Why did witch trials dwindle?

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.

Here is the full story from The Economist.


I had heard that the Catholic church declined to "compete" on such grounds, suppressing witch trials, which were conducted without the Church's authority. Perhaps there's more details at the link, but it's behind a paywall.

The title "why did witch trials dwindle" does not match the body of the post, which is not "dwindle" but 'why'. The 'dwindle' is due to the quiescence of religious matters, once religions became mainstream. This applies only to the western world, not the middle east, which still has a Shia / Sunni hatred despite at least 800 years of coexistence (various dates are given to when the Shi'ia religion was established as a separate branch of Islam). Compare also to the Mormons once they got started (violence) to today (stable, accepted).

Interesting, do you have a theory for why religious violence dwindled in some areas but not others?

Does Islam even have 'witches'?

They seem to think so.

Saudi woman beheaded for 'witchcraft and sorcery


Was she “driving” a driver-less car, and it shocked the religious police?

In fact, it is not at all clear if there was necessarily a decline: except the persecuted were not "witches." The same logic could account for the Red Scares after both World Wars, except political competition in place of religious competition and international Communist threat in place of climate.

C. S. Lewis once remarked that if there really were witches killing people and causing crop failures, it would be entirely proper to organize hunts for them. There really were anarchist terrorists in the wake of WW1, and American assets of the KGB who'd penetrated the US government in the wake of WW2. The term "witch hunt" makes a comparison to a situation where "witches" didn't really exist to direct people's attention from a situation in which the targets really do exist. Keep that in mind every mind Trump uses the phrase.

If there really were witches, it would make sense to address their grievances, integrate them into society, and use their power to crush enemies of the state.

Witches: "There's not enough worship of Satan, source of my dark power, going on!"

MR Reader: "That sounds like a reasonable grievance. Let's do a deal"

Now you are thinking like an economist!
Or possibly Henry Kissinger.

Tyler: "Correlation is causation, beeatchess!!!!"
World: "Ummmm, no"
Tyler: "If I put my ankles behind my ears will the world go back to the way it was?"
World: "Homina, homina, homina, homina"

While I agree that the internet would probably be more aesthetically pleasing if it consisted of nothing but blank white pages, to prevent boredom it is probably a good idea to occasionally link to things that draw an inference based on observation.

Time to thank Montaigne, Spinoza, Descartes,... to have enlightened Europe

Witch trials obviously dwindled because we KILLED ALL THE WITCHES.

You don't see many of them around any more, do you? Ha! Checkmate, liberals!

'Checkmate, liberals!'

The difference between the U.S. and Europe are instructive in this case.

From the wikipedia article of what most Americans consider one of the most shameful parts of New England's colonial history, events that had a major influence on the people who wrote the Constitution - 'It has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process. It was not unique, but a Colonial American example of the much broader phenomenon of witch trials in the early modern period, which took place also in Europe. Many historians consider the lasting effects of the trials to have been highly influential in subsequent United States history. According to historian George Lincoln Burr, "the Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered."' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials

Seems more like checkmate to theocrats pressing a man to death as he refused to plead his guilt or innocence, among other gross miscarriages of justice that typify theocrats being in charge of a government. Because in Salem, in the following decades, what was clear is that it was not witches that were killed, it was people innocent of any crime at all.

As again noted by the events that occurred in the following two decades (not centuries), as a grave miscarriage of justice was corrected to the extent possible (the dead remained just as dead, of course) - 'Repentance was evident within the Salem Village church. Rev. Joseph Green and the members of the church voted on February 14, 1703, after nearly two months of consideration, to reverse the excommunication of Martha Corey. On August 25, 1706, when Ann Putnam Jr., one of the most active accusers, joined the Salem Village church, she publicly asked forgiveness. She claimed that she had not acted out of malice, but had been deluded by Satan into denouncing innocent people, mentioning Rebecca Nurse, in particular, and was accepted for full membership.

On October 17, 1711, the General Court passed a bill reversing the judgment against the twenty-two people listed in the 1709 petition (there were seven additional people who had been convicted but had not signed the petition, but there was no reversal of attainder for them). Two months later, on December 17, 1711, Governor Joseph Dudley authorized monetary compensation to the twenty-two people in the 1709 petition. The amount of £578 12s was authorized to be divided among the survivors and relatives of those accused, and most of the accounts were settled within a year, but Phillip English's extensive claims were not settled until 1718. Finally, on March 6, 1712, Rev. Nicholas Noyes and members of the Salem church reversed Noyes' earlier excommunications of Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey.'

Giles Corey, it should be noted, is the man pressed to death.

Giles Corey, it should be noted, is the man pressed to death.

Ah - The Warlock…. You know we got there just in time; Salem had become a haven for Commu….I mean Satanism.

My experience of Giles Corey is from the Salem Witch Museum - an interesting experience in its way (though I believe it is in a different building from those childhood visits). The first time I visited was probably when around 5 years old. https://salemwitchmuseum.com/

You may want read the wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giles_Corey However, it provides no insight into 'warlock' - admittedly, I have never read The Crucible, nor seen it performed, as it always seemed like heavy handed allegory to me, and completely missing the point of how the 'godly' were responsible for the killing of innocent victims, as dramatized by the museum's presentation. (And after finally reading Death of a Salesman, I was left without any need to read another work by Miller again.)

"vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process."

So it against the liberals.

According to Trump, Mueller, Democrats, NeverTrumpers continue to hunt witches.

Today, we think of Islam as being highly sectarian (Sunni vs. Shia), but the history of Christianity is just as sectarian, and not just Catholic vs. Protestant. Thus, in the first 300 years after the death of Jesus, the battleground was over Christology, or the nature of Jesus (i.e., His divinity). And if one wishes to learn the degree of sectarian division, read the Letters of John: no, the admonition to love everyone doesn't mean everyone, it means the like-minded everyone. The First Council of Nicaea may have settled some of the differences, but obviously not all; thus, Martin Luther. Is this relevant today? Yes, and not just with regard to religion: sectarianism has blossomed to include all manner of differences to form an identity (or as Kwame Anthony Appiah indicates in his new book, the five "c"s: creed, country, color, class, and culture). Witch trials are far more prevalent today than in the past, it's just that "witch" has taken on a much more expansive meaning: today, everyone is witch. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/27/books/review/francis-fukuyama-identity-kwame-anthony-appiah-the-lies-that-bind.html

Broadly agreed.

But hey, we offered the Left liberal universalism and a colour blind society. They preferred to play identity politics with an infinite number of victim groups and oppression narratives in the pursuit of absolute power.

So, you know, what follows, follows...

So, liberals are your witches?

No, see prior's comment above. Liberals are the witch hunters.

You calling Trump a witch? He will resent that.

"My friends, I promise you....I will be the biggest Warlock...really big, with huge spells; will just be so powerful...all the liberal witches will have to make a deal...because we will have the best magic. And the democrats know that, and they....they don't like it....because we're going to make great magic. Really great magic. It will be beautiful. "

lol TDS is a spell.

Yes and so was (is) ODS, BDS, and CDS (both strains). The problems these days have a lot to do with all the derangement on both sides.

Yeah, I know, but it was too fun imagining it.

Today, we think of Islam as having religious law to an unusual degree compared to Christianity, and hence for for sectarian divides in religion to cross over into law and the state to an unusually common degree compared to Christianity.

And actually it has always been so when religious institutions have not
been subordinated under the heel of "apostate" rulers from the Eurasian steppes and janissary armies. And so will it probably always be again.

she turned me into a newt!

I got better

Newt Gingrich! Better not bitter (Marion Barry)!

Yes, this is also is my understanding as long as we also take into account that ritual sacrifice was ancestral, killing scolds, harlots, non conformists, mischief makers, and thieves by casting them as possessed or a witch was ancestral, hanging was aggressive during the period, and the church simply 'made use of' the technique just as the church always had made use of whatever it could.

The belief that some individuals possess the ability to use the forces of the supernatural to both aid and harm others is probably universal in pre-literate societies so it's no surprise that there's occasionally a regression to this line of thinking in more "developed" ones. The acceptance by many of astrology in the '70s is an obvious example of an embrace of pre-scientific thinking that became very popular for a time. The fact that its proponents didn't use lethal means against others, however, sets it apart from using eccentrics as scapegoats.

Pet peeve but there is no such thing as "statistically insignificant". There is either "not statistically significant" or "a statistically significant effect of insignificant magnitude".

Good point, not to get into stuff like rejecting the null, and as always in statistics, you can never be sure you proved anything, since there's always a one in twenty, one in 100, one in 1000, one in a million and so forth chance your statistically significant finding is due to chance alone.

Bonus trivia: smoking does not cause cancer. It's just that about one-third of the population gets cancer from smoking, and nobody knows which third it is. Hence, better not to smoke. You can actually get cancer from having a mechanical irritation in growing tissue (hence cervical cancer), and certain cancer-prone lab animals will get cancer if you persistently inject water under their fur. Irritation in growing cells = certain cancers. Plutonium in tobacco, if it randomly lodges in the lung tissue rather than is expelled, will eventually become a tumor. It's not the smoking, which for certain women's diseases is actually therapeutic, but I digress. Chinese people who spit will develop less stomach cancer than those people who are polite and swallow. And so forth.

It is polonium in tobacco that contributes to lung cancer rates, not plutonium. While you can get a particle of tobacco smoke lodged in your lung that is faintly radioactive due to the presence of polonium you won't get a chunk of it. If you do then you really have to stop smoking those cigarettes Putin hands out.

Hard to believe that churches competed by burning witches rather than BINGO nights or superior networking opportunities. But data is data

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.

And the capacity of economists to say crass and reductionist things while staging raids on other disciplines continues unabated.

It required no statistical analysis to discover that witch-burning was almost unknown in the Orthodox world and rare in securely Catholic countries (Spain, the Papal States). It was a German phenomenon for the most part.

It looks like three different hypotheses or ideas, all of which are plausible but supported by weak and highly malleable evidence. IMO the lesson here is about how easy it is to make up just-so stories with statistics and "support" them with bogus statistical significance.

"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."

You mean witches are not spoiling my harvests and Jews are not poisoning my wells?

What's amazing is that the weather really did tend to improve after the pogrom! You can mutter "reversion to mean" all you want, but Tyler just doesn't want to accept the existence of Dark Magic.

As I understand it, from my followers:

1) the wars created widows, and excess women.

2) the women engaged in female warfare and competition as they always do, by endless reputation destruction by any possible means, regardless of consequences. (See modern versions of marxism, feminism, and postmodernism, as well as ancient versions of judaism and christianity)

3) Priests took advantage of the situation to create the pretense of the validity of a religion that was under fire.

Women do what they do. Men take advantage of it. Hence the very existence of religion.

Religions of various stripes, all of them. began and continue to be, the societal means of attempting to regulate sexual behavior. Now that worship of supernatural beings is waning in the west the state is taking over that role. No religion in the past would have punished a baker for refusing to bake a cake for any reason. Only the state would be so presumptuous as to pretend to have the authority to command that kind of obeisance.


Curt blames "priests", implying that Catholic clergy were particularly responsible, whereas in reality the Catholic church clamped down on witch hunts. The Puritans of New England were "low church" Protestants, who'd left the Church of England precisely because it was still too Catholic for them.

Sorry. I meant no such implication. In my work I use the term Priest to encompass the entire spectrum from ancient to modern formalist, and should have been clearer in this case to demarcate between protestant. preachers and catholic priests.

Also, it's not just that they were too Catholic, it's that they were sufficiently Germanic. Germanization of Christianity was complete, luther probaby did inhibit the restoration of classicism, just as marxists inhibited the restoration of classicism - and it's arguable that marxism postmodernism are nothing but a reaction to the restoration of classicism by the Romanticists, applying the modern versions of Pilpul, Critique, and Pseudoscience just as pilpul, critique, and Supernaturalism in the ancient world were used to destroy the classical world and its great civilizations.

("were NOT sufficiently Germanic.")

It is extremely difficult to see through the near universal propaganda of the middle ages Abrahamisms into Germanic europe and Scandinavian europe in particular. Especially since the postwar suppression of the movement to restore classicism.

The Protestants rejected many Roman Catholic traditions. But they kept witch-burning: why? Why did they choose that particular way of “non-price competition”? Surely they could have chosen others?

What market demand were women satisfying by accusations that would empower the protestant preachers?

(The Germanization (OR De-Semitization) of Christianity.)

That seems a bass-ackwards way to restate the obvious: the whole point of witch trials was to terrorize the masses into never questioning the creed the government wants them to believe. A "witch" was just any dissident they had decided to kill for being a dissident. When there were more dissidents around, you got more witch trials and/or battles.

Old spin: Blame elderly women for the weather.

New spin: Blame Republicans for the weather.

>'the whole point of witch trials was to terrorize the masses into never questioning the creed the government wants them to believe. A "witch" was just any dissident they had decided to kill for being a dissident."

And so you see that while the Spin may change, the methods do not.

>New spin: Blame Republicans for the weather.

I predict higher chance of Stormy weather if you know what I mean.

I smell the more sinister plot.

Old, lonely ladies tend to have more property than heirs, and some faction of heirs can defect to the church willing to trade in church probate court. Tithing for special rulings.

What were the competing churches in Salem?

Reminds me of the great scene at the beginning of the Baroque Cycle:

But the crowd takes the preacher's ranting not as a call to arms but a signal to turn and disperse, muttering. The redcoats discharge their muskets with deep hissing booms, like handfuls of sand hurled against a kettledrum. Enoch dismounts into the midst of the colonists. He sweeps the robe round him, concealing the pistols, pulls the hood back from his head, and amounts to just another weary pilgrim. He does not meet any man's eye but scans their faces sidelong, and is surprised by a general lack of self-righteousness.

"God willing," one man says, "that'll be the last one."

"Do you mean, sir, the last witch?" Enoch asks.

"I mean, sir, the last hanging."

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