THE ‘WITCH CRAZE’ OF 16th & 17th CENTURY EUROPE: Economists uncover religious competition as driving force of witch hunts
01 Aug 2018
Economists Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ of George Mason University have uncovered new evidence to resolve the longstanding puzzle posed by the ‘witch craze’ that ravaged Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and resulted in the trial and execution of tens of thousands for the dubious crime of witchcraft.
In research published in the August 2018 issue of the Economic Journal, Leeson and Russ argue that the witch craze resulted from competition between Catholicism and Protestantism in post-Reformation Christendom. For the first time in history, the Reformation presented large numbers of Christians with a religious choice: stick with the old Church or switch to the new one. And when churchgoers have religious choice, churches must compete.
In an effort to woo the faithful, competing confessions advertised their superior ability to protect citizens against worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil by prosecuting suspected witches. Similar to how Republicans and Democrats focus campaign activity in political battlegrounds during US elections to attract the loyalty of undecided voters, Catholic and Protestant officials focused witch trial activity in religious battlegrounds during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to attract the loyalty of undecided Christians.
Analysing new data on more than 40,000 suspected witches whose trials span Europe over more than half a millennium, Leeson and Russ find that when and where confessional competition, as measured by confessional warfare, was more intense, witch trial activity was more intense too. Furthermore, factors such as bad weather, formerly thought to be key drivers of the witch craze, were not in fact important.
The new data reveal that the witch craze took off only after the Protestant Reformation in 1517, following the new faith’s rapid spread. The craze reached its zenith between around 1555 and 1650, years co-extensive with peak competition for Christian consumers, evidenced by the Catholic Counter-Reformation, during which Catholic officials aggressively pushed back against Protestant successes in converting Christians throughout much of Europe.
Then, around 1650, the witch craze began its precipitous decline, with prosecutions for witchcraft virtually vanishing by 1700.
What happened in the middle of the seventeenth century to bring the witch craze to a halt? The Peace of Westphalia, a treaty entered in 1648, which ended decades of European religious warfare and much of the confessional competition that motivated it by creating permanent territorial monopolies for Catholics and Protestants – regions of exclusive control, in which one confession was protected from the competition of the other.
The new analysis suggests that the witch craze should also have been focused geographically, located where Catholic-Protestant rivalry was strongest and vice versa. And indeed it was: Germany alone, which was ground zero for the Reformation, laid claim to nearly 40% of all witchcraft prosecutions in Europe.
In contrast, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland – each of which remained a Catholic stronghold after the Reformation and never saw serious competition from Protestantism – collectively accounted for just 6% of Europeans tried for witchcraft.
Religion, it is often said, works in unexpected ways. The new study suggests that the same can be said of competition between religions.
‘Witch Trials’ by Peter T. Leeson and Jacob W. Russ is published in the August 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.