Historians have noted that 100 year period from roughly 1550 to 1650 was the most intense and fervent time of witch-hunting. Homayun Sidky explains that witch-hunting was “a movement to restore order in a time of profound crisis. The process of detecting, exhibiting, and ceremoniously destroying Satan’s baleful agents conveyed the message that society was not out of control after all, that the majesty of the law reigned supreme, and that the Almighty was indeed in heaven. Scapegoats offered easy answers and thus spared people from having to come to terms with the real reasons for their social, economic, and political woes. Those in power were all too eager to encourage accusations and even took the initiative in ferreting out the pernicious enemies of humankind, the devil’s in the midst of society, because this conveniently relieved them of having to bear responsibility for intolerable socio political and economic conditions.”
The circumstances of the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries created the ideal environment for witch-hunting: political turmoil, religious upheaval, drawn-out wars, and the occasional fresh outbreaks of plague that renewed paranoia that the Black Death had returned. Witch-hunting was not only a popular response to chaos but also a government-sanctioned means of controlling the anxieties of the population.
The statistics concerning the numbers of prosecuted and executed witches are difficult to ascertain. Many official records have been destroyed or lost, and not all trials were recorded, to begin with. The accounts of witch-hunters tend to be unreliable because of the tendency to exaggerate their success. Estimates of the number of executed witches have ranged from in the thousands to nine million, but recent scholarship has tended to lean towards more conservative figures. Brian P. Levack estimates that the total number of Europeans who were prosecuted for witchcraft likely did not exceed ninety thousand. This number seems small, but the horror of the witch- hunts stems from the percentage of people who were executed. Again, these figures are estimates, but conservatively, the average percentage of accused that were convicted and executed was forty-seven percent. In Finland, the execution rate was the lowest at sixteen percent; but in the Pays de Vaud in Switzerland, the execution rate reached ninety percent.
These reliable estimates seem diminutive, especially when one considers that the witch-hunts have been conflated in the general imagination. However, even though the number of executed witches was still surprisingly low despite the high percentages — one hundred and fifteen executed out of seven hundred and ten tried in Finland, and ninety out of one hundred and two in the Pays de Vaud — one must remember that these figures are the total number of executions over the course of more than one hundred years. Individual episodes of witch-hunting could take a much larger psychological toll. One account from 1645 describes that “at the last Assises in Norfolk there were fifty witches arraigned for their lives, and twenty executed.” In the lands of the convent of Quedlinburg, Germany, one hundred and thirty-three witches were executed in a single day in 1589. The number of accused tended to increase rapidly during a single witch-hunt, because one of the interrogators’ goals was generally to force the accused to name additional conspirators. The overall numbers are relatively small, but the mental impact of having several members of a community be executed at once would have been much larger than the numbers indicate. Also, the numbers of witches who were prosecuted or executed do not begin to cover the Europeans who would have lived in fear of the accusation of witchcraft, or because they fell under suspicion. Because a charge of witchcraft could never be proved definitively, it could also never be disproved decisively. A person who had been accused of witchcraft generally had to live with the label if they were never brought to trial, or even if they were found innocent.
It is important to note that, as ridiculous as the idea may seem to us, many early modern Europeans believed in the existence of witches. Moreover, they believed in the legitimacy of the threat of witchcraft. Witches represented an unknown force that could potentially cause the downfall of Europe — accusations of witchcraft might have sometimes been partially motivated by political or financial machinations, but there was an underlying genuine fear. This belief is demonstrated in officials’ estimates of the number of witches: in 1587, a French village judge claimed to have evidence of seven thousand seven hundred and sixty witches in the duchy of Rethelois, an extremely small area. In 1602, demonologist Henri Boguet estimated that there were one million eight hundred thousand witches in Europe, and wrote that there were witches “by the thousands everywhere, multiplying upon the earth even as worms in a garden.” Witches were not only a legitimate threat but also an overwhelmingly large and seemingly omnipresent one.
Christopher Pfister, among others, has found that the period of the most intensive witch-hunting also coincided with a time of environmental difficulties, and claims that it is necessary to not underestimate the role of environmental deterioration in encouraging witch-hunts. Many strong volcanic explosions took place around the globe between 1580 and 1600; and there was a Little Ice Age from 1569-1573, as well as general colder-than-usual temperatures throughout the century between 1550 and 1650. These events created a series of harvest failures in Europe in the 1590s, leading to higher food prices and, in the case of Austria, large-scale peasant uprisings.
Christopher Pfister points out that the most intense bouts of persecution were concurrent with climatic decline. The challenging circumstances contributed to the typical scenario for seeking scapegoats, and many accused witches were charged with being responsible for the bad weather and making the crops fail.
Environmental stresses certainly contributed to the frenzy of witch-hunting. However, climatic deterioration alone did not create the unusually intense witch-hunts of the early modern period. It is important to understand that the witch-hunts were a product of multiple factors that developed over the course of several decades, and with this in mind, the plague is both directly and indirectly responsible for the witch-hunts.