Peter Leeson is often fun

I’m not entirely convinced that he’s always right though:

Their appearance was all the more strange because between 900 and 1400 the Christian authorities had refused to acknowledge that witches existed, let alone try someone for the crime of being one. This was despite the fact that belief in witches was common in medieval Europe, and in 1258 Pope Alexander IV had to issue a canon to prevent prosecutions.

But by 1550 Christian authorities had reversed their position, leading to a witch-hunt across Christendom. Many explanations have been advanced for what drove the phenomenon. Now new research suggests there is an economic explanation, one that has relevance to the modern day.

Economists Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ of George Mason University in Virginia argue that the trials reflected “non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share”.

As competing Catholic and Protestant churches vied to win over or retain their followers, they needed to make an impact – and witch trials were the battleground they chose. Or, as the two academics put it in their paper, to be published in the new edition of the Economic Journal: “Leveraging popular belief in witchcraft, witch-prosecutors advertised their confessional brands’ commitment and power to protect citizens from worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil.”

The paper itself is here.

31 comments on “Peter Leeson is often fun

  1. It’s just the usual religious cracking down on previous indigenous religion by the monotheistic desert belief system. The same thing will surely happen in Europe with Islam once enough of them are here.

  2. Given how many Roman Catholic habits the Reformers gave up I’ve always wondered why they retained the habit of witch-burning. The economic explanation is interesting but hardly compelling. After all, what about other bits of Roman nastiness they could have used to compete with? They didn’t, for example, organise a central Index of censored books, they didn’t (or did they?) execute scholars for scientific investigations, they didn’t compete in the forging of bogus “ancient” documents.

    Maybe the trouble with the Reformers was that they believed in reading the Bible. WKPD: Deuteronomy 18:10–12 states: “No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one that casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord”; and Exodus 22:18 prescribes: “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.

    As for the Roman Catholics: Pope John XXII had later authorized the Inquisition to prosecute sorcerers in 1320 … The resurgence of witch-hunts at the end of the medieval period … was accompanied with a number of developments in Christian doctrine, for example the recognition of the existence of witchcraft as a form of Satanic influence … As Renaissance occultism gained traction among the educated classes, the belief in witchcraft, which in the medieval period had been part of the folk religion of the uneducated rural population at best, was incorporated into an increasingly comprehensive theology of Satan as the ultimate source of all maleficium. These doctrinal shifts were completed in the mid-15th century … The witch trials in Early Modern Europe came in waves and then subsided. There were trials in the 15th and early 16th centuries, but then the witch scare went into decline, before becoming a major issue again and peaking in the 17th century”

    There is a case for thinking that the witch craze was the result of two things that are normally uncritically praised: the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance among Roman Catholics, and the spread of literacy, especially among Reformers.

    P.S. The last time I saw a blog discussion thread on the subject someone announced simply that Roman Catholics never burnt witches. Maybe he was an ultra-Protestant troll, eh?

  3. > “Leveraging popular belief in witchcraft, witch-prosecutors advertised their confessional brands’ commitment and power to protect citizens from worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil.”

    Sounds like the current attacks on Toby Young, or green-o-loons on GM and fracking.

  4. “Witchcraft” = the original European pagan religion.

    No surprise that the monotheists eventually got organised in terms of stamping it out.

    I heard an interesting theory somewhere that the reason the average woman is better looking in Eastern than Western Europe is the loss of a large amount of attractive females during the witch hunts in the West. Tragic if true.

  5. The problem with that argument is that in the Reformation people did not really compete for religious followers except among Princes. You convinced the Prince and everyone else followed suit or did an impressive impersonation of a crumpet.

    If I had to guess I would say that religious belief is obvious to the religious believer. They cannot see why other people cannot see. So when other people do not share their faith, and when things do not go their way, they tend to see a malicious hand at work that has to be sought out and destroyed.

    Tomsmith – “It’s just the usual religious cracking down on previous indigenous religion by the monotheistic desert belief system.”

    So the lesbians say. But it is hard to see why it took the Christians one and a half thousand years to get around to it.

    dearieme – “Given how many Roman Catholic habits the Reformers gave up I’ve always wondered why they retained the habit of witch-burning.”

    That article does kind of point out that it wasn’t really a Catholic thing. Very common in Protestant countries like Scotland. Very rare in Portugal and Ireland.

    “They didn’t, for example, organise a central Index of censored books, they didn’t (or did they?) execute scholars for scientific investigations, they didn’t compete in the forging of bogus “ancient” documents.”

