The Burning Times

A witch-hunt was traditionally a search for witches or evidence of witchcraft, which could lead to a witchcraft trial involving the accused person. Many diverse cultures throughout the world, both ancient and modern, have reacted to allegations of witchcraft either by superstitious fear and awe, and killed any alleged practitioners of witchcraft outright; or, shunned it as quackery, extortion or fraud. Today such events are recognised as a type of moral panic. Witchhunts still occur in the modern era, in many and various communities where religious values condemn the practice of witchcraft and the occult. On a general basis, the term may also denote the persecution of a perceived enemy (commonly socially non-conformist groups) with extreme prejudice and disregard of actual guilt or innocence.

Early modern Europe

Pre-Christian Norse cultures related to seid magic with strong antipathy, and while deity Odin was practitioner of seid, any male individual caught from seid was either killed or expunged off the community. For several centuries, predominantly Christian societies believed that Satan was acting through humans and animals. These beliefs can be seen as a reaction to emerging alternatives to the Christian hierarchical order, such as the worldly knowledge and cultural practices brought into a relatively backward Europe from the Middle East by those returning from the Crusades, or they can be seen as a continuum of the beliefs of Pre-Christian Germanic and Finno-Ugric religions and the almost universal Pagan belief in totem animals.

Over the centuries, there were extensive efforts to root out the supposed influence of Satan by various measures aimed at the people who were accused of being servants of Satan. To a lesser degree, animals were also targeted for prosecution, as described in the article animal trial. People suspected of being "possessed" by Satan were put on trial. These trials were biased against the witch. On the other hand, the church also attempted to extirpate the superstitious belief in witchcraft and sorcery, considering it as fraud in most cases.

It had been proposed that the witch-hunt developed in Europe after the Cathars and the Templar Knights were exterminated and the Inquisition had to turn to persecution of witches to remain active. In the middle of 1970s, this hypothesis was independently disproved by two historians (Cohn 1975; Kieckhefer 1976). It was shown that the pursuit originated amongst common people in Switzerland and in Croatia that pressed on the civil courts to support them. Inquisitorial courts became systematically involved in the witch-hunt only in the 15th century: in the case of the Madonna Oriente, the Inquisition of Milan was not sure what to do with two women who in 1384 and in 1390 confessed to have participated in a type of white magic. Witch-hunts were seen across early modern Europe, but were particularly strong in countries lacking strong central institutions and affected by social conflict - and they were significantly less bloody in Catholic and Orthodox countries than in the Reformation-torn regions of central and north-western Europe.

As shown by the scholar Max Dashu, the medieval concept of a witch began to develop already in pre-Christian times, as its elements can be found in the Roman cult of Bacchanalias, especially when led by Paculla Annia, and in the Roman mythological creature of strix. Many suspects were women who lived in towns, villages or rural areas and who may have been practitioners of herbalism, natural healing or midwifery; but often it was simply poor, uneducated women who did not have influential friends, or who were mentally imbalanced and who would today be considered schizophrenic. Early Modern Christian authorities in Europe (both Catholic and Protestant) strongly condemned any such expression of non-Christian spirituality. This was in accord with literal readings of the Old Testament, which contains strong denunciations against the polytheism of non-Hebrew peoples.

Early Modern Europe Germany

In modern Europe witch trials became the new approach for witch-hunting for the period. The most significant area of witch-hunting in modern Europe is often looked at as southwestern Germany. In Germany the number trials compared to other regions of Europe is viewed as a relatively late starter. Witch-hunts first showed to have appeared in large numbers in southern France and Switzerland during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The peak years of witch-hunts in southwest Germany occurred between the years of 1561-1670. The first major persecution in Europe is recorded in 1563 in a pamphlet called True and Horrifying Deeds of 63 Witches that caught, tried, convicted, and burned witches in the imperial lordship of Wiesensteig in southwestern Germany.

One theory for the number of witchcraft trials connects the counter-reformation to witchcraft. In south-western Germany between 1561 and 1670 there were 480 witch trials. Of the 480 trials that took place in southwestern Germany, 317 occurred in Catholic areas, while Protestant territories accounted for 163 of them. During the period from 1561 to 1670, at least 3,229 persons were executed for witchcraft in the German Southwest. Of this number 702 were tried and executed in Protestant territories, while 2,527 were tried and executed in Catholic territories. [5] Nineteenth-century historians today dispute the comparative severity of witch hunting in Protestant and Catholic territories. Protestants blamed the witch trials on the methods of the Catholic Inquisition and the theology of Catholic scholasticism, while Catholic scholars indignantly retorted that Lutheran preachers drew more witchcraft theory from Luther and the Bible than from medieval Catholic thinkers.

