What caused the 16th and 17th century witch hunts?

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There's no simple answer to this question. But one of the most frequent causes of witch-hunts was the failure of crops. If harvests failed—and they frequently did—entire communities could find themselves under threat of starvation. In such a fraught situation, people inevitably started to panic, desperately casting around for an...

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explanation for their misfortune. As scientific knowledge was still very much in its infancy at that time, people resorted to superstition to provide an answer as to why things were going so terribly wrong.

In previous times, Jews had been used as a convenient scapegoat for all manner of social and economic ills. They were persecuted, driven from their homes, and in many cases, brutally murdered. Such outbreaks of violence were common throughout medieval Europe, but especially during times of bad harvest.

In the early modern period, attention turned instead to witches as the probable source of crop failure. Witches were widely believed to cast evil spells over crops—not to mention poisoning wells—carrying out the devil's work to bring about the death by starvation of God-fearing Christians. So the authorities would set to work, rooting out those deemed responsible for such diabolical acts.

In the event, very few actual witches were apprehended. Most of those arraigned, tortured, and executed for the crime of witchcraft were social misfits, or the subject of malicious local gossip. Many so-called witches were the victims of revenge, slandered by their enemies who saw witch-hunts as a great opportunity to settle old scores.

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Scholars have offerred many different ideas for why witch hunts happened.  The ones that seem most credible are those that see witch hunts as reactions to social stresses.

Witch hunts sprang up mainly in times of crisis and stress.  These could be times when economic problems were common.  In such cases, supposed witches might be accused of taking actions that caused the economic problems.  The hunts could also be set off by religious conflict.  They were common in areas where there was, or had recently been, conflict between Catholics and followers of the new Protestant sects.

The idea that is most often emphasized is that times of stress lead people to look for scapegoats on whom to blame the problems.  Scholars believe that witch hunts were caused by this psychological need to find someone to blame.

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