"The Burning Times" are a period in the late Middle Ages and early Modern Era when Witches were persecuted fiercely throughout Europe. The phrase first appears in the writings of 20th century Witches. Historians generally refer to the Burning Times as "the great European Witch hunt" or "the European Witch-craze".
Today, Witchcraft is a nature-oriented religion. Historically, the word "Witch" simply referred to someone with magickal power. Any magick-user might be called a Witch regardless of their religion. There were Catholic Witches, Protestant Witches, and Pagan Witches -- and Witches who didn't fit neatly into any of those pigeon-holes!
Unfortunately, historians use the word "Witch" quite differently than most people do. When historians talk about Witches, they generally mean "magickal criminals" (people accused of using harmful magick) or diabolists (people accused of worshipping the Christian Devil). "White" Witches are called "simple sorcerers" instead.
The difference between the academic and common meanings of "Witch" creates a great deal of confusion. History books on Witchcraft only give you half the story: they tell you what life was like for Witches who were accused of diabolism or criminal spell casting. They *don't* tell you what life was like for the average healer, diviner, wise woman, fairy doctor, or cunning man -- because most modern historians don't consider these folk "real" Witches! Readers wrongly assume that all Witches faced the kinds of persecution and horror displayed in the Witchcraft trials.
From 1300 to 1800. Some historians study only the height of the trials (1550-1650), the time when crazes and panics swept Europe. Most, however, begin their study in the 14th century, when Christians first designated Witchcraft a form of heresy.
Before 1300, Witch trials were rare. The only type of Witchcraft punished harshly in the Middle Ages was harmful magick Medievals focused on what you did with your magick. To them, it didn't really matter whether you killed someone with a spell or a sword. Either way, you were a murderer. All this changed in the 14th century when Christian theologians began to diabolize Witchcraft, to insist that there was no such thing as a neutral or non-heretical Witch. Under these new theories, Witches weren't simply people with unusual powers: they were Satanists who traded their souls to the Devil in exchange for worldly power.
Worse, by the 15th century some Christian scholars theorized that Witches belonged to an enormous, Satanic conspiracy. During the Middle Ages, Christians thought that Witches worked alone or in isolated, small groups. Witches were "misguided" victims of "Pagan superstitions" but they weren't particularly dangerous. In the early modern period, however, Christian intellectuals theorized that all Witches worked together, that they were an organized, murderous conspiracy -- the deadly enemies of Christianity. Fear of this non-existent conspiracy grew slowly over the next 150 years, and the number of Witch trials gradually increased during the 14th and 15th centuries.
But the height of the persecution came with the Reformation of the 16th century. Increasing corruption in the Church angered many Christians, and eventually protesters (called "Protestants") split off from the Catholic Church and formed their own churches. This division, called the Reformation, triggered a century of intense religious warfare and persecution.
And intense Witch hunting. For reasons we don't fully understand, the Reformation caused the number of Witch trials to skyrocket. Before the Reformation, there were a couple mass trials, but trials tended to be small and isolated. During the Reformation, enormous panics (Witch crazes) swept most European nations. Persecution was worst from 1550-1650. It slowed from 1650 to 1700 and fell to a trickle in the 18th century (in most countries, anyway). The last European Witch was executed in 1793.
Throughout Europe and in the British American colonies. The persecution was most intense in central Europe, and generally got lighter the further you traveled away from that area.
The worst Witch-hunting occurred in Germany, Switzerland, France, Scotland, and (perhaps) Poland. Thousands of Witches were killed in each of these countries. Germany was the worst hit. Approximately one half of all Witches killed in the Burning Times were German -- an estimated 25,000 people all told.
Moderate Witch-hunting occurred in England, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. In all of these countries, hundreds of Witches died. Portugal, Ireland, Iceland, the Baltic countries, Russia and America all killed less than 100 Witches.
For a complete list of the executions recorded in various countries, click here.
Probably between 40,000 and 60,000. Some scholars estimate that as many as 100,000 people may have died, but that's as high as current estimates go.
Early estimates were much higher. When we had little information on the Witch trials, scholars used to guess that hundreds of thousands of Witches died. However between 1977 and 1981 a flood of new information became available. Because of it, scholarly estimates dropped from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. (See the sections on the death toll for more on this new data and its impact.)
Unfortunately, many popular writers aren't aware of this new information. They cling to the older, more sensational numbers, not realizing how little evidence there is to support them. As a result, there is a ton of misinformation available and you will hear wildly unrealistic estimates of the death toll of the Burning Times. But again, experts generally agree that the death toll fell between 40,000 and 60,000; a few guess that as many as 100,000 died.
Anyone could be accused of Witchcraft. Not even the Pope was safe -- Boniface VIII was accused in 1303. However there are a few generalizations that we can make about the "average" Witch.
Most Witches were women. Women made up approximately 80% of the accused, though this varied dramatically in different times and places. Men were more common in the early trials, comprising a third of those accused before 1500. Some northern countries killed as many men as women, or even more. In Iceland, for instance, 95% of the Witches killed were men. But the centers of the persecution killed far more women than men, sometimes as many as 20 women for every one man.
Accused Witches came from all religions. The majority appear to have been Christians, a smaller number were Pagan or Christo-Pagan. Witches were mainly poor. However some countries allowed a Witch hunter to confiscate his victim's property and in those areas, rich Witches were not uncommon. A significant number of Witches were healers or mid-wives. Percentages vary, but in most areas 20% - 30% of the people accused of Witchcraft either healed or used some form of magick. Elderly people, unmarried women and widows were attacked more frequently.
Why are Witches such a diverse lot? Why can't we pinpoint one characteristic that all Witches in all places shared? Because the Witch hunters weren't persecuting a real group of people. Europeans believed they were threatened by a Satanic conspiracy. There was no conspiracy, so there were no real conspirators for them to assault. Instead, they lashed out at anybody who bore the slightest resemblance to their stereotypes of Satanists.
Satan granted his followers magickal powers and great knowledge -- so mid-wives, magicians, diviners, healers, and scholars were accused. Satan was the father of heresy -- so Pagans, Christo-Pagans, and Christian heretics were killed. Satan encouraged all evils, especially sexual ones -- so gays, sexually independent women, criminals, and "loose" or beautiful women fell under suspicion. All suffering and ugliness was of the Devil, and that made the elderly, the plain, and the handicapped suspect.
Everyone. All segments of European society supported the Witch trials: the Church, the Inquisition, secular government, intellectuals, the "common" folk, healers and doctors. Shockingly, even Witches themselves supported the Burning Times.
a) The Church The Christian Church fostered the intense religious intolerance which bred the persecution. Beginning in 1022, the Church started executing "heretics", people who disagreed with its teachings. So when the Burning Times began, Europeans were accustomed to murdering religious dissidents. In fact the traditional method of killing a Witch (burning her at the stake) was the "normal" way of executing heretics.
Witch-hunting was directly linked to religious intolerance. The persecution peaked during the Reformation, one of the worst periods of religious warfare Europe ever experienced. Witch hunting was most intense in religiously divided areas (e.g., Germany and Switzerland) or along the borders where countries with different religions met (e.g., eastern France and northern Italy, both of which bordered Germany).
The Church can honestly say that it killed few Witches. Most religious courts imposed non-lethal penalties, like penance or imprisonment. However the Church encouraged the intolerance and stereotyping that caused the trials, and its custom of murdering dissidents was the direct impetus for executing Witches.
The Inquisition played a small but critical role in the Burning Times. Contrary to what you may have heard, the Inquisition killed very few Witches. The Inquisition investigated charges of Witchcraft from roughly 1300 to 1500, a time when the death rate was quite low. After the Reformation, the Inquisition did not operate in most European nations. So when panics and crazes were sweeping Europe, the Inquisition only existed in two countries: Spain and Italy. Both had low death tolls. In fact the Spanish Inquisition had the best execution rate in all of the Burning Times, killing less than 1% of accused Witches. (See Common Misconceptions for more on why people wrongly assume that inquisitors were fierce Witch hunters.)
That does not mean that the Inquisition's hands were clean. The Holy Office played a crucial role in the persecutions: it diabolized Witchcraft. Inquisitors defined Witchcraft as a heresy, not a Pagan "superstition." That one word spelled the difference between life and death. Superstition was a minor sin, meriting no more than a mild penance. Heretics were killed. Inquisitors like Heinrich Kramer (author of the _Malleus Maleficarum_) wrote the earliest Witch hunting manuals, tracts that spread the fear of Witchcraft throughout Europe. Finally the Inquisition eliminated the good Witch. It insisted that all Witches got their powers from the Devil. There was no such thing as a good or neutral Witch. Even people who healed and divined had sold their souls to Satan.
Secular governments did most of the killing in the Burning Times. Lucky Witches were tried by the Church -- the truly damned had to appear before a secular court. Non-religious courts had the worst acquittal rates. Local tribunals were often virtual slaughterhouses, killing up to 90% of the accused. National courts (run by professional judges) killed around 30%. By comparison, religious courts often killed less than 1% of the people they tried. Secular courts also tried far more Witches than religious ones did. Most of the great Witch crazes were carried out by secular officials.
Most intellectuals supported the Burning Times. There were a handful of brave critics like squire Reginald Scot or doctor Johann Weyer. But most jurists, lawyers, and upper class people accepted and supported the trials.
In fact, after the 15th century Witch hunting manuals were predominantly written by non-religious intellectuals. The earliest manuals came from inquisitors like Heinrich Kramer, Bernard Gui, and Johannes Nider. But when the Reformation arose, the Inquisition turned its attention to hunting Protestants, not Witches. So non-religious intellectuals stepped in to take the Inquisition's place. Men like King James of Scotland, judge Pierre de Lancre, and legal professor Jean Bodin wrote the manuals which were most popular at the height of the persecution.
Witch hunting enjoyed intense, wide-spread popular support. Peasants and common folk were active participants in the trials. They -- not professional Witch hunters -- initiated most trials. The "folk" were the most common witnesses against Witches, and they usually cooperated with officials freely. It seems people were happy for a chance to "strike back" against the Witches they believed had cursed their children and livestock.
Witchcraft titillated and fascinated the public. Trials were public spectacles, often attended by hundreds or even thousands of cheering spectators. When the Spanish Inquisition killed six Witches in 1610, over 30,000 people came to watch. The Inquisition had to build special bleachers to hold all the commoners who wanted to see these Witches die. Books on Witch hunting sold like hot cakes. Witch hunting manuals were among the earliest books printed and in England, cheap pamphlet accounts of Witch trials made up a significant portion of the earliest popular literature.
Lynching and vigilantism are the foulest indicators of popular support for Witch hunting. The folk frequently took the law into their own hands when they thought that the courts weren't killing Witches fast enough. Scholars estimate that in some areas as many as 20% - 50% of all Witches were murdered by their neighbors. More commonly, people brutalized suspected Witches. They slashed their faces open with knives, hoping to break a "curse." They murdered Witches' "familiars", threw rocks at their houses, held them underwater until they promised to remove their "hexes." Mob violence lingered on long after the upper classes stopped trying Witches. In fact, Witches continue to be lynched to this very day, though much more rarely than in the past.
Medical knowledge was pretty remedial in the Burning Times. When a professional healer couldn't cure a disease, he or she often blamed the sickness on Witchcraft. Many writers lambaste doctors for doing this, but wise-women and cunning-men did it just as commonly. Witches weren't the scapegoats of the male "medical establishment" alone; female healers blamed their failures on Witches, too.
This is not to say that most healers were Witch hunters -- many opposed the Burning Times fiercely. Doctors like John Cotta and Johann Weyer wrote scathing criticisms of the Witch trials. Geneva's trials came to a stand-still after the city's surgeons refused to find Witches' marks. A court physician convinced Empress Maria Theresa to outlaw Witch trials in Hungary. And by examining early doctors' case books, we can see that physicians normally found natural explanations for diseases. English doctor Richard Napier had 120 people visit him, complaining that they were the victims of Witchcraft. He found natural causes for all of their illnesses -- no Witch trials resulted from any of these charges.
g) The Witches
Witches actively supported the Burning Times. This may come as a terrible shock to modern Witches. We're used to thinking of ourselves as the innocent victims of the persecution, not as the persecutors. But copious amounts of trial and literary evidence reveal that we stood on both sides of the fence.
During the Burning Times, most people believed that there were two types of Witches: "white" Witches and "black" Witches. (Some Christian extremists disagreed, insisting that all Witches were equally "black".) "White" Witches healed and removed hexes, "black" Witches cursed and killed. Witches generally considered themselves "white" or "good" Witches -- they knew they weren't the type of malevolent Witches the Church raved about. But they were willing to believe that there really was a conspiracy of Satanic Witches, somewhere "out there". And they were willing to accuse their neighbors of belonging to that conspiracy.
