will; James I was, by the standards of his day, responding rationally and in full keeping with his church’s teachings to a very real threat; the McMartin ritual abuse trial began thanks to a mentally unstable mother. Thanks in no small part to a hysteria-minded reporter and an untrained true believer performing slanted interviews with the children, it ballooned out to become the longest criminal trial in Californian history amid claims of Satanic rituals in tunnels beneath the school, dismembered corpses, and the use of trained lions to torment children. But the vast majority of the people involved in prosecuting the McMartins (and those accused of similar crimes) were genuinely concerned about the children.
Hysterias burn themselves out. In some cases, it happens through overreach. When Oates and his supporters accused Charles’ brother and wife of complicity in the plot, Charles fought back, and the supporters of the "Popish Plot" theory dramatically overplayed their hand. When Joseph McCarthy’s investigations moved away from the State Department — where, years later, the Venona Project revealed that there were genuine Communist agents, although whether McCarthy actually ever found any proof himself or particularly cared beyond his hearings’ appeal to voters is a matter of some debate, attempts to rehabilitate the man to the contrary — he found an opponent willing and able to fight back effectively. But sometimes, it doesn’t require even that. The public grow tired; Charles II won the fight when he realized that the English people didn’t want another civil war. Courtiers grow tired; McCarthy’s dishonesty and incompetence had been pounded home to the American people by Edward R. Murrow. And then it only takes the tiniest push to topple the hunters. When a woman named Anne Gunter was told how to mimic demonic possesion by her father, James I was dubious and turned the matter over to Archbishop Richard Bancroft, who investigated the matter and dismissed it entirely. Joseph McCarthy was attacking a staffer who worked for Jospeh Welch, the lawyer the Army had hired to defend them. Welch’s underling, Fred Fisher, had once been a member of the Communist-affiliated Lawyer’s Guild, and despite a pledge not to bring it up if Welch didn’t bring up Senate staffer Roy Cohn‘s draft dodging. After watching Welch pick Cohn to pieces, McCarthy began to wind up for an attack on Fisher; Welch responded with two sentences broadcast on live television and reported in the newspaper to millions the next day: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" It was June 9, 1954; that year he was censured by his Senate colleagues, and three years later McCarthy was dead, having never regained his national prestige.
Sometimes, a few words are all it takes to put things right until the next time we need to find the witches.