The first talk at QEDcon was on werewolves. Actually, it was about the cultural backlash to the reformation during the 16th & 17th centuries. This counter reformation occurred during a time when Northern Europe was somewhat divided between competing Catholic and Protestant groups, both wanting to gain power. Unsurprisingly, it was a time where superstition was used as a tool by those in charge to punish those they saw fit.
So this talk was actually about reviewing cases where people in positions of power used the trumped up charge of changing into a werewolf to justify torture and capital punishment.
We were taken through a number of cases where this had happened. Such as the trial of Peter Stumpp in Germany. The court was presented with the argument that Peter had been given a girdle by the devil that enabled him to turn into a wolf. But the really surprising thing to hear in a modern setting is that, at the time, the court accepted this as a valid argument. He was killed quite horrifically. Below is the entry from WikiPedia:
His execution on October 31, 1589 is one of the most brutal on record: He was put to the wheel, where "flesh was torn from his body", in ten places, with red-hot pincers, followed by his arms and legs. Then his limbs were broken with the blunt side of an axehead to prevent him from returning from the grave, before he was beheaded and burned on a pyre. His daughter and mistress had already been "flayed, raped, and strangled" and were burned alive along with Stumpp's body. As a warning against similar behavior, local authorities erected a pole with the torture wheel and the figure of a wolf on it, and at the very top they placed Peter Stumpp's severed head.
The reason such nonsense could be shovelled is largely due to the efforts of Michel Verdun, Pierre Bourgot, and Philbert Mentor. They presented an argument that a human could transform into a beast that was dressed in an intellectual-sounding language based on zero evidence. As a substitute for doing any real investigation to these claims, the authors referenced each other in an echo chamber of dangerous made up things that ultimately lead to providing a way to conduct unnecessary torture and death to people in the sights of those who had power.
Other cases were also mentioned, but in the end Deborah Hyde left us with a number of things to consider in an attempt to learn from this part of our history.
1. Watch during times of (economic/social) upheaval for scapegoating behaviours
2. Especially directed towards the vulnerable
3. Beware of the educated and influential talking bollocks
4. Witchcraft is not a separate thing from conventional religion - it is produced by it