In 1583, a Spanish ship sank off the west coast of England. The disaster was put down to witchcraft. An elderly woman in Norfolk, Mother Gabley, was blamed for ‘boyling, or rather labouring of certeyne eggs in a payle full of colde water.’ This was not the first time witches had been accused of manipulating the weather to cause disaster and death, nor would it be the last, but could it be a testament to the impact that changing European climate had on spurring on witch hunts which would leave hundreds of thousands dead?
There has been no shortage of causes put forward for the witch trials which raged across Europe during the early modern period, especially the 17th century. Perhaps the cause was gender, and the witch trials a genocide of women; maybe class interests were to blame, as an increasingly capitalistic Europe saw more and more people economically cast aside; some have even argued that there really were witches (or at least a large group of people who practised a sort of religion which was labelled ‘witchcraft’). But in more recent years, a newer theory has emerged and it’s an attractive one at first glance: What if the witch hunts were caused by climate change?
During the period 1500–1850, Europe experienced a ‘Little Ice Age.’ During this period, temperatures were much colder, erratic weather was much more common, and there were several years ‘without a summer.’ The most famous is that of 1816, during which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, but there were others in the centuries before. Historian Christian Pfister puts forward 1628 and 1587 as two earlier contenders. The scene, therefore, was perfectly set for accusations of witchcraft to run wild. Dull days may have had a notable psychological impact on many people and short-term disasters such as failed harvests, great storms, and freezing weather encouraged people to look for scapegoats.
In 1999, Wolfgang Behringer pioneered this line of thinking by arguing that ‘a part of society held the witches directly responsible for the high frequency of climatic anomalies and the impacts thereof’. There is no doubt this is true; in Reginald Scot’s 1584 The Discoverie of Witchcraft he confirms as much by noting that many believed witches can ‘raise haile, tempests, and hurtfull weather’ as well as ‘inhibit the sunne, and staie both daye and night, changing the one into the other.’ Scot didn’t believe this was true but that didn’t matter if the public did. The witches tried in Exeter in 1682 were, among other things, accused of causing ships to sink or find themselves in distress and it was ‘popular rage’ (according to James Sharpe) which was the key factor to their eventual execution. The Scottish King James VI (later King James I of England) was another victim of weather-related witchcraft after he was unable to sail back to Scotland from Denmark due to tumultuous weather conditions. James himself firmly believed that witches could ‘rayse stormes and tempestes in the aire.’
Weather was not the only thing allegedly altered by witchcraft, however. The hunger crises of the late 16th century coincided with spikes in witchcraft accusations and the failing of harvests was often blamed on witches. The ruling elites would also have been keen to latch on to this kind of thinking, which placed the blame of famine and poverty on witches and the devil, knowing the alternative could be large-scale uprisings against them.
As tempting as the climate change theory is — and it undeniably provides some part of an explanation — there are a few reasons it should be viewed as only a partial answer. Firstly, the stated reasons for witchcraft accusations often had nothing to do with it. In cases where a child was bewitched to death by an elderly woman, it is hard to find evidence of a climatic influence. Moreover, a climate change model would suggest a pattern of witchcraft accusations which was pan-European, but the diversity of witchcraft trials between countries (and even different parts of the same country) shows this isn’t the case. Finally, drawling a link between meteorological phenomena and the motives of those who accused others of being witches is far from an easy task — to claim this link was so strong that climate change was the primary cause of witch hunts requires other factors (gender conflict, religious tensions, economic anxieties, etc…) to be cast aside and there arguably simply isn't enough evidence to do so.
The Little Ice Age certainly impacted early modern life and the erratic weather, famines, and bleak conditions it caused undoubtedly played a role in setting the scene for mass witch hunts. It may not have been the primary factor behind them, but the climate change theory is one which has lots going for it. It provides a theory which explains why witch trials were held so widely across Europe, presents a motive for witchcraft accusers which stems from clear material causes and doesn’t simply accuse them of being credulous fools or religious zealots, and helps us understand how people in the past may have rationalised extreme weather events which they could not have properly understood at the time.