Theses Doctoral

Identity and Social Structure in Early Modern Politics: How Opportunities induced Witch Trials in Scotland, 1563 - 1736

Mitschele, Anna

Between 1563 and 1736 there were 3,212 accusations of witchcraft in Scotland. Existing accounts have identified ideology, conflict or anomie as causes of witch trials. However, for the Scottish case, the combination of the extreme temporal and geographical variation of witch trials on the one hand and the conspicuous over-representation of gentry on the other hand has hitherto remained a puzzle. My dissertation solves this puzzle by showing that witch trials emerge out of identity activated through the opening of opportunities for upward mobility among the gentry. Using a remarkable dataset on all known witch trials in early modern Scotland, including prosecutor information, trial details and individual properties of accused witches, I show that the persecution of witches was an unintended consequence of state making. Identity and interest rather than ideology explain prosecutors' actions. Contrary to popular explanations and scholarly assumptions, my findings contradict the hypothesis that ecclesiastical actors drive witch-hunting. Minister biographies in selected parishes yield no evidence of zealousness - on the part of ministers - in witch-hunting. The data support the alternative theory that secular actors propelled ministers into witch trials at times when their position in a parish was weak. On the level of administrative units, witch-hunting is at the same time widely distributed over regions and extremely rare on the level of parishes. There are no theoretically meaningful patterns emerging on the parish, county and region level. I overcome limitations resulting from the use of administrative units to analyze geographical patterns by using social network analysis tools that allow actors' actions to draw boundaries around locations. Employment of this strategy makes it evident that the core areas of witch-hunting are near the center of political power in Edinburgh. Witch trials were most numerous where they are visible to the gatekeepers of office careers. A small detail in the formal procedure of initiating witch trials made it possible for witch-hunting to serve as a strategy for gentry without prior access to jurisdiction to gather reputation at the political center. Therefore, persecution was not - as scholars of both witchcraft and statemaking have suggested - an attempt to control the population but a signal to people in power: Prosecutors used witch trials to communicate upstream rather than downstream. Witch-hunting is thus an unintended outcome of statemaking, Upward mobility created identities who fed on witch trials in their strive for influence within new opportunity structures.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Bearman, Peter Shawn
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 7, 2013