Ice & Fire: How a Folk Demonology in the ‘Little Ice Age’ Led to the Witch Hunts of the 16th & 17th Centuries

By Romany Reagan

The forests are stripped of their leaves, the earth lies frozen, the rivers are frozen with the cold. And fog and rain, together with the excess of endless nights, have robbed the earth of its joy. 

–Matthäus Merian, 1622 

The time period now commonly agreed—by historians and climate scientists alike—to be the ‘Little Ice Age’ lasted from between 1300 and 1850 A.D. The cooling was only slight (ranging from 2-5°C, depending on the region), but it was enough to slam Europe, and much of the Northern Hemisphere, into a climate event that saw unprecedented storms, unseasonal frosts, and ruined crops. “This decrease was large enough to leave Iceland completely surrounded by ice and to freeze the Thames in England and the canals in Holland routinely—both otherwise unheard-of events.” (Oster 218) 

While there was a general cooling over the course of this 500-year period, there were two cold snaps in the 16th and 17th centuries that further strained hardship to the breaking point. Here I have gathered the research of economists, meteorologists, and historians to tell the story of the Little Ice Age and how people offered up their neighbours for slaughter in the hopes of a summer that would never come.

An ‘Unnatural’ Cold

When we think of witch hunts today, we often think of the Christian Church and the ecclesiastical courts, fire and brimstone sermons, and Witchfinder Generals; but the witch hunts that took place in Europe during the Little Ice Age were a bit different. These were not top-down hunts for culprits instigated by the Church, these were bottom-up mob cries for justice. Their accusations contained as many elements of folk belief as they did Church doctrine.

Source: Pfister, Christian, ‘Climatic Extremes, Recurrent Crises, and Witch Hunts: Strategies of European Societies in Coping with Exogenous Shocks in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries, The Medieval History Journal, Volume 10, 2006 p33-73. Journal.
Source: Pfister, Christian, ‘Climatic Extremes, Recurrent Crises, and Witch Hunts: Strategies of European Societies in Coping with Exogenous Shocks in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries, The Medieval History Journal, Volume 10, 2006 p33-73. Journal.

 

While much work has been done on the motivations behind the European trials, the large-scale causes remain unknown. Historians are still seeking explanations for why the witch persecutions were especially cruel in the years between 1588 and 1600 and then again between 1620 and 1650. Religious tensions certainly played a role, but the correlation among extreme weather events, ruined harvests, and waves of witch trials asserts itself most forcefully. Looking at the data, the wave of violence and scapegoating that swept through Europe corresponds with spikes in the Little Ice Age. The attending crop failure and sure financial ruin and death this wrought was a mystery that needed a human (bloody) solution. 

The earliest trials, going back to the 13th century, were the work of Church institutions, particularly the Catholic Inquisition, but the mass of trials later in the period saw very little formal Church involvement of this type. Various hypotheses have been offered: for example, need by the male medical profession to rid the world of midwives and female folk healers; a perceived need for moral boundaries by the Catholic church; or an increase in syphilis and subsequent increase in the mentally ill, who were then targeted as witches. (Oster 215) 

Pre-Christian cultures in Greece, Rome, and Iceland, among other places, believed in the power of witches. There were good witches and bad witches, called by many names. And even in Christian times, not all witches were regarded as evil and harmful. “The Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg has researched the phenomenon of the benandanti in the northern Italian Alps around the end of the 16th century. Benandanti were male guardians of plenty, warlocks, who would metamorphose into animals at night and fly to the fields in order to defend them from wicked female witches intent on destroying the harvest.” (Brom 62) There is something to be said here about a fear of women perhaps being at the root of this witch mania more even than a fear of cold, but that’s a tangent for another day. 

A hag raises storm and destruction, displaying magic control of the elements. From Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (1555)

Despite the long-held belief in powerful humans (witches, shamans, ect.) systematic hunting of these people is firmly associated with the Christian church—but there were boundaries to this and rules to play by. Some things could only be controlled by God, not mere mortals. “In the early medieval period, the Catholic Church asserted that it was not possible for mortals to do things that were attributed to witches. For this reason, the early church leaders dismissed the view that witches could influence the weather. For example, in the 9th century, an important cleric, Agobard, Archbishop of Leon, dismissed the idea that witches could produce weather in his letter, ‘Against the foolish opinion of the masses about hail and thunder’. Early church documents went as far as to suggest that belief in witchcraft was heresy.” (Oster 216)

But things had changed by 1484, when the Malleus Maleficarum was published. The Malleus was considered the principal text outlining the powers—and proper punishments—of witches.

This book was instrumental in codifying the existing beliefs about witches, their powers and their actions. It also gave specific guidelines on how witches should be ‘questioned’ (read: tortured) until they confessed to their wicked crimes. One important aspect of the Malleus is its inclusion of the power of witches to control the weather. In its introduction, Pope Innocent VIII recognises the power of witches in the destruction of crops, writing: ‘It has indeed lately come to Our ears many persons of both sexes have blasted the produce of the earth, the grapes of the vine, the fruits of the trees, vineyards, orchards, meadows, pasture-land, corn, wheat, and all other cereals.’ “In addition, the Malleus contains a chapter detailing the powers of witches with regard to the weather, titled ‘How they Raise and Stir up Hailstorms and Tempests, and Cause Lightning to Blast both Men and Beasts’. This chapter ends with a line that leaves no room for doubt about the perceived power of witches: ‘Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that, just as easily as they raise hailstorms, so can they cause lightning and storms as sea; and so no doubt at all remains on these points.’ (Oster 217) 

But there was doubt remaining. Not everyone was of one mind on the supposed power of witches, and while we have a tendency to look back on the past as one conformist mindset of belief systems, one look around our political and ideological climate today will tell us that humans rarely come together on one mind about anything. Johann Weyer (1515-1588) was a ray of rationality interposed into this time of religious zeal. “Weyer wrote in one of the later editions of his work: ‘In this way it came to pass, not so very long ago, a poor old woman was driven by torture to confess—as she was just about to be offered to Vulcan’s flames—that she had caused the incredible severity of the previous winter (1565), and the extreme cold, and the lasting ice.’ Being well aware of weather as a central issue, Weyer interfered with a debate about the causes of weather, prompted by a particularly severe hailstorm on 3 August, 1562. […] If the witches were incapable of weather-making, [he argued] their trials were not only inhumane but also illegal, since, according to law, death penalties could only be imposed in cases of maleficent magic, not for mere fantasies.” (Behringer 89) Weyer is perhaps the first person to use the phrase ‘mentally ill’, and he fought for humanity and medical understanding during a time when that was anything but the thing to do. 

Weyer succeeded in fundamentally altering the terms of the discourse on witchcraft by claiming that the suspected witches, if they admitted performing harmful magic, were not to be considered evil, but insane, and therefore not only physically but mentally incapable of bearing any legal responsibility for supposed deeds. In his groundbreaking De Praestigiis Daemonum (On the Deceits of the Demons) (1563), Weyer explained that witchcraft was an impossible crime, summarising every argument he could gather from juridical, theological, or medical authorities, as well as from the ancient philosophers, and finally from experience and experiment. Weyer concluded that the women accused of witchcraft were not guilty, that they must therefore not be burned to death, and, finally, that burning witches was an enormous crime in itself. Those who participated in such activities, lawyers and authorities included, were nothing but murderers. In his dedication to Emperor Maximilian II, famous for his disapproval of religious atrocities, Weyer called the witch burnings quite unmistakably a ‘massacre of the innocents’. (Behringer 89) 

This is groundbreaking. It seems that this should have been the end of it. But, unfortunately, we know it was just the beginning. The key debate raging within the later waves of persecutions during the Little Ice Age did not consider that these women could be victims, instead the debate focused merely on the extent of their power: all of these charges were predicated on a belief in weather magic. Previous official teachings of the Church rejected the possibility of weather magic, as only God could control the air and the seasons. The belief in ‘evil persons’ who could wield weather magic didn’t come from the Church, it came from popular beliefs in the occult. The Church said that mere mortals could not affect the weather, but looking around them, the people saw differently, and they drew on their beliefs in a folk demonology to plead their case. It could be argued, that rather than the Church maintaining a strict top-down formation of edicts, that in this case official Church doctrines changed to accommodate the will of the people.

“Whereas accusations of witchcraft for all kinds of personal bad luck were often a matter among individuals, whole peasant communities demanded persecution in cases of ‘unnatural weather’ and collective damage. In comparison to individual accusations, which tended to lead to trails of individual suspects, collective demands for persecution—when accepted by the authorities—regularly resulted in large-scale witch hunts. Charges of crop destruction by climatic anomalies were directed against a fictive collective because it seemed inconceivable that a single person could wield power over larger-scale weather patterns. The persecution of an occult sect allowed torturing the victims until they revealed the names of other members of the sect” (Pfister 355) The common characteristic of the charges laid against these occult witches is they are set on ruining crops with their hail storms, killing frosts, and drought—all of which are in the environmental arsenal of the demonic in the early modern folk tradition. 

Acompendium about demons and magic, 1775
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Historian James Sharpe calls this hybrid belief phenomenon a ‘practical demonology’. “Folk demonology did not lay too great emphasis on the devil, yet saw witches as his agents and placed them in the great struggle between good and evil, between God and Satan, which was central to the learned demonologist. They were people who had entered into some sort of compact with evil and occult forces and were dangerous; people who had lost their own souls to the devil and were all too ready to harm those who had not.” (Cole 70-71) Linking witches to occult forces draws on older (pagan) belief systems that still held sway in rural communities, where the teaching of the Church didn’t enjoy the purity of Christian belief that they probably would have liked. 

And these occult demon witches had to be stopped. At every spike in the unrelenting cold, there is a corresponding time of witch hunting. As the two figures below show: 

Source: Oster, Emily, ‘Witchcraft, Weather, and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18:1, Winter 2004, p215-228. Journal

 

Source: Oster, Emily, ‘Witchcraft, Weather, and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18:1, Winter 2004, p215-228. Journal

 

The last of the major witch hunts took place in the Rhine basin between 1626 and 1631. The mania was triggered by an extreme event which remains unique in the weather history of the last 500 years: 

On 24 May 1626, astronomer Friedrich Rüttel reported a hailstorm in the Stuttgart area which brought hailstones the size of walnuts and that allegedly accumulated to a depth of 7ft. On the afternoon of 26 May, he observed a sharp icy wind. The subsequent night was so bitterly cold that on the morning of 27 May, ice was found on the water in several places. Overnight, grapevines, rye, and barley were completely destroyed. The leaves on trees turned black. These devastating events together with subsequent crop failures, cattle diseases, price-rises, and epidemics shaped the persecutions of the following years. It was only from the early 1630s that the prosecution and execution of witches entered a new phase marked by a general decline in the number of trials. (Pfister 355-356)

The dynamics of witch hunting (in Figure 10 below) appear to comprise two distinct components: a long-term trend of persecution amounting to roughly a hundred cases per year provides the basis. “It is thought that this trend represents charges against individuals which were not related to communal hunts and to climate. Superposed on the long-term trend is the effect of mass persecutions of witches. The latter trend rises substantially from 1580 to 1600, then it levels off for about 15 years. A second rise starts in 1618 and culminates in the late 1620s. From the early 1630s, the number of executions falls back to the long-term level of individual persecutions. This pattern agrees well with the number of cold anomalies in the summer months allowing for a time lag between the ‘crime’, the trial, and the execution. For example, as late as 1630 the suspects still had to confess that they had been responsible for the extreme frost in May of 1626.” (Pfister 357)

Source: Pfister, Christian, ‘Climatic Extremes, Recurrent Crises, and Witch Hunts: Strategies of European Societies in Coping with Exogenous Shocks in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries, The Medieval History Journal, Volume 10, 2006 p33-73. Journal.

 

According to the confessions, the Franconian witches had discovered how to make the frost. They prepared an unguent from children’s fat, flew through the air on the night of 27 May 1626 and dropped the poison on the crops and everything was frozen. The first rise in executions up to 1600 coincides with the massive increase in cold anomalies dropped back to their pre-crisis level which obviously coincides with a decrease in the number of executions. From 1618 to 1630 there is a second wave of extreme months which was followed by the most pronounced rise in executions. (Pfister 357)

In the town of Schongau, the witch trials had begun earlier, in 1588. There was a catastrophic hailstorm on 26 July that had destroyed the harvest. Hysteria had grabbed the entire area. “In Nördlingen, with some 10,000 inhabitants, more than 30 other women and one man were burned at the stake within four years. In Bamber, the witch persecutions had claimed more than 300 victims by the middle of the 17th century; in Freiburg, 53; in Würzburg, some 1,100. Fear of witches and black magic had always been a part of popular culture, but now it grew to monstrous proportions wherever bad harvests made people anxious and at a loss for alternative explanations. In the tiny state of Bilstein in Westphalia alone, 21 people were burned as witches in 1590, and in the nearby little farming town of Lemgo, 272 had been executed by 1600.” (Brom 61) 

Meanwhile in England… ‘A Lethal Mix of Misfortunes’

Frost more & more severe, the Thames before London was planted with bothes [shop stalls] in formal streets as in a Citty. The very seas so locked up with yce, that no vessels could stir out, or come in.’

– John Evelyn, January 1684

Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

The Little Ice Age was afflicting Europe at the same time as the plague. In England, plague, the witchcraft craze, and several reported rat infestations all happened at the same time has this harsh freeze. This period about what archaeologist Brian Fagan calls ‘a lethal mix of misfortunes’: famine, serial epidemics, bread riots, and chaos. “Witchcraft accusations soared in England and France the greatest number of prosecutions occurring in the severe weather years of 1587 and 1588.” (Cole 65) On 15 January, 1590, John Dee (1527-1608) noted that a ‘terrible tempest’ had hit England. Storms also made an appearance in the pages devoted to October 1591 and September the following year: ‘tempestuous, windy, clowdy, hayl and rayn, after three of the clok after none.’ Even June 1596 was ‘wyndy and rayny’, and on 25 June there was ‘thunder in the morning, rayne in the night’. (Brom 68) 

Alexandre-Marie Colin. ‘The Three Witches from Macbeth’, 1827

William Shakespeare wrote and produced Macbeth sometime between 1605 and 1607, during the height of one of London’s plague seasons. The oft-quoted play contains the famous lines chanted by his three Weird Sisters: ‘Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble’—but witches were not an anachronistic plot device, the discussion of witches and their power was very real at the time of his writing. And women were being burned because of it. Shakespeare often uses weather in his plays to reflect human affairs, and the Weird Sisters meet during thunder and lightning. 

Macbeth exploits the associations between natural and spiritual contagion, drawing upon practical demonology and miasma theory to stage imaginistically the relationship among vermin, plague, and witches. […] References to pestilence are apparent throughout the play. Storms, murrains, and crop failures are the calling cards of the three witches in Act 1. A ‘feverous’ earth and crop failures are alluded to in Act 2, and again in Act 4. Throughout, Macbeth’s rise to power is cast as a kind of epidemiological horror, contagion in the body politic mirroring that of the natural world. The most insistent patterns of imagery pertain to atmospheric conditions and miasma. Banquo describes miasma as giving rise to the witches—the ‘earth hath bubbles, as the water has / and these are of them’—and Hecate, their queen, announces her plan to ‘raise artificial sprites’ out of a moondrop ‘distilled by magic slights’. Hecate’s ‘little spirit’, her imp, ‘sits in a foggy cloud’. ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’, cry all three witches, ‘Hover through the fog and filthy air’. That language is ambiguous: in addition to describing a moral climate in which what appears innocent may in fact be evil, the interchangeability of ‘fair’ and ‘foul’ may also reflect the instability of the ‘filthy air’ during the Little Ice Age, when persistent storms off the North Sea battered the Scottish Lowlands and England. In any case, the cold and rainy climate of Macbeth’s Scotland foreshadows and evokes a chain of miasmic associations that bind ecological, moral, and physiological corruption. Moral, political, and ecological contagion, in other words, are imagined in mutually constitutive terms. ‘Infected be the air’ whereon the witches ‘ride’, curses Macbeth, and ‘damned all those that trust them’. (Cole 71-72) 

In England, much as on the Continent, the blame is brought back to women. In William Austin’s Epiloimia epe or Anatomy of the Pestilence (1666), he draws on classical theory—Lucretian, Aristotelian, and Galenic—to explain the troubles of his time reframed and resituated in a Christian worldview. Austin explores the ways in which rats, plague, bad air, and witches were entangled in a complex and convoluted analysis. “Austin relocates the plague to a Judaeo-Christian context, invoking the time-worn narrative that leads from Eve, through the daughters of Gaia and Uranus, to contemporary witches. Insisting that ‘cruel diabolical intent’ may be ‘wrought by the weakest instrument’, Austin argues that woman first ‘curst the earth’, which ‘may be cursed still’: ‘Furies are females’, he declares, ‘and who Furies made, / Gave them their whips to labour in their trade.’ Even as they are situated within an environmental context of the corrupted air and bad harvests of a fallen earth, witches become ‘the King of Mischief’s agents’ in spreading contagion. (Cole 67) 

Throughout the 17th century, Britain was battered by a succession of intense storms, culminating on the worst storm on record at the 18th century was just beginning. On 7 December 1703, hurricane-force winds hit London sending roof tiles hurtling through the streets killing pedestrians, 2,000 chimneys collapsed, and Westminster Abbey’s lead roof blew off. Author Daniel Defoe and his family ‘cowered at home ‘rather than to meet most certain destruction in the open garden’. Enormous waves battered the ornate and newly constructed Eddystone lighthouse off Plymouth. The keepers and their fellow workers perished when the structure toppled.

The crisis of the Little Ice Age had been carving its imprint on European lives for more than half a century. But a subtle and important change now marked the beginning of a new era. While two generations earlier, the response to failing harvest had been religious, expressing itself in the form of public processions, fire-and-brimstone sermons, witch trials, and fantastical invocations of the Last Judgment and the End of Days, an increasing number of intellectuals had begun to think in different, more modern ways about the problems of their time. Some of them, arguing in purely economic terms, tried to find new sources of revenue for their rulers. Others cast about for philosophical answers to questions that could no longer be understood in theological terms. Both of these groups—economists (‘moral and political philosophers’) and metaphysicians and logicians along with them— were about to catapult Europe into a new kind of social and intellectual reality. (Brom 130) 

The framing of what was happening in the world was undergoing a shift from an understanding based on superstition, folk demonologies, and Church doctrines to instead the age of rational explanations due to burgeoning ideas about science. However, during these ideological shifts, the the cold continued. “The eruption of Mount Tambora in southeast Asia in 1815 was part of a renewed burst of volcanic activity that brought besieging cold to Britain and much of Western Europe. The following year—the ‘Year Without a Summer’, when Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein while sheltering from inclement weather—is often said to have marked the end of the Little Ice Age. However the cold persisted into 1892, when hundreds of Londoners died of exposure. The Thames froze for the last time in 1895, and there has been consistent warming ever since.” (Fagan)

And that brings us to our current changing climate. We have long left off now the Little Ice Age. The idea of the Thames freezing over so completely in winter so that people could ice skate upon it seems a quaint notion from very long ago. One darkly comical aspect of this is we are finally proving our ancestors right—humans can change the climate. We don’t need witches or devils to accomplish this, just plain human folly. It turns out, the greatest thing we need to fear is not the threat without, but rather what lies within: in our own (in)ability to change.

Sources and further reading…

Behringer, Wolfgang, Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History, (Cambridge: Polity Press) 2004. Book. 

Blom, Philipp, Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation) 2017. Book. 

Cole, Lucinda, ‘Of Mice and Moisture: Rats, Witches, Miasma, and Early Modern Theories of Contagion’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 10:2, ‘Rhetoric of Plague, Early and Late’, Fall/Winter 2010, p65-84. Journal. 

Fagan, Brian, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850, (New York: Basic Books) 2000. Book. https://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/frozen-little-ice-age-britain-thames-freeze-when/

Minard, Antone, ‘Like a Dying Duck in a Thunderstorm’: Complex Weather Systems Through the Lens of Folk Belief and Language’, Western Folklore, 69:1, Winter 2010.,p109-119. Journal. 

Oster, Emily, ‘Witchcraft, Weather, and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18:1, Winter 2004, p215-228. Journal. 

Pfister, Christian, ‘Climatic Extremes, Recurrent Crises, and Witch Hunts: Strategies of European Societies in Coping with Exogenous Shocks in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries, The Medieval History Journal, Volume 10, 2006 p33-73. Journal. 

Tucker, Elizabeth, ‘Extraordinary Sky and Weather Phenomena’, El-Shamy, Hasan; Garry, Jane (Editors), Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature: A Handbook (Oxon: Routledge) 2016. Book. 

Ward, Donald, J., ‘Weather Signs and Weather Magic: Some ideas on Causality in Popular Belief’, Pacific Coast Philology, Volume 3, April 1968, p67-72. Journal. 

White, Sam, ‘The Real Little Ice Age’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 44:3, Winter 2014, p327-352. Journal. 

Wurtele, M.G., ‘Some Thoughts on Weather Lore’, Folklore, 82:4, 1971, p292-303. Journal. 

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