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The Strange, Little-Known Causes Behind the European Witch Hunts

From the 13th to 18th centuries in Europe, 60,000 people were executed for charges related to witchcraft. In some countries, witch trials became a part of everyday life, as children and adults alike fought off accusations of sorcery. Even in countries where this form of persecution remained part of the lunatic fringe, thousands of people were tried over the centuries for supposedly using dark magic. Each town injected its own flavor into these tirades. They were headed by different kinds of leaders— religious, political, or popular committees. Women were the most common targets by far, but men were killed more often in eastern Europe. Punishments ranged from banishment or imprisonment to torture and execution.

Witch hunts were a strange phenomenon, though, even for the time. Historians, economists, and sociologists have long sought a clear reason for the violence. Religion is the most common culprit, and rightly so. Christian religions were undergoing extreme changes at the time. Still, religion can not carry all of the blame. Others cite misogyny as a primary cause. Again, this is a valid assertion. Yet, religion and, sadly, misogyny have been run rampant in society for millennia.

In reality, the causes are much more complex. They stem from the sociocultural traditions of the time, the recovery from the black plague, and, believe it or not, the weather. Altogether, these factors created the conditions for one of the strangest, most unnecessarily violent periods in western history.

Let’s explore

The late Medieval and early Renaissance periods were marked by a massive cultural and religious shift. This change was most evident during the 16th-century Reformation, as the Christian church and its various forms morphed into a slightly less archaic version of its past self. The Reformation created a schism between Catholic Europe and the rest of the continent. In Scotland, this shift was especially pronounced. King James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, was born and baptized Catholic. Yet, the country he inherited was overwhelmingly Presbyterian-Protestant, and the king adopted this religion as his own.

Illustration of church

By the time James ascended to the throne in Scotland, witch hunts had spread throughout much of continental Europe. Catholics and Protestants in France and Germany were growing fond of fighting sorcery with harsh punishment. Yet, there had been no extensive trials in Scotland. Charges of witchcraft were generally contained to one-off cases. Unfortunately, for about 6,000 Scots, that was about to change.

King James, a longtime nonbeliever in dark magic, had a sudden change of heart shortly after his marriage to Anne of Denmark. Around 1590, the king developed a seemingly sudden concern that witches in his country were attempting to kill him. After catching word of a witch hunt in North Berwick, James declared himself the head of its council. The North Berwick Trials implicated seventy people, some of whom were banished and a few of whom were burnt at the stake. King James, today most famous for his translation of the Bible, published a book called Daemonologie, a philosophical treatise on necromancy, black magic, and witchcraft. Over the next seventy years, Scotland was the site of some of the deadliest witch hunts in all of Europe.

This story reveals one of the strange quirks of these peculiar inquisitions. At any time, an influential person could become enraptured in fighting necromancers, and, all of a sudden, a village, county, or country could be in the throes of a deadly ordeal. 

In a way, Christianity underwent that shift itself. While the Bible directly states that witchcraft is a sin, Medieval Christian doctrine made it clear that demonology was pagan superstition. However, in the 13th-century, several religious texts were published that opened the door for accepting the threat of witchcraft. Though still far from widely accepted, individuals could now justify belief in this demonic power. Furthermore, religious inquisitions had been running rampant throughout Catholic Europe for about a century now. Leading Dominican inquisitors accepted witchcraft as reality, and, as their fear of witches seeped into their inquisitions, the first witch trials were borne. 

These religious hunts remained somewhat rare for the next hundred years until, in 1428, the Valais Witch trials began in a corner of Switzerland. The Valais affair lasted eight years, coinciding with the Council of Basel, a meeting of Catholic officials just down the road from Valais. Attendees shared details of the trials, spreading fear of this dark magic. By the council’s end, three prominent clerics emerged, all preaching of the dangers of witchcraft. They published books that spread the word, and the fear, throughout their countries. 

