Religious competition was to blame for Europe’s witch hunts

Religious competition was to blame for Europe’s witch hunts

IN EUROPE, a belief in witchcraft is widely associated with medieval superstition. But this is not quite accurate. Before the 15th century popes denied the existence of witchcraft and forbade the prosecution of anyone accused of practising it. It was only after 1500 that churches reversed their position. Over the following three centuries 80,000 people were tried for witchcraft, half of whom were executed, mostly by hanging or burning. But in the 18th century the practice of putting people on trial for witchcraft died out. TheNewsEditorial’s first issue in 1843 (published 175 years ago this month) hoped that support for tariffs would go the way of belief in witches: to extinction.

In recent decades economists have tussled over why this happened. In 2004 Emily Oster of Brown University found a correlation between the frequency of witch trials and poor weather during the “Little Ice Age”. Old women were made scapegoats for the poor harvests that colder winters caused. A more recent paper by Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama of George Mason University argued that weak central governments, unable to enforce the rule of law, allowed witch-hunts to take place. They found the ability to raise more in taxes, a proxy for growing state power, to be correlated to a decline in witch trials in French regions.

A paper published in the August edition of the Economic Journal casts doubt on both theories. Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ, also of George Mason University, collected data for witch trials from 21 countries between 1300 and 1850, in which 43,240 people were prosecuted. They found that the weather had a statistically insignificant impact on the occurrence of witch trials. The impact of negative income shocks or governmental capacity was also very weak.

When Mr Leeson and Mr Russ compared their witch-trial data to the timing and location of over 400 battles between Christian denominations, they found a much closer link. Where there was more conflict between Catholics and Protestants (in Britain, between Anglicans and Presbyterians), witch trials were widespread; in places where one creed dominated there were fewer. The authors conclude that churches engaged in a sort of “non-price competition”, gaining converts in confessional battlegrounds by advertising their commitment to fighting evil by trying witches.

The persecution of vulnerable folk on trumped-up allegations of witchcraft may sound like a horror story from a history book, but the practice is on the rise in modern-day Africa. The prime victims are now children, with orphans, the disabled and albinos particularly at risk. In 2010 Unicef, a charity, estimated that 20,000 children accused of witchcraft lived on the streets of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. Areas of intense religious competition between Christians and Muslims are hot spots. In Nigeria, for instance, Pentecostal Christian preachers fight for converts by offering protection from child witches. Development experts hope that higher incomes and stronger states will end these witch hunts. But the evidence from Europe is that once religious leaders start to use witch trials as a selling point, stopping them is hard. Europe’s witch trials only ceased a century after the end of its religious wars.