Witch Hunts, an Economic Explanation

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by Neil Godfrey

I just read an interesting article, How Medieval Churches Used Witch Hunts to Gain More Followers, by Becky Little discussing another article by two economists arguing that “the Catholic and Protestant churches promoted themselves by persecuting witches.”

The original article, Witch Trials, is by Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ and is available as a pdf download. Their abstract:

We argue that the great age of European witch trials reflected non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share in confessionally contested parts of Christendom. Analyses of new data covering more than 43,000 people tried for witchcraft across 21 European countries over a period of five-and-a-half centuries, and more than 400 early modern European Catholic-Protestant conflicts, support our theory. More intense religious-market contestation led to more intense witch-trial activity. And, compared to religious-market contestation, the factors that existing hypotheses claim were important for witch-trial activity — weather, income, and state capacity — were not.<

No doubt historians will debate the economic interpretation, but it looks like one more perspective to consider. I have not yet read the original article since I will need to set aside some decent time for it given the detailed datasets attached to it that would need to be analysed.

One interesting point at a glance is that the Catholic nations appear to be significantly “less guilty” than the Protestant ones.

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6 thoughts on “Witch Hunts, an Economic Explanation”

  1. https://libcom.org/files/Caliban%20and%20the%20Witch.pdf
    A pdf link to “Caliban and the Witch” by Sylvia Federici, the seminal [oops] study of witch hunts.
    A ‘must read”.

    “Joyce” [dunno who she is] has given a very good summary in this Amazon review.


    “Federici’s work on feminism goes back to the 1970’s when she felt neither the Radical Feminists nor the Social Feminists provided a satisfactory explanation of the roots of the exploitation of women. In this book she explores the transition from feudalism to capitalism and its effect on women. The title draws on Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Caliban representing the anti-colonial rebel and the Witch representing female heretics, healers, disobedient wives, women who dared to live alone, and those who inspired slaves to revolt. Compare that model of strong women to the new model of femininity which emerged at the end of the 17th Century (after centuries of state terrorism): ideal wife, passive, obedient, thrifty, chaste. Federici investigates the 300 years of witch hunts of the Middle Ages, the role of which she sees to create out of the female body workers for the burgeoning capitalist economy. She tells the horrific story of the many ways that the power of women was destroyed culminating in the massacre and cruel torture of hundreds of thousands of women. The witch hunt was a turning point in women’s lives. No doubt the psyche of every woman is affected still by so many of the strongest of us being so treated. Yet the witch hunt is one of the most understudied phenomena in European history.”

  2. To claim that the woman x is a witch is equivalent to Moctezuma’s claim that Cortes was the god Quetzalcoatl. In both the cases a mythological entity is going to be euhemerized by being identified with a mere human recipient (who becomes his earthly avatar).

    Could this be a similar case with the euhemerization of Jesus? The “Christ” was identified after the 70 with a lot of historical characters but Mark 13 says us that only the Gospel Jesus is the Christ.

  3. “Say folks, do you have a neighbor you don’t like, maybe one you would like to grab some property from? Then come over to Smiling Jesus’s One True Church and accuse that neighbor of being a witch – save your sould and make a profit too!”

  4. It should be noted that 20-30% of those killed in the witch-hunts were men and that women were often the accusing witnesses at the trials. The puritanical misandrist Gender-feminist movement today is using social media and mass media witch hunts (perhaps more accurately labelled ‘witches’ hunts’) to destroy the lives and families of millions of people and to steal money and power.
    “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

    ― Voltaire, Questions sur les Miracles à M. Claparede, Professeur de Théologie à Genève, par un Proposant: Ou Extrait de Diverses Lettres de M. de Voltaire

    1. Or, to put it another way, using your claim as the basis, 70-80% of those killed, a large majority, were women and ‘usually’ [the converse of your ‘often’] the accusers were males and certainly always under the aegis and systemic motivation of secular and religious organizations virtually entirely dominated by males.

  5. So the Protestant reformation gave rise to… hustling. And of the worst sort! What did the women (and men) who perished in this competition for souls have anything to do with their persecution—other than being the target?

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