The new evidence revealed in trial records has dramatically changed our picture of historical Witch hunting. Many hoary "truisms" were shot down in the last twenty years, and many scholarly books just two decades old contain a wealth of errors. (See "Common Misconceptions about the Burning Times" for more information on this.) But no other area was as completely transformed as our knowledge of the death toll.
The estimated death toll plummeted because of the new data. Estimates in the 19th century were often around one million. By the 1950's, they dropped to hundreds of thousands. Then, after the trial evidence became widely available, estimates fell to between 40,000 and 60,000. There they've stayed, and there's now little academic debate over them.
Why did the trial evidence have such an enormous impact on estimates of the death toll? Because before trial data was easily available, historians had to base their estimates on literary accounts of the trials -- on Witch hunting propaganda. Literature tends to focus on the Witch crazes, the largest, most sensational trials around. Sensational "crimes" sold copy in the Burning Times, just as they do today! So three hundred years later, scholars were constantly reading about crazes and panics. This led them to assume that panics were regular, common events. And if you assume that panics are common occurrences, you have to assume that a lot of Witches died!
When historians counted the trial records, however, they found that Witch crazes were actually quite rare. They were not everyday occurrences, as we'd previously believed. Most countries only experienced one or two in the entire Burning Times. Much to their surprise, historians found that the number of executions was far, far lower than Witch hunting literature suggested.
Let me give you a couple examples of how much difference up-to-date information can make. Historians used to assume that around 30,000 to 70,000 Witches died in Scotland, and an equal number in England. Yet when the court records of these two countries were examined, historians found that there were only 599 recorded executions in Scotland, and only 228 in England. After making allowances for lost records and unrecorded deaths, scholars now believe that approximately 1,000 - 2,000 Scottish and 300 - 1,000 English Witches died. 1,300 - 3,000 Witches is still a lot of people, but it's far fewer than the 140,000 deaths of early estimates!
The drop in the scholarly estimate was bitterly opposed by feminist, Pagan, and popular writers. The "Nine Million Martyrs of the Burning Times" are an intense, emotion-laden symbol for many Pagans and feminists. To them, the new estimates were simply a conservative backlash, a ploy to down-play the horror of the Burning Times. For popular authors, the issue was much clearer: big crazes sold more books. "Millions and millions" of deaths are far more titillating than 40,000 - 60,000.
Today, readers are faced with a bewildering array of estimates. Numbers range from 30,000 to ten million, and it's far easier to find bad information than good. The feminist, Pagan, and popular texts which perpetuate out-dated estimates are fascinating to read and readily available. The trial record data, on the other hand, tends to be buried in academic monographs, some of the most lethally dull books ever to grace the face of this planet.
Readers have little guidance when it comes to choosing between the various numbers. Few authors explain what evidence their estimate is based on, leaving the impression that all estimates are equally reliable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scholarly estimates (40,000 - 100,000) are based on okay evidence, the best data we have available. Popular estimates are either based on extremely poor evidence (Witch hunting propaganda, for the 200,000 to 1 million numbers) or on no evidence at all (for the nine to ten million numbers).
To help people through the maze of death toll estimates, I've put together a list of the recorded deaths found in various regions, and the current scholarly estimates of the total death tolls in those areas. This table is compiled from published trial record counts.
If you're used to thinking that millions of Witches died in the Burning Times, it may be a shock to hear that the real death toll is more likely to be 40,000 - 60,000. But the true horror of the Burning Times lies in its details: in the impact these persecutions had on the lives of women, men, and animals. A simple death toll doesn't do justice to the horror of the Burning Times.
Read of the atrocities done to Anna Gamperle. If no other Witch died in the Burning Times, her tale alone would still be important: a legend to tell our children and remind of us the horror of religious persecution. And Anna *wasn't* alone, of course; thousands of people suffered and died much as she did. Only a fool would say that the Burning Times were unimportant because "only" 40,000 people died in this fashion!
Death was only one part of the horror. Most Witches survived their trials. Yet having been accused, they were infamous for the rest of their lives. They lived with the constant fear that any plague, any freak hail storm might bring a lynch mob to their door. That a still-born babe or dead cow would convince a neighbor that he was bewitched.
And then what? Another trial, more torture? Perhaps their neighbor would take matters into his own hands, since the courts had "failed" him the first time. He might assault the Witch in the street, slashing her face open with a knife (for everyone knew that "scratching a Witch above the breath" broke her spells!) Maybe the Witch's first warning would be the sound of her cat's screams as it was slowly burned to death in her neighbor's fireplace. (For this was held to be an unfailing test of Witchcraft: if you suspect your neighbor is a Witch, take her "familiar" and torture it slowly. If your neighbor comes to rescue her pet, then you know that she's a Witch.)
In the end, the death toll is only a pale reflection of the true horrors of the Burning Times. To focus only on it -- to suggest that the persecution was somehow less important if "only" 40,000 people actually died -- is to profoundly dishonor the Witches who lived their lives under the shadow of these atrocities.