Facts and Fiction About the European Witch Hunts
Poganisam and Wicca
By Patti Wigington, Updated August 13, 2018
We’ve all seen the bumper stickers and the t-shirts: Never Again the Burning Times! It’s a rally cry for many born-again Pagans and Wiccans, and indicates a need to reclaim what’s ours — our rights to worship and celebrate as we choose. The phrase Burning Times is often used in modern Paganism and Wicca to indicate the era from the Dark Ages to around the nineteenth century, when charges of heresy were enough to get a witch burned at the stake. Some have claimed that as many as nine million people were killed in the name of “witch hunts.” However, there’s a lot of discussion within the Pagan world about the accuracy of that number, and some scholars have estimated it significantly lower, possibly as few as 200,000. That’s still a pretty big number, but a lot less than some of the other claims that have been made.
For the past thirty years or so, scholars — as well as many members of the Pagan and Wiccan communities — have debated the validity of the astronomical numbers of victims cited during the Burning Times. The problem with the early estimates of numbers is that, much like in war, the victor writes the history. In other words, the only documentation we have about the European witch hunts was written by the people who actually conducted those same witch hunts!
Jenny Gibbons’ thesis, Recent Developments in the Great European Witch Hunt, goes into great depth about some of these inflated numbers. Essentially, Gibbons states, bigger numbers of witches looked better for the witch hunters, who were the ones keeping track of things in the first place.
As time progressed, countries like England eventually repealed their proscriptions against witchcraft, and the Neopagan and Wiccan movements later moved into place both in Britain and the United States. As feminist writers latched on to the Goddess-centered movement, there was a tendency to portray the healer-midwife-village wisewoman as an innocent victim of evil patriarchal Catholic oppressors.
In the past, Wiccans and Pagans were often the first to point out that the European witch hunts targeted women — after all, these poor country girls were simply the victims of the misogynistic societies of their times. However, what is often overlooked is that although overall about 80% of the accused were female, in some areas, more men than women were persecuted as witches. Scandinavian countries in particular seemed to have equal numbers of both male and female accused.
Let’s look at a brief timeline of the witch craze in Europe:
- 906 C.E. The Canon Episcopi is written by a young abbot named Regino of Treves. Regino’s treatise reinforces the Church’s existing stance on witchcraft, which is that it doesn’t exist.
- Around 975 C.E. The Church decides that the penalty for witchcraft – which apparently does in fact exist, despite the Canon Episcopi’s assertions to the contrary – is fairly mild. A woman convicted of the use of “witchcraft and enchantment and … magical philters” shall be sentenced to a year-long diet of bread and water.
- 1227 C.E. Pope Gregory IX announces that it’s time to form an Inquisitorial Court to weed out heretics, who are summarily executed.
- 1252 C.E. Pope Innocent III carries on the Inquisitions. However, he discovers that a much higher rate of confession is obtained if torture is permitted.
- 1326 C.E. The Church authorizes the Inquisition to go beyond the investigations of heresy. Now they are encouraged to ferret out people practicing Witchcraft. The theory of demonology is created, establishing a link between witches and the Christian Satan.
- 1340’s C.E. Europe is pummeled by the Black Plague, and a significant amount of people die. Witches, Jews and lepers are accused of spreading disease intentionally.
- 1450 C.E. The Catholic Church announces that witches eat babies and sell their souls to the Devil. Witch hunts begin in earnest throughout Europe.
- 1487 C.E. Publication of Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer). This book describes all sorts of vile activities allegedly practiced by Witches, and also details some creative methods of getting confessions out of the accused.
- 1517 C.E. Martin Luther leads the way to the Protestant Reformation, which in turn causes a decrease in the number of witchcraft convictions in England — because the Protestants won’t allow torture.
- 1550 – 1650 C.E. Trials and executions reach their peak. Many of the people accused of witchcraft are actually being targeted in battles between Catholics and Protestants, and others are landowners whose property has been seized by the Church.
- 1716 C.E. The last accused witches — Mary Hicks and her daughter Elizabeth — are executed in England. Other countries eventually follow suit and stop executing people for witchcraft.
The interesting thing about this timeline is that, when examined in more detail, there is a LOT of info to go through. Early courts kept records — after all, they had to, if they were going to document who they questioned, what they asked, and the answers that were given. They also had to keep track of what property and possessions were seized, comments of accusers, etc.
When the professional witch hunters of the Inquisition emerged, it was certainly in their best interest to pad the numbers a bit. After all, if you wanted to keep the populace afraid of witches, it’s far more frightening to number the witches in the millions, rather than pointing out one or two non-threatening old women in a remote village.
Before trial surveys were made available to scholars, the only way to guess how many witches were killed during the Burning Times was to… well, guess. Estimates were just that — estimates. Since most of the literature available was written by the witch hunters of the Inquisition, the numbers all seemed high. In fact, at one point scholars said that as many as nine million people could have died — which is simply a Really Big Guess.
When trial information was at last made available, historians first looked at all the trials in an area. Then they made allowances for missing records, inaccuracies, and lost court information. Finally, they examined literature from the Inquisitorial records, to see if any major witch-hunt cases took place at the time in that particular area. What they eventually ended up with was a collection of numbers far lower that originally suspected. In fact, modern scholars place the actual Burning Times death toll at between 40,000 and 200,000.
It’s also important to note that many of the people killed during this period from the late thirteenth century on were not charged with witchcraft anyway. Most were charged with heresy, which means the total numbers included people who were Anabaptists and other dissenters who refused to accept the spiritual authority of the Pope. These people were Christians, although not the generally accepted sort, and were unlikely to have been practicing witchcraft.
Anyone who reads will eventually catch on to the fact that there’s a LOT of misinformation out there about our spiritual path. Some of it is propagated by people who know nothing of us, and others is perpetuated by those who would have us remain in the broom closet. So as we Pagans and Wiccans wear our Never Again the Burning Times t-shirts, we need to be cautious. There’s enough misinformation and falsehood out there — the last thing we need to be doing is promoting this misinformation ourselves.