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Hail and Hunger: Climate and Witchcraft in Switzerland :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

Hail and Hunger: Climate and Witchcraft in Switzerland


Amanda Wahlers

In the 1480s in the Swiss village of Reiden, a woman known as the Rüschellerin was accused of witchcraft by her neighbors.[i] Among the charges brought against her were many kinds of maleficia, or harmful magic: causing one villager’s horse to sweat blood, riding wolves, and, most intriguingly, raising a storm that would have resulted in hail had the villagers not rung the church’s bells and limited it to rain.[ii] Although these accusations may seem peculiar, issues involving horses, wolves, and the weather were daily concerns in the lives of Swiss peasants.

Although the weather is not usually particularly concerning to most people today, with the livelihood and very existence of many Swiss peasants dependent upon the whims of unforeseeable climatic events, unfavorable climatic occurrences led to increased economic and social strain in virtually all regions of Switzerland and also provided specific events on which accusations of weather maleficium could be based. Fluctuations and crises in the climate thus contributed to the harshness of the witch trials that spanned the 15th, 16th and 17th centuriesin Switzerland.

Laying the Foundation

A series of events preceding the heyday of the Swiss witch trials set the stage for Switzerland’s numerous witch hunts. The overall height of witch trials in Europe occurred between 1560 and 1630, but Switzerland was already experiencing a significant increase in trials by the 1430s.[iii] This increase correlates with two events: the meeting of the Council of Basel, called by the Roman Catholic church, and the publishing of Joseph Nider’s Formicarius, a comprehensive witchcraft treatise written in Switzerland.[iv]Also around this time, the persecution of a religious group in Switzerland known as the Waldensians began to blur the accepted line between heresy and sorcery and thus further fuel belief in witchcraft.[v] Each of these elements would eventually influence who was persecuted in the Swiss witch hunts.

Inciting the trials in a more direct manner were certain aspects of the social and political makeup of Switzerland. Notably, Switzerland’s diversity of language, culture, and religion contributed to the harshness of its trials. Switzerland was separated into both Protestant and Catholic regions, and was home to residents who spoke both French and German.[vi]Historians have remarked that “witch-hunting was most intense in Germany, Switzerland, France, Poland and Scotland, all of which were religiously heterogeneous countries.”[vii] Additionally, as the 16th century progressed, witch trials increasingly received explicit legal legitimacy in these areas; in 1532, for example, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina declared harmful witchcraft punishable by death.[viii] These fifteenth and sixteenth century social and political changes ultimately laid the foundation for the witch trials that were to occur in Switzerland.

Portrait of a Swiss Witch

Throughout Switzerland’s culturally and religiously diverse regions, a witch character did not emerge as distinctly as in various other countries. From witches accused of causing demonic possession and spreading the plague in Geneva, to accusations of lycanthropy in Pays de Vaud, the Swiss held diverse regional views on witchcraft.[ix] There were, however, several characteristics that featured in most accusations against Swiss witches. In the most basic sense, witches were those who disrupted social equilibrium.[x] Witches were associated with anything and everything that might pose a danger to the community: they were believed to associate with wolves, which were a constant danger to livestock; to create hailstorms, which could devastate crops; and to engage in behavior that was detrimental to the community, such as being bad tempered or engaging in incestuous relations.[xi]

Another important aspect of accusations in Switzerland was the role of the witch’s reputation. It was widely held that people in villages simply knew who was a witch.[xii] Once one had established a bad reputation within a community, witchcraft allegations often sprung from harmless interactions.[xiii] Due to the role of reputation in accusations of witchcraft, community members who were quarrelsome, immigrants, or well off enough to provoke envy were at special risk for being accused of witchcraft.[xiv]

Finally, the relationship between gender and witchcraft in Switzerland varied greatly from region to region. In certain regions of Switzerland, for example, witchcraft was undoubtedly gender related.[xv] This can be partially attributed to the influence of well-known demonological treatises. The Malleus Malificarum, for example, presented various reasons why most witches were women.[xvi] Urban outposts were more likely to be affected by demonological texts and thus more likely to have a higher rate of women accused in relation to men; for example, from 1571 to 1670 in the Bishopric of Basel, 95% of the accused were women, and in Geneva, the other great urban outpost of Switzerland, 76% of the accused were women.[xvii] Also contributing to many of the woman-heavy witch hunts was the fact that women were more likely to accuse other women due to most female jobs revolving around interpersonal relationships, while men’s’ were more distanced from one another.[xviii] Nonetheless, in certain regions of Switzerland, witchcraft accusations were more closely related to heresy, and in these places many of the accused were men since heresy was not an inherently sex-linked crime. In Pays de Vaud, for example, 42% of those accused between 1539 and 1670 were men.[xix] In spite of Switzerland’s regional peculiarities, its stereotypical witch manages to fundamentally illuminate the driving forces behind the accusations of witchcraft that existed across the European continent.

Climate and Swiss Society

“Like every other aspect of bewitchment, this one reminds us just how precarious life must have felt to most ordinary people. Neither prosperity nor good health was to be counted on for the morrow.”[xx]

The high point of witchcraft persecutions in Europe occurred between 1560 and 1630, coinciding with what historians refer to as the “Little Ice Age,” a period consisting of generally lower annual temperatures, wet weather, shorter growing seasons, and frigid winters.[xxi] This correlation between the climate and the prevalence of witch hunts can be explained in two main ways, with the unfavorable climatic period providing triggering events allowing “longstanding fears and suspicions to emerge in specific accusations” and simultaneously leading to an overall increase in social stress that further drove the witch hunts.[xxii]

Weather Maleficium

The most direct result of periods of unfavorable climatic conditions in Switzerland was the accusation of supposed witches of weather maleficium. These accusations featured prominently in early witch trials in both the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland.[xxiii] In fact, Nider’s Formicarius devoted an entire chapter to the witches’ ability to make hailstorms.[xxiv] Overall, most witchcraft accusations came from “small agricultural villages that were part of a peasant economy” due to both the widespread superstitious beliefs of the uneducated peasantry therein and the small, close-knit nature of the communities that they fostered.[xxv] Due to their agrarian economies, these rural communities also provided a prime breeding ground for accusations of weather maleficium, since the livelihood of many of the residents depended upon crops and livestock.

Specific disastrous climatic incidents played an integral role in encouraging accusations of weather maleficium. Periods characterized by storms, floods, droughts, and early frosts provided specific triggering events for people to blame on witches.[xxvi] Since crop failure was an event that would harm entire agrarian communities, as well as those in the cities that would then be impacted by increased food prices, accusations of weather maleficium were often raised by entire communities.[xxvii] It is important to note, however, that people did not suddenly begin to ascribe ordinary weather occurrences to witches, but instead, this surge in persecutions resulted from recognition of instances of “unnatural weather”- weather that did not follow what inhabitants viewed as the long-established norms of the region.[xxviii]

Weather Maleficium: Demonology and Folk Lore

Beliefs about weather maleficium- like those about many other aspects of witchcraft- were characterized by the amalgamation of diabolic witch beliefs and indigenous folk beliefs.[xxix] In general, the influence of demonology upon local witchcraft beliefs could operate in one of two ways, either introducing an entirely alien concept or tempering beliefs that were seen as too “superstitious”.[xxx] In the case of weather maleficium, the interplay between local beliefs and demonological ones is quite complex. By far the most common folk belief concerning the perpetration of weather maleficium involved the striking of water with a stick, a concept corroborated by the Malleus Maleficarum.[xxxi] The aspect of this crime that relates primarily to the concerns and superstitions of peasants is the striking of water to harm crops. Those that clearly fit in with demonological theories are power being bestowed by the devil and storm-making occurring at witches Sabbats.[xxxii] The presence of these features provides a vibrant example of the way in which the witch hunts were perpetuated and contributed to by both commoners and the educated elite.

Weather Maleficium and Religion

Although Protestants generally executed more witches in Switzerland than Catholics, the witchcraft acts that they persecuted were different.[xxxiii] For example, there were many confessions of hail-making in Catholic regions, but hail-making witches became increasingly rare in Protestant areas.[xxxiv] During the 1500s in Zurich, for example, there were 28 accusations of hail-making in the 125 trials, but after 1600 only 7 of 86 trials involved accusations of weather maleficium.[xxxv] In French Switzerland, there were even fewer, with only two cases of weather maleficium occurring in Protestant regions after 1600.[xxxvi] It was during the early 1600s that: “The insistence upon God’s sovereignty led a number of Protestant writers and preachers to deny the Devil’s ability to produce certain types of marvels, such as hailstorms, and this fostered a skepticism toward maleficia that involved such wonders.”[xxxvii] Historians have linked the decrease in weather maleficium cases in Protestant areas with the successful Christianization of the rural population in Switzerland, during which the church stressed the spiritual concept of Devil and de-emphasizing his physicality.[xxxviii] In addition to the changing concept of the Devil caused in some regions of Switzerland by the rise of the Protestant religion, greater religious divisions continued to contribute to political instability and violence.[xxxix] This religious heterogeneity was one of the many factors that coincided with periods of unfavorable weather to increase social and economic stress, leading to yet more witchcraft trials.

Climate and Social Stress

In Swiss Lucerne, few witch trials occurred in the 1470s; yet, from 1482 to 1496, the very same town experienced thirty-four trials and at least nine executions.[xl] The fluctuations in the prevalence of witch trials in many regions of Switzerland can be analyzed in concurrence with the weather over the several centuries marked by witch hunts. Quite simply, periods of auspicious weather and plentiful harvests resulted in fewer witchcraft accusations, whereas bouts of unfavorable weather resulted in more.[xli] This was because unfavorable weather not only harmed agriculture, but also resulted in an upsurge of famine and disease.[xlii] In such periods of economic and social stress, members of the community would be varyingly impacted by the tough times. For those who were more fortunate, an unwillingness or inability to provide economic assistance to community members undergoing greater hardship caused feelings of guilt to fester within the community.[xliii] It has been hypothesized that the social stress that resulted from these economic issues in a time and place of such inadequate social welfare may have resulted in a psychological need to transfer the guilt of refusing aid onto the people requesting it:  “by depicting the unaided person as a witch and therefore as a moral aggressor unworthy of support, [a person] could rid himself of the guilt that he was experiencing.”[xliv] In this way, many witchcraft accusations that did not deal directly with weather maleficium charges instead stemmed from increased social stress resulting from climatic occurrences.

