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Plague and Persecution

The Black Death and Early Modern Witch-Hunts

By Helen Christian

Abstract: The century or so from approximately 1550 to 1650 is a period during which witch-hunts
reached unprecedented frequency and intensity. The circumstances that fomented the witch-hunts—persistent warfare, religious conflict, and harvest failures—had occurred before, but witch-hunts had never been so ubiquitous or severe. This paper argues that the intensity of the Early Modern witch-hunts can be traced back to the plague of 1348, and argues that the plague was a factor in three ways. First, the plague’s devastation and the particularly unpleasant nature of the disease traumatized the European psyche, meaning that any potential recurrence of plague was a motivation to search for scapegoats. Second, the population depletion set off a chain of events that destabilized Europe. Finally, witch-hunters looked to the example set by the interrogators of suspected “plague-spreaders” and copied many of their interrogation and trial procedures.

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