The Search For Scapegoats
By Paul Homewood
As Geoffrey Parker reflects, farming, with its allied tasks, was the principal occupation and nearly the sole source of income for most families. Severe annual variations in the harvest reverberated through family life, determining whether the family ate well or meagrely, whether the old might live another winter, whether a daughter could marry.
As a result, people searched anxiously for explanations.
Many attributed natural disasters to divine displeasure, as the above Chinese folk song from the period reproached. This naturally quickly turned blaming human sins.The Protestant magistrates of Nuremberg commanded citizens to avert divine displeasure by showing moderation in food, drink and fashion, and by refraining from sensual pleasure. For the same reason, their catholic neighbour, Maximilian of Bavaria forbade dancing, gambling, drinking and extramarital sex.
In England, Parliament attempted to ban public plays and even maypoles, and prohibit the celebration of Christmas to avoid God’s wrath and displeasure.
The search for scapegoats targeted individuals as well as activities. In Europe, the climatic and economic disasters of the mid 17thC fed a witchcraze in which thousands of people were tried and executed. Thus in southern Germany, a hailstorm in May 1626 followed by Arctic temperatures led to the arrest, torture and execution of 900 men and women suspected of producing the calamity through witchcraft.
Witch panic even affected the Huron natives of North America.
The most popular causes, however, were “natural” scapegoats, such as stars, eclipses, earthquakes, comets and sunspots.
It is interesting to note that astronomers were observing the number of sunspots as early as 1612, although they believed incorrectly that more sunspots would produce cooler temperatures on earth.
But that did not stop Robert Burton writing in his Anatomy of Melancholy in 1638: