Witch Hunting: The 16th Century Muggle Response To Economic Shocks

“When the hysteria of a witch-hunt is granted supremacy over the logic, values, and spirit of the law, justice can only become a warped, alien concept in that society.”
― Stewart Stafford

Witch trials and executions had taken the lives of as many as one million individuals in Europe, between the 13th and 19th centuries. The victims were mostly women and widows. Although the killings in America and Europe ended by the late 1700s, witchcraft killings and accusations are still prevalent in many parts of the developing world. Miguel (2003) showed that an increase in witch killings and negative economic shocks in Tanzania go hand in hand. 

A lot of studies have explored the possibility that the worsening of economic conditions is directly related to the increase in violence on a large scale. Witchcraft trials are just one example. A majority of the witch trials and executions took place in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is said that 400 people were killed in a single day in one German town. In a paper by Emily Oster in 2004, extreme changes in weather were linked to the reemergence of these executions. Weather changes in this period, that happened due to climate change, were blamed on the apparent power of witches. While the world was relatively warm before this period, the 1590s and the period between 1680 and 1730 were termed as the “little ice age”. This is because the temperature in these periods was two degrees Fahrenheit lower than the temperature in the previous centuries. This cold period is attributed to a number of volcanic eruptions that cooled much of the world for many years by climatic historians. It has been noticed that the fall and rise of the witch trials were related to the fall and rise in temperature. 

However, another economist- Cornelius Christian, found that the climate in Scotland during the peak of the witch burnings was “unusually balmy” and had bumper crop yields. This led to the creation of an alternate hypothesis which stated that accusations of witchcraft were done when resources were plentiful. Religious tensions are also considered by many to be a major reason for witch trials. In a paper by Peter T. Leeson and Jacob W. Russ (2017), they argued that the witch trials showed “non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share”. They compare this to the contemporary campaign activities of Democrat and Republican candidates that aim to attract undecided voters’ loyalties. This has also been made famous by Foucault (1977) who argued that public criminal prosecutions in absolutist regimes were done by officials as a competitive strategy to advertise to citizens their willingness and power to suppress challengers to authority. The annihilation of political opponents in modern times is seen in the same light. 

Another theory for the rise in witch trials points out the inefficiency and low state capacity of weak governments. According to this theory, local authorities ordered witch trials on their own volition. It is believed that weaker central governments had less power to enforce the rule of law, which led to an increase in local witch-trial activities. A negative relation has also been established between economic growth and the number of witch trials. The proxy used

for economic growth is population because it is generally considered that prosperous regions tend to have denser populations. It is speculated that the scarcity of resources made village dwellers find reasons to execute older women, mostly widows, in order to save up scarce resources. 

In the present world, this can be seen in the context of increased chances of civil conflict during poor or deteriorating economic conditions. The conventional practice of modern politicians to warn voters of “hidden enemies in the public’s midst” instead of focusing on more pertinent and substantive issues, should be seen in the same vein. 


Witch Trials“, by Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ, Economic Journal, August 2017. Available at 

Witchcraft, Weather and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe“, by Emily Oster, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2004. 

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