The Undercover Economist: Why it’s dangerous to be a witch in a recession

Why did people murder suspected witches in renaissance Europe? And why do they still do so today in sub-Saharan Africa? As someone whose main source of information about witch trials is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I was fascinated to learn that witch-burning has its own grim economics.

Clearly, some of the fervour for murdering women – typically elderly widows – had cultural and religious origins. In the early medieval period, the Catholic Church dismissed the idea that witches had supernatural powers, and some Church documents argued that it was heresy to believe in witchcraft. Without Church support, it’s easy to see why witch trials were not popular.

Yet when the trial and execution of suspected witches surged in the mid-16th century and throughout the 17th, it was a cross-cultural phenomenon. Trials took place in many countries and were conducted by both Protestants and Catholics, and in both secular and religious courts. Perhaps a million women were killed across Europe after being accused of witchcraft, and most of them died during this period. Why?

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Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.