    Did they organise a central index? I am pretty sure that the Protestants were just as happy to ban books. Maybe even more so. They certainly executed other Protestant scholars. The very interesting Michael Servetus for instance. And of course they did compete in the forging on bogus ancient documents of sorts – the Anglican Church is founded on the lie that the Normans destroyed a non-Catholic Britain so the Reformation was a return to the original British way of doing things.

    “Exodus 22:18 prescribes: “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.”

    Having met some witches I have to say there is a lot of wisdom in these old books.

    “The last time I saw a blog discussion thread on the subject someone announced simply that Roman Catholics never burnt witches. Maybe he was an ultra-Protestant troll, eh?”

    Maybe. But it really does seem to be a Protestant thing.

  6. “But it is hard to see why it took the Christians one and a half thousand years to get around to it.”

    It took a long time time to get around to killing the last pagan believers because Europe was very slow to convert. Lithuania for example only went Christian around 1416.

    The process of Christianisation in Europe began by adopting and subverting the existing pagan religion. Catholicism and orthodoxy both still contain many pagan elements. It took a long time for the desert religion to become strong enough to start killing the last of the unconverted.

  7. Monocausal explanations often don’t fit complex social phenomena. Economists may have one explanation, social psychologists, Marxists, neo-Darwinians, Freudians, anthropologists, militant atheists , etc, may all have their own favoured explanation. Historians have to sift through the lot and see which ones fit the facts most plausibly and simply; but this can often mean that the final explanation is multicausal.

    Given how many Roman Catholic habits the Reformers gave up I’ve always wondered why they retained the habit of witch-burning.

    Both papists and reformers revered St Augustine, who argues in The City of God that heretics are a threat to the survival of a Christian community…

  8. Protestantism is the shedding of the last pagan vestiges from Christianity. This is why it resembles Islam and Judaism in some ways, and why it is more into killing, burning and purging than Catholicism or Orthodoxy are. Protestantism is the original Desert religion re-distilled after centuries inside the shell of European paganism.

  9. “…the Anglican Church is founded on the lie that the Normans destroyed a non-Catholic Britain so the Reformation was a return to the original British way of doing things.”

    Have you a source for that, SMFS?

  10. Tomsmith – “It took a long time time to get around to killing the last pagan believers because Europe was very slow to convert. Lithuania for example only went Christian around 1416.”

    And yet they were not burning witches in Lithuania. They were along the Franco-German border which had been Christian for some time. Quite some time in fact.

    “The process of Christianisation in Europe began by adopting and subverting the existing pagan religion.”

    At which point the pagan religion was no threat to them whatsoever and so largely tolerated. Luther was not threatened by Christmas trees. Nor the Catholics even by Candomble

    “It took a long time for the desert religion to become strong enough to start killing the last of the unconverted.”

    This is ahistorical nonsense you realise?

  11. Theophrastus – “Have you a source for that, SMFS?”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_yoke

    Among Victorian Protestants, the idea of the “Norman Yoke” was sometimes linked with anti-Catholicism, with claims that the English Anglo-Saxon Church was freer of Papal influence than the Norman one.[3] They cited events such as the Pope’s blessing of William the Conqueror and the homages of various Plantagenet kings to the Papacy as proof of this idea.[3] This linking of “Anglo-Saxon” English nationalism and anti-Catholicism influenced Charles Kingsley’s novel Hereward the Wake (1866), which, like Ivanhoe, helped popularize the image of a romantic Anglo-Saxon England destroyed by the Normans.

    Isn’t this one of those things that every school boy used to know?

  12. Rickie – “Not a lot has changed over the centuries then…mass killing in the name of God”

    The Spanish Inquisition may have killed 3000 people. The Khmer Rouge killed twice that many. Every week. For four years.

    The really big mass killings have been in the last century and they have been done by people who aggressively don’t believe in religion. Atheists are much bigger killers than anyone in Europe who believes in God.

  13. SMFS “And yet they were not burning witches in Lithuania. They were along the Franco-German border which had been Christian for some time. Quite some time in fact.”

    Yes, that is exactly my point. Witch burning (ie eradication of remaining pagans) was strongest where Christianity was long established, and especially prevalent in those regions where Protestantism was present, since Protestantism is Christianity sans the pagan elements.

    “At which point the pagan religion was no threat to them whatsoever and so largely tolerated. Luther was not threatened by Christmas trees. Nor the Catholics even by Candomble”

    European Paganism is not Christmas trees and Candomble. The fact that the Pagans were burned in parts of Europe where Christianity had been long present and Paganism was still actively practiced is direct evidence that it was indeed a threat to Christianity. This is not surprising, given what it teaches.

    “This is ahistorical nonsense you realise?”

    It fits the facts quite well.