Trial and Punishment: Banishment, Burning, Acquittal

Prior to the 1450s, banishment and the swearing of oaths were commonly used to maintain the peace; however, the institution of the inquisitorial procedure corresponded with an increase in the use of the death penalty.[xlv] As with every other aspect of witchcraft, different regions of Switzerland varied widely in their preferred mode of punishment. In some cases, even trials that took place around the same time and in the same city would result in different sentences. In 1482 in Swiss Lucerne, for example, at least four women were burned as witches for committing weather maleficium, but later that same year two women who confessed to witchcraft were merely banished.[xlvi] Generally, however, different regions adopted certain judicial procedures- such as the use of torture- that heavily influenced the outcome of many of their trials.[xlvii] For example, from 1537 to 1630 in Pays de Vaud, 90% of those tried were executed, while in Fribourg between 1607 and 1683, only 33% were.

In some areas, accused witches were tortured until they confessed- and if they still refused, they could be executed regardless; however, in regions of Switzerland such as Geneva, which had very mild trials, witches whose guilt could not be entirely proven were often banished or acquitted.[xlviii] In the case of the Rüschellerin, although many villagers testified against her and openly hoped that she would be burnt at the stake, her refusal to confess to witchcraft led to her banishment instead.[xlix] Many accused of witchcraft were not so lucky.

Although the witch trials in Switzerland were the result of many complex factors, the providing of specific disastrous events on which villagers could base accusations of weather maleficium led to the deaths of hundreds of Swiss peasants. Similarly, the increased social and economic stress that resulted from unfavorable weather conditions undoubtedly contributed to the severity of the witch trials that occurred in Switzerland.




[i] Laura Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform: Early European Witch Trials and Criminal Justice, 1430-1530. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 70.

[ii] Ibid., 71-74.

[iii] William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands During the Reformation. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976), 21.

[iv] Ibid., 21.

[v] Ibid., 22.

[vi] Ibid., 88-89.

[vii] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. (London: Longman, 1987), 114.

[viii] Laura Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform, 15.

[ix] William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, 59; Ibid., 44; Ibid., 149.

[x] Laura Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform, 75.

[xi] Ibid., 74.

[xii] Hans Sebald, Witchcraft: The Heritage of a Heresy. (New York: Elsevier, 1978), 133.

[xiii] Laura Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform, 74.

[xiv] Ibid., 75.

[xv] Ibid., 75.

[xvi] Heinrich Kramer, “Malleus Maleficarum, 1498” in The Witchcraft Sourcebook, ed. Brian P. Levack (New York: Routledge, 2004), 57-63.

[xvii] William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, 119.

[xviii] Jonathon Barry, Hester Marianne, and Gareth Roberts, “Witchcraft Studies in Austria, Germany and Switzerland” in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 94.

[xix] William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, 119.

[xx]Robin Briggs, “The Experience of Bewitchment” in The Witchcraft Reader: Second Edition, ed. Darren Oldridge (New York: Routledge, 2008), 62.

[xxi] Wolfgang Behringer, “Weather, Hunger and Fear: Origins of the European Witch-Hunts in Climate, Society and Mentality” in The Witchcraft Reader: Second Edition, ed. Darren Oldridge (New York: Routledge, 2008), 75.

[xxii] Laura Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform, 70.

[xxiii] William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, 152.

[xxiv] Ibid., 151.

[xxv] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 129.

[xxvi] Laura Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform, 70.

[xxvii] Jonathon Barry, Hester Marianne, and Gareth Roberts, “Witchcraft Studies” in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, 93; Wolfgang Behringer, “Weather, Hunger and Fear” in The Witchcraft Reader: Second Edition, 74.

[xxviii] Wolfgang Behringer, “Weather, Hunger and Fear” in The Witchcraft Reader: Second Edition, 75.

[xxix] Laura Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform, 65.

[xxx] William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, 144.

[xxxi] Ibid., 155; Ibid., 151.

[xxxii] Ibid., 152; Laura Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform, 65.

[xxxiii] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 102.

[xxxiv] William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, 154.

[xxxv] Ibid., 154.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 153-154.

[xxxvii] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 121.

[xxxviii] William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, 65.

[xxxix] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 115.

[xl] Laura Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform, 68-69.

[xli] Ibid., 68.

[xlii] Jonathon Barry, Hester Marianne, and Gareth Roberts, “Witchcraft Studies” in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, 92.

[xliii] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 107.

[xliv] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 107.

[xlv] Laura Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform, 82.

[xlvi] Ibid., 69.

[xlvii] Ibid., 89.

[xlviii] William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, 149.

[xlix] Laura Stokes, Demons of Urban Reform, 70.

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