Plague and Persecution: The Black Death and Early Modern Witch Hunts
By Helen Christian
Honour’s Thesis, American University, 2011
Abstract: The century or so from approximately 1550 to 1650 is a period during which witch-hunts reached unprecedented frequency and intensity. The circumstances that fomented the witch- hunts—persistent warfare, religious conflict, and harvest failures—had occurred before, but witch-hunts had never been so ubiquitous or severe. This paper argues that the intensity of the Early Modern witch-hunts can be traced back to the plague of 1348, and argues that the plague was a factor in three ways. First, the plague’s devastation and the particularly unpleasant nature of the disease traumatized the European psyche, meaning that any potential recurrence of plague was a motivation to search for scapegoats. Second, the population depletion set off a chain of events that destabilized Europe. Finally, witch-hunters looked to the example set by the interrogators of suspected “plague-spreaders” and copied many of their interrogation and trial procedures.
The Black Death of 1348 had tremendous political, social, economic, and psychological impact on Europe and the trajectory of European history. By various estimates, the plague wiped out between one-third and one-half of the population in only a few years. The socioeconomic effects of the plague are well documented and many historians have explored how the population depletion and subsequent shortage of labor enabled peasants to demand higher wages, leading to a wave of many social and political changes. The plague is therefore often portrayed as the catalyst for positive transformations in Europe. The social instability that followed the plague created the circumstances in which the Reformation and the Renaissance later flourished.