Skip to comments.Did Climate Change Cause Witch Hysteria?
Posted on 04/19/2012 8:42:17 PM PDT by nickcarraway
The Salem witch tragedy of 1692 took less than two years to play out. Yet 300 years later, explanations for how and why it happened are still coming.
One theory recently gaining exposure thanks to bloggers comes from a 2004 college thesis that places the blame on something we think of as a strictly modern phenomenon: climate change.
Proposed in a Harvard thesis, the paper by economist Emily Oster has earned attention due to the modern swirl of controversy surrounding the possibility that human interaction has altered world temperatures.
Currently an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, Oster linked periodic outbreaks of violence against people accused of witchcraft with dramatic temperature drops.
"The most active period of the witchcraft trials (mainly in Europe) coincides with a period of lower-than-average temperature known to climatologists as the 'little ice age,'" Oster wrote. "The colder temperatures increased the frequency of crop failure, and colder seas prevented cod and other fish from migrating as far north, eliminating this vital food source for some northern areas of Europe."
When crops failed, "people would have searched for a scapegoat in the face of deadly changes in weather patterns," she wrote. Thus, desperate people traced their troubles to unpopular neighbors and outcasts allied to the devil.
Oster noted that the persecutions "spread even across the Atlantic Ocean to Salem, Massachusetts."
Moreover, she added, "The coldest segments of this 'little ice age' period were in the 1590s and between 1680 and 1730."
Assuming Salem's temperatures were not very different from those in Europe, this latter period includes the year of the witch trials.
Salem State University history professor Tad Baker is intrigued by Oster's views.
"It makes a lot of sense," he said.
He believes there are clues in diaries and sermons pointing to the fact that cold weather and poor harvests likely coincided with the witch trials.
Further, he plans to seek out more scientific measurements, which are made by examining things like tree rings.
Baker is writing a book on the witchcraft era under the appropriately meteorological working title "A Storm of Witchcraft."
A clue to the weather, Baker said, are documents showing a key player in the Salem drama: "Rev. (Samuel) Parris is arguing with his parish over the wood supply." Without adequate fuel, a Colonial home, lacking insulation and central heat, could be pretty miserable.
"The higher the misery quotient, the more likely you are to be seeing witches," Baker said.
He cautions, however, that the cause of the uproar is probably too complex to be traced to a single source.
Danvers archivist Dick Trask, an expert on the era, was not surprised to hear the climate-change theory. Nor was he convinced. He's heard all of the explanations and says, "These theories tell us more about the present than they do about the past."
While acknowledging that all this happened in what was likely a time of climate cooling, Trask notes that people are often using their own experiences to explain what was happening three centuries ago. For example, he points to the 1970s notion that ergot was the culprit.
A fungus on rye plants, ergot would have created hallucinations for the unknowing farmers who processed and ate the grain. That perhaps explains the "specters" or visions that accusers claimed to see.
It is no coincidence that the 1970s was an era of experimentation with drugs, including hallucinogens, Trask said. In the 19th century, a time of religious experimentation, came the suggestion that it was a Puritan power grab by religious figures who felt their authority slipping away.
In the 1960s, socialists framed the upheaval as an effort by greedy landowners to steal the property of the victims.
More recently came the link to post-traumatic stress syndrome, which points to the fact that many of those involved had been exposed to violent American Indian attacks and had seen family members slaughtered.
Oster's research is being cited now by conservative writers, including the "Powerline" blog, to rebut the impression that climate change is a recent phenomenon.
Perhaps what's most remarkable is the fact that the quest to discover the reason for the witch trials has occupied so many for so many years. References to Salem as "hag-ridden" can be found in documents beginning almost immediately after the trial was completed, Baker said.
And they have never stopped.
"We all love a mystery," Baker said. Worse was done in Europe, with thousands of victims killed over the centuries. But perhaps in America, the expectation was for something better.
"I honestly do think Salem is in America's psyche," Baker said. "It's unfinished business."
It was unbelievable, to have so many attest to her christian character, and still this could happen.
I don’t recall reading of any burnings either.
If only Nancy Pelosi had lived back then...
The only thing this proves is that people will rearwardly project whatever is the hot topic of the day to explain occurrences in the past...
Well, Alan, if you believe that climate change is "strictly a modern phenomenon", then it's clear that thinking isn't one of your strong points.
Belief in “climate change” correlates nicely with being an hysterical witch in the modern era.
Hello cousin indeed. I have the movie you mention and lived in new England years ago so of course went to the Nurse homestead/farm. My daughter is named Rebecca for Rebecca Nurse and also because she was born in NE. (Weymouth) Time to get out the video and watch it again.
Just this last year, I have had a few Tarbell cousins contacting me, and in fact visiting me. One has the first name of Tarbell.
I do genealogy, and my dad always said there were Dr's. in the family. That proved true, nearly all his grandfathers were Dr's.
Now the strange part. His sister also said there were Nurses in the family. Well, makes sense, and I filed that away, not knowing how it was to fit. Then a cousin told me about Rebecca Nurse. WOW, so that's the nurse!!!
My aunt only heard talk about the NURSE name as a child, and as we all do as children it goes into our brain file, not knowing just where to put it. I am so glad she remembered that bit of information.
Nice meeting you, I believe there is yet another Freeper cousin.
I think you’re getting your history confused with Tavana Brawley and Al Sharpton.
In this country we never burned witches. We hanged 'em.
OTOH, during a hysteria over supposed slave rebellions in NYC, they burned 20 black people.
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