Date: 16 Jan 1998
I'm finally getting around to doing the "Common Misconceptions" entries for the FAQ section, and thought I'd post them here, too.
1. Witch hunting began with the rise of Christianity.
2. The Christian conversion of Western Europe greatly accelerated the Witch trials.
3. Persecution was worst in the Middle Ages.
A1. Witch hunting began with the rise of Christianity.
Witches were killed in all Pagan European societies. Most of the people killed were convicted of criminal spell-casting: of assaulting or murdering people by magick. Common sense decrees that when a country believes in the power of magick, it will punish people who misuse their magick. In this respect, early Christian countries were no different from their Pagan predecessors. Throughout the Middle Ages, Witches were usually only killed if they were accused of harming someone with their magick.
A2. The Christian conversion of Western Europe greatly accelerated the Witch trials.
There's no evidence that the Christian conversion of Western Europe increased Witch hunting. In fact, what little evidence we do have suggests that the new religion initially decreased the number of deaths.
Most of the Witches who were killed before the Burning Times were convicted magickal criminals. They were found guilty of cursing, poisoning, or using spells to manipulate the king. Some of these people were undoubtedly innocent, but there's no reason to assume that they all were. Today, there are many people who misuse their magick, and people in the past were no more saintly than we are! The arrival of Christianity had no impact on this sort of trial. Baneful magick was illegal in Christian kingdoms, just as it was in Pagan ones.
However there was a rarer type of trial that Christianity actually helped suppress! Several Pagan cultures believed in malevolent, nocturnal spirits which often appeared in female form. These beings roamed the night drinking blood (like the Mediterranean Striga) or pressing sleepers to death (like the Germanic "mare" or "nightmare"). Real, living women were occasionally accused of being these types of "Witches" -- and the penalty for this was usually death. Amongst several of the Germanic tribes, these "Witches" were generally burned.
To Christians, mares, strigae, and lamiae were silly Pagan superstitions. Therefore the Church urged Christian kings to forbid their subjects from killing woman accused of being mares or cannibal spirits. The laws of the Pactus Alamannorum (613-623 CE) created penalties for people who lynched Witches. Another law (the Edict of Rothari from 643) insisted that it was un-Christian and insane to accuse women of these things.
Laws like this suggest that Christianity's arrival initially decreased Witch hunting rather than increasing it. Moreover the Church tried most Witches during the Middle Ages, and the Church's penalties were fairly mild. (See the library article on Penitentials for examples.)
A3. Persecution was worst in the Middle Ages.
The worst persecution occurred in the Early Modern Period, from 1550 - 1650.
Few Witches died in the Middle Ages. Witch hunting was rare before the 14th century, when the Inquisition decided that Witchcraft was a form of heresy. After that, the number of Witch trials slowly increased from 1300 to 1500. Then, during the Reformation of the 16th century, the rate of persecution skyrocketed. Persecution was worst from 1550 - 1650. Witch trials dropped dramatically in the last half of the 17th century, then continued slowly decreasing until they virtually disappeared by the end of the 18th century.