October 2018 newsletter – New ‘witches’ – old tricks

Using data spanning more than 500 years, Peter Leeson, George Mason University, shows that hunting
witches would seem to be a long-standing strategy for shoring up political or religious market share in the face of heightened competition. In Donald Trump’s America, the strategy lives on.

There’s an old trick for dealing with rivals. As the adage goes, 'If you can’t beat ‘em, hunt witches.' Okay, so that's not quite how the adage goes—but it should be. For nearly half a millennium, public authorities have hunted witches, figurative and literal, to get a leg up against competitors.

To find the most recent incarnation of this phenomenon, look no further than the politics section of an American newspaper—or at President Donald J. Trump’s Twitter feed—where, on any given day, you’ll likely find the President or one of his surrogates slamming Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into 'Russian collusion' regarding the 2016 election as a 'witch hunt.' Trump's charge: his opponents are angry they lost political power and, desiring but unable at this juncture to impeach him, have resorted to digging for phantom crimes committed by him or his associates. 

Differing views of the Special Counsel investigation's desirability aside, the political strategy of Trump's rivals seems clear: Whether hunting for 'Russian witches' delivers evidence of Trump malfeasance or not, at least the electorate will know that Democratic leaders are committed to 'rooting out evil,' perhaps persuading some to vote for Democrats and against Republicans in the next election.

Surprisingly, similar logic may have driven the hunt for literal witches in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, which prosecuted more than 80,000 people for witchcraft and claimed the lives of half of them. In a new study published in the Economic Journal, Jacob Russ and I identify competition between Catholicism and Protestantism for churchgoers in post-Reformation Christendom as a central source of Europe's 'witch craze' (Leeson and Russ 2018). 

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 a new one. And when churchgoers have religious choice, churches must compete. 

The Church tried to deal with Protestant competition by criminalizing the new faith. But not unlike the early efforts of some of Trump’s opponents aimed at delegitimizing his presidency ('But he lost the popular vote!'), this strategy flopped. In a handful of Catholic strongholds, such as Spain, Italy, and Portugal, rulers were willing and able to prosecute Protestants with inquisitions. However, within a couple years of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, many European rulers and citizens had become Protestants, and they weren’t about to lead inquisitions against themselves.

The Church thus had to take another tack. Given then-popular belief in witches, the one it took is unsurprising and was quickly emulated by its Protestant rivals: 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 contemporary Republicans and Democrats focus campaign activity in political battlegrounds during elections to attract the loyalty of undecided voters, historical Catholic and Protestant officials focused witch trial activity in religious battlegrounds during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to attract the loyalty of undecided Christians.

Using data that contain more than 40,000 suspected witches, whose trials span 21 European countries over the course of more than half a millennium (1300-1850), our study analyzes the relationship between confessional competition and witch trial activity. It finds that that when and where confessional competition, as measured by confessional warfare, was more intense, witch trial activity was more intense too. Factors traditionally blamed for Europe’s witch craze, such as bad weather and weak government, have no relationship with witch trial activity.

Geographically, our data reveal that witch trial activity was most intense where Catholic-Protestant rivalry was strongest, and vice versa. Germany alone, which was ground zero for the Reformation, laid claim to nearly 40 percent of all witchcraft prosecutions in Europe. In contrast, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Ireland—each of which remained loyal to the Church after the Reformation and never saw serious competition from Protestantism—collectively accounted for just six percent of Europeans tried for witchcraft.

Temporally, our data reveal that the witch craze began only after the Protestant Reformation in 1517, following the new faith's rapid spread. Witch-hunting reached its zenith between c.1555 and c.1650, years coextensive 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, c.1650, the witch craze began its precipitous decline, prosecutions for witchcraft virtually vanishing by 1700. 

The reason for this decline? The Peace of Westphalia, a treaty entered into 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, wherein one confession was protected from the competition of the other.

In the Western world, at least, hunting witches would seem to be a long-standing strategy for shoring up political or religious market share in the face of heightened competition. Indeed, the very existence of “witches” seems to hinge largely on competition. Not only did the Catholic Church mostly avoid prosecuting witches until it faced significant religious market competition in the sixteenth century, until the turn of the fifteenth century, it denied there was such a thing. Perhaps similarly, the Democratic Party, which is now certain that “Russian witches” are casting spells on American politics, decried Joseph McCarthy’s “witch hunt” in the 1950s and denied the existence of 'red witches.'


Leeson, Peter T., and Jacob W. Russ. 2018. 'Witch Trials', Economic Journal 128: 2066-2105.