Did economics play a part in the “Burning Times”?

Between the 14th and 18th centuries about 80,000 men and women were given a hearing for witchcraft in Europe. They were not all aged, scraggly-looking women: 15% of Scottish witches were men, and their median age was 42. Their myriad supposed crimes frequently insignificant. A neighborhood difference could possibly escalate into accusations of sorcery if somebody endured a tribulation, such as a premature death in the household, after an altercation. About half of the implicated were put to death, generally by hanging or by being burnt at the stake.

European witch trials fell out of fashion around 1770. In the recent decades, curiosity in them has centered typically on re-enactments for weekend enthusiasts and vacationers. But the subject has also fascinated a small group of academics, who have sifted through the surprisingly detailed records available on the practice and formulated hypotheses to clarify why they happened when and where they did. While lacking the stakes of an actual witch trial, these researchers’ disputes are still highly spirited by modern-day standards.

In 2004 Emily Oster, an economic expert now at Brown University, presented a paper arguing that witch trials were linked to exogenous economic shocks. Allegations of witchcraft were most widespread during the “Little Ice Age”, a period of particularly bitter winters in Europe commencing in 1590, which compelled crops to fail and profits to fall. Ms. Oster conjectured that medieval village-dwellers responsible for feeding poor older women in their neighborhoods may have screamed witch in an effort to conserve scarce resources.

In the course of a 164-year-long spell beginning in 1563, some 3,500 alleged witches were tried in Scotland, the second-highest rate per person in Europe. Based on Ms. Oster’s hypothesis, that time period should have been characterized by poor weather. However, a working paper by Cornelius Christian, an economics professor at Brock University in Canada, found that the Scottish climate was actually unusually summerlike throughout that period, leading to bumper crop yields. That led him to the precise opposite conclusion from Ms. Oster’s: people charged of witchcraft could only be persecuted with the co-operation of elites, he reasoned, who only had enough free time to go after down such prey when resources were plentiful.

There are more than two sides to the witch-trial argument. A recent paper by Peter Leeson of George Mason University and his former colleague Jacob Russ, argue that religious tensions, not the weather, put witch-hunters on the prowl. They compiled statistics from 43,000 European witch trials, primarily drawn from the highland areas near Lyon in France, Lucerne in Switzerland and Freiburg in modern-day Germany. Of these, three-fifths took place during the period from 1560 to 1630 known as the “Great Hunt”, which was characterized by horrifying atrocities: in Würzburg, Bavaria, for instance, 400 individuals were put to death on a single day.

The authors attribute this hysteria to the upshot of the Protestant Reformation. Witch trials were most common, they found, in areas where Catholic and Protestant churches reveled in comparable levels of support and were locked in a struggle for converts. Having said that, such trials were much rarer where one creed or the other held sway.

Mr. Leeson and Mr. Russ noted a striking similarity to modern American presidential elections, in which the two major parties swarm closely contested “swing states” with ads and rallies while ignoring those where one has an insurmountable advantage. Perhaps witch trials served a similar function during the Great Hunt to the role of political campaigns today: instead of competing to show voters they offer protection from terrorists and criminals, 16th-century religions competed to show potential converts they offered protection from witches. The Florida– America’s biggest swing state– of early modern Europe appears to be Strasbourg in France: 30% of all witch trials on the continent occurred within 300 miles (500 km) of the city.

Of course, witch trials also led to the murder of tens of thousands of innocent victims. Modern politicians frequently court voters by warning of the perils posed by hidden enemies lurking in the public’s midst. They might be well-advised to consider whether the targets of the resulting policies are any guiltier than those accused of consorting with Satan just a few hundred years ago.

Photo by haldean


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