THE ‘WITCH CRAZE’ OF 16th & 17th CENTURY EUROPE: Economists uncover religious competition as driving force of witch hunts

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“The Pendle Witches”. Available at https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/witchcraft-in-tudor-and-stuart-times/

Economists Peter Leeson (George Mason University) and Jacob Russ (Bloom Intelligence) have uncovered new evidence to resolve the longstanding puzzle posed by the ‘witch craze’ that ravaged Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and resulted in the trial and execution of tens of thousands for the dubious crime of witchcraft.

 

In research forthcoming in the Economic Journal, Leeson and Russ argue that the witch craze resulted from competition between Catholicism and Protestantism in post-Reformation Christendom. For the first time in history, the Reformation presented large numbers of Christians with a religious choice: stick with the old Church or switch to the new one. And when churchgoers have religious choice, churches must compete.

In an effort to woo the faithful, competing confessions advertised their superior ability to protect citizens against worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil by prosecuting suspected witches. Similar to how Republicans and Democrats focus campaign activity in political battlegrounds during US elections to attract the loyalty of undecided voters, Catholic and Protestant officials focused witch trial activity in religious battlegrounds during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to attract the loyalty of undecided Christians.

Analysing new data on more than 40,000 suspected witches whose trials span Europe over more than half a millennium, Leeson and Russ find that when and where confessional competition, as measured by confessional warfare, was more intense, witch trial activity was more intense too. Furthermore, factors such as bad weather, formerly thought to be key drivers of the witch craze, were not in fact important.

The new data reveal that the witch craze took off only after the Protestant Reformation in 1517, following the new faith’s rapid spread. The craze reached its zenith between around 1555 and 1650, years co-extensive with peak competition for Christian consumers, evidenced by the Catholic Counter-Reformation, during which Catholic officials aggressively pushed back against Protestant successes in converting Christians throughout much of Europe.

Then, around 1650, the witch craze began its precipitous decline, with prosecutions for witchcraft virtually vanishing by 1700.

What happened in the middle of the seventeenth century to bring the witch craze to a halt? The Peace of Westphalia, a treaty entered in 1648, which ended decades of European religious warfare and much of the confessional competition that motivated it by creating permanent territorial monopolies for Catholics and Protestants – regions of exclusive control, in which one confession was protected from the competition of the other.

The new analysis suggests that the witch craze should also have been focused geographically, located where Catholic-Protestant rivalry was strongest and vice versa. And indeed it was: Germany alone, which was ground zero for the Reformation, laid claim to nearly 40% of all witchcraft prosecutions in Europe.

In contrast, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland – each of which remained a Catholic stronghold after the Reformation and never saw serious competition from Protestantism – collectively accounted for just 6% of Europeans tried for witchcraft.

Religion, it is often said, works in unexpected ways. The new study suggests that the same can be said of competition between religions.

 

To contact the authors:  Peter Leeson (PLeeson@GMU.edu)

PRE-REFORMATION ROOTS OF THE PROTESTANT ETHIC: Evidence of a nine centuries old belief in the virtues of hard work stimulating economic growth

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Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500). From Wikimedia Commons <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cistercians&gt;

Max Weber’s well-known conception of the ‘Protestant ethic’ was not uniquely Protestant: according to this research published in the September 2017 issue of the Economic Journal, Protestant beliefs in the virtues of hard work and thrift have pre-Reformation roots.

The Order of Cistercians – a Catholic order that spread across Europe 900 years ago – did exactly what the Protestant Reformation is supposed to have done four centuries later: the Order stimulated economic growth by instigating an improved work ethic in local populations.

What’s more, the impact of this work ethic survives today: people living in parts of Europe that were home to Cistercian monasteries more than 500 years ago tend to regard hard work and thrift as more important compared with people living in regions that were not home to Cistercians in the past.

The researchers begin their analysis with an event that has recently been commemorated in several countries across Europe. Exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther allegedly nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, and thereby established Protestantism.

Whether the emergence of Protestantism had enduring consequences has long been debated by social scientists. One of the most influential sociologists, Max Weber, famously argued that the Protestant Reformation was instrumental in facilitating the rise of capitalism in Western Europe.

In contrast to Catholicism, Weber said, Protestantism commends the virtues of hard work and thrift. These values, which he referred to as the Protestant ethic, laid the foundation for the eventual rise of modern capitalism.

But was Weber right? The new study suggests that Weber was right in stressing the importance of a cultural appreciation of hard work and thrift, but quite likely wrong in tracing the origins of these values to the Protestant Reformation.

The researchers use a theoretical model to demonstrate how a small group of people with a relatively strong work ethic – the Cistercians – could plausibly have improved the average work ethic of an entire population within the span of 500 years.

The researchers then test the theory statistically using historical county data from England, where the Cistercians arrived in the twelfth century. England is of particular interest as it has high quality historical data and because, centuries later, it became the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution.

The researchers document that English counties with more Cistercian monasteries experienced faster population growth – a leading measure of economic growth in pre-modern times. The data reveal that this is not simply because the monks were good at choosing locations that would have prospered regardless.

The researchers even detect an impact on economic growth centuries after the king closed down all the monasteries and seized their wealth on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Thus, the legacy of the monks cannot simply be the wealth that they left behind.

Instead, the monks seem to have left an imprint on the cultural values of the population. To document this, the researchers combine historical data on the location of Cistercian monasteries with a contemporary dataset on the cultural values of individuals across Europe.

They find that people living in regions in Europe that were home to Cistercian monasteries more than 500 years ago reveal different cultural values than those living in other regions. In particular, these individuals tend to regard hard work and thrift as more important compared with people living in regions that were not home to Cistercians in the past.

This study is not the first to question Max Weber’s influential hypothesis. While the majority of statistical analyses show that Protestant regions are more prosperous than others, the reason for this may not be the Protestant ethic as emphasised by Weber.

For example, a study by the economists Sascha Becker and Ludger Woessman demonstrates that Protestant regions of Prussia prospered more than others because of the improved schooling that followed from the instructions of Martin Luther, who encouraged Christians to learn to read so that they could study the Bible.

 

‘Pre-Reformation Roots of the Protestant Ethic’ by Thomas Barnebeck Andersen, Jeanet Bentzen, Carl-Johan Dalgaard and Paul Sharp is published in the September 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.

Thomas Barnebeck Andersen and Paul Richard Sharp are at the University of Southern Denmark. Jeanet Sinding Bentzen and Carl-Johan Dalgaard are at the University of Copenhagen.