Academic

Witches by Weather: The Impact of Climate in Early Modern Witch Trials

Written by Melissa Kane. Dramatic changes in climate have for a long time demanded an explanation. Melissa Kane explores how the European Witch Trials became tied to the storms and cold of the 'Little Ice Age', as yet more proof of malicious deviancy.

First Witch:     When shall we three meet again,  

In thunder, lightning or in rain? 

Second Witch: When the hurley-burley’s done. When the battle’s lost and won.  

(Act I Scene I, Macbeth

The opening lines of Shakespeare’s Macbeth instantly characterise the three weird sisters as harbourers of stormy skies and gloomy forecasts. Throughout the play and in its staging, the sisters are accompanied by backings of thunder, lightning, and rain to signify to the audience the magical role that they play within the story. To inform them subtly that they are in fact not just some strange women who roam the heath, but a thing to be feared even beyond the stage: witches.  

As many may know, one of the direct influences on Shakespeare’s inclusions of the Three Witches in Macbeth (c. 1606) as well as Prospero from The Tempest (c. 1610) was the ascendancy of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603; he was dubbed the ‘witch-king’ for his infamous fascination with witchcraft, as shown in his 1597 book Daemonologie. However, James can also be credited with popularising one of the most interesting concepts of witchcraft demonology: weather magic. In 1590, his wife (by proxy), Anne of Denmark, failed to travel from her homeland to Scotland after being thwarted by severe storms; James, under the suggestion of the Earl of Bothwell, eventually made the journey himself after a forced docking in Norway. However, on the journey back, the couple once again faced ‘unusual’ weather, with near deaths in many instances including the capsizing of royal fleet ships. Although the storms could be easily explained now, the linkage between them and their deathly encounter caused many to question their origins and resulting in one of the deadliest trials in Scottish history, the North Berwick witch-hunt.  

The concept of weather-magic was a unique idea that was attributed to witches in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at the height of the so-called witch-craze. Like the demonic pact, it developed out of the period’s circumstances, infusing new cultural ideas into the demonology of witchcraft and popular beliefs about their powers at the time. Much of this stemmed from the climactic period referred to by historians as the ‘Little Ice Age’; a period of general climactic turndown resulting in cold, wet, and frosty weather throughout the year which decreased crop yields and ‘produced a general atmosphere of heightened vulnerability and insecurity’ allowing historians such as Wolfgang Behringer to describe ‘witchcraft [as] the unique crime of the Little Ice Age’. 

The idea of a ‘Little Ice Age’ was first coined in 1939 by FE Matthes, who suggested some initial dates of 1300–1860, whilst more recent studies have suggested much more conservative dates of 1430–1770. Within this, a key period between 1570 and 1630 has been identified as the ‘Grindelwald Fluctuation’ by Christian Pfister, whereupon the intensity of the climactic events, as well as the trials they influenced, peaked. It was characterised by harsher, longer winters that exceeded well into the spring months, followed by unusually wet and cold summers and autumns. In 1626, for example, even by the last week of May, lakes and rivers were frozen, with trees losing what leaves they had gained and severe frost rampaging through wheatfields and vineyards. This was largely caused by ‘pervasive meridional cold streams’ from both the North and the South Poles that brought about an overall lowering of temperatures, forcing snowlines on mountains to move further inland and allowing the Alpine glaciers (including the Grindelwald Glacier after which the period is named) to advance further. After 1560, Europe was barraged with constant concentrated rainfall, flooding, and hailstorms which resulted in high levels of soil exhaustion and erosion in traditional agricultural areas. The impact of these successive climactic disasters created an agricultural blight in producing meagre harvests, which in the following years could result in famine and starvation for families and later whole communities. This resulted in “heightened vulnerability and insecurity” in fear that something evil was in their midst.  

In most cases, those who were feared paid the greatest price for this fear and were also those that suffered the most because of these disasters. Those poorest in society, who relied solely on the well-wished donations of others to survive, were deemed burdensome as leeches on the already depleted foods, such as Sarah Good at Salem or Old Chattox and Demdike at Pendle.  

Not only did the climactic fluctuations threaten mass starvation, but they were also responsible for producing ‘a period of economic stagnation of a severity perhaps comparable to that of the fourteenth century’. The demands for the food that failed to grow heightened and caused many key staple foods and ingredients to fall to inflated prices, likely as farmers and landowners tried to make up for their lost fields and to take advantage in profits on the higher demand. In Vienna, for example, between 1621 and 1623, rye, which was used as a staple bread cereal, increased over twenty times in price compared to its lowest level experienced between 1611–1615. The lack of vegetable sustenance also meant that livestock were much harder to keep and stall feed with the reduced resources a farm could spare. 

