Burning ‘The Burning Times’
Author: Zan Fraser
It seems that there is a recent body of misinformation regarding the Burning Times making its way through the Wiccan/Pagan community, which amounts to a revisionist “take” on the Witches’ Holocaust. Being something of a debunking, this new school of thought asserts that the Burning Times is “over-hyped” and hysterically blown out of proportion. While as a rule, I am a huge fan of revisionist history, I find this development (which adds up to a sort of “Burning Times denial-ism”) a bit depressing.
Proponents of this new school of thought seem to me mistaken in a number of important ways. (1) They tend to describe the Burning Times as a sort of invention of Margaret Murray’s, the Egyptologist whose “pro-Pagan” interpretation of European history was so influential to the early Craft revival. (2) They challenge the conventional belief in huge numbers of Burning Times victims as overwrought, with the numbers inflated. (3) They question the interpretation of the Great Witch-Hunts as a “War on Women.”
Far from being a concept of Murray’s, among the broadest reaching of her theories, the first realizations of the Burning Times emanate centuries before her writing, expressed in horror by the period’s contemporaries. As early as the 1560s, Weyer was publishing denunciations of the excesses of German Witch-Hunting; Spee (confessor during the Wurzburg trials of the 1620s) , theology professor Meyfarth (in the 1630s) , and Junius (a torture-victim who generated one of the few Witch-Hunting documents told from the perspective of the tortured Witch) powerfully describe the hysterical panic of the populace and the agonized suffering of the accused. They leave no doubt as to the alarm and trauma that must have pervaded the German regions in the latter 1500s and early 1600s.
Burning Times revisionists make the vital point that the German cases (for their exceptional violence and cruelty) give us a skewed picture of the Hunt Periods. In the 1620s alone, some 600 persons were said to have been killed as devil-worshipping Witches at Bamberg, with some 900 more in Wurzburg. There are many reasons for this, notably that the German Prince-Bishops ruled as absolute authorities on both the secular and religious levels, and the particular Prince-Bishops during this period and in these regions appear to have been especially sadistic sorts. These numbers may be inflated to a certain degree (they probably don’t have a modern bureaucratic accounting system to keep track of such things) , but they clearly intend to describe large numbers of victims, with much resulting social terror and disruption. Revisionists are correct to point out that these levels of destruction are not matched elsewhere and tend to provide a somewhat distorted view of the Witch-Hunts.
(On more than one occasion, I have heard Wiccans describe the “Burning Times” in England as if the English Witch-cases were on a par with those of Germany, or to relate how English Witches “fled the Burning Times in England, ” to come to the New World of America in order to keep the “Old Ways” in safety. This ignores the reality that the English were relatively lenient in their regards to Witchcraft. Importantly they never accepted the idea of Witches as demonic- sparing themselves the hysterical “Satan panic” reactions experienced on the Continent- and they observed legal proprieties in their judgment of Witch-cases, as opposed to the German regions, which held Witchcraft to be such a subversive and lethal instrument that it justified abandoning basic legal protections for the accused. In an important difference, the English did not employ torture in Witchcraft cases.
This is not to say that on the social level the English never responded hysterically to fears or accusations of Witchcraft or that there were not English miscarriages of justice- but it is to say that the English made an effort to hold themselves in check regarding Witchcraft, which makes the Burning Times period in England of a different character than that in other parts of Europe.)
Conceding the point that the extreme degree of persecution in Germany leaves a lop-sided impression, it should be remembered that even in England, Reginald Scot was so alarmed over what he saw as the rise of “anti-Witch” prejudice that he published Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584, decrying the stereotyping of elderly ladies as Witches (the English overwhelmingly imagined Witches to be elderly single women) ; according to Scot, this exposed defenseless old women to acts of violence. In A Briefe Historie of Wytches, , I collect from the period-drama several examples in which assault is thought justifiable if its victim is imagined to be a Witch.
In Sweden, Queen Christina was so dismayed over Witch-Hunting in her realm that in 1649 she ordered a series of reforms; this is the one instance in 300 years in which a European monarch so used the royal power, which Robbins finds “notable as the first legislation curbing witch hunts.” (Rossell Hope Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, “Sweden, Witchcraft In”) In all of these cases, the individuals involved- Weyer, Spee, Meyfarth, Junius, Scot, and Christina- are identifying “Witch-Hunting” as a feature of life around them, expressing the first glimmerings of understanding that they were living through a “Burning Times.”
In the early 1800s, the famous novelist Walter Scott was studying the Scots Witch-cases, publishing his summaries in Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. The eminent Wilhelm Gottlieb Soldan conducted another early scholarly review of the medieval Witch-Business, presented in 1843; this was followed by the majestic history collected by Joseph Hansen, published in German in 1900. We see here that identification and study of the Burning Times commenced well before Margaret Murray, who first published in the early 1920s.
