How many people were killed as Witches in Europe from 1200 to the present?

Greg Laden s Blog, October 8, 2017

The original post generated a lot of comments, including from expert historians who strongly disagreed with my post. I put those comments at the bottom of the post so you can see them. I am sticking to my story that the consideration of people murdered as witches should include the 13th century, and does not for reasons having more to do with quirks of the practice of history than to the behavior of the Europeans at the time. I also maintain that typical estimates accepted by historians are by nature conservative.

Now, on to the original post:

I recently came across a reference to the total number of people killed for being Witches in Europe since the historically documented practice began in the early Middle Ages. (The idea of Witches is much broader than the European practice.) The number was in the tens of thousands. Looking at the reference for this in Wikipedia, this seems to be about the number accepted by Teh Wiki and whoever it is that is in charge of this particular knowledge at this time. The Wikipedia article also gives a very late date for worship of “Satan” as part of defining a “Witch.” None of this seemed right to me because of a document I recently read, which gave me the impression that Satan was a big deal quite a bit earlier on, and that the number 40 or 50 thousand was way to small.

In looking around at various sources, I’ve noticed what might be hyper skepticism over this topic. Darin Hayton is nearly vitriolic, even hyperbolic, in chastising someone else for using the phrase “hundreds of thousands.” In his post addressing the question “How Many Witches were Executed?!?”, he mentions the 40-50 thousand number, but also provides a table that adds up a bunch of numbers, by country, adding up to low vs. high estimates for executions between 57,401 and 61,651. These data are from the 14th through 17th century.

There are a few problems with these data. One is that Witch killing did not begin in 1300. There are important pre-1300 documented cases. Also, it did not end in 1700, though the post 1700 numbers are probably small. Another problem is that these numbers, as far as I can tell, are known cases or estimates of the outcome of known “Witch Hunts.” However, there seems to have been times and places where the trial and execution of Witches had become a poorly documented local matter that may have gone on as a routine slowly piling up bodies but entirely under the radar of those who must see it on paper for it to exist. As an archaeologist who has frequently compared the documented and the undocumented realities of Euro-American culture I would not finch at a 10-1 ratio of cases estimated from historical documents to actual cases. If the numbers add up to 60,000, than 600,000 would not shock me.

Nor am I proposing such a large number. I am merely noting that the method of estimation that seems to be preferred is probably way too conservative, and the time period included is at least a century too short.

I also would like to challenge the idea suggested by Teh Wiki (well, by the page maintainers) that Satan was a late comer to the equation. There seems to be evidence that a link between Witchcraft and Satan as an entity goes back farther. And, I’m going to make this challenge on the basis of a single source. Feel free to have at it.

This is said to be a 13th century depiction of witches. I don’t know a thing about it. If you do, please comment below.

The following account is related in Charles MacKay’s Witch Mania: The History of Witchcraft.

This passage describes the genocide of the people living in a particular part of northern Europe. They were the people of Stedinger. “The Stedinger were settlers, mostly from Holland, who opened up marshy land next to Friesland, on the Weser. For refusing to pay tithes to the Archbishop of Bremen, a crusade was preached against them and they were wiped out in 1234.” (source) It is a little hard to say how many people were killed in this event. Eight thousand were killed on the field of battle, then the entire population was wiped out, supposedly. What percentage of a typical 13th century European population goes to the field of battle (when all possible arms are raised)? Half? A fourth? Let’s take those two numbers, and assume that somewhere between 25% of the population and 80% of the non-combatant population was actually killed. If 8,000 is half the population and 25% of the balance after battle were killed, than about 10,000 people died in this once incident in the early 13th century because they were considered to be witches, the entire population having been so declared by the Pope and others. If those in battle represented only 25% of the population and 80% of the balance after the battle were killed, then the number is more like 33,000 people killed as Witches in that one event.

In other words, I don’t think the number 50,000 holds up given that this one instance may have accounted for a number nearly that large.

I know people will object to this by saying that the people of Stedinger, who really were “wiped out” if this account is accurate, were killed because they were Witches. But, that is true of all the people who were killed as Witches. They were all not Witches, or nearly so, and the practice of “playing the Witch card” applied to all of them, including the people of Stedinger as well as the old lady down the street that someone found annoying. Go ahead and read this account and see if you can make an argument that this was not a systematic genocide using the assertion that everyone in Stedinger was a Witch as the impetus for doing so.

After this time, prosecutions for witchcraft are continually mentioned, especially by the French historians. It was a crime imputed with so much ease, and repelled with so much difficulty, that the powerful, whenever they wanted to ruin the weak, and could fix no other imputation upon them, had only to accuse them of witchcraft to ensure their destruction. Instances, in which this crime was made the pretext for the most violent persecution, both of individuals and of communities, whose real offences were purely political or religious, must be familiar to every reader. The extermination of the Stedinger, in 1234; of the Templars, from 1307 to 1313; the execution of Joan of Arc, in 1429; and the unhappy scenes of Arras, in 1459; are the most prominent. The first of these is perhaps the least known, but is not among the least remarkable. The following account, from Dr. Kortum’s interesting history [“Entstehungsgeschichte der freistadlischen Bunde im Mittelalter, von Dr. F. Kortum.” 1827.] of the republican confederacies of the Middle Ages, will show the horrible convenience of imputations of witchcraft, when royal or priestly wolves wanted a pretext for a quarrel with the sheep.