The impact of these climactic disasters was also furthered by the impact of both the Thirty Years War and the Polish-Swedish War. Taking place between 1618–1648 and 1621–1625 respectively, the demands of war weighed heavily on local communities; as armies moved across the Empire, their recruitment strategies pillaged villages and towns of their young men, leaving many without the labour to farm their lands and resulting in an overall population decrease for the end of the seventeenth century (at around 12 to 15 million, based on estimates) that was much lower than the previous sixteenth. Furthermore, the presence of armies and diplomatic agencies meant that trade routes could not function as they had previously. For example, in 1627, crucial grain trades from Danzig were stopped completely and the Swedish blockade of the North a few years later prevented Baltic ports from imports, overall contributing to a violent price increase in 1630, coupled once again with bad harvests.  

The impact of the failed harvests and the ensuing battles contributed to a sole reliance on local areas for harvests so when they failed, acute food shortages occurred such as those in Wurzburg (1634) and Leipzig (1638). In Augsburg, demands met new heights when even the price of dog and cat meat were recorded in local logs in 1634 and historians have even found that cases of cannibalism may have occurred in the face of further starvation. Throughout all of this, wages, although slightly improved to stay afloat with inflation rates, failed to keep up with spiralling prices, with the most affected (i.e. lower peasant and urban classes) paying the price of hunger and debt whilst those with more wealth were able to heed to the demands of the higher rates.  

To many, the hunger of Europe and the stormy clouds in the sky represented a new form of evil that had befallen them. As Pfister and Behringer understand it, ‘single disasters and crises were accepted as being a part of life’ with the rain, snow, and hail of the heavens regarded as ‘constant companions in humanity’s path throughout history’, but multiple events that had the potential to kill hundreds of thousands, to create economic and agricultural disparity, and even epidemics, was a sign that to survive, something must change.  

Although there had always been a reluctance to accept the ability of humanity to influence climactic weather, the prevalence of so-called ‘unnatural’ weather (in comparison to the storms of peacetime) led to three theological determinations: it was ‘a sign from God, the work of the Devil, or the result of witchcraft’. Many, Lutherans, Calvinists, or even Catholics, remained under the belief that the first was true, in that the sins of people had invoked his wrath on the earth, but in the face continuing meteorological disasters, this premise became harder and harder to maintain. Instead, belief began to populate that the cause of these events and the shortages they produced – particularly where there was an immediate reliance on local fields for harvest foods rather than trade – was due to the prevalence of evil human agents in alliance with demonic forces, allowed to roam by God to punish His children. In a letter from Duke Ferdinand of Bavaria, it was claimed that ‘The Almighty has allowed them [the fields] to be sorely afflicted by the evil enemy’ and as a Local Mainz official, Jeremias Lieb stated in 1582,  

The common man has become so mad from the consequences of crop failures, the death of livestock and similar things that he no longer holds them for the just punishment of our sins, but blames witches and sorceresses 

demonstrating this knee-jerk reaction of belief and folkloric understanding into demonological blame.  

The idea of human-induced weather, although reluctant to be believed, was not a knowledge that birthed under the Little Ice Age. Instead Behringer traces it back to pagan antiquity with many instances of folk and white magic containing intrinsic links to powerful herbs with the ability to cure maladies, improve crops, and gain protection. However, the belief gained a new light with the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (1487) which included in its preface a copy of the 1484 papal bull issued by Pope Innocent VII, Summis desiderantes affectibus, which stated 

It has recently come to our ears, not without great pain to us, that in some parts of upper Germany, as well as in the provinces, cities, territories, regions, and dioceses of Mainz, Koin, Trier, Salzburg, and Bremen, many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the catholic faith , give themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurings, and by other abominable superstitions and sortileges, offences, crimes, and misdeeds, ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women, the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, as well as men and women, cattle and flocks and herds and animals of every kind, vineyards also and orchards, meadows, pastures, harvests, grains and other fruits of the earth; that they afflict and torture with dire pains and anguish, both internal and external, these men, women, cattle, flocks, herds, and animals 

The production of the papal bull, as well as its inclusion in the Malleus, confirmed the linkage between acts of witchcraft and the production of ‘unnatural’ weather that had harmed agricultural areas. This was a significant development in witchcraft belief as, unlike previously, trials did not rely on accusations of individual acts of maleficium, which were hard to believe without proof and did not hold the fear that the listener may be next. Instead, incidents of weather magic could happen to anyone in an indiscriminate manner, with merely a motive of causing general agricultural or economic harm as a cause and with a much wider web of pain than a personal curse.  

