Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts,
Corrected and Commented by Brian A. Pavlac, Ph.D., Professor of History
#1. The Witch Hunts were an example of medieval cruelty and barbarism.
#2. The Church was to blame for the Witch Hunts.
#3. The Witch Hunts specifically targeted women.
#4. The Witch Hunts were an attempt at “femicide” or “gendercide,” meaning the persecution of the female sex, equivalent to genocide.
#5. The Witch Hunts were all alike.
#6. Millions of people died because of the Witch Hunts.
#7. People condemned during the Witch Hunts were burned at the stake.
#8. During the time of the Witch Hunts, witches actually existed and worked magic.
#9. In modern usage, the term “Witch Hunt” can be applied to any persecution of a group of people.
#10. Modern witchcraft/magick/wicca is a direct descendent of those practices done by people during the Witch Hunts of 1400-1800.
This list bothers me. I found it as I began research for my new book. I’d like to speak to each of these “errors and myths”.
#1. Since all those accused of even the most simple crimes were treated in the same brutal manner as we have read were those accused of witchcraft, it is indeed an example of medieval cruelty and barbarism. If it isn’t, what is it an example of???
#2. No one believes the Church itself was solely responsible for all the murders, but since the church, at that time was the moral governing body of Europe, it stood behind the actions of its governors, kings, and sheriffs.
#3. Anyone who has read anything at all regarding the witch craze knows of several men and children who were also tortured, imprisoned and perhaps murdered in the craze.
#4. If the plan had been to eliminate the female gender, men and boys would not have been included at all, and the perpetrators would have to have been rather stupid, since the female of the species is required in order to reproduce, even if she only produces males.
#5. There were witch hunts in several countries, and continents. The craze occurred largely, to begin with, in Europe, but spread to Iceland, the Americas and beyond. People are different, so every time the madness raised its head in a new place, there were extreme differences in the manner of it, due to the beliefs of the perpetrators.
#6. Hundreds of thousands were killed, but perhaps millions were accused, or threatened with accusation. The craze was rampant. I will speak to the number more directly in a moment.
#7. No witches were burned in the Americas, and not all American witches were hung. We have historical records that show various means of death, including boiling, drowning, and even neglect.
#8. There is absolutely no proof that witches did (or do) not exist – either during the madness or at any other time. In fact, there are records that show that some of those put to death in the madness were actually casting spells, and using magic, as they knew it.
#9. The term “witch hunt” has come to refer to the persecution of innocent people. That is a matter of language usage, not myth or error.
#10. To believe that modern witchcraft is in any way descended from the practices used in the madness is foolhardy. In the first place, I refer you to #8, which states that the existence of witches and/or magic during that period is an error or a myth. Modern