The Political and Economic Role of Elites in Persecution: Evidence from Witchcraft Trials in Early Modern Scotland

Cornelius Christian


Persecution, as a political and economic phenomenon, can be abetted by the resources of a nation's elite. To demonstrate this, I focus on a case study: witchcraft trials in Early Modern Scotland (1563-1727), a largely agricultural economy. I find that favourable growing temperatures predict more trials. My main empirical specification survives various robustness checks, including accounting for outliers. During this time, witchcraft was a secular crime, and it was incumbent on local elites to commit resources to trying alleged witches. Turning to mechanisms, I find that positive price shocks to export-heavy, taxable goods predict more witch trials, while price shocks to Scotland's main subsistence commodity, oats, do not. This is consistent with the explanation that as elite income increased, more resources were devoted to witchcraft prosecutions; I cite anecdotal evidence that a different judicial proceeding, sexual trials in Aberdeen, experienced a similar trend.


witchcraft, elites, persecution, price shocks

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