How Climate Change Spurred Witch Hunts In Medieval Europe Before The Age of Enlightenment

Witches, Bad Weather, and The Reign of King James VI

Initially, King James VI of Scotland was skeptical that witches and sorcerers were conjuring up this misbehaving weather but apparently changed his mind after a particularly nasty series of weather mishaps. In late August 1589, his princess bride, Anna of Denmark, set sail to her new home and the husband she’d never met. The 14-year-old bride, married by proxy in a palace by the sea, embarked on the journey, accompanied by 12 of the most well-constructed ships of the Danish fleet, and these were led by Danish Admiral Peter Munch.

The North Sea buffeted the ships with storms that were typical. Until that is, the ships came close to Scotland, and then maritime hell broke loose. They were met by a ferocious squall, firing lightning bolts and enormous waves that drove them back, all the way to Norway — twice. Munch, a veteran of the sea, found the storms to be wildly more tempestuous than usual. He fully believed witchcraft was responsible, because, he wrote, “there must be more in the matter than the common perversity of winds and weather.”

When climate change turned catastrophic, so did people's perceptions of witches
King James VI of Scotland questioning perceived witches. From Daemonologie. Image license Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The weather was no less foul during the third attempt, and it burst forth with even more vigor, battering the ship carrying the young bride, and forcing everyone back once again to a Norwegian sound. Now they awaited a rescue mission sent forth by King James, but these ships were also assailed by freak storms. When James and Anna finally met, they were forced to wait for six months, until freezing cold released its icy grip, and arrived in Edinburgh in May 1590. After such extreme weather, James was finally convinced that Munch was right, there may be something to the belief that witches could be responsible for causing storms. He believed witches conjured the fierce weather to keep his young Queen from attaining her throne.

Thus the torment and execution of suspected witches began in earnest. Most were elderly, having survived their husbands, and with no means of financial support. For them, the idea of practicing witchcraft was an attractive idea, and many claimed they had weather-changing abilities, especially in regards to stopping hailstorms. Farmers, ever hopeful that their talents might protect crops began paying these frail, elderly women who lived in run-down houses at the edges of forests. But some of the women emboldened and angry about the way they had been treated, shrouded themselves in this new-found power, and many people grew afraid of them, believing they could summon the devil to do great harm.

Were these witches plotting climate change?
Witches working over a cauldron. Image license Public Domain by Hans Baldung (1480-1545) via Wikimedia Commons
Climate change wreaked havoc in medieval Europe
Witches consorting with the Devil. Image license Public Domain, U.S. via Wikimedia Commons

And while no one at first seemed bothered when the weather refused to listen, it wasn’t long before the tide of public opinion turned against them in a horrifying way. Spurred further by the anger of King James, tens of thousands of women were tortured and killed. Among some of the very first was Agnes Sampson, “The Wise Wife of Keith,” an aging midwife and well-respected folk healer, who was tortured horrifically until she confessed to conjuring the storms that hindered the union of the king and his queen. Satan, she told James, considered him “the greatest enemie hee hath in the world,” and wanted him to die in the storms.

This rang a bell with the young king, who was considered by many to quite self-important. One commenter described him as a “superstitious and distrustful poltroon (utter coward.)” That distrust and superstition lead to 70 people being implicated. The fates of some of these unfortunates are unknown, but Sampson and several others were burned at the stake.