Monday afternoon historian Teofilo Ruiz was at the White House accepting the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. Monday night he was lecturing to a packed Sharpless Auditorium about “The Witch Craze in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, 1486-1660s.”
Ruiz came into the room loosening his tie and fist bumping the numerous historians who were attempting to make the projector work. Eventually, after even the most tech-savvy humanities and social sciences majors had given up, Ruiz launched into his lecture without the aid of slides.
Despite the lack of visuals, Ruiz, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, was an exceptionally engaging speaker, partly due to his informal nature. His speech focused primarily on the origins of the witch scare, especially the superstitions of certain Germanic hill tribes that viewed themselves as “good witches,” which antagonized the many Catholic missionaries who visited them. Ruiz commented on how the distrust of older, independent women also contributed to the fear of witches.
Ruiz also discussed the way one might become a witch and the tests people would perform to uncover a witch. During the height of the witch craze, he said, it was widely believed that witches signed a contract with the devil, usually with blood, and were then given a mark on their body that did not bleed. After that, the witch would worship the devil and sacrifice to him. Because of this, one of the easiest ways to “prove” someone guilty of witchcraft was to find out if they had any sort of birthmark. He then finished his lecture by briefly talking about the effects of the witch craze on European societies between 1480 and the 1660s.
Ruiz has received fellowships from the NEH, the Mellon Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the ACLS, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Crisis and Continuity: Land and Town in Late Medieval Castile (Premio Del Rey Prize, American Historical Association); Spanish Society, 1400-1600; From Heaven to Earth: The Reordering of Castilian Society in the Late Middle Ages, 1150-1350; Medieval Europe and the World; and the forthcoming Spain,1300-1469: Centuries of Crises; The Terror of History and A King Travels: Festive Traditions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain.