How climate change triggered the medieval witch hunt

The Little Ice Age began in the 15th century and ended officially in the 19th. At its climax, in the late 16th century until the beginning of the 17th, it was the reason for a global cooling. People at the time did not know that the increased volcanic activity caused the sunlight reaching the earth’s surface to become less intensive. They did not even imagine, that a cooling down was related to deforestation triggered by the increased mining activities.

Beginning in the 11th century the metal mining industry increased sharply with new technology allowing underground mining. Beech forests were the main supplier of wood for the charcoal industry feeding the smelters and glassworks. With the slow demise of the mining industry in the 16th century forests slowly recovered. The climate change contributed to diseases and so a demographic decline. But most facts we see today, where unimaginable for people at that time.

Searching for response in a hopeless time

When the Little Ice Age reached its climax people where desperate. Droughts caused by longer cold and dry periods brought diverse problems. Many European communities where haunted by poor livestock survival, poor crop yields and an increase of pathogens and diseases. Also the propensity of violence rose and people were brutal. A desperate search for a scapegoat who was responsible for their suffering started. And they found it in women, who had knowledge in herbalism. We call them midwives, they called them witches. And cruel witch hunts started.

An important discovery in present time

In 1995 the historian Wolfgang Behringer did a pioneering discovery. He observed that there is a wavelike chronological pattern concerning the timelines of major central European witch hunts. From 1560 to 1630, a rhythm occurred concerning the gravest persecutions in France, Switzerland, Germany and Scotland. He assumed that the long-, medium- and short-term conditions for these waves where related to subsistence crises, as an consequence of the changing climate.

The enormous tensions created in society as a result of the persecution of witches demonstrate how dangerous it is to discuss climatic change under the aspects of morality.

Wolfgang Behringer

Due to many protocols, “weather magic” was the reason for “unusual weather” at that time. Witches were blamed for destroying wine crops and for the driving up grain prices. As the people found a responsible person finally, cows stopped to give milk caused by witch craft and any other unknown diseases now were explained very well. And 60 000 women all over Europe were tortured to death or burned.

One thought on “How climate change triggered the medieval witch hunt

  • Interesting. G. Parker´s book Global Crisis goes deep into the matter. Anyway, it did not happen in all European countries but mainly in the protestant central and northern European ones -apart from France. It did´t happen in Spain, mainly because the very rational Inquisition dismissed accusations and self-accusations as fantasies.

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