  14. “They certainly executed other Protestant scholars”: no doubt. But what I said was “execute scholars for scientific investigations” – you are a very naughty boy.

    “the Normans destroyed a non-Catholic Britain”: I suspect that this is a dodgy argument based on sliding around between different meanings of “Catholic”. Of course the Anglo-Saxon church was “Catholic” in the sense that it wasn’t Arian, nor even “Celtic”. But it certainly wasn’t Roman Catholic because the Pope had not yet flounced out from the rest of Catholic Christianity.

    The question of whether the A-S church had more independence from Rome than the subsequent Norman/Plantagenet church of the RC era is an empirical one. Maybe it did – I am no expert, but I do know that to assume that it didn’t is no basis for a discussion. Lots of later RC churches had more independence from the Papacy than had the RC English church pre-Henry VIII. Spain and France are the obvious examples.

    “That article does kind of point out that it wasn’t really a Catholic thing.” Simply untrue – see the passages from WKPD that I quoted.

  15. Tomsmith – “Yes, that is exactly my point. Witch burning (ie eradication of remaining pagans) was strongest where Christianity was long established, and especially prevalent in those regions where Protestantism was present, since Protestantism is Christianity sans the pagan elements.”

    To call Protestantism Christianity without the pagan elements is so barking bad it is not worth responding to. As, pretty much, your argument that the Christians were burning witches in the places with the least pagans – and essentially no pagans for over a thousand years – is proof that they were burning pagans. You might think some of them doing the actual burning would provide the smallest shred of evidence to support your claim if it were true.

    “European Paganism is not Christmas trees and Candomble. The fact that the Pagans were burned in parts of Europe where Christianity had been long present and Paganism was still actively practiced is direct evidence that it was indeed a threat to Christianity. This is not surprising, given what it teaches.”

    You have cited no evidence of any paganism being actively practiced anywhere. Much less in Scotland or Switzerland. Given that there was no paganism in the affected areas for about one and a half thousand years this is not a surprise. Nor, of course, were they burning pagans. You cannot start out making up whatever you like and then citing a circular argument devoid of any factual basis as evidence.

    “It fits the facts quite well.”

    On what planet?

    dearieme – “But what I said was “execute scholars for scientific investigations” – you are a very naughty boy.”

    They did ban them. It is an irony that Copernicus’ heliocentrism was presented to the Pope who had no problem with it. But was condemned by Luther and Calvin. In fact if Galileo had been in Germany or Switzerland he might have been in trouble. The great advantage is that secular Protestant rulers tended not to care and there were a lot of them so you could move to safety without much trouble. Not that the Protestants were tolerant.

    “I suspect that this is a dodgy argument based on sliding around between different meanings of “Catholic”. Of course the Anglo-Saxon church was “Catholic” in the sense that it wasn’t Arian, nor even “Celtic”. But it certainly wasn’t Roman Catholic because the Pope had not yet flounced out from the rest of Catholic Christianity.”

    In 1066 I am pretty sure the Pope had done all the flouncing he was going to do. Also, of course, Christianity is, to a first order approximation, Roman Catholicism. The Catholics are not allowed to join the World Council of Churches because they would outnumber, and hence outvote, all the others put together. So Catholic Christianity is pretty much whatever the Pope says it is. The British Church pre-1066 being firmly in the Roman camp. Whatever the Anglicans came to claim later in the Victorian period, they are not Catholics.

    “The question of whether the A-S church had more independence from Rome than the subsequent Norman/Plantagenet church of the RC era is an empirical one.”

    Well no because it is a theological issue. There may have been the tolerance of distance but that does not imply a tolerance of difference. The Irish for instance had fun with the date of Easter but they did not split.

    “Simply untrue – see the passages from WKPD that I quoted.”

    I saw. They go to great trouble to point out Catholics did it too. Mainly because so many other people have pointed out how rare it was for Catholics to do it. It really does look more of a Protestant thing even if not all of them were burned by Protestants.

  16. Theo, I always thought that one of the main causes of the upsurge in witch burning was climate change. It got colder, crops failed, cattle died and someone was to blame.

    “Burn the witch!!” or as today’s climate religionists rephrase it: “Burn the denier!!”

  17. SMFS

    The passage you quote from Wikipedia does not support your earlier claim that:

    the Anglican Church is founded on the lie that the Normans destroyed a non-Catholic Britain.

    The myth of the Norman Yoke (if myth it is) arose in the 19th century. The Church of England was founded rather earlier than that – in the 16th century. So your claim is false.

  18. Protestantism is the shedding of the last pagan vestiges from Christianity. This is why it resembles Islam and Judaism in some ways, and why it is more into killing, burning and purging than Catholicism or Orthodoxy are. Protestantism is the original Desert religion re-distilled after centuries inside the shell of European paganism.

