Falsehoods of the Burning Times
By Arthur Hinds
It is common knowledge in the Pagan community that during the Middle Ages the Catholic Church burned alive nine million witches in an attempt to destroy the Old Religion. This "common knowledge" is a lie on all counts
This "truth" is repeated often and with much emotion. It has become a source of slogans and fight songs for Pagan warriors striving for acceptance and religious freedom. It is a powerful legend of persecution and perseverance and it is a lie. I make that assertion in such a strong fashion not to insult anyone, but to fracture a false and deeply embedded belief.
Let us begin with the most glaring error. Even allowing for lost records, reliable scholars say that no more than 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft in all of Europe. Roughly half of these people were executed. 60,000 people killed is 60,00 too many, but if this figure is off by a factor of 10, or even 100, it would still not equal 9 million. There simply were not that many people executed as witches. So where does that number come from?
The earliest reference to 9 million that I can find is from the witchcraft museum once owned by Gerald Gardner on the Isle of Man. Gardner bought the museum from a man named Cecil Williamson in 1952. In 1951 Williamson had put up a memorial to "the estimated nine million people killed during the witch persecutions in Europe."
Where did Williamson get this figure from? It is unlikely that he had court records unavailable to scholars before or since. Perhaps Williamson was given this number by someone he trusted and he just didn't check it out for himself.
Maybe CecilWilliamson simply made it up. That is the most likely explanation. Perhaps he wanted the witch persecutions to sound even worse than the Holocaust. We may never know for sure who lied and why, but we can be certain that the number is wrong.
We generally have an image of the Spanish Inquisition interrogating witch after witch and sentencing them to death. The Spanish Inquisition, and their blood thirsty brethren elsewhere, were concerned with heresy, not witchcraft. In fact, until the fourteenth century the Church considered it heresy to even believe that witches could exist--God simply would not allow such evil to live. The Burning Times was not the pet project of the medieval Church.
While it is true that some people were killed for practicing harmful magic in the Ages, the vast majority of victims met their fate in the Early Modern period of European history. We're talking about 1450 to 1750, the time of the "Renaissance" and "Enlightenment." The prosecutions came not in a steady stream of accusations but in waves. The greatest numbers occurred from 1450 to 1500 and 1580 to 1650. There was a final and blessed decline in the late 1600s through the 1700s. Salem caught the tail end of the beast
The beast that was the witch craze was controlled, if such a thing could be controlled, by the Reformation and Counter Reformation. It was the zealots of the new denominations that sparked the real witch hunting. Reformers spread out into the countryside to rid the earth of pagan influenced Catholicism. The Catholic Church had treated many holdover pagan practices in a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy. When the reformers started their campaign, the Catholic Church responded by doing the same thing --as if trying to show that they were as "bad ass" as the Protestant upstarts.
It was mainly a battle of individual zealots, and the effects were quite spotty. There was no countrywide sweep looking for Satan worship. There was no Big Brother checking everyone's ID cards. Only in Germany and Poland was the horror widespread. There were many determined reformers in these lands, and so these countries claimed the greatest number of deaths the greatest number of convicted "devil worshipers?"
Who were these "devil worshipers" sentenced to death? Most of the convicted were women who lived alone and independent of male control. Many of them were beggars and midwives. This position of independence was very threatening to the status quo. A beggar who was refused charity might mumble oaths beneath her breath. If a cow died the next day, week, or month, surely it was from a curse the beggar had laid upon the refuser. If a mother or baby died during childbirth, who better to blame than the midwife. Widows with land, women who refused marriage proposals, and women who dared to speak up for better treatment might be fair game. Once the accusations started in a community, independent women had every right to be afraid .
This is not to say that there were no practitioners of the old ways put to death. I am sure that many of the victims held what we would call pagan beliefs. I am saying that, all in all, that is not the real reason that most of them were killed. It was for political and social- reform reasons. Of course, these are still not very good reasons for killing 60,000 people.
The most poignant scene we have of the Burning Times is of the cries from the victims tied to the stake as they waited to burn and the screams of unimaginable pain as they did so. Thankfully, this vision is also mostly incorrect. Only in Spain and Italy, both countries with relatively few witchcraft executions, was this the normal practice. In France, Germany, Switzerland, and Scotland, almost all of the executed were garroted before the flames were lit. In England most convicted witches were hung and not all of them were put to death.
The Burning Times was a horrible period of history. Nothing I have said changes that.
If you lived in a village of 800 souls, and a fifth of them were accused of witchcraft and 30 people were put to death, what would that do to your community? If you had no one accused of witchcraft, but heard that in the village over the mountain they had 30 people put to death, what would that do to your community? How long would it take for the scars to heal? How long before people felt safe to speak their minds again?
Would anyone defy the new preacher who said that maypoles were tools of the devil, that sex for the fertility of the fields was sinful, that bagpipes encouraged fornication and so were instruments of the Enemy?
It must be said that there were some villages where the inhabitants banded together and met the witch hunters at the edge of their village. With pitchforks and hatchets they denied them entrance, saying, "Not here--Not now!" The Burning Times was indeed an abomination, and tit needs no embellishments to be worthy of remembrance. We do not need to spread falsehood to prevent their recurrence. Truth is a greater weapon, and we know how to use it. Let us be as those courageous villagers were and say, "Not here--Not now!"
Bydd Dedwydd! Blessed Be