Other theories have pointed that the massive changes in law allowed for the outbreak in witch trials. Such laws pointed out heretical nature, and punished all aspects. Another theory is that rising number of devil literature popularized witchcraft trials, in which the German market saw nearly 100,000 devil-books during the 1560's. Another assumption is that climate-induced crop failure and hash weather was a direct link to witch-hunts. This theory follows the idea that witchcraft in Europe was traditionally associated with weather-making.[8] Scholars also imply that a connection between witchcraft trials and the Thirty Years War may also have a direct correlation.

While the previously mentioned theories mainly rely on micro level psychological interpretations, another theory has been put forward that provides an alternative macroeconomic explanation. According to this theory, the witches, who often had highly developed midwifery skills, were prosecuted in order to extinguish knowledge about birth control in an effort to repopulate Europe after the population catastrophe triggered by the plague pandemic of the 14th century (also known as the Black Death). Citing from Jean Bodin's "On Witchcraft", this view holds that the witch hunts were not only promoted by the church but also by prominent secular thinkers to repopulate the European continent. By these authors, the witch hunts are seen as an attempt to eliminate female midwifery skills and as a historical explanation why modern gynecology - surprisingly enough - came to be practiced almost exclusively by males in state run hospitals. In this view, the witch hunts began a process of criminalization of birth control that eventually lead to an enormous increase in birth rates that are described as the "population explosion" of early modern Europe. This population explosion produced an enormous youth bulge which supplied the extra manpower that would enable Europe's nations, during the period of colonialism and imperialism, to conquer and colonize 90% of the world.

As this theroy has an alternative macroeconomic explanation some scholars including Diane Purkiss discredit midwives and healers. Purkiss argues "that there is no evidence that the majority of those accused were healers and midwives; in England and also some parts of the Continent, midwives were more than likely to be found helping witch-hunters. Also the fact remains that most women used herbal medicines as part of their household skills, and a large part of witches were accused by women.

After 1666, the number of witchcraft trials declined from earlier larger scale trials, to smaller scattered ones. Opposition against witchcraft trials began to decline as preachers used enlightened thinking to adapt ideas about witchcraft.


The evidence required to convict an alleged witch varied from country to country - but prosecutions everywhere were most frequently sparked off by denunciations, while convictions invariably required a confession. The latter was often obtained by extremely violent methods. Although Europe's witch-frenzy did not begin until the late 1400s - long after the formal abolition of "ordeal" in 1215 - brutal techniques were routinely used to extract the required admission of guilt. They included hot pincers, the thumbscrew, and the 'swimming' of suspects (an old superstition whereby innocence was established by immersing the accused in water for a sufficiently long period of time). Investigators were consequently able to establish many fantastic crimes that could never have occurred, even in theory. That said, many judicial procedures of the time required proof of a causative link between the alleged act of witchcraft and an identifiable injury, such as a death or property damage.

The flexibility of the crime and the methods of proving it resulted in many executions. Any reckoning of the death toll should take account of the facts that rules of evidence varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and that a significant number of witch trials always ended in acquittal. :"At the height of the Great Hunt (1567-1640) one half of all witchcraft cases brought before church courts were dismissed for lack of evidence. No torture was used, and the accused could clear himself by providing four to eight "compurgators", people who were willing to swear that he wasn't a witch. Only 21% of the cases ended with convictions, and the Church did not impose any kind of corporal or capital punishment." In the Pays de Vaud, nine of every ten people tried were put to death, but in Finland, the corresponding figure was about one in six (16%). A breakdown of conviction rates (along with statistics on death tolls, gender bias, and much else) can be found in Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (2nd ed, 1995).

There are particularly important differences between the English and continental witch-hunting traditions. The checks and balances inherent in the jury system, which required a 23-strong body (the grand jury) to indict and a 12-strong one (the petit jury) to convict, always had a restraining effect on prosecutions. Another restraining influence was its relatively rare use of torture: the country formally permitted it only when authorized by the monarch, and no more than 81 torture warrants were issued (for all offenses) throughout English history. Continental European courts, while varying from region to region, tended to concentrate power in individual judges and place far more reliance on torture. The significance of the institutional difference is most clearly established by a comparison of the witch-hunts of England and Scotland, for the death toll inflicted by the courts north of the border always dwarfed that of England. It is also apparent from an episode of English history during the early 1640s, when the Civil War resulted in the suspension of jury courts for three years. Several freelance witch-hunters emerged during this period, the most notorious of whom was Matthew Hopkins, who emerged out of East Anglia and proclaimed himself "Witchfinder General". Such men were inquisitors in all but name, proceeding pursuant to denunciations and torture and claiming a mastery of the supposed science of demonology that allowed for identification of the guilty by, for example, the discovery of witches' marks. Research into the laws and records of the time show that the witchfinders often used peine forte et dure and other torture to extract confessions and condemnations of friends, relatives and neighbors.

