Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch
Since the late 1970's, a quiet revolution has taken place in the study of historical
witchcraft and the Great European Witch Hunt. The revolution wasn't quite as dramatic
as the development of radio-carbon dating, but many theories which reigned supreme
thirty years ago have vanished, swept away by a flood of new data. Unfortunately,
little of the new information has made it into popular history. Many articles in
Pagan magazines contain almost no accurate information about the "Burning Times",
primarily because we rely so heavily on out-dated research.
ons. Spain's one craze centered on the Basque lands straddling the French/Spanish
What was this revolution? Starting in the mid-1970's, historians
stopped relying on witch-hunting propaganda and began to base their theories on thorough,
systematic studies of all the witch trials in a particular area.
the Great Hunt itself, we've relied on witch hunters' propaganda: witch hunting manuals,
sermons against witchcraft, and lurid pamphlets on the more sensational trials. Everyone
knew that this evidence was lousy. It's sort of like trying to study Satanism in
America using only the Moral Majority Newsletter and the National Enquirer. The few
trials cited were the larger, more infamous ones. And historians frequently used
literary accounts of those cases, not the trials themselves. That's comparable to
citing a television docu-drama ("Based on a true story!") instead of actual
Better evidence did exist. Courts that tried witches kept
records -- trial verdicts, lists of confiscated goods, questions asked during interogations,
and the answers witches gave. This evidence was written by people who knew what actually
happened. Witch hunters often based their books on rumor and hearsay; few had access
to reliable information. Courts had less reason to lie since, for the most part,
they were trying to keep track of what was going on: how many witches they killed,
how much money they gained or lost, etc. Witch hunters wrote to convince people that
witchcraft was a grievous threat to the world. The more witches there were, the bigger
the "threat" was. So they often exagerrated the number of deaths and spread
wild estimates about how many witches existed. Also, trial records addressed the
full range of trials, not just the most lurid and sensational ones.
data had one daunting draw-back: there was too much of it. Witch trials were scattered
amongst literally millions of other trials from this period. For most historians,
it was too much work to wade through this mass of data. The one exception was C.
L'Estrange Ewen. In 1929 he published the first systematic study of a country's trial
records: Witch Hunting and Witch Trials. Focused on England, his work offered vivid
evidence of how much data literature missed. In Essex County, for instance, Ewen
found thirty times as many trials as any previous researcher. Scholars were basing
their theories on only 3% of the available evidence. And that 3% was vastly different
from the other 97%.
In the 1970's other researchers followed in Ewen's footsteps,
so in the last twenty-five years, the quantity and quality of available evidence
has dramatically improved. Now we can look at all the trials from an area and see
what the "normal" trial was really like. Court documents frequently contain
detailed information on the gender, social status, and occupation of the accused.
Today, for the first time, we have a good idea of the dimensions of the Great Hunt:
where the trials occurred, who was tried in them, who did the killing, and how many
people lost their lives.
400 In One Day: An Influential Forgery
smaller breakthrough also profoundly altered our view of the early history of the
Great Hunt. In 1972, two scholars independently discovered that a famous series of
medieval witch trials never happened.
The forgery was Etienne Leon de Lamothe-Langon's
Histoire de l'Inquisition en France, written in 1829. Lamothe-Langon described enormous
witch trials which supposedly took place in southern France in the early 14th century.
Run by the Inquisition of Toulouse and Carcasonne, these trials killed hundreds upon
hundreds of people. The most famous was a craze where 400 women died in one day.
No other French historian had noticed these trials.
In the early 20th century,
the prominent historian Jacob Hansen included large sections of Lamothe-Langon's
work in his compendium on medieval witchcraft. Later historians cited Hansen's cites,
apparently without closely examining Lamothe-Langon's credentials. Non-academic writers
cited the writers who cited Hansen, and thus Lamothe-Langon's dramatic French trials
became a standard part of the popular view of the Great Hunt.
more research was done, Lamothe-Langon's trials began to look odd to historians.
No sources mentioned them, and they were completely different from all other 14th
century trials. There were no other mass trials of this nature until 1428, no panics
like this until the 16th century. Furthermore, the demonology in the trials was quite
elaborate, with sabbats and pacts and enormous black masses. It was far more complex
than the demonology of the Malleus Maleficarum (1486). Why would the Inquisition
think up this elaborate demonology, and then apparently forget it for two hundred
Questions like these led Norman Cohn (Europe's Inner Demons and "Three
Forgeries: Myths and Hoaxes of European Demonology II" in Encounter 44 (1975))
and Richard Kieckhefer (European Witch Trials) to investigate Lamothe-Langon's background.
What they found was reasonably conclusive evidence that the great trials of the Histoire
had never occurred.
First, Lamothe-Langon was a hack writer and known forger,
not a historian. Early in his career he specialized in historical fiction, but he
soon turned to more profitable horror novels, like The Head of Death, The Monastery
of the Black Friars, and The Vampire (or, The Virgin of Hungary). Then, in 1829,
he published the Histoire, supposedly a work of non-fiction. After its success Lamothe-Langon
went on to write a series of "autobiographies" of various French notables,
such as Cardinal Richeleau, Louis XVIII, and the Comtesse du Barry.
none of Lamothe-Langon's sources could be found, and there was strong reason to suspect
they never existed. Lamothe-Langon claimed he was using unpublished Inquisitorial
records given to him by Bishop Hyacinthe Sermet -- Cohn found a letter from Sermet
stating that there were no unpublished records. Lamothe-Langon had no training in
paleography, the skill needed to translate the script and copious abbreviations used
in medieval documents, and he was not posted in Toulouse long enough to do any serious
research in its archives.
Third, under close examination a number of flaws
appeared in his stories. He cited records written by seneschal Pierre de Voisins
in 1275, but Voisins ceased being seneschal in 1254 and died not long after. The
inquisitor who ran many of these trials was Pierre Guidonis (nephew of Bernard Gui
from The Name of the Rose). But Guidonis wasn't an inquisitor at the time when the
trials were held. Cohn and Kieckhefer published their findings in 1972. Since, then
academics have avoided this forged material. Unfortunately by this point, Lamothe-Langon's
lurid trials had entered into the mythology of witchcraft. While nobody cites Lamothe-Langon
directly anymore, his fictions show up everywhere, including both Z Budapest's The
Holy Book of Women's Mysteries and Raven Grimassi's The Wiccan Mysteries.
no simple way to weed out all of Lamothe-Langon's disinformation, but a few guidelines
will help: a) Use scholarly texts written after 1975. b) Beware of any trial set
in Toulouse or Carcasonne. While these cities did have real cases, only the forged
ones get cited regularly. c) Ignore any trial involving Anne-Marie de Georgel or
Catherine Delort; they're forgeries. d) Ignore any trial that killed "400 women
in one day." This never happened. e) Avoid Jules Michelet's Satanism and Witchcraft.
Although he wrote a poetic and dramatic book, Michelet never found much historical
evidence to support his theory that witchcraft was an anti-Catholic protest religion.
What little bit there was came from the Lamothe-Langon forgeries. So when they were
debunked, the last props for his book collapsed. f) The appendix of Richard Kieckhefer's
European Witch Trials contains a list of all known trials that occurred between 1300
The New Geography of Witch Hunting
The pattern revealed
by trial records bears little resemblence to the picture literature painted. Every
aspect of the Great Hunt, from chronology to death toll, has changed. And if your
knowledge of the "Burning Times" is based on popular or Pagan literature,
nearly everything you know may be wrong.
a) Chronology. Popular history places
the witchcraft persecutions in the Middle Ages (5th-14th centuries). 19th century
historians considered the Great Hunt an outburst of superstitious hysteria, fostered
and spread by the Catholic Church. "Naturally", therefore, the persecution
would be worst when the Church's power was the greatest: in the Middle Ages, before
the Reformation split "the" Church into warring Catholic and Protestant
sects. Certainly there were trials in the early modern period (15th-18th centuries),
but they must have been a pale shadow of the horrors that came before.
research has debunked this theory quite conclusively. Although many stereotypes about
witches pre-date Christianity, the lethal crazes of the Great Hunt were actually
the child of the "Age of Reason." Lamothe-Langon's forged trials were one
of the last stumbling blocks that kept the theory of medieval witch hunting alive,
and once these trials are removed, the development of witchcraft stereotypes becomes
much clearer. All pre-modern European societies believed in magick. As far as we
can tell, all passed laws prohibitting magickal crimes. Pagan Roman law and the earliest
Germanic and Celtic law codes all contain edicts that punish people who cast baneful
spells. This is only common sense: a society that believes in the power of magick
will punish people who abuse that power.
Many of the stereotypes about witches
have been with us from pre-Christian times. From the Mediterranean to Ireland, witches
were said to fly about at night, drinking blood, killing babies, and devouring human
corpses. We know this because many early Christian missionaries encouraged newly
converted kingdoms to pass laws protecting men and women from charges of witchcraft
-- charges, they said, that were impossible and un-Christian. For example, the 5th
century Synod of St. Patrick ruled that "A Christian who believes that there
is a vampire in the world, that is to say, a witch, is to be anathematized; whoever
lays that reputation upon a living being shall not be received into the Church until
he revokes with his own voice the crime that he has committed." A capitulary
from Saxony (775-790 CE) blamed these stereotypes on pagan belief systems: "If
anyone, deceived by the Devil, believes after the manner of the Pagans that any man
or woman is a witch and eats men, and if on this account he burns [the alleged witch]...
he shall be punished by capital sentence."
In the Middle Ages, the laws
on magick remained virtually unchanged. Harmful magick was punished, and the lethal
trials we know of tended to occur when a noble felt that he or she had been bewitched.
The Church also forbade magick and assigned relatively mild penalties to convicted
witches. For instance, the Confessional of Egbert (England, 950-1000 CE) said that
"If a woman works witchcraft and enchantment and [uses] magical philters, she
shall fast [on bread and water] for twelve months.... If she kills anyone by her
philters, she shall fast for seven years."
Traditional attitudes towards
witchcraft began to change in the 14th century, at the very end of the Middle Ages.
As Carlo Ginzburg noted (Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbat), early 14th
century central Europe was seized by a series of rumor-panics. Some malign conspiracy
(Jews and lepers, Moslems, or Jews and witches) was attempting to destroy the Christian
kingdoms through magick and poison. After the terrible devastation caused by the
Black Death (1347-1349) these rumors increased in intensity and focused primarily
on witches and "plague-spreaders".
Witchcraft cases increased slowly
but steadily from the 14th-15th century. The first mass trials appeared in the 15th
century. At the beginning of the 16th century, as the first shock-waves from the
Reformation hit, the number of witch trials actually dropped. Then, around 1550,
the persecution skyrocketed. What we think of as "the Burning Times" --
the crazes, panics, and mass hysteria -- largely occurred in one century, from 1550-1650.
In the 17th century, the Great Hunt passed nearly as suddenly as it had arisen. Trials
dropped sharply after 1650 and disappeared completely by the end of the 18th century.
b) Geography Before Lamothe-Langon's forgeries were discovered, the earliest
great hunts appeared to come from southern France. in an area once the home of the
Cathar heresy. This led some historians to suggest a link between Catharism and witchcraft,
that witches were the remnants of an old dualist faith. After you delete the forged
trials, the center of the early cases shifts to "Switzerland" and northern
Italy, away from Cathar lands.
When all trials are plotted on a map, other
surprising patterns emerge. First, the trials were intensely sporadic. The rate of
witch hunting varied dramatically throughout Europe, ranging from a high of 26,000
deaths in Germany to a low of 4 in Ireland. Robin Briggs' Witches and Neighbors can
give you a good feel for how erratic the trials were. It contains three maps showing
the distribution of trials throughout Europe, throughout Germany, and throughout
the French province of Lorraine, which Briggs studied in depth. They reveal that
some of the most enormous persecutions (like the panics of Wurzburg, Germany) occurred
next to areas that had virtually no trials whatsoever.
Second, the trials
were concentrated in central Europe, in Germany, Switzerland, and eastern France.
The further you got away from that area, the lower the persecution generally got.
Third, the height of the persecution occurred during the Reformation, when
the formerly unified Christian Church shattered into Catholic and Protestant sects.
In countries like Italy and Spain, where the Catholic Church and its Inquisition
reigned virtually unquestioned, witch hunting was uncommon. The worst panics took
place in areas like Switzerland and Germany, where rival Christians sects fought
to impose their religious views on each other.
Fourth, panics clustered around
borders. France's major crazes occurred on its Spanish and eastern fronts. Italy's
worst persecution was in the northern regi
Fifth, although it has become commonplace to think of the outbreaks of
witch hunting as malevolent pogroms imposed by evil elites, in reality the worst
horrors occured where central authority had broken down. Germany and Switzerland
were patchwork quilts, loose confederacies stitched together from dozens of independent
political units. England, which had a strong government, had little witch hunting.
The country's one and only craze took place during the English Civil War, when the
government's power collapsed. A strong, unified national church (as in Spain and
Italy) also tended to keep deaths to a minimum. Strong governments didn't always
slow witch hunting, as King James of Scotland proved. But the worst panics definitely
hit where both Church and State were weak.
c) Christianity's Role in the
Persecution For years, the responsibility for the Great Hunt has been dumped on the
Catholic Church's door-step. 19th century historians ascribed the persecution to
religious hysteria. And when Margaret Murray proposed that witches were members of
a Pagan sect, popular writers trumpeted that the Great Hunt was not a mere panic,
but rather a deliberate attempt to exterminate Christianity's rival religion.
we know that there is absolutely no evidence to support this theory. When the Church
was at the height of its power (11th-14th centuries) very few witches died. Persecutions
did not reach epidemic levels until after the Reformation, when the Catholic Church
had lost its position as Europe's indisputable moral authority. Moreover most of
the killing was done by secular courts. Church courts tried many witches but they
usually imposed non-lethal penalties. A witch might be excommunicated, given penance,
or imprisoned, but she was rarely killed. The Inquisition almost invariably pardoned
any witch who confessed and repented.
Consider the case in York, England,
as described by Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic). 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.
vast majority of witches were condemned by secular courts. Ironically, the worst
courts were local courts. Some authors, like Anne Llewellyn Barstow (Witchcraze),
blame the death toll on the decline of the "community-based" medieval court,
and the rise of the centralized "national" court. Nothing could be further
from the truth. "Community-based" courts were often virtual slaughterhouses,
killing 90% of all accused witches. National courts condemned only about 30% of the
Why were the execution rates so vastly different? Civil courts tended
to handle "black" witchcraft cases, trials involving charges of magickal
murder, arson, and other violent crimes. Church courts tried more "white"
witchcraft: cases of magickal healing, divination, and protective magick. Trial evidence
shows that courts always treated healing more leniently than cursing. Additionally,
secular and religious courts served two different purposes. Civil courts "protected"
society by punishing and killing convicted criminals. In theory, the Church's court
system was designed to "save" the criminal -- to make him or her a good
Christian once more. Only unrepentant sinners were to be executed. The differences
between local and national courts are also easy to explain. Witchcraft cases were
usually surrounded by general fear and public protests. "Community-based"
courts drew their officials from the community, the group of people affected by this
panic. National courts had more distance from the hysteria. Moreover national courts
tended to have professional, trained staff -- men who were less likely to discard
important legal safeguards in their haste to see "justice" done.
The Inquisition But what of the Inquisition? For many, the "Inquisition"
and the "Burning Times" are virtually synonymous. The myth of the witch-hunting
inquisition was built on several assumptions and mistakes, all of which have been
overturned in the last twenty-five years. First, the myth was the logical extension
of 19th century history, which blamed the persecutions on the Catholic Church. If
the Church attacked witches, surely the Inquisition would be the hammer She wielded.
Second, a common translation error muddied the waters. Many records simply
said that a witch was tried "by inquisition". Some writers assumed that
this meant "the" Inquisition. And in some cases it did. But an "inquisition"
was also the name of a type of trial used by almost all courts in Europe at the time.
Later, when historians examined the records in greater detail, they found that the
majority did not involve the Inquisition, merely an inquisition. Today most historians
are careful about this, but older and more popular texts (such as Rossell Hope Robbins'
Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology) still have the Inquisition killing witches
in times and places where it did not even exist.
Third, the only witch-hunting
manual most people have seen was written by an inquisitor. In the 1970's, when feminist
and Neo-Pagan authors turned their attention to the witch trials, the Malleus Maleficarum
(Hammer of Witches) was the only manual readily available in translation. Authors
naively assumed that the book painted an accurate picture of how the Inquisition
tried witches. Heinrich Kramer, the text's demented author, was held up as a typical
inquisitor. His rather stunning sexual preoccupations were presented as the Church's
"official" position on witchcraft. Actually the Inquisition immediately
rejected the legal procedures Kramer recommended and censured the inquisitor himself
just a few years after the Malleus was published. Secular courts, not inquisitorial
ones, resorted to the Malleus.
As more research was done and historians became
more sensitive to the "an inquisition/the Inquisition" error, the inquisitorial
witch-hunter began to look like a rare bird. Lamothe-Langon's trials were the last
great piece of "evidence", and when they fell, scholars re-examined the
Inquisition's role in the Burning Times. What they found was quite startling. In
1258 Pope Alexander IV explicitly refused to allow the Inquisition from investigating
charges of witchcraft: "The Inquisitors, deputed to investigate heresy, must
not intrude into investigations of divination or sorcery without knowledge of manifest
heresy involved." The gloss on this passage explained what "manifest heresy"
meant: "praying at the altars of idols, to offer sacrifices, to consult demons,
to elicit responses from them... or if [the witches] associate themselves publicly
with heretics." In other words, in the 13th century the Church did not consider
witches heretics or members of a rival religion.
It wasn't until 1326, almost
100 years later, that the Church reversed its position and allowed the Inquisition
to investigate witchcraft. But the only significant contribution that was made was
in the development of "demonology", the theory of the diabolic origin of
witchcraft. As John Tedeschi demonstrates in his essay "Inquisitorial Law and
the Witch" (in Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen's Early Modern European
Witchcraft) the Inquisition still played a very small role in the persecution. From
1326-1500, few deaths occurred. Richard Kieckhefer (European Witch Trials) found
702 definite executions in all of Europe from 1300-1500; of these, only 137 came
from inquisitorial or church courts. By the time that trials were common (early 16th
century) the Inquisition focused on the proto-Protestants. When the trials peaked
in the 16th and 17th century, the Inquisition was only operating in two countries:
Spain and Italy, and both had extremely low death tolls.
In fact, in Spain
the Inquisition worked diligently to keep witch trials to a minimum. Around 1609,
a French witch-craze triggered a panic in the Basque regions of Spain. Gustav Henningsen
(The Witches' Advocate) documented the Inquisition's work in brilliant detail. Although
several inquisitors believed the charges, one skeptic convinced La Suprema (the ruling
body of the Spanish Inquisition) that this was groundless hysteria. La Suprema responded
by issuing an "Edict of Silence" forbidding all discussion of witchcraft.
For, as the skeptical inquisitor noted, "There were neither witches nor bewitched
until they were talked and written about."
The Edict worked, quickly
dissipating the panic and accusations. And until the end of the Great Hunt, the Spanish
Inquisition insisted that it alone had the right to condemn witches -- which it refused
to do. Another craze broke out in Vizcaya, in 1616. When the Inquisition re-issued
the Edict of Silence, the secular authorities went over their head and petitioned
the king for the right to try witches themselves. The king granted the request, and
289 people were quickly sentenced. Fortunately the Inquisition managed to re-assert
its monopoly on trials and dismissed all the charges. The "witches" of
Cataluna were not so lucky. Secular authorities managed to execute 300 people before
the Inquisition could stop the trials.
e) The Witches Court records showed
that there was no such thing as an "average" witch: there was no characteristic
that the majority of witches shared, in all times and plac es. Not gender. Not wealth.
Not religion. Nothing. The only thing that united them was the fact that they were
accused of witchcraft. The diversity of witches is one of the strongest arguments
against the theory that the Great Hunt was a deliberate pogrom aimed at a specific
group of people. If that was true, then most witches would have something in common.
We can isolate certain factors that increased a person's odds of being accused.
Most witches were women. Many were poor or elderly; many seem to be unmarried. Most
were alienated from their neighbors, or seen as "different" and disliked.
But there is no evidence that one group was targeted. Traditional magick users might
have a slightly higher chance of being accused of witchcraft, but the vast majority
of known "white" witches were never charged.
Before trial evidence
was available, there were two major theories on who the witches were. Margaret Murray
(The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches) proposed that witches
were members of a Pagan sect that worshipped the Horned God. Murray's research was
exceptionally poor, and occasionally skated into out-right textual manipulation.
She restricted her studies to our worst evidence: witch hunting propaganda and trials
that involved copious amounts of torture. She then assumed that such evidence was
basically accurate, and that the Devil was "really" a Pagan god. None of
these assumptions have held up under scrutiny.
In 1973, Barbara Ehrenreich
and Deirdre English suggested that most witches were mid-wives and female healers.
Their book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses convinced many feminists and Pagans that
the Great Hunt was a pogrom aimed at traditional women healers. The Church and State
sought to break the power of these women by accusing them of witchcraft, driving
a wedge of fear between the wise-woman and her clients.
The evidence for
this theory was -- and is -- completely anecdotal. Authors cited a number of cases
involving healers, then simply assumed that this was what the "average"
trial was like. However a mere decade after Witches, Midwives, and Nurses was published,
we knew that this was not true. Healers made up a small percentage of the accused,
usually between 2% and 20%, depending on the country. There was never a time or a
place where the majority of accused witches were healers. In 1990, D. Harley's article,
"Historians as demonologists: the myth of the midwife-witch" (in Social
History of Medicine 3 (1990), pp. 1-26.) demonstrated that being a licensed midwife
actually decreased a woman's changes of being charged.
And there was worse
to come. Feminist and Pagan writers presented the healer-witch as the innocent, enlightened
victim of the evil male witch hunters. Trials showed that as often as not, the "white"
witch was an avid supporter of the "Burning Times." Diane Purkiss (The
Witch in History) pointed out that "midwives were more likely to be found helping
witch-hunters" than as victims of their inquiries. How did witches become witch-hunters?
By blaming illnesses on their rivals. Feminist authors rightly lambasted male doctors
who blamed unexplained illnesses on witches. Trial records suggest that this did
happen, though not terribly often. If you look at doctors' case books you find that
in most cases doctors found natural causes when people thought they were bewitched.
When they did diagnose witchcraft, doctors almost never blamed a particular healer
or witch. They were trying to explain their failure, not to destroy some individual.
Traditional healers and "white" witches routinely blamed diseases
on witchcraft. For a doctor, diagnosing "witchcraft" was admitting failure.
Medicine could do nothing against magick, and doctors were loathe to admit that they
were powerless against a disease. However baneful magick was the forte of the helpful
(or "white" witch). Folk healers regularly blamed illnesses on magick and
offered counter-spells to cure their patients. Many were even willing to divine the
name of the cursing witch, for a fee.
f) Gender Issues One basic fact about
the Great Witch Hunt stands out: most of the people accused were women. Even during
the Hunt itself, commentators noticed this. Some speculated that there were 10,000
female witches for every male witch, and a host of misogynist explanations were trotted
out to account for this fact. Later, the predominance of women led some feminists
to theorize that "witch" and "woman" were virtually synonymous,
that the persecution was caused by Europe's misogyny.
75% -80% of the accused were women. However this percentage varied dramatically.
In several of the Scandinavian countries, equal numbers of men and women were accused.
In Iceland over 90% of the accused were men. Central Europe killed the most witches,
and it killed many more women than men -- this is why the overall percentages are
so badly skewed.
Proponents of the misogyny theory generally ignore these
variations. Many simply do not discuss male witches. One of the most egregious examples
comes from Anne Llewellyn Barstow's Witchcraze. Barstow says that Iceland did not
have a "real" witch hunt. Now, Iceland killed more witches than Ireland,
Russia, and Portugal combined. Barstow claims that all these countries had "real"
hunts, and offers no explanation of what made Iceland's deaths "unreal".
The only thing that I can see is that almost all Icelandic witches were men, and
Barstow's theory cannot handle that.
Given the sexism of the times, it's not difficult to find shockingly misogynist
witch trials. But misogyny does not explain the trial patterns we see. The beginning
and end of the persecution don't correlate to any notable shifts in women's rights.
Trials clustered around borders -- are borders more misogynist than interior regions?
Ireland killed four witches, Scotland a couple thousand -- are the Scots that much
more sexist? Barstow admits that Russia was every bit as misogynist as Germany, yet
it killed only ten witches. Her theory can't explain why, and so she simply insists
that there were probably lots of other Russian witches killed and they were probably
mostly women. We've just lost all the evidence that would support her theory.
Nine Million to Forty Thousand
The most dramatic changes in our vision of
the Great Hunt centered on the death toll. Back before trial surveys were available,
estimates of the death toll were almost 100% pure speculation. The only thing our
literary evidence told us was that a lot of witches died. Witch hunting propaganda
talked about thousands and thousands of executions. Literature focused on crazes,
the largest and most sensational trials around. But we had no idea how accurate the
literary evidence was, or how common trials actually were. So early death toll estimates,
which ranged from several hundred thousand up to a high of nine million, were simply
people trying to guess how much "a lot" of witches was.
the process is completely different. Historians begin by counting all the executions/trials
listed in an area's court records. Next they estimate how much evidence we've lost:
what years and courts we're missing data for. Finally they survey the literary evidence,
to see if any large witch trials occurred during the gaps in the evidence. There's
still guess-work involved in today's estimates and many areas have not yet been systematically
studied. But we now have a solid data-base to build our estimates from, and our figures
are getting more specific as further areas are studied.
When the first trial
record studies were completed, it was obvious that early estimates were fantastically
high. Trial evidence showed that witch crazes were not everyday occurrences, as literature
suggested. In fact most countries only had one or two in all of the Great Hunt.
date, less than 15,000 definite executions have been discovered in all of Europe
and America combined. (If you would like a table of the recorded and estimated death
tolls throughout Europe, and a full list of the sources for these figures, send me
a note at email@example.com.) Even though
many records are missing, it is now clear that death tolls higher than 100,000 are
Three scholars have attempted to calculate the total death
toll for the Great Hunt using the new evidence. Brian Levack (The Witch Hunt in Early
Modern Europe) surveyed regional studies and found that there were approximately
110,000 witch trials. Levack focused on recorded trials, not executions, because
in many cases we have evidence that a trial occurred but no indication of its outcome.
On average, 48% of trials ended in an execution, therefore he estimated that 60,000
witches died. This is slightly higher than 48% to reflect the fact that Germany,
the center of the persecution, killed more than 48% of its witches.
Hutton (The Pagan Religions of the British Isles and "Counting the Witch Hunt",
an unpublished essay) used a different methodology. First he surveyed the regional
studies and counted up the number of estimated deaths they contained. When he ran
into an uncounted area, he looked for a counted area which matched it as closely
as possible, in terms of population, culture, and the intensity of witch hunting
mentioned in literary evidence. He then assumed that the uncounted area would kill
roughly as many witches as the counted area. Using this technique, he estimated that
40,000 witches died in the Great Hunt.
Anne Llewellyn Barstow (Witchcraze)
estimated that 100,000 witches died, but her reasoning was flawed. Barstow began
with Levack's 60,000 deaths. Then she increased it to 100,000 for two reasons: 1)
To compensate for lost records; and 2) Because new trials are still being found.
This may sound reasonable, but it's not. The 110,000 estimated witch trials
that Levack based his calculations on already did contain a large allowance for lost
records. Barstow was apparently unaware of this, and added more deaths for no good
reason. Her point about new trials is true, but irrelevant. Yes, more deaths are
being discovered each year. But the more we find, the lower the death toll goes.
This makes sense once you understand how historians make their estimates. "New"
trials aren't trials we never dreamed existed. They appear when we count areas and
courts that haven't been counted before. Historians have always known that our data
was imperfect, and they always included estimates for lost trials. So when you find
"new" executions, you can't simply add them to the total death toll: you
also have to subtract the old estimate they're replacing. And since old estimates
were generally far too high, newly "found" trials usually end up lowering
the death toll.
Why It Matters
These changes make it critically
important to use up-to-date research if you're investigating historical witchcraft.
We have perhaps 20 times as much information as we had two decades ago. Witchcraft
studies has also become an inter-disciplinary field. Once the domain of historians
alone, it now attracts anthropologists and sociologists who offer radically new interpretations
of the Great Hunt. Anthropologists point out the ubiquity of witchcraft beliefs,
demonstrating that the Great Hunt was not an exclusively European phenomenon. Sociologists
draw chilling parallels between the Great Hunt and recent panics over Satanic cults,
evidence which hints that we're still not out of the shadow of the Burning Times.
We Neopagans now face a crisis. As new data appeared, historians altered
their theories to account for it. We have not. Therefore an enormous gap has opened
between the academic and the "average" Pagan view of witchcraft. We continue
to use of out-dated and poor writers, like Margaret Murray, Montague Summers, Gerald
Gardner, and Jules Michelet. We avoid the somewhat dull academic texts that present
solid research, preferring sensational writers who play to our emotions. For example,
I have never seen a copy of Brian Levack's The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe
in a Pagan bookstore. Yet half the stores I visit carry Anne Llewellyn Barstow's
Witchcraze, a deeply flawed book which has been ignored or reviled by most scholarly
We owe it to ourselves to study the Great Hunt more honestly,
in more detail, and using the best data available. Dualistic fairy tales of noble
witches and evil witch hunters have great emotional appeal, but they blind us to
what happened. And what could happen, today. Few Pagans commented on the haunting
similarities between the Great Hunt and America's panic over Satanic cults. Scholars
noticed it; we didn't. We say "Never again the Burning!" But if we don't
know what happened the first time, how are we ever going to prevent it from happening
Jenny Gibbons has an M.A. in
medieval history and minored in the history of the Great Hunt. You can contact her
at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article originally
appeared in issue #5 of the Pomegranate (Lammas, 1998). Reprinted with permission.
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Last Updated October 13, 1999