16. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds | Charles Mackay

It’s the year 1595, and an old woman, all wrinkled and weary, has found herself in the custody of angry townsmen, armed with pitchforks and unforgiving torches. In the background, a storm is brewing, the darkening clouds bear witness to people who one by one accuse this clueless old hag of witchcraft. When asked of her crimes, an angry man spits, his eyes merciless, accusing, and scared. He clears his throat, loathing the very sight of the poor old woman now bound up. He booms how this hag was seen as angry at not being invited to the sports of the country people on the day of public rejoicing. Furious, she was heard to mutter something to herself and was afterward seen to proceed through the fields towards a hill, where she disappeared from sight. She is accused of having raised the storm, all by filling a hole with wine and stirring it about with a stick. Hence, she is declared a witch, and is seized and imprisoned. The poor old woman is tortured till she confesses, and then is burned alive the next evening.

This was just one episode in what came to be known as the witch mania. Driven by hate and fear of the old Henry—the devil, countries like France, Italy, Germany, England, Scotland, and Scandinavian nations became mad and obsessed with this issue. So followed a long series of years punctuated by countless trials for witchcraft, whilst other crimes were almost non-existent or rarely spoken of. Thousands upon thousands of unfortunate women found themselves surrounded, tortured, and pushed to plead guilty to witchcraft. Entire communities resorted to pointing fingers at clueless victims who they thought to be behind a turbulent thunderstorm, a sudden disease, or another ill fate befalling the general population. And the more witches they burned, the more they found in need of burning. Soon women, belonging to all walks of life, began to pray that they might never live long enough to grow old. After all, being aged meant a chance of death at the stake or on the scaffold. This absurd delusion or popular folly was Witchmania. It was so popular that even today’s novels, short stories, movies, serial, pop culture - you name it - were either inspired by or documented this absurd phenomenon...

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