19 July 2021

Giving the Devil his due: how Old Nick spawned a thousand conspiracy theories

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Writing commentary in the time of coronavirus has been interesting in the Chinese curse sense. If you’d come to me on New Year’s Eve, 2019 and told me I’d develop a sideline in pieces on transgenderism and conspiracy theories, I’d have wanted to know what you were smoking. 

There is something to be said for being forced off your intellectual patch, though: you could grow up to be historian Stephen Davies. Davies is best known around the traps for his political realignment thesis as applied to Brexit, and his account of the social and economic elements required for industrialisation

Few people seem to realise that Stephen Davies the Brexit maven started out as a scholar of the Early Modern period, with a special emphasis on Scottish religious and legal history during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. He has forgotten more about theology and why we believe the (supernatural) things we do than most people will ever know. 

All this means Davies’ latest book, The Street-Wise Guide to the Devil and His Works is both a return to his intellectual roots and a superb introduction to one source of conspiracism’s contemporary efflorescence. The pandemic is important (pandemics often coincide historically with humanity’s most risible attempts to summon things that don’t exist into reality), but as Davies points out, something more is needed.

In Guide to the Devil, that figure, he suggests, is Old Nick, the ultimate Big Bad (at least in Europe and the Middle East, which turns out to be important). Guide to the Devil is thus both a history of the idea of the Devil, but also explains why he isn’t a cultural or religious universal. He belonged originally to Zoroastrianism, the rather eccentric monotheism of Ancient Persia, but experienced something of a Jewish hostile takeover bid quite early on in proceedings. From there, he made a home in Christianity and then Islam, in a form so similar Christians and Muslims can, with little effort, appreciate and understand each other’s versions of him.

However, the Devil was not part of classical paganism (educated Roman pagans, when they first encountered the Zoroastrian and Jewish versions, found him both baffling and actively unpleasant), and he never made his way into Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, or Confucianism. This has consequences, especially when it comes to the history of anti-Semitism and misogyny. All civilisations of which we have record have in-groups and out-groups, as well as concepts of witches, witchcraft, and magic. Only Christian and Muslim civilisations have produced demented, religiously motivated slaughter of Jews or women on a large scale. 

“Until the later Middle Ages the peoples of Christian Europe had a set of beliefs about witches and witchcraft that were not much different from those found elsewhere, but at that point something novel was introduced. This novel element was the combining of traditional folkloric beliefs with the idea of the Devil, making witches willing collaborators with, and servants of, the Devil”.

Davies focusses on witches, given his book is a history of the Devil, but as he points out, it’s important to remember that similar thinking (and treatment) was meted out much earlier to Cathars, Jews, and the Knights Templar. This pattern of persecution as applied to witches (mostly women, but also some men) first emerged just after the Black Death but underwent immense elaboration afterwards, reaching a peak of horror during Europe’s Wars of Religion. 

Crucially, the fantasy that there was an organised conspiracy of people in league with the Devil and capable of dark magic leapt the class barrier and came to be accepted by local and, in time, religious and regional elites. The Inquisition was the greatest vector for this. Incredibly, it went from an organisation with procedural safeguards for the accused (yes, really) to one where ordinary members of the public were treated in the same way as heretics (tortured and then burnt at the stake, for the most part). Davies’ account is one of the grimmer examples of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions I’ve read. 

This phenomenon – where governance elites, especially those in the criminal justice system – come to believe in the existence of an organised conspiracy of evildoers in high places perpetrating serious crimes, typically against children, is now a regular occurrence in post-Christian, secular societies. “The underlying fantasy,” Davies observes, “still has power and a hold on the minds of many people, needing only the right circumstances to burst out again”. In Guide to the Devil, he provides a detailed account of the US-based Satanic Ritual Abuse moral panic of the 1980s, but before we Brits get too smug about Americans falling for this sort of thing, the same happened here, and recently, with Operation Midland. 

Operation Midland was a skein of horrors that cost the Metropolitan Police thousands of man-hours and vast sums in compensation to those wrongfully alleged to be running a VIP paedophile ring. Senior figures – notably Labour’s Tom Watson – bought into fantasist Carl Beech’s claims of historic child abuse, giving them oxygen from the floor of the Commons. The investigation itself carried a price tag north of £2.5 million, while former Tory MP Harvey Proctor – who was falsely accused of rape and murder and lost his house and job as a result – received more than £900,000 compensation for loss of earnings and damage to his reputation. 

At the same time as the Great and Good were supposed to be engaging in a campaign of kiddy-fiddling and murder – and as also happened in the US during the Satanic Abuse panic – “genuine, serious sexual abuse was not dealt with properly”. This happened most notoriously with the Grooming Gangs, whose working-class victims were insufficiently glamorous to be taken seriously by the authorities until the problem had become too vast to ignore.

The Early Modern witch-crazes petered out partly because the period’s religious bloodshed generally became too sickening to bear. This was coupled with the emergence of Enlightenment reasoning, especially in Scotland. Meanwhile, the baby-murderers-and-devil-worshippers-in-high-places conspiracies turned increasingly florid and ridiculous. They also began washing up on the doorsteps of national elites, risking the consumption by fire of all forms of governance and a continent-wide descent into anarchy. 

“Much of the history of the last two thousand years or more cannot be understood without knowing about the Devil,” Davies concludes. The Street-Wise Guide to The Devil and His Works provides that understanding in ways amusing, discombobulating, and terrifying by turns. The extent to which something that doesn’t exist exerts a hold over the minds of men, including the minds of those who do not believe, is a wonder to behold.

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Her latest novel is Kingdom of the Wicked; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.