The pace of prosecution picked up from there. By the mid-1590s, the territory had burned 500 people as witches—an astonishing feat, for a place that only had 2,200 residents to begin with.
Why is it that early modern Europe had such a fervor for witch hunting? Between 1400 to 1782, when Switzerland tried and executed Europe’s last supposed witch, between 40,000 and 60,000 people were put to death for witchcraft, according to historical consensus. The epicenter of the witch hunts was Europe’s German-speaking heartland, an area that makes up Germany, Switzerland, and northeastern France.
Conventional wisdom has chalked the killings up to a case of bad weather. Across Europe, weather suddenly got wetter and colder—a phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age that pelted villages with freak frosts, floods, hailstorms, and plagues of mice and caterpillars. Witch hunts tended to correspond with ecological disasters and crop failures, along with the accompanying problems of famine, inflation, and disease. When the going got tough, witches made for a convenient scapegoat.
But a recent economic study (pdf), which will soon be published in the The Economic Journal of the Royal Economic Society, proposes a different explanation for the witch hunts—one that can help us understand the way fears spread, and take hold, today.
The economic hypothesis
This alternative theory comes down to market competition—between churches. In early modern Europe, Protestantism emerged as the first truly viable challenger to the Catholic church’s hold on the population. The study views the Catholic and Protestant churches as competing firms, each in the business of supplying a valuable service: Salvation.
As competition for religious market share heated up, churches expanded beyond the standard spiritual services and began focusing on salvation from devilry here on earth. Among both Catholics and Protestants, witch-hunting became a prime service for attracting and appeasing the masses by demonstrating their Satan-fighting prowess.
“Similar to how contemporary Republican and Democrat candidates 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 confessional battlegrounds during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to attract the loyalty of undecided Christians,” write the study’s authors, Peter T. Leeson, an economist at George Mason University, and Jacob W. Russ, an economist at Bloom Intelligence, a big-data analysis firm. When it comes to winning people to your side, after all, there’s no better method than stoking fears about an outside threat—and then assuring them that you, and you alone, offer the best protection.
This concept goes a long way toward explaining not just why witch-hunting mania exploded in Europe, but also why it took hold where it did. Namely, in Germany.
“Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”
Until the 1500s, the Catholic Church had claimed a monopoly on religion. Secure in its dominance, the Church employed a basic competitive strategy against the occasional challenger: it labeled proponents of other religions “heretics” and either forced their conversion or simply killed them. The Church’s two main tactics in this coercive strategy were inquisitions and crusades.
With the German monk Martin Luther, however, that strategy stopped working.
By nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of his local Catholic Church in 1517, Luther was acting as an early consumer protection bureau of sorts, blasting the Catholic church for exploitative practices. The promise of superior religious service sparked the Protestant Reformation, with Swiss theologians Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin piling on, adding to the movement’s momentum.
Per usual, the Pope declared Luther a heretic and banned the Ninety-five Theses. It turned out, though, that the Catholic Church’s coercive strategy—which worked well in Spain, Portugal