The spread of this belief was of course, not automatic. But as the Little Ice Age rambled on and occurrences of ‘unnatural weather’ began to affect more and more communities, the bind of abnormal weather to witches was defined by tales of trials and works of theology spread by the new age of printing. Before 1563, there was only one known publication regarding weather-magic, but by 1570, it became common place in printing and in trial accusations, with many confessions obtained making explicit references to attempts to freeze or destroy crops, such as those in Bamberg (1623–32). Furthermore, the adaptive nature of this belief to insert itself into the already prevalent understanding of God’s wrath and the consequences of sin, and that witches were merely the new agents of His action, to curse on His behalf, or as Hans Cudium of Hof stated in 1576 ‘such is all an abhorrence before God, therefore the punishment was sent through the Devil’s offspring in many a country’.  

The indiscriminate nature of witchcraft weather was also reflected in the wide set accusations in the trials. Weather was something everyone experienced, and as it faced its harsh decline, everyone observed its effects and numerous impacts. It therefore became common understanding that a single demonic agent would not have the ability to pull off such levels of destruction in comparison to common maleficium, and instead a collective (or coven) would be required to conduct such deeds. As the whole community was affected in this way, in many cases, the community came together to fight it. In one case, despite their relative poverty, one community in Germany was prepared to sell the communal forest, a key source of food and income, to pay for the services of an executioner. Popular pressure therefore became a key motivator for many authorities to conduct these trials, such as those at Trier, often deemed the most deadly of the entire period with some 300 victims, which was originally written off to be the ‘personal persecution complex of the Prince-Elector’, but under re-evaluation, was significantly motivated by ‘The persecuting impulse… from below’ in an enthusiasm that had not been seen previous to the Little Ice Age, when authorities had failed to garner such appreciation for such courts.  

In some cases, however, the popular pressure simply overwhelmed authorities as trials began (as they often do) to spiral beyond reasonable control. In these instances, ‘communities… conspired and established… pact[s] very nearly resembling a revolt’, to protect their lands and livelihoods where the courts would not, and it was only in some areas where territorial control by elites was strong that demands for trials could be suppressed. 

Historical understandings of the Little Ice Age and the Grindelwald Fluctuation have shed a new light on the stresses and fears that those involved in the infamous ‘century of murder’ felt and fought against. Although only recently intertwined with modern interpretations of the causes of the witch-craze, its ability to explain many of the contextual elements of the trials across Europe and the North America have allowed a deeper understanding of the world that these people believed they lived in, and as in our own time, the climate crisis once again threatens community catastrophe, it leaves to be wondered whether a similar impact will be seen in our near future. As Professor Lyndal Roper has stated, being a part of the trials was an emotional experience, but so too were the events that led to its decree; to live in a world where it was truly believed that agents of the Devil used unnatural powers to destroy your livelihoods, with the potential to starve, maim, and kill brought a sense of apocalyptical Hail Mary to remove demonic infection from the community. Therefore, the economic, social, and agricultural effects of the Little Ice Age must not be underestimated in their ability to create witches by weather.  

Written by Melissa Kane 

Bibliography

Behringer, Wolfgang. ‘Weather, Hunger and Fear: Origins of the European Witch-Hunts in Climate, Society and Mentality’ German History 13, No. 1 (1995) 1-27 

Behringer, Wolfgang. ‘Climactic Change and Witch-Hunting: The Impact of the Little Ice Age on Mentalities’ Climate Change 43, No.1 (1999) 335-351  

Dartnell, Lewis. Origins: How the Earth Shaped Human History (2019) 

Hutton, Ronald. The Witch: A History of Fear, From Ancient Times to the Present (2018) 

Messerli, Bruno, Paul Messerli, Christian Pfister, and Heinz J. Zumbühl. “Fluctuations of Climate and Glaciers in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland, and Their Geoecological Significance, 1600 to 1975.” Arctic and alpine research 10, no. 2 (1978): 247–260. 

Munck, Thomas. Seventeenth Century Europe: State, Conflict and the Social Order in Europe 1598-1700 (1990) 

Stanhill, Gerald. ‘Shakespeare’s Tempest, Witchcraft and the Little Ice Age’ Weather 71, No.4 (2016) 

Warfield, Abaigeal. ‘The Witch and the Weather: Fear of Weather Magic in German Sixteenth-Century Neue Zeitungen’ The Sixteenth Century Journal 50, No.1 (2019) 1101-1128  

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