Date: 12 Jan 1998
The Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil, and many people have suggested that this lies at the heart of the Burning Times, too. There were many ways that people profited from calling their neighbors Witches. Witch hunters and lawyers were professionals, paid for every Witch they condemned. Witchcraft scared and titillated the public, so hack presses made a mint publishing lurid descriptions of Witch trials. And behind everything stood the Church and State. The court which condemned a Witch could confiscate her wealth, a fact that offered almost unlimited opportunity for gain.
In many cases, greed clearly did stand behind the trials. Dame Alice Kytelier was accused by several of her children after she wrote them out of her will. King Philip Augustus of France inherited an impoverished kingdom. He responded with a slew of Witchcraft charges, levelled against some of the wealthiest men in France: the Knights Templar, bishops... even the Pope himself! By the time he was through, France's budget was healthy again.
But even this theory fails to make useful predictions. If Witch hunting was money-hunting, then we'd expect that a) Witch hunters usually made money, and b) Witches were usually wealthy. Neither is true.
In most times and places, the majority of Witches were terribly poor. They generally came from the lowest sedantary social class. (The mobile poor -- wandering beggers, migrant workers, etc. -- rarely got accused.) They were peasants, farm laborers, unskilled workers. For most communities, Witch hunting was a money-losing proposition. Even if you confiscated all of a Witch's worldly goods, it still wouldn't pay for her trial or the cost of keeping her in jail (for up to a year!) before her trial began.
And there's another complication with the greed hypothesis: the people who started the trials generally weren't the people who stood to make a profit from them. Most trials began when someone complained that his neighbor had killed his cow or children. Any money earned would go to the accuser's town or the officials running the trial -- not the accuser. There were exceptions to this, of course. A handful of Witch hunters actively went out and tried to find trials. But they were not the norm as many people assume.
So while greed can explain certain trials, it doesn't explain the Burning Times as a whole. Some Witch hunters were definitely motivated by money. And if they were powerful enough, like King Philip, they could cause a great deal of pain and death. But this explanation can't account for the majority of our evidence, for the thousands of Witches whose deaths profited no one.