    You’ve been fooled Tomsmith… Because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

    Even more Ritchie-esque, except your ignorance is (at least for today) much, much funnier.

  19. “In 1066 I am pretty sure the Pope had done all the flouncing he was going to do.” Shame on you, that’s intended to mislead. The Pope flounced in 1054, so that in all the history of the A-S Church, bar only a dozen years, it was Catholic rather than Roman Catholic.

    “The myth of the Norman Yoke (if myth it is) arose in the 19th century.” I know it flourished in the 19th century, but I understand that it first arose in the 17th, at the hands of diggers, levellers and suchlike at the time of the Civil War. Still, that leaves your conclusion undamaged.

  20. “The really big mass killings have been in the last century and they have been done by people who aggressively don’t believe in religion. Atheists are much bigger killers than anyone in Europe who believes in God.”

    True; but let us not forget that the Reconquista and the Thirty Years War had a huge death toll – 10m-18m in total:
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_by_death_toll

  21. I suppose that one reason that there wasn’t a lot of witch-burning in Spain and Portugal was that they enjoyed different sorts of cruelty, to wit (i) expunging their Protestants (there had been some), (ii) expelling and sometimes murdering their Jews and Moors, and (iii) persecuting their Christians of Jewish or Moorish descent.

    Too busy to murder many witches? Still, they managed, what, several hundred?

    Anyway one weakness of the economists’ argument sticks out a mile: how to explain the execution of witches in Massachusetts?

    The colony was essentially a One Party State: there was no competition against the established church – a handful of (Protestant) exceptions were incomers and were executed. And yet ….

  22. @smfs “The really big mass killings have been in the last century and they have been done by people who aggressively don’t believe in religion. Atheists are much bigger killers than anyone in Europe who believes in God.”
    I think that you will find that the islamic invasion of india and afghanistan had a much higher death toll with estimates ranging from 80 -200 million. There is a reason there is an area known as the hindu kush (hindu killer)

  23. Yes, the mid-millennia church had a way to deal with crazy cat ladies. Now we give them pussy hats and the keys to power.

  24. Moqifen
    Have you a link for that figure of 80-200m?
    The Persian ‘Kos/Kush’ means ‘killer’. But the area was already known in Sanskrit as ‘Hind Kash’ (cf Kashmir), so the Persian derivation looks less plausible.

  25. The 80 million figure is fairly widespread and generally well-attested. I’ve seen numbers as high as 400 million and certainly a quarter of a billion seems plausible. Islam has been far and away the biggest killer as a percentage of world population at the time ever since the schizophrenic paedophile hallucinated the angel Gabriel. Timur killed about 5% of the world population (which in 1939 terms would be about 115 million people). It is, I think, certainly the case that Islam has been the greatest curse ever inflicted on humanity and its eradication should be pursued with the same zeal and single-mindedness as defeating the Axis in WWII (if not via the same means, although I don’t rule that out either).

  26. “The really big mass killings have been in the last century and they have been done by people who aggressively don’t believe in religion. Atheists are much bigger killers than anyone in Europe who believes in God.”

    That’s mostly about population growth and technology enabling greater distances. We got world wars because of steel ships, tanks and aircraft. They didn’t have them in the 11th century because of the lack of those things. But William the Conqueror would have gassed some bits of the North with Zyklon B if it had been available.

    The religion aspect is mostly irrelevant. We got major world wars because of technology – wars could be fought over huge distances like they couldn’t 100 years earlier. Nazism was basically pagan, but in the same way as all religions, it was a belief in a load of made up woo, designed to bind people together.

  27. Keith Thomas argues, in the Religion and the Decline of Magic, that the problem is that Protestantism denied that anyone but God could do anything about all the malign influences in the world.

    That is, under Catholicism it was well known that there were devils and evil spirits around – but you could get the priest to deal with them, or have a relic or charm to protect yourself against them, or DIY with a bit of holy water or a few Hail Maries. The Protestants essentially made all that sort of thing illegal, which just meant that you still had all sorts of devils and evil spirits around but you now had no way of protecting yourself against them – the vicar would just tell you to pray and be a better person, which is all very well but it’s not his milk going off. Unless of course you called on someone who still knew some of the old charms that the priests used to use.

    But the person who can deal with demons for you may of course be dealing with demons on their own account, and so becomes all rather suspicious – especially if the Church is saying that what they are doing is wrong (demarcation, mate – you can’t do that ‘ere). Cue suspicion, accusation, paranoia, etc…

    TLDR: prohibition makes criminals.

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