Historian suggests climate change, witch persecutions linked

Monday, October 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Katy Human / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

It's such a simple Halloween costume: A black hat and broomstick will do. But it might be dangerous to dress that way when the weather's been stormy.

A European historian believes lousy weather ignited systematic witch hunts in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. About 50,000 so-called "witches" were burned at the stake during that time, making Salem's 19 hangings look restrained.

Climatologists call the time period from about 1450 to 1850 the Little Ice Age. Glaciers raced down Alpine valleys; large lakes and rivers that had not frozen in 500 years did. Crops across Europe failed. Famines and epidemics periodically devastated communities across the continent.

Miserable people looking for scapegoats accused their neighbors of witchery, contends Wolfgang Behringer, a history professor at the University of York in England.

"Witchcraft is the unique crime of the Little Ice Age," he wrote in an article published in the journal Climatic Change late last year.

The belief that witches could brew up diabolical hail or thunderstorms had been around for a long time by the 1400s, Dr. Behringer said. "This idea is widespread in very different civilizations – Europe, Africa, America, Asia – from the very beginning, as far back as we have sources."

And climatologists find indisputable evidence of rough winters in tree rings, ice cores and documents from the 15th through 18th centuries around the world.

But Dr. Behringer says that as far as he knows, he's the first to put those two ideas together, the first to show that the most vicious witch hunts coincided with the nastiest weather during the Little Ice Age.

It wasn't ceaselessly cold from 1450 to 1850, said Henry Diaz, a climatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo. But beginning around 1450, frigid winters and damp, chilly summers became the norm for several centuries.

"It looks like about 1 degree, maybe as much as 1.5 degrees Celsius [about 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit] colder than modern," said Dr. Diaz. "It doesn't appear to be a large number, but the growing seasons were shortened, spring was slower in coming, fall was earlier in arriving, summer had things like lots of hail. ... It was pretty bad."

Even today, people would notice a degree or two of cooling, but back then, people's very survival depended much more strongly on weather. A bad growing season meant a lean winter.

Dr. Behringer argued that it was working-class people, many of them agricultural laborers whose livelihoods were particularly vulnerable to climate changes, who clamored most loudly for witch burning.

In Europe before the 1400s, Christian authorities refused to accept the notion that people could control the weather. "The church's idea was that only God could control the weather, and not demons," Dr. Behringer said.

But the persistent frosts of the nascent Little Ice Age were convincing, as was the increasing agitation of commoners. Pope Innocence VIII wrote about weather-making by witches in 1484, and by then, communities were starting to burn accused witches in parts of central and southern Europe.

The weather got even worse during the mid-1500s.

The winter of 1560-61 was the coldest and longest since 1515-16, according to Dr. Behringer, and the following winter was astonishingly snowy. In the summer of 1562, heavy runoff and rains damaged crops, and both cattle and human diseases spread in the damp.

And then came the hailstorm of Aug. 3, 1562, in Central Europe.

The sky darkened at midday, Dr. Behringer wrote, and a heavy thunderstorm perhaps 100 miles in diameter destroyed roofs and windows. The rainstorm turned into a hailstorm that flattened crops and vineyards and killed unprotected livestock.

Sixty-three women in the small, storm-struck German territory of Wiesensteig were burned as witches within a year after the storm.

"From that point on, the new career of witchcraft as a crime emerges," Dr. Behringer said.

He believes that because whole communities were affected by the miserable weather of the Little Ice Age, it was whole communities that embarked on witch hunts.

In Salem, Mass., the site of the most notorious witch trials in colonial America, 20 people were killed for the crime of witchcraft in 1692, said Whitney Leeson, a historian and witch specialist at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. Nineteen people were hanged, and one was pressed to death with stones. Most had been accused of crimes that tended to affect individuals: killing newborns, cursing people to make them sick, setting off cattle stampedes.

In Europe, thousands of people were killed within relatively small communities and short periods of time. In the Duchy of Lorraine, an area near today's French-German border, more than 800 people were burned between 1580 and 1595, and the count had reached 2,700 by 1620, according to Dr. Behringer.

Dr. Leeson said she finds Dr. Behringer's idea intriguing, but a difficult one to prove.

During the 1500s and 1600s, Europe was amid a series of social, religious and political upheavals, she said. Ongoing religious wars and the increasing stratification between rich and poor could have created enough anxiety among people to trigger witchcraft accusations.

It may be true that many European witch burnings coincided with cold weather, she said. "But does bad weather cause witchcraft? Probably not."

Climatologist Dr. Diaz, however, is persuaded. "I think he [Dr. Behringer] makes a pretty convincing argument that there was a connection between bad things, unusual things that were happening and these eruptions of madness," he said.

Scientists, of course, suspect causes other than witchcraft for the cool climate. Astronomer John Eddy says the sun deserves some blame for the Little Ice Age.

"During that period of time, the sun was behaving rather strangely," said Dr. Eddy, an astronomer recently retired from Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and formerly with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

"It was probably a little less bright, perhaps down only by a fraction of a percent, but that's enough to make a difference in the warming of the Earth."

Dr. Diaz speculates that Atlantic Ocean currents may also have contributed to the cold.

The ocean currents carrying warm equatorial water north and cool water south can vary dramatically, even over the relatively short periods of decades or centuries, he said. If that ocean circulation pattern had been weak for a period of time, Europe would have been cold. Computer models support this idea, Dr. Diaz said.

Most climatologists believe the cold weather of the Little Ice Age persisted well into the 19th century, but witch burnings were extremely rare by then.

The weather may still have been cold, but at least it was more reliable in the 1700s than for the previous two centuries, Dr. Behringer said. Moreover, Enlightenment thinkers, critical of superstition and enamored of science, began to wield influence by then.

"Enlightenment philosophers always used witchcraft trials to criticize superstition," Dr. Behringer said. He suspects that witch trials hastened the advance of the Enlightenment.

French Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes, in fact, may have witnessed or heard about witch burnings during Europe's Thirty Years War, when he was a member of the Bavarian army.

"He lived in a winter camp near a place where there were many witch trials," Dr. Behringer said. "We cannot prove he was attending them, but he certainly must have known about it."

Katy Human is a science and environmental writer in Boulder, Colo.