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The Devil’s Mark

The Evaluation of Evil, the Measurement of Morality, and the Statistical Significance of Sin

Rooting out evil in earlier centuries could be a troublesome matter. The medieval farmer whose crops didn’t fare well or whose family and livestock sickened and died naturally wanted an explanation, and something or someone to blame. Lacking better explanations, the unfortunate peasant generally blamed Satan and his imps, demons, and particularly his human followers—witches. Relief, or at least punishment was sought from the church, the final arbiter in matters of evil and morality. On the subject of witchcraft, the church was adamant: Witchcraft was a sin that clearly needed to be stopped! With parishioners in fear of losing their livelihoods, health, friends, family, or having their genitals shrivel up and drop off (the usual witch threats), priests had every reason to learn how to recognize witches, try them, convict them, and dispatch them back to their Master in Hell as quickly as possible. Imps and demons were harder to bring to trial.

Those accused of witchcraft tended to be single, poor, and unattractive women on the fringes of the community. However, with just about everyone being poor and unattractive from the 13th to the 18th centuries—the heyday of the Inquisition—the more damning attributes of witches were their sex and their social status as “other.” But just being female and unsocial usually were not enough; the local magistrates demanded some sort of proof.

Help came with the publication, and papal blessing, of Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Malleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer). At last, priests and witchfinders had an authorized list of signs and symptoms to assist them in determining who was a witch and who wasn’t. Finding and disposing of witches even became a business. Witchfinders would travel from hamlet to hamlet seeking out and destroying the Devil’s own—almost exclusively women. Voluntary confessions were preferred, but were often aided with the Rack, the Boot, red hot pokers to the genitals and environs, and other early methods of extraordinary rendition.

Equally important, physical examinations were performed to search for the “Devil’s Mark,” a skin excrescence such as a wart, mole, or skin tag which, when pricked with a needle, didn’t bleed or the accused didn’t feel. The skin abnormalities were believed to be the sites from which imps and demons drank blood, providing the witchfinders with the necessary proof that the accused was indeed a follower of Satan. The skin tags were carefully examined. The underlying belief wasn’t. Estimates of women condemned and burned as witches range from 30,000 to 300,000 from the 15th to the 18th centuries.

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About Skeptic

EVIL, THEISM, and ATHEISM Answering the Hard Question “You’re an Atheist?! How Do You Find Meaning and Morality in Life if There is No God?”; God, Heaven, and Evil: A Renewed Defense of Atheism; The Devil’s Mark: The Evaluation of Evil, the Measurement of Morality, and the Statistical Significance of Sin; Whence Cometh Evil? The Concept and Mechanics of Natural Evil; Virtuous Reality: Why Right and Wrong Seem Real: a Critique of Moral Realism; Tearing Down Mr. Hume’s Wall: A Response to Moral Realism Skeptics; Brazilian Cancer Quackery; The “Sonic Attack” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up; Understanding Human Skeletal Variation; Updating the Software and Hardware in Educational Practice: A Way Forward for Science and Mathematics Education; Why Freud Matters: Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and the Skeptical Humanist Tradition; Hope and Hype for Alzheimer’s; I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too; Junior Skeptic: The Incredible Claims of Pet Psychics…