Peter Leeson on Witch Trials and Human Sacrifice
Date: October 25th, 2015

During the 16th century, Europe experienced a wave of witchcraft trials that has captured our imagination, and much scholarly attention, up until the present era.  But the “wave” of witchcraft trials was not geographically uniform.  Prof. Peter Leeson, a professor of economics at George Mason University, focuses the lens of rational choice theory to explain the occurrence, duration, and geographic distribution of this seemingly irrational phenomenon.  We also save time to explore an even stranger social trend — human sacrifice — using the basic tools of microeconomics.  As usual, expect the unexpected for our annual Halloween episode.

Our show starts with Tony trying to unravel the mystery of how an economist ended up studying a topic such as medieval witchcraft trials, let alone human sacrifice.  It should be noted that Dr. Leeson has a penchant for using economics to study phenomena that don’t necessarily suggest an economic approach, including pirates, soccer hooligans, Gypsy law, and vermin trials.  Pete notes that economics should not be defined topically (e.g., studying banks or fiscal policy), but rather it is an approach to human behavior that has wide applications.  We note the work of Nobel Laureate in taking economics out of its traditional boundaries, and Pete explains how he loves to push the envelope even further.

Journeying back in time, Prof. Leeson lays the historical groundwork that led up to the Great Age of Witch Trials in the 16th and early 17th century.  Pete explains that the Vatican refused to acknowledge the existence of witches or witchcraft existed between 900 and 1400, and Pope Alexander the IV issued a decree in 1258 forbidding witch trials.  It was in the 16th century, though, that we see a sudden shift in Church policy.  Then, over the course of a century and a half, there were some 80,000 people tried for witchery.  But this temporal variation isn’t the only thing that is puzzling; witch trials were more likely to occur in some areas of Europe (e.g., close to Strausburg) than in other locales (e.g., Spain or Italy).  Pete makes a case that such variation is an open invitation for investigation.

We survey some of the pre-existing hypotheses for witch trials, including the “scapegoat theory,” the “legal centralization” thesis, and the “legal torture” hypothesis.  None of these explanations, however, can adequately account for both the timing and geographic distribution of witch trials.  Pete introduces his explanation based upon the notion of religious competition.  Given that religious goods (e.g., promises of salvation) are not observable, any religious organization needs to find tangible means of asserting the credibility of these goods by creating an observable quality dimension.  This is all the more important when a church’s market share is being challenged by rival denominations.  The rise and location of witchcraft trials follows a remarkably close pattern to the success of Protestant reformers gaining market share starting in the 16th century and in locations where competition between Catholics and Protestants was most fierce.  Pete discusses how he tested this thesis statistically and we then expand his findings to other episodes in history such as Stalin’s show trials in the Soviet Union, the McCarthy communist crusade of the 1950s,  and the current purge of House Speaker John Boehner.  Pete even tells us about one of the more bizarre episodes in Christian history when the corpse of Pope Formosus was put on trial in the 10th century in the infamous Cadaver Synod.  (The latter was not a witch trial, but corresponded to intense rivalry over the papal throne.)

We finish off the last fifteen minutes of the podcast by turning to another seemingly odd topic — the practice of human sacrifice in 19th century Orissa, India that involved the purchase and ritualistic immolation of people.  Tony speaks for many when he is amazed that such a horrific act could in any way shape or form be amendable to explanation via rational choice theory, but Pete says not so.  He explains how the key to understanding this relates to the social need to secure property rights efficiently.  In a rather anarchic environment, it is sometimes necessary to destroy valuable resources in order to signal that other forms of resource re-allocation (e.g., theft or war) are not worth the effort.  He uses some contemporary examples related to his apartment complex and 1982 Honda Civic to illustrate his point in a less gruesome manner.  But then we talk about how all of this relates back to ritualistic burning of humans back in India during the 1800s.

Our conversation ends with some of Pete’s “Ah ha!” moments in his study of economics.  He relays how he has learned to be much less critical of neoclassical economic models over time, particularly when doing applied work.  We secure a promise from him to come back at some later date in the future to explain why the Church would put rodents on trial during the medieval era.  Recorded: October 1, 2015.


Peter Leeson’s bio at George Mason University Department of Economics.

Pete’s personal website (with links to his articles).

The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, by Peter T. Leeson.

Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think, by Peter T. Leeson.

Human Sacrifice,” by Peter T. Leeson in Review of Behavioral Economics.


Gary Laderman on Resting in Peace.

Scott Poole on Monsters.

Chris White on Debunking Ancient Aliens.

Chris Bader on Ghosts, UFOs, and the Paranormal.


Robert Priest on Witchcraft Accusations in Africa.

Larry Iannaccone on Sacrifice, Stigma, and the Economics of Religion.

Gary Richardson on Religion & Craft Guilds in the Middle Ages.

Colleen Haight on the Oracle of Delphi.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part III.

Larry Witham on the Economics of Religion.

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