Soon, witch hunts became the new norm in western Europe, catching on later in Scandinavia and the east. Each set of trials took on its own shape and unique characteristics. But there were still a few similarities between each instance. 

In most countries, accused witches were tried in court, though the trials made a mockery of judicial procedure. Though technically charged with witchcraft, defendants were blamed for causing random, everyday-type problems in other people’s lives. The accused generally had no opportunity to provide an alibi, as the belief held that a witch could use magic on targets any distance away. Instead of testifying of actual crimes, witnesses gave details on the motives that may have led to the offense.

Of course, charges were impossible to prove, so the trials relied on a series of strange tests. For instance, an accused witch would be thrown into a pool. If they floated, then they were a witch. If they sank, then they were innocent. Contrary to popular belief, the accused weren’t left to drown, though. There was often an aide nearby to pull the defendant out of the water. Still, falling to the bottom of a pool wasn’t always enough to convince accusers. Many suspects were accused repeatedly, proving their innocence until they were banished from town.

Strange test of the witch. Whether they floated or not on the pool.

Sadly, that was only the case in the more restrained townships. Across much of Europe, townspeople did whatever possible to get the guilty verdict they sought. Many of the accused were placed in jail until they confessed. Countless people were tortured until they admitted to sorcery, yet, frequently, a confession wasn’t enough. Admitted witches were forced to give up the names of their comrades before they were freed from the pain of torture and put to death. 

The witch trials peaked in Europe from about 1560-1630. The most gruesome and deadly ordeals took place in Germany. By the mid-17th-century, though, they began to trail off. Throughout the era, there were always skeptics. One of the biggest causes for their end was the rise of more powerful central governments doing their part to enforce the rule of law. By the 1700s, most countries banned legal action against purported witches.

With the craze over, people began searching for a clear cause, and religion and misogyny shouldered most of the blame. Without question, both played significant roles in leading to the trials. But, there are problems with ascribing all of the responsibility to these two factors. 

Throughout Europe at the time, there were two major religions: Catholicism and Protestantism. In Catholic Portugal, Spain, and Italy, witch hunts were somewhat rare. There were 10,000 trials in the three countries combined, a small figure compared to their populations. In the German Holy Roman Empire, which was also Catholic, there were more than 50,000. Meanwhile, tiny Protestant Scotland tried more than 6,000 people and executed 2,000, a shockingly high number given that witch hunts reached the country relatively late in the craze.

A study in 2017 attempted to address this issue by pointing out that it wasn’t the religions themselves that led to executions but the competition between sects. This theory holds little weight. Most towns had one faith, and examples of interfaith accusations were rare. In fact, given that both religions agreed that witchcraft was an existential threat, leaders from both denominations frequently collaborated to ensure witches were caught. Similarly, while local clerics or politicians could instigate witch hunts, popular demand often motivated the investigations.

As for misogyny, there’s no doubt it played a crucial role in the trials. An overwhelming majority of the victims were women, with estimates claiming that 80 percent of the executed were female. Writings from the time reveal disturbingly sexist language attempting to justify why women were so often accused. Church leaders stated that women were more susceptible to sin due to the pathetic belief that women were always less intelligent than men. In the most extreme circumstances, women, and sometimes even young girls, were accused of fornicating with the devil to gain their powers.

Women who were accused of witchcraft seemed to understand the gender dynamics at play. When forced to give up names, accused witches overwhelmingly reported other females. Early historians blamed this on so-called women’s quarrels, but it seems more likely that the defendants understood that giving up women would satisfy their torturers fastest.

Yet, while claims of sexism and religious extremism are entirely valid, they don’t complete the picture. One missing piece explains the desperation that drove humankind to such drastic lengths— the Little Ice Age. The Little Ice Age was a period of three to five hundred years where global temperatures nosedived. The era was marked by a worldwide decrease in average temperatures of one degree celsius. In Europe, the change was much more drastic. Winters became colder and longer, and bodies of water froze. At one point, the sea between Denmark and Sweden froze over thick enough for the Swedish army to march to Copenhagen. But, to understand how this climatic phenomenon led to the witch hunts, we need to go back to where we began with King James of Scotland. 

