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Death penalty. Map with death sentences for witches. “Pseudo-knowledge popularization”

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A map circulating on the Internet with the number of death sentences carried out in Europe for alleged witchcraft raises discussions among Internet users. Be warned: this is not a reliable source of information about historical witch trials.

“Death sentences carried out on alleged witches between 1300 and 1850. Notice the strange correlation?” one Twitter user asked on December 31 (original spelling). The attached map shows the statistics of executions for practicing witchcraft assigned to the countries of modern Europe. According to her, the largest number of sentences were carried out in Germany – 6,887, Switzerland – 5,691 and France – 1,663. Executions were not to be carried out in what is now Northern Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and the Czech Republic. In the lands of modern Spain and Ireland between 1300 and 1850 there was supposed to be only one execution, and in Poland only three.

A map of Europe circulating on the Internet with data on the death sentences of alleged witches between 1300 and 1850Twitter

The tweet has over 150,000 likes. views and 1 thousand. likes. Internet users left nearly 200 comments under it. “Interestingly coincides with progressive Protestants”; “Almost zero in Catholic and currently conservative countries. Most in the currently most ‘law-abiding’ countries” – they commented (original spelling of posts). Some, however, were more critical and pointed to the surprisingly low execution rates in some countries. “Sweden 0? It’s interesting because in one 18th century trial several dozen people were sentenced to death!”; “For Poland, these data are undoubtedly greatly underestimated,” they wrote.

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The map has been circulating on the internet since at least July 2021. You can find it on Facebook, Twitter or on one of the sites that publish memes. “The more teachings of Martin Luther, the more piles” – commented on Twitter on September 7, 2022, political scientist and publicist Adam Wielomski. We also found other similar entries linking the number of executions to the popularity of Lutheranism. In 2022, the map was also popular on Russian-language websites and social media.

The map has been circulating on the Polish internet since at least July 2021Twitter, Facebook

However, according to Polish data, it is estimated that over half a thousand death sentences were carried out in our lands in connection with being accused of practicing magic.

Data from an American study

As we checked, the numbers on the map correspond to those in the table in the article “Witch trials” published in 2017 in the scientific journal “The Economic Journal”. The authors of the text are prof. Peter T. Leeson from the Department of Economics at George Mason University in Virginia in the United States and Jacob W. Russ.

Leeson and Russ argue that there were more witch trials in regions where there was competition between the Catholic Church and the Protestant churches. They criticize earlier hypotheses linking more processes to factors such as weather, income, and the influence of statehood. To prove their thesis, the authors analyzed data on the processes of 43,000 companies. people from 21 countries and over 400 religious conflicts. They assigned the data to the currently existing countries.

Leeson and Russ cite all the sources they used to create the table. In the case of Poland, they included only data from the period from 1430 to 1490 from Richard Kieckhefer’s 1976 study “European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture”. Data from Sweden, which also caught the attention of Internet users, comes from a study by Swedish historian Per Sörlin in 1999 and covers the period from 1630 to 1750.

Historian Dr. hab. Tomasz Wiślicz, professor at the Department of Modern Studies of the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, explains that the statistics of those accused of witchcraft and of executions can be created in two ways. You can count cases clearly documented in the preserved source records – then the data is certain, but rather underestimated due to the state of preservation of the documentation – or you can make estimates based on source premises, but these will be only hypothetical estimates. “The latter include, among others, the popular numerical hypothesis by Bohdan Baranowski, which estimates the number of victims of witchcraft trials in Poland at at least 10,000 people and can be considered a textbook example of the incorrect application of statistical estimates” – writes Prof. Wiślicz in the analysis sent to Konkret24. Małgorzata Pilaszek in her 2008 work “Witch Trials in Poland in the 15th-18th Centuries” found 558 certified death sentences for witchcraft for the entire Crown for 1,316 defendants. “These data are reliable and so far the latest” – says Prof. Wislicz.

Author of the study: “We were not involved in the creation of this illustration”

In response to the question Konkret24, prof. Peter T. Leeson distances himself from the map circulating on the Internet – he emphasizes that neither he nor the co-author of the study on the witch trials have anything to do with the map. “We were not involved in the creation of this illustration” – emphasizes Prof. Leeson. When asked about the concerns of some Twitter users who were counting unmapped data on death sentences for witchcraft in what is now Poland or Sweden, he replied: “If others have collected additional data on witch trials (for Poland or other countries) from other reliable historical sources, that’s very good. Our dataset is the most comprehensive of its kind, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be extended, and we’d love to see other researchers expand on it.”

Professor Leeson argues that the theory of the key role of religious competition in the frequency of witchcraft trials is supported by analyzes of comprehensive European data on witch trials. “We hope other researchers will build on our dataset, not only to see how well our theory holds up, but also to see what new insights into the witch trials in Europe might offer by extending our dataset,” he concludes.

Professor Wiślicz on the map: “popularizing pseudoscience”

Professor Tomasz Wiślicz, when asked about the map circulating on the Internet, answers briefly: “The map simply gives incorrect data, so it is difficult to call it popularizing historical knowledge, or rather – popularizing pseudo-knowledge.”

The Polish historian also criticizes the study of American economists and argues that it contains fundamental methodological errors. He notes that the work by Richard Kieckhefer, from which the data for Poland was taken, discusses the situation before the Reformation period, while the thesis of the article concerns the rivalry between Protestant churches and Catholicism. He points out that the article does not include the English-language database of witchcraft trials in Poland by Michael Ostling. “In the bibliography, the authors refer to Brian Levack’s basic textbook, ‘The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe’ (latest edition 2016), but they do not even notice that the figures provided by him have nothing to do with their calculations” – he notes. According to prof. Wiślicz, the most serious problem of the study is the very concept of the article. “It breaks one of the basic principles of doing science, i.e. the proper adaptation of the research method to the problem to be solved. The article by two economists resembles an attempt to repair a porcelain vase with a hammer” – sums up Prof. Wislicz.

She explains that the number of executions of witches in individual European countries between the 14th and 18th centuries depended primarily on a combination of local conditions. “We are talking about a dynamic phenomenon that changes over time, not a constant one” – said the historian. “There are various theories trying to link the increase in witch-hunts with various historical phenomena of economic, ecological, political or cultural type, but usually these connections can only be seen at the local level and in a short period of time” – he concludes. He calls theses linking the processes with a particular denomination or with the conditions of religious competition either simply erroneous or oversimplifying this complicated phenomenon.

Author:Krzysztof Jablonowski

Main photo source: Shutterstock/Twitter

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