The Frieslanders, inhabiting the district from the Weser to the Zuydersee, had long been celebrated for their attachment to freedom, and their successful struggles in its defence. As early as the eleventh century, they had formed a general confederacy against the encroachments of the Normans and the Saxons, which was divided into seven seelands, holding annually a diet under a large oaktree at Aurich, near the Upstalboom. Here they managed their own affairs, without the control of the clergy and ambitious nobles who surrounded them, to the great scandal of the latter. They already had true notions of a representative government. The deputies of the people levied the necessary taxes, deliberated on the affairs of the community, and performed, in their simple and patriarchal manner; nearly all the functions of the representative assemblies of the present day. Finally, the Archbishop of Bremen, together with the Count of Oldenburg and other neighbouring potentates, formed a league against that section of the Frieslanders, known by the name of the Stedinger, and succeeded, after harassing them, and sowing dissensions among them for many years, in bringing them under the yoke. But the Stedinger, devotedly attached to their ancient laws, by which they had attained a degree of civil and religious liberty very uncommon in that age, did not submit without a violent struggle. They arose in insurrection, in the year 1204, in defence of the ancient customs of their country–refused to pay taxes to the feudal chiefs, or tithes to the clergy, who had forced themselves into their peaceful retreats, and drove out many of their oppressors. For a period of eight-and-twenty years the brave Stedinger continued the struggle single-handed against the forces of the Archbishops of Bremen and the Counts of Oldenburg, and destroyed, in the year 1232, the strong castle of Slutterberg, near Delmenhorst, built by the latter nobleman as a position from which he could send out his marauders to plunder and destroy the possessions of the peasantry.

The invincible courage of these poor people proving too strong for their oppressors to cope with by the ordinary means of warfare, the Archbishop of Bremen applied to Pope Gregory IX. for his spiritual aid against them. That prelate entered cordially into the cause, and launching forth his anathema against the Stedinger as heretics and witches, encouraged all true believers to assist in their extermination. A large body of thieves and fanatics broke into their country in the year 1233, killing and burning wherever they went, and not sparing either women or children, the sick or the aged, in their rage. The Stedinger, however, rallied in great force, routed their invaders, and killed in battle their leader, Count Burckhardt of Oldenburg, with many inferior chieftains.

Again the pope was applied to, and a crusade against the Stedinger was preached in all that part of Germany. The pope wrote to all the bishops and leaders of the faithful an exhortation to arm, to root out from the land those abominable witches and wizards. “The Stedinger,” said his Holiness, “seduced by the devil, have abjured all the laws of God and man; slandered the Church–insulted the holy sacraments–consulted witches to raise evil spirits–shed blood like water–taken the lives of priests, and concocted an infernal scheme to propagate the worship of the devil, whom they adore under the name of Asmodi. The devil appears to them in different shapes; sometimes as a goose or a duck, and at others in the figure of a pale, black-eyed youth, with a melancholy aspect, whose embrace fills their hearts with eternal hatred against the holy church of Christ. This devil presides at their Sabbaths, when they all kiss him and dance around him. He then envelopes them in total darkness, and they all, male and female, give themselves up to the grossest and most disgusting debauchery.”

In consequence of these letters of the pope, the Emperor of Germany, Frederic II, also pronounced his ban against them. The Bishops of Ratzebourg, Lubeck, Osnabruek, Munster, and Minden took up arms to exterminate them, aided by the Duke of Brabant, the Counts of Holland, of Cloves, of the Mark, of Oldenburg, of Egmond, of Diest, and many other powerful nobles. An army of forty thousand men was soon collected, which marched, under the command of the Duke of Brabant, into the country of the Stedinger. The latter mustered vigorously in defence of their lives and liberties, but could raise no greater force, including every man capable of bearing arms, than eleven thousand men to cope against the overwhelming numbers of their foe. They fought with the energy of despair, but all in vain. Eight thousand of them were slain on the field of battle; the whole race was exterminated; and the enraged conquerors scoured the country in all directions–slew the women and children and old men–drove away the cattle–fired the woods and cottages, and made a total waste of the land.

Admittedly, this was a different situation than the day to day “burning” (or otherwise) of Witches, but the enormity of this does not obviate the nature of the genocide as a particular kind of act. Not counting this event when tallying up the number of killings of people in Europe during this period with the accusation of Witchcraft being the key indictment would be a little like ignoring the Holocaust in enumerating the murder of Jewish People in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. It would preposterous, don’t you think?

But still, it is a bit different than the average Witch Hunt, so I thought I’d quote another passage from MacKay’s book to give you an idea of the overall level of intensity of Witch Mania, as he calls it, during the height of it:

For fear the zeal of the enemies of Satan should cool, successive Popes appointed new commissions. One was appointed by Alexander VI, in 1494; another by Leo X, in 1521, and a third by Adrian VI, in 1522. They were all armed with the same powers to hunt out and destroy, and executed their fearful functions but too rigidly. In Geneva alone five hundred persons were burned in the years 1515 and 1516, under the title of Protestant witches. It would appear that their chief crime was heresy, and their witchcraft merely an aggravation. Bartolomeo de Spina has a list still more fearful. He informs us that, in the year 1524, no less than a thousand persons suffered death for witchcraft in the district of Como, and that for several years afterwards the average number of victims exceeded a hundred annually. One inquisitor, Remigius, took great credit to himself for having, during fifteen years, convicted and burned nine hundred.

In France, about the year 1520, fires for the execution of witches blazed in almost every town. Danaeus, in his “Dialogues of Witches,” says they were so numerous that it would be next to impossible to tell the number of them. So deep was the thraldom of the human mind, that the friends and relatives of the accused parties looked on and approved.

They were doing this for a couple of hundred years. For there to have been 40,000 deaths over that time, 200 people need to have been killed as Witches per year across Europe. Seems low to me.

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