Remember King James’s sudden turn from a witchcraft denier to a zealot? Well, it didn’t arise from nowhere. In August of 1589, James had just secured the hand of Anna of Denmark to be his queen. So, Anna set sail across the north sea to unite with her husband. The Danish fleet experienced a standard array of storms for most of the way, but, as they approached Scotland’s shores, the tempest became so intense that they had to turn back. The ship’s captain insisted that the storms were unnatural, and they must have been summoned by a witch who sought to murder Anna. So, the Danish fleet found solace on the Norwegian coast.

James, still skeptical of demonology, set out to meet Anna himself, only to be turned back by a series of storms. Eventually, James’s ship made it through, and the two were united near Norway. Yet, once together, the two were forced to wait a year and a half for icy conditions to retreat so they could return home. When they finally made it to Scotland, James’s opinion of witches had changed entirely. James and Anna agreed that the extreme weather could only have been brought about by a sorceress seeking to kill them. 

Historians point to this example as an indicator of the Little Ice Age’s role in instigating the witch trials. Scotland had long been a devoutly Protestant country. Misogyny was a part of everyday life. Only when an influential leader was exposed to extreme weather did the people lash out. While religious attitude maintained that witches could control the climate, this belief didn’t spread until the Little Ice Age had begun.

Simultaneously, the Little Ice Age’s impact was more than just frozen rivers and uncomfortable storms. The decrease in temperature and sunlight led to a decline in crop productivity throughout Europe. The farther north one looks on the continent, the worse the impacts were. While average temperatures in northern Europe decreased by two or three degrees celsius, Italy, Spain, and Portugal only experienced minor changes. Just north, in France, famines killed 10 percent of the population. In Finland, one-third of the people died during a famine brought on by a harsh winter in 1696-97. 

Today, historians have no trouble pointing out the obvious. Across any landmass, especially those with similar religions, witch hunts became worse as one traveled north. This is exemplified in two regions. In central Europe, Italy was among those least affected by both the Little Ice Age and witch hunts. To the north, the Holy Roman Empire became the de facto capital of executing witches. The English hardly killed anyone for charges of witchcraft. To the north, in Scotland, witch hunts thrived.

Across the continent, food insecurity led to war. Disease spread much quicker as societies became less healthy. Given the hardships imposed by the Little Ice Age, it’s no surprise that the rise of witch trials coincided almost precisely with the earliest dip in temperatures. Similarly, the witch trials reached their peak during the coldest phase of the Little Ice Age.

Still, like religion and misogyny, the Little Ice Age can’t take all responsibility for the witch craze. It acted as the spark that ignited the flame, while misogyny and religion were the fuel that allowed it to burn on for centuries. While this may seem oversimplified to some, we see similar trends in society today. The dark truth is that, when a recession hits, cases of violence, particularly gender-driven domestic violence, increase. No one would argue that losing one’s job is a justification for harming others. Most people who lose work don’t resort to violence. Yet, those who are prone to violent outbursts do so more often when circumstances deteriorate. It seems that, in the case of the witch trials, a similar logic took hold.

In the late medieval period, the changes in religious doctrine opened the door to blaming problems on witches who couldn’t defend themselves in the court system. The Little Ice Age created more problems that could be easily blamed on witches. Misogyny compelled women to condemn other women in an attempt to take the attention off themselves. Poor crop yields incentivized eliminating women who weren’t working their own fields. This perfect storm led to centuries of horrific, violent witch trials.

But what do you think? Is it fair to assign a large portion of the blame for the witch trials on the Little Ice Age? Or is there another factor that we’re forgetting? In what other ways do challenging circumstances accentuate the worst qualities of humankind? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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