An overview of the history of Europe's witch-hunts - which traces the continuities between the witch-hunts' continental origins, its later manifestions in England and colonial America, and the late twentieth-century pursuit of supposed Satanist child abusers - can be found in Sadakat Kadri's The Trial, A History, from Socrates to O.J. Simpson (Random House, 2005).

The most common methods used to execute alleged witches were burning and hanging. The frequent use of 'swimming' to test innocence/guilt mean that an unknown number also drowned more or less accidentally prior to conviction. Burning at the stake was common on the Continent as a penalty for heresy, but the common-law jurisdictions of England and colonial America invariably sent people convicted of witchcraft to the gallows. (In a handful of exceptional cases, such as that of Giles Corey at Salem, alleged witches who refused to plead were pressed to death without trial.) More generally, the majority of trials have always occurred within "Christian/European/American cultures; they were most often justified there with reference to the Bible's prescriptions: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." (Exodus 22:18) and "A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones" (Leviticus 20:27).

The measures employed against alleged witches were some of the worst ever to be legally sanctioned in the Western world. In A History of Torture, George Ryley Scott says:

"The peculiar beliefs and superstitions attached to or associated with witchcraft caused those who were suspected of practising the craft to be extremely likely to be subjected to tortures of greater degree than any ordinary heretic or criminal. More, certain specific torments were invented for use against them."

It has been suggested that the execution of persons association with witchcraft resulted in the loss of much traditional knowledge and folklore, which was often regarded with suspicion and tainted by association.

The Burning Times

The term "The Burning Times" was coined by Mary Daly and first used in her 1978 book, Gyn/Ecology: The Meta-Ethics of Radical Feminism. The term refers to the persecution of women by patriarchy to include both the European Witchhunts as well as the "entire patriarchal rule." The use of the "Burning Times" to refer to the Witchhunts by Neo-Pagans occurred when Starhawk subsequently introduced the term into her book The Spiral Dance in 1979.

The term was adopted by various American feminist historians and popularised in the 1970s for all historical persecution of witches and pagans, often citing a massive figure of nine million casualties, drawn from nineteenth century campaigner for women's rights, Matilda Joslyn Gage. They also referred to it as the Women's Holocaust. However, the figure of nine million casualties is today believed to be grossly inflated; among other things, the entire adult female population in Europe at the time was no more than 20-22 million.[22]Generally accepted casualty figures amongst historians today range from Levack at around 60,000 to Hutton at around 40,000. Modern historians have shown that the victims of the witchhunt were not always female (in Iceland, for example, 80% of those accused were men), though they were in the majority. Misogyny is usually considered an important part of the forces behind it, along with social unrest and religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics.

The term was used in popular Neo-Pagan culture to refer to the time of the Great European Witchhunts (1450-1750). Gerald Gardner is retroactively attributed to using the term by such authors as Ronald Hutton (344). Gardner is claimed to have used the phrase in reference to his claim that Wicca was an ancient persecuted religion, relying in turn heavily on the work of Margaret Murray. Gardner believed Wiccans should remember their forebears who were burned by the Church. In fact, witches in England were never burnt, but were hanged; burning of witches was practiced on the European continent (additionally, many aspects of Wicca are of modern origin and were not part of the historical Pagan practices). Modern historians agree the witchhunts had nothing to do with persecuting a pagan cult, but were the result of an interplay of a series of complex historical and societal factors. It is probable that the majority of the accused identified as Christian.

Contemporary practitioners of Wicca and related Neo-Pagan religions admit that Margaret Murray's work was flawed and that Wicca was not, in fact, an ancient religion, but a new incarnation of "ideal" pre-Christian beliefs. They believe that their religion is no less valid because of its recent inception.

In some countries, especially in Scandinavia, the majority of the people accused of witchcraft were male. In Finland some 70% and in Iceland almost 80% of the accused were men. Taking Europe as a whole between 1450 and 1700, males made up between 20-25% of those accused.

Behringer, Wolfgang. Witches and Witch Hunts: A Global History. Malden Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2004.

Midlefort, Erick H.C. Witch Hunting in Southeastern Germany 1562-1684: The Social and Intellectual Foundation. California: Stanford University Press, 1972.

Purkiss, Diane. "A Holocaust of One's Own: The Myth of the Burning Times." Chapter in The Witch and History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Represenatives New York, NY: Routledge, 1996, pp. 7-29. BlantonC 01:12, 19 December 2006 (UTC)