Witches supported the Burning Times in two ways. 1) Healing Witches routinely blamed diseases on baneful magick -- more commonly, even, than doctors did. 2) Witches confirmed bewitchment. When a person suspected he was cursed, the standard way of checking was to ask a "white" Witch. Using divination, the Witch would tell him if another Witch was responsible for his misfortunes. If so, the "good" Witch would break the curse and usually divine the name of the "bad" Witch. In many of these cases, their clients turned around and pressed charges against the "bad" Witch. More frequently, they simply went home and harassed or assaulted their maligned neighbor. In either case, the "white" Witch bears part of the blame for the "black" Witch's persecution and/or death. Her "expertise" transformed a farmer's vague fears into a confident "knowledge" that he had been cursed.
The way that "white" Witches treated their "black" sisters in the Burning Times has some chilling echoes in our modern day. For more information on this, click here.
No one knows. For centuries, people have been searching for a simple, logical explanation for the Burning Times. No one's ever found one.
Numerous simple explanations have been proposed. Most are blame-oriented, seeking to shift responsibility for the persecution onto one group of scapegoats. These theories are extremely dualistic, dividing the world into "Good Guys" and "Bad Guys". Evil Christians persecuted good Pagans. Vile male doctors attacked their rivals, the wise and gentle mid-wives. The foul forces of patriarchy sought to undermine the last vestige of women's power. None of these explanations hold up under close examination. (Click here to learn more on the failings of these theories.)
All simple theories ignore huge quantities of counter-evidence. For example, people who say that the Burning Times were the Church's attempt to destroy Paganism ignore two crucial facts: most of the victims of the Burning Times were Christians, not Pagans, and the death toll was always lowest when and where the Church ran the trials. People who blame the trials on misogyny overlook the fact that there's absolutely no correlation between the status of women and the intensity of Witch hunting. Sexism was the norm in the Burning Times, so of course it's simple to point out sexist elements in Witch trials. But the centers of Witch hunting weren't noticeably more sexist than the countries that killed a mere handful of Witches, nor do the beginning and end of the Burning Times correlate to any shifts in women's rights.
The bottom line is, when you look at *all* of the evidence, very few clear patterns emerge. And the ones that do surface don't offer any simple explanations. For example, Witch hunting correlates to religious persecution -- of all sorts. Trials peaked during the religious wars of the Reformation. They're worst in the areas where the Reformation caused the most disruption. They're rarest in places where there was only one religion and no large religious minorities. So how do we interpret this? It seems like religious intolerance caused Witch hunting, but there's no evidence that the trials were one religion's attempt to wipe out another. Any religious persecution -- Protestant vs. Catholic, Catholic vs. heretic, Inquisition vs. Pagan -- increased Witch hunting.
In recent years, most scholars have moved away from the dualistic, blame-oriented explanations of the past. Rather than viewing Witch hunting as a pogrom aimed at a particular group of people, they treat it almost as a disease: a nebulous terror that gripped communities and drove decent people to do insanely awful things. They look for factors that increased a community's chances of succumbing to the "disease" and traits that helped towns resist the "infection."
For example, a strong church or state generally decreased trials, while a religiously diverse community increased them. Panics were localized -- when one town panicked, its neighbors were likely to as well. In fact, Witch trials often spread along roads and trade routes, just like diseases do. Travelers talked about the horrors they'd seen, the wild rumors they'd heard. And so they passed on these fears throughout the land, wherever they went.
Perhaps the easiest way to answer "Why did the Burning Times occur?" is to ask another question: why did the Satanic Panics of the 1980's occur? Why did American communities suddenly become convinced that a criminal Satanic cult was out to harm their children? Again, we aren't sure. But folklorists studying these rumor panics point out striking correlations between the Burning Times and the Satanic Panics. And so there's hope that by studying our own behavior, we may eventually learn what drove our ancestors to commit the atrocities we see in the Burning Times. A mirror may be our best window on the past.
Mainly because people ceased to believe in the power of Witchcraft and in the existence of a Satanic conspiracy.
Rationalists insisted that magick was nonsense. People simply could not do the sorts of things Witches were credited with. Professionals grew increasingly suspicious. Judges and lawyers saw too many abuses, too many people killed on the flimsiest sorts of evidence. Even people who insisted that there really was a Satanic conspiracy had to admit that hundreds of innocents were dying. Many decided that it was better to let the guilty escape than to persecute the innocent.
The common folk were the strongest advocates of the Burning Times and continued to demand trials long after the courts refused to condemn Witches. Lynching and mob violence rose at the end of the Burning Times, and scattered murders and assaults peppered the 19th century. But without the support of the upper classes, the great persecutions vanished. People could accuse Witches all they wanted -- but if the authorities weren't willing to try Witches, the Burning Times disappeared.