How Climate Change Spurred Witch Hunts In Medieval Europe Before The Age of Enlightenment

How Climate Change Spurred Witch Hunts In Medieval Europe Before The Age of Enlightenment

Megan Hamilton - August 27, 2018

We typically think that climate change is something brought on in modern times, but as an enormous and violent thunderstorm raged in the countryside of central Europe on August 3, 1562, destroying crops, vineyards, and farm animals alike, it heralded another climactic anomaly.

Blundering the Dots and Blaming Witches

From 1300-1850 Europe and North America were ravaged by deadly weather catastrophes that became known as the Little Ice Age. Droughts, deadly thunderstorms, freezing winters and advancing glaciers caused massive devastation. These were times of abject desperation, and everyone — most especially peasants — sought to understand this. However, it was also a time when climate science was lacking and superstition abounded.

How Climate Change Spurred Witch Hunts In Medieval Europe Before The Age of Enlightenment
Witches adding ingredients to a cauldron to bring on a hailstorm. Image license Public Domain U.S. via Wikimedia Commons

Demoralized by the tempestuous weather, peasants began demanding quick action from medieval courts. Many were spurred by the belief that witches and sorcerers could “make weather” and steal the milk from starving cows.

Swiss and Bavarian accounts chronicled this:

“1445, in this year was a very strong hail and wind, as never seen before, and it did great damage, […] and so many women, in which its said to have made the hail and the wind, were burned according to the law.”

“Anno 1626 the 27th of May, all the vinyards were totally destroyed by frost […], the same with the precious grain which had already flourished. [Everything] froze, something which had not happened as long as one could remember, causing a big rise in price. […] As a result, pleading and begging began among the peasants, [who] questioned why the authorities continued to tolerate the witches and sorcerers destruction of the crops. Thus the prince-bishop punished these crimes, and the persecution began in this year…”

Witches, Bad Weather, and The Reign of King James VI

Initially, King James VI of Scotland was skeptical that witches and sorcerers were conjuring up this misbehaving weather but apparently changed his mind after a particularly nasty series of weather mishaps. In late August 1589, his princess bride, Anna of Denmark, set sail to her new home and the husband she’d never met. The 14-year-old bride, married by proxy in a palace by the sea, embarked on the journey, accompanied by 12 of the most well-constructed ships of the Danish fleet, and these were led by Danish Admiral Peter Munch.

The North Sea buffeted the ships with storms that were typical. Until that is, the ships came close to Scotland, and then maritime hell broke loose. They were met by a ferocious squall, firing lightning bolts and enormous waves that drove them back, all the way to Norway — twice. Munch, a veteran of the sea, found the storms to be wildly more tempestuous than usual. He fully believed witchcraft was responsible, because, he wrote, “there must be more in the matter than the common perversity of winds and weather.”

How Climate Change Spurred Witch Hunts In Medieval Europe Before The Age of Enlightenment
King James VI of Scotland questioning perceived witches. From Daemonologie. Image license Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The weather was no less foul during the third attempt, and it burst forth with even more vigor, battering the ship carrying the young bride, and forcing everyone back once again to a Norwegian sound. Now they awaited a rescue mission sent forth by King James, but these ships were also assailed by freak storms. When James and Anna finally met, they were forced to wait for six months, until freezing cold released its icy grip, and arrived in Edinburgh in May 1590. After such extreme weather, James was finally convinced that Munch was right, there may be something to the belief that witches could be responsible for causing storms. He believed witches conjured the fierce weather to keep his young Queen from attaining her throne.

Thus the torment and execution of suspected witches began in earnest. Most were elderly, having survived their husbands, and with no means of financial support. For them, the idea of practicing witchcraft was an attractive idea, and many claimed they had weather-changing abilities, especially in regards to stopping hailstorms. Farmers, ever hopeful that their talents might protect crops began paying these frail, elderly women who lived in run-down houses at the edges of forests. But some of the women emboldened and angry about the way they had been treated, shrouded themselves in this new-found power, and many people grew afraid of them, believing they could summon the devil to do great harm.

