The Burning Times Encyclopedia


Property or money given to a court, to ensure that an accused person will appear for trial. A prisoner who posts bail is allowed to leave jail, but if she flees, the court confiscates her goods. The major benefit of bail is that it allows a person to await trial at home, rather than in prison.

For a Witch, bail could spell the difference between life and death. Early modern jails were lethal. Food and living conditions were hellish, and jails were periodically swept by plagues. It could take up to a year for a Witch's case to come to trial. If you posted bail, you could spend that time in your home rather than in a disease-ridden cell.

Bail also held out the hope of escape. During the Salem Witch Trials, several Witches who were released on bail fled to New York to avoid trial. If you were wealthy enough to post bail and willing to lose the money you placed as surety, it was often quite easy to escape.

Unfortunately, bail wasn't a possibility for most Witches. Many areas didn't allow it. Moreover most Witches were far too poor to post bail. However in the regions where it was allowed, bail saved the lives of wealthier Witches.


Being forbidden from returning to a certain area.

On rare occasions, convicted Witches were told to leave town and never come back. As you might guess, this was a rare punishment. Occasionally banishment would be one of several penalties imposed by the Inquisition (along with say, penance and fines). The Inquisition recognized that once a person had a reputation for being a Witch, he often had great difficulty fitting back into village society. By forcing convicted Witches to relocate, the Inquisition hoped to help them escape their reputations.

That was the theory. In reality, however, banishment drove a Witch away from his family, friends, and any property he may have owned. And it's not clear that it served any useful purpose. Many banished Witches ended up accused again in their new communities.

Switzerland is the only country where banishment was a common penalty -- and there, it was afflicted on *acquited* Witches, not convicted ones! When a Swiss court thought that there was a lot of evidence against a Witch but not enough for conviction, it often banished the suspect to another community. So you could be found "not guilty" of the charge, but still be driven away from your home and family.

Bell, Book, and Candle

Part of the Catholic ritual of excommunication.

Normally only individuals are excommuniciated (expelled from the Church. However, the Church also has a form of excommunication called "suo genere", excommunication "by kind". Under this second form, entire categories of people are excommunicated. For instance, all thieves, all prostitutes, all homosexuals -- or all Witches. During the Middle Ages and early modern period, priests went through a ritual which symbolically cast these folk out of the Church. An excommunicate is "dead" to the Church. He is forbidden from taking part in the Church's rituals, should be shunned by all right-believing Christians, and will assumedly go to Hell upon his death.

This rite was sometimes called "excommunication by bell, book, and candle." The priest stood at the altar, which held the mass book, a bell, and a burning candle. First, he read the sentence of excommunication from the book. Next he rang the bell, symbolically announcing the excommunicate's "death". Finally he blew out the candle, "snuffing out" the sinner.

Excommunication is a dramatic cursing ritual, and had a great impact on popular imagination. No one's sure why "bell, book, and candle" came to be associated with Witches rather than with the other types of sinners named in this ritual. But that does seem to be the origin of the phrase.


Literally, "the Good-Walkers." Pagan or Christo-Pagan Witches of northern Italy.

The Benandanti appear in a series of 16th century trials run by the Italian Inquisition. They were village healers, specializing in cures, charms, and divining the names of "black" Witches who had cursed people. Interestingly, the Benandanti did not consider themselves Witches. They drew sharp distinctions between themselves and the "evil" Strega, or Witches, who they claimed harmed people.

Benandanti were generally born, not made. A child who was born with a caul (fetal membrane) across his or her face was destined to become a Benandante. As an adult, the child's spirit would begin to leave his body during the Ember Days (quarterly periods of fasting in the Catholic Church). Oftentimes the soul left their body in the shape of a small animal, such as a butterfly or mouse.

In this spiritual form, the Benandanti performed sacred tasks. Usually men met in the fields and banded together to fight against the Strega, who attempted to blight the crops. They fought with fennel stalks, while the Witches held sorghum blades. If the Witches won the battle, the crops withered and the village starved. A victory by the Benandanti assured a year of plenty.

Female Benandanti normally had other duties. When they left their bodies, they travelled to meet a Goddess, called a variety of names like Abundia or Irodiana. This Goddess led a procession of spirits, animals, and fairies. Benandanti could join Her travels and learn which villagers were going to die in the upcoming year.

The Benandanti came to the attention of the Inquisition in the late 16th century. (See Paolo Gasparutto's biography for one of the earliest trials) The Inquisition discouraged these "Pagan" beliefs sharply, but did not kill any of the Benandanti. However, under pressure from the Inquisition, the Benandanti began to reinterpret their old beliefs. They drew sharper and sharper lines between themselves and the Witches. Originally the Strega were seen as semi-honorable enemies. As the Inquisition stressed the horrid things Witches did throughout Europe, the Benandanti began to condemn Witches more harshly. In the early trials, almost none of the stereotypes about Witches appear; the later trials are full of them.

The Benandanti appear to have died out in the 17th century. As the trials continued, people began to confuse the "evil" Witches with the "good" Benandanti. To reclaim their "good" reputation, the Benandanti emphasized how evil the Witches were, and spread many tales about the horrors they inflicted on the village (horrors, I might add, that only the Benandanti could save the villagers from). They also began to accuse Witches aggressively. But their attempts to focus hostility on Strega, not themselves, back-fired. The Inquisition usually ignored their accusations, and the villagers were incensed at the discord and strife the Benandanti caused by accusing other villagers of Witchcraft. Their reputation fell further, and they disappear from our records within a century or so of their first trials.

Were the Benandanti Pagans? Many modern Pagans would say yes, since they communed with the Goddess Irodiana. But the Benandanti considered themselves good Christians. When an inquisitor snarled that it was not Christian to fight for the crops, one confused Benandante responded, "Why would God want the crops to fail?" Some said that God called them to their duties, and none appear to have had problems honoring both Irodiana and the Christian God. When the Inquisition insisted that you could not do both, many Benandanti gradually came to believe that they were not Christians. But the ones who did assumed that that made them Satanists, not Pagans. They abandonned their earlier beliefs and were reconciled to the Catholic Church.

Black Book

In Christian demonology, a book listing the names of all Witches in an area.

The Black Book is a common Witchcraft stereotype in Protestant countries, probably because it is a diabolic parody of "The Book of Life." According to the Bible, God has a Book of Life. The names of the Elect, the handful of people who will go to Heaven, are written within it. The Book of Life plays a big role in Protestant and Puritan theology. Since Witchcraft stereotypes are often simple parodies of Christian beliefs, it's no surprise that Protestant Witches were commonly said to sign the reverse of the Book of Life. A Witch who inscribes her name within the Black Book will assuredly go to Hell, just as a person written in the Book of Life will go to Heaven. (The Black Book occasionally appears in Catholic areas too, just as the Book of Life does. But both Books play a much smaller role in Catholicism.)

No Witch hunter ever found a Black Book, and we have no evidence that they really existed. Occasionally Witch hunters confiscated books from Witches' houses, but they were all grimoires of ceremonial magick, math or astrology books, or treatises on healing.

In the 1920's, historian Margaret Murray suggested a radical new interpretation of the Black Book. She claimed that the Black Book was basically a Pagan "mass book", listing the rituals and spells of a coven. Gerald Gardner affirmed this, equating the Black Book with his tradition's Books of Shadows. However Murray and Gardner's descriptions of the Black Book directly contradict the descriptions from the Burning Times. According to all early descriptions, the Black Book was not a collection of spells and rituals -- it was simply a list of names. By signing this book, the Witch gave her soul to Satan.

On the surface, Murray's theory doesn't sound that unreasonable. But it's terribly anachronistic. During the Burning Times, very few people could read. Even literate people often couldn't write. Therefore it's hard to believe that Witches, who generally came from the lower classes, would keep diaries of their spell work. Moreover owning a Black Book would be suicidal. If a Witch hunter ever captured such a manuscript, it would mean instant death for the owner and anyone listed in its pages. Finally, there's the fact that no one ever found a Black Book, although hunters did find grimoires and herbal tracts. So it seems safe to say that the Black Book was not a Book of Shadows, nor was it a real part of Witchcraft traditions. It was simply another Christian fantasy about how Witches parodied Christian rites.

"Black" magick (See Maleficia)

(Books of Shadows, Black masses, Burning at the stake, and more to come. <g>)