Common Misconceptions: The Death Toll

To: all
From: Jenny
Date: 20 Jan 1998
Time: 14:24:42


C. Death Toll 1. The death toll of the Burning Times is terribly controversial. No one really knows how many Witches died. 2. Nine million Witches were martyred in the Burning Times. 3. The estimated death toll is increasing as more and more trials are discovered.

C1. The death toll of the Burning Times is terribly controversial. No one really knows how many Witches died.

There's a lot of confusion and misinformation about the death toll of the Burning Times -- but it's not terribly controversial. Historians are confident that somewhere between 40,000 - 60,000 Witches died. There's an outside possibility that the death toll went as high as 100,000, but most scholars believe it was closer to 50,000.

Now, the death toll *was* controversial up until the 1980's. Before that time, estimates were 100% pure guesswork. Scholars had little solid evidence to base their figures on, merely Witch-hunting propaganda and scattered trial reports. As a result, estimates varied wildly, from a low of 10,000 to a high of nine million. However in the late '70's, historians began systematically studying the trial records of various countries. Instead of just guessing how many Scottish Witches died, they went in and counted up the number of executions recorded in the Scottish courts. Because of this new data, we're now fairly sure that somewhere between 40,000 - 100,000 Witches died. There's still a lot of guesswork involved in estimating the death toll, but far less than there used to be. As a result, the death toll of the Burning Times is no longer controversial -- at least in academic circles.

There still is a lot of controversy amongst non-academics. Many popular writers don't know about the new evidence revealed in trial records, and they don't understand why scholars are now insisting that "only" tens of thousands of Witches died. (For more on this new info, see the death toll sheets.) Therefore there's a ton of misinformation and out-dated information floating about in non-academic texts. But again, experts are quite sure that the death toll fell in the 40,000 - 100,000 range. And as more and more areas are thoroughly studied in the years to come, we'll be able to narrow that range down even further.

C2. Nine million Witches were martyred in the Burning Times.

Scholars estimate that approximately 40,000 - 60,000 Witches died in the Burning Times. Some guess as many as 100,000 may have been killed, but we're quite sure that the death toll was not much greater than that.

Early estimates of the death toll were based on Witch hunting propaganda, on the biased and inaccurate manuals of Witch hunters. Using these sources, scholars used to guess that 300,000 to 1,000,000 Witches died in the Burning Times. Once historians began studying actual court records, however, they realized that the death toll was much lower.

The Nine Million Martyrs were the invention of Matilda Gage, a 19th century feminist. In her book _Women, Church, and State_, Gage guessed that as many as nine million Witches died. Now, Gage had not studied the Burning Times in detail, nor did she cite any evidence to support her estimate. Moreover, she wrote long before historians had access to reliable information about the death toll. Her number is no more than a rough guess, concocted by a person who had no reliable data to go on. It was far higher than anyone else's estimate, even back in her day when all estimates were incredibly high.

Unfortunately Gage's figure entered modern Witchcraft, by two different routes. Gerald Gardner used it in his Witchcraft museum in the 1950's. Later, feminists rediscovered Gage's book, and her myth spread amongst feminist Witches. Today, you can find many sources which cite this figure. But if you look at them closely, you'll notice something strange: no one ever provides any evidence to back this figure up. That's because there isn't any. There are less than 20,000 executions recorded in Europe. We know we've lost some records, but we're quite sure we haven't lost 8,980,000 of them!

C3. The estimated death toll is increasing as more and more trials are discovered.

The exact opposite is true -- the death toll is decreasing as more and more trials are discovered.

Now, that's terribly counter-intuitive. Why would the death toll go down when you find more executions? Is this some kind of "New Math"?

If historians simply reported the number of executions, more deaths would obviously mean a higher death toll. But that isn't what scholars do. They can't -- they know that we're missing many court records and that several areas have never been thoroughly studied. Because of this, scholars compensate for lost records and missing data. That's why if you look at the table of estimated deaths, you'll see that the estimated death toll is about three times as high as the number of recorded executions.

Why do new trials have little impact on the death toll? Because they're replacing estimates. These newly discovered deaths aren't trials we never dreamed existed -- they come from previously unstudied areas and courts. When you "add" those new trials to the total, you also have to "subtract" the estimated deaths that scholars used to add for this same area. And since older estimates tended to be extremely high, new trial data usually ends up decreasing the death toll.

Let me give you an example. Before Poland's Witch trials were counted, Bohdan Baranowski guessed that 15,000 Polish Witches died. Today, Polish historians are studying the Polish court records. They've found several hundred executions, and assume that the final death toll will be approximately 1,000. When their research is done, we will have "discovered" maybe 500 new trials. But the death toll for the Burning Times will *drop* by 14,000 because we didn't find as many trials as we expected to.