Witchcraft, Weather and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe
By Emily Oster
Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol.18:1 (2004)
Synopsis: This paper explores the possibility that the witchcraft trials are a large-scale example of violence and scapegoating prompted by a deterioration in economic conditions. In this case, the downturn was brought on by a decrease in temperature and resulting food shortages. The most active period of the witchcraft trials coincides with a period of lower than average temperature known to climatologists as the “little ice age.” The colder temperatures increased the frequency of crop failure, and colder seas prevented cod and other fish from migrating as far north, eliminating this vital food source for some northern areas of Europe. Several kinds of data show more than a coincidental relationship between witch trials, weather and economic growth. In a time period when the reasons for changes in weather were largely a mystery, people would have searched for a scapegoat in the face of deadly changes in weather patterns. “Witches” became target for blame because there was an existing cultural framework that both allowed their persecution and suggested that they could control the weather.