One of her initial critics, Harvard professor George Lyman Kittredge, issued his fine volume Witchcraft in Old and New England in the latter 1920s. Although he hardly agrees with Murray, it is clear that the Burning Times is “set” in his mind as a historical phenomenon (p. 243) : “Such were the orgies of the Witches’ Sabbath as systematized in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the scholastic ingenuity of devout theologians and described in confessions innumerable wrung by torture from ignorant and superstitious defendants in response to leading questions framed by inquisitors who had the whole system in mind before the trial began.”
I believe that- far from being among Margaret Murray’s “theories”- the medieval Burning Times is indeed a well-documented and reasonably well-understood phenomenon.
Another assertion made by the promoters of this new reading of the Burning Times is that not really very many persons were killed. They will quite properly dismiss the hysterically overwrought 9 million citation, then quote “recorded data” as giving an extremely paltry number, with “many countries” reporting only 3-10 victims, or certainly less than 50.
I find Anne Llewellyn Barstow to be persuasive on the issue of numbers: Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts Pandora Books, 1994 (p. 19-23) . Acknowledging the woefully imperfect state of records (many lost or defective) , Barstow nonetheless finds herself compelled to keep careful count as she works her way through the dim documentation of the past. Although this pains-taking approach adds hours of extra work, and great though the temptation is to start rounding off numbers, she retains “each awkward figure, ” remembering Holocaust historian Joan Ringelheim’s observation: to drop numbers now was to kill that individual twice. Accordingly Barstow provides in her Appendix B “the most complete record available at this time.”
Barstow comments upon Levack’s work (p. 22) , crediting him with producing the “most careful totals made so far.” She finds his figures “reasonable, ” but “almost certainly too low.” Given the faulty state of records, with additional cases emerging “steadily, ” and given that posse-style murders and lynching-deaths will not be recorded, Barstow finds it judicious to expand Levack’s numbers to 200, 000 accused, with 100, 000 dead. She finds it interesting that- just after the “recently ended holocaust”- Voltaire estimated that about 100, 000 had been put to death.
Contrary to the assertion of Burning Times revisionists that “many countries” had less than 50 Witch-Victims apiece, Barstow’s Appendix B describes only Montbeliard (55+) , Vaud (90) , Labourd (80) , Champagne (50+) , Essex (74) , New England (35) , Estonia (65) , Russia (10+) , Logrono (6) , Catalonia (45) , and Navarre (50) with less than 100 murdered Witches. She finds some 50, 000+ to have been killed in the German states; some 5000 in France; some 1000 in England; 1, 337+ in Scotland; 1500-1800 in Scandinavia; and approximately 15, 000+ in Poland.
The third claim of this would-be up-ending of conventional Hunt-Period consideration is that in “many countries” the “vast majority” of victims were male. Scandinavia, Finland, and Iceland are listed as places where “nearly all of the accused” were men. From this, the interpretation of the medieval Witch-Hunts as a “Holocaust of women” is questioned.
Barstow notes that the trials in Finland, Estonia, and Iceland (“which did not have a true witch hunt”) offer the “rare phenomenon” of predominantly male Witches. (p. 86) Finns had traditionally presumed sorcery to lie with men and some 60% of Estonia’s accused were males, often with reputations as healers or magic-workers. (Barstow, by the way, notes that Witchcraft in Scandinavia and the Baltic regions- the areas isolated from Christianity the longest- is “deeply rooted in European folk customs”; Robbins observes that “heathen beliefs in natural and magical powers” lingered in Finland longer than anywhere else in Europe, as Christianity was not introduced until 1157. (Encyclopedia, “Finland, Witchcraft in”)
Interesting though that is, male Witches appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Barstow remarks that the figures show women to have been “overwhelmingly victimized, ” constituting roughly 80% of the accused and 85% of the executed. (p. 23) In places such as Essex, females make up 92% of the accused, as they do during a Hunt in Belgium. During a Scare in Basel, the percentage of women accused shoots to 95%. Barstow quotes the observation of historian Christina Larner, “the chronicler of Scottish witchcraft, ” who felt that there must have been periods in East Lothian or Fife when no woman could have “felt free from the fear of accusation.” She notes the two German villages finally left with but one female inhabitant apiece, and the Rhenish village where one person (generally female) out of every two families was killed. (p. 24)
Barstow feels that her statistics “document an intentional mass murder of women.” To not see that is to “deny the most persistent fact about the persecutions.” (p.26)
Burning Times revisionists conclude that the Burning Times is a farce, a “theory” of Margaret Murray’s run amuck, fed by pumped-up numbers and a hysterical view of a “Holocaust of Women.”
With all respect, I feel that:
(1) The Burning Times is established as a medieval phenomenon well beyond Murray.
(2) Anne Llewellyn Barstow provides extremely well-researched figures, pointing to some 200, 000 accused, with some 100, 000 executed, around 85% of whom were women.
(3) Far from men being the primary victims during the Burning Times (Iceland, Finland, and Estonia notwithstanding) , I believe that so many women were targeted that the Burning Times might well be understood as a Religious War on Women- predicated upon the interesting assumption that Witches are most likely to be Female.
It is for this reason that one of the rallying cries of the Modern Wiccan Witchcraft Revival is: Never Again the Burning Times.