How Climate Change Spurred Witch Hunts In Medieval Europe Before The Age of Enlightenment
Witches working over a cauldron. Image license Public Domain by Hans Baldung (1480-1545) via Wikimedia Commons
How Climate Change Spurred Witch Hunts In Medieval Europe Before The Age of Enlightenment
Witches consorting with the Devil. Image license Public Domain, U.S. via Wikimedia Commons

And while no one at first seemed bothered when the weather refused to listen, it wasn’t long before the tide of public opinion turned against them in a horrifying way. Spurred further by the anger of King James, tens of thousands of women were tortured and killed. Among some of the very first was Agnes Sampson, “The Wise Wife of Keith,” an aging midwife and well-respected folk healer, who was tortured horrifically until she confessed to conjuring the storms that hindered the union of the king and his queen. Satan, she told James, considered him “the greatest enemie hee hath in the world,” and wanted him to die in the storms.

This rang a bell with the young king, who was considered by many to quite self-important. One commenter described him as a “superstitious and distrustful poltroon (utter coward.)” That distrust and superstition lead to 70 people being implicated. The fates of some of these unfortunates are unknown, but Sampson and several others were burned at the stake.

The Fate of Witches In The Age of Enlightenment

Of course, King James VI wasn’t solely responsible for the witch burnings. As the catastrophe continued to worsen, people looked to the church as well, especially after the massive August 1562 thunderstorm that caused darkness at noon and killed cattle, birds, and destroyed houses in a swath consisting of thousands of square kilometers. People were convinced that the Last Judgement had arrived. Famine, poverty, disease, and mass migrations followed all across the continents. There were no existing canonical laws that could explain such weather that seemed at the very least, unnatural, as the work of the devil and his human minions. Overall, the Church remained impassive, except in its most remote outposts, which were located in furthest reaches of the Alps. In these places, local priests convinced themselves and some in their congregations that such horrible weather was being conjured by witches in cahoots with the devil. In these remote parishes, the witch hunts began in earnest.

How Climate Change Spurred Witch Hunts In Medieval Europe Before The Age of Enlightenment
Witches being burned at the stake in Harz, 1555. Private Collection. Image license Public Domain, U.S. via Wikimedia Commons

Now the Church was under increased pressure to act. The common people believed the devastating hailstorms were the work of witches and demanded that the Church do something. So in 1484, Pope Innocence VIII gave in and blamed witches, thus sanctioning the flood of witch burnings that were soon to begin. Large parts of Central and Southern Europe were caught up in the witch trials and the largest legalized massacre was yet to come. Occurring in the territory of Wiesensteig of Helfenstein (now Germany), skies were blackened by the burnings of 63 women at the stake in 1563.

But there were many Churches across Europe, in which people understood that the devastating weather was due to nature, not frail, elderly women trying to survive. In many parts of Europe, people were actively taking an interest in science. Thanks to the influence of science, numerous people wrote against holding witches and sorcerers responsible for the climactic catastrophe. This included the physician Johann Weyer, of the court of Duke Wilhelm of Julich-Kleve. Using logic, Weyer successfully proved there was no way a woman, witch or otherwise, could cause the weather to change.

Before long, others in royal courts across Europe used the law to argue against witch trials, contending that even if it were possible for witches to cause weather havoc, as accepted by Pope Innocence VIII, none of the laws of God called for capital punishment for such offenses. This combination of science and biblical law worked together, thus rescuing elderly women and others from the cruel torment of the witch trials. By the end of the 17th Century, witch hunts had largely ceased, and these women could live their days peacefully in their homes at the edges of local villages, just as their ancestors had before.

The Age of Enlightenment, also called The Age of Reason, was an intellectual movement that pushed reason as an authoritative system that pushed aesthetics, government, ethics, and religion to allow people to objectively seek the truth about reality. Originating at the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, and ending with the French Revolution in 1789, this new way of thinking spurred the revolution of physics that became Newtonian kinematics. Enlightenment thinkers sought to use reason to free humankind from the superstition and religious authoritarianism that spurred wars that brought terrible suffering and death to millions.


Where we get our stuff:

Medieval Witch Hunts Influenced by Climate Change. Scientific American, November 3, 2014.

The Witch Hunt of The Little Ice Age, PDF, The Institute of Green Economy.

1591: Agnes Sampson, North Berwick Witch., January 28, 2018.

Age of Enlightenment, New World Encyclopedia.

Understanding Kinematics and Newton’s Laws of Motion.