, Volume 43, Issue 1, pp 335-351

Climatic Change and Witch-hunting: the Impact of the Little Ice Age on Mentalities

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Abstract

In addition to objective climatic data, subjective or social reactions can also serve as indicators in the assessment of climatic changes. Concerning the Little Ice Age the conception of witchcraft is of enormous importance. Weather-making counts among the traditional abilities of witches. During the late 14th and 15th centuries the traditional conception of witchcraft was transformed into the idea of a great conspiracy of witches, to explain "unnatural" climatic phenomena. Because of their dangerous nature, particularly their ability to generate hailstorms, the very idea of witches was the subject of controversial discussion around 1500. The beginnings of meteorology and its emphasis of "natural" reasons in relationship to the development of weather must be seen against the background of this demoniacal discussion. The resurgence of the Little Ice Age revealed the susceptibility of society. Scapegoat reactions may be observed by the early 1560s even though climatologists, thus far, have been of the opinion that the cooling period did not begin until 1565. Despite attempts of containment, such as the calvinistic doctrine of predestination, extended witch-hunts took place at the various peaks of the Little Ice Age because a part of society held the witches directly responsible for the high frequency of climatic anomalies and the impacts thereof. The enormous tensions created in society as a result of the persecution of witches demonstrate how dangerous it is to discuss climatic change under the aspects of morality.