Climate change provoked witch hunts…Then and now

European witch hunts in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries were directed at witches who were thought to be responsible for epidemics and crop failures associated with falling temperatures during the Little Ice Age.

The belief that evil people negatively affected climate and weather conditions was the “consensus” view of the time. How eerily similar is this notion to the current oft-repeated mantra that human actions control the climate and lead to catastrophic consequences?

The first large-scale witch hunts in Europe coincided with a drop in temperature as the continent transitioned from the benign warmth of the Medieval Warm Period (850-1250 CE). The increasing cold that began in the 13th century led to nearly five centuries of mountain glacier advance and prolonged periods of rainy or cool weather. This time of natural climate change was accompanied by crop failures, famines, rising prices, epidemics, and mass depopulation.

Large systematic witch hunts began in the 1430s and were continued later in the century by an Alsatian Dominican monk and papal inquisitor named Heinrich Kramer. At Kramer’s urging, Pope Innocent VIII issued an encyclical consolidating the persecution and eradication of witches by papal edict. The worst of the abuses of the Inquisition and the later systematic witch hunts were in part made effective by this edict.

This initial period of cooler temperatures and crop failure continued through the first few decades of the sixteenth century, when a slight warming was accompanied by an improvement in harvests. Obviously, the pogrom against weather-altering witches was successful!

Unfortunately for the people of the late Middle Ages, forty years of slight warming was followed by a more severe cooling. The summer of 1560 brought the return of cold and damp, resulting in severely diminished crops, crop failure, increased infant mortality, and epidemics. It must be remembered that this was an agrarian subsistence crop, dependent almost entirely on the annual harvest. A single crop failure could be tolerated, but consecutive failures could lead to terrible consequences, which is what happened.

Of course, people blamed their misfortunes on weather-altering witches, who caused deadly weather, most often in the form of cold, rain, frost and devastating hail. Horrible atrocities were attributed to witches, including Franconian witches who “confessed” to flying through the air and spreading a salve of baby fat to cause murderous frost. Tens of thousands of alleged witches, many of whom were old women living without husbands on the margins of society, were burned at the stake across Europe from the 15th to the 17th century.

The worst witch hunts took place during the bitter cold from 1560 to about 1680. The killing rampage culminated in the killing of 63 witches in the German territory of Wiesensteig in 1563 alone. Throughout Europe, however, the number of witches continued to rise and peaked at over 500 per year in the mid-1600s. Most were burned at the stake, others were hanged.

The end of the witch hunts and murders is closely related to the beginning of the current warming trend at the end of the 17th century. This warming trend began over 300 years ago and continues intermittently to this day.

In the late Middle Ages, much of the population actually believed that evil people could have a negative effect on the climate. It seems that we have not learned the lessons of the 16th century and have not realized how dangerous it is to build up unfounded fears about changes in our climate. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we can take advantage of hindsight and realize that people like Al Gore and Dr. Michael Mann were the Henry Kramers of the early 21st century, trying to convince us all that we can control the uncontrollable–the natural cycles of the Sun and Earth that operate today just as they have for many millions of years.

Gregory Wrightstone is a geologist and executive director of the CO2 Coalition in Arlington, Virginia. https://co2coalition.org/

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