20 November 2017

PhD on the causes of witch trials in early modern Europe


On 3 October Chris Hudson defended his three-essay PhD thesis in Development Economics. Professor Jean-Louis Arcand presided the committee, which included Professor Martina Viarengo, Thesis Director, and Associate Professor Jordi Domenech, from the Department of Social Sciences at Carlos III University of Madrid, Spain. Mr Hudson presents here his essay called “Witch Trials: Discontent in Early Modern Europe”, which aims at getting a better understanding of the causes of witch trials for the period 1500–1760.

How did you come to study witch trials?

I was searching for an idea that could form an interesting research question. By chance, I came across a chart of numbers of witch trials over time on a financial markets blog. That got me thinking that it was cool that they actually collected data on that sort of things, and that it could be used in conjunction with other concurrent phenomena.

What did you find?

The first main contribution of my essay is to construct a new dataset of approximately 30,000 witch trials in Europe for the period 1500–1760, through which it is able to differentiate between causes such as economics, plague, and war. It is divided into two main parts. The first part uses climate data to proxy for two possible causes of witch trials: plague and economic output via agricultural shocks. The second part measures these phenomena directly, using GDP, harvests, and business cycle data, as well as indicating those years where the main plague epidemics and wars occurred. The main takeaways from the essay are that, in support of previous work, income shocks tended to increase witch persecution, while adding the novel findings that plague and war respectively increased and decreased incidence of witch trials.

Do you have an idea why this was so?

Income shocks increased witch trials partly because suspects were blamed for bad weather, which damaged agricultural production. In addition, individuals were scapegoated to reduce the burden on the family or village – many were old ladies for example. War reduced witch trials because fighting would disturb the legal processes. Plague’s rationale is unclear. In some regions witches were blamed for spreading plague. It may also be that plague increased stress and paranoia, which in turn would increase witch trials.

What could be the policy relevance of your essay, notably regarding development economics today?

Witch accusations and persecutions are not phenomena consigned to history. Unfortunately, such beliefs still hold sway in many parts of the world – developing countries such as India and large parts of Africa, as well as wealthy nations such as Saudi Arabia, which has a designated witch police tasked with tracking down and prosecuting possible witches. So understanding the historical causes of witch trials may help in tackling the problem today. An added factor is that the current episode of climate change may be particularly significant given the historical links between climate and witch trials demonstrated in the essay.

Full citation of the PhD thesis: Hudson, Chris. “Three Essays in Development Economics”. PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2017.

Illustration: Francisco Goya, Witches’ Sabbath, 1797–98. Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.