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Steije Hofhuis MA

PhD candidate


Qualitative Darwinism: exploring an evolutionary approach in the history of witchcraft

Universiteit Utrecht
Departement Geschiedenis en Kunstgeschiedenis
Promotor(es): Prof. dr. Joris van Eijnatten, Prof. dr. Bert Theunissen
Aanstelling: Vanaf maart 2016

From the 15th to the 17th centuries remarkable concepts of witchcraft took shape in Europe. Many theories about witches, such as the belief in the witches’ Sabbath, the diabolical pact, nightly flight, and torture as a means of interrogation, were strikingly well adapted to create increasingly large witch persecutions. In the past, historians and social scientists often assumed that these concepts were intelligently designed by witch hunters to pursue particular underlying goals. In contrast, most historians of witchcraft today argue that witch-hunters genuinely believed in the dangers of witchcraft, and that persecutions were a highly erratic phenomenon that did not substantially benefit anyone. However, if these concepts were not the product of an intelligent design, this gives rise to the question of how these concepts became so well adapted over time as to create increasingly large persecutions. This qualitative historical project will explore a new potential answer: Darwinian cultural evolution. The hypothesis that will be examined is that ideas such as the witches’ Sabbath and nightly flight were only accidentally well adapted to make people hunt for witches, and cumulatively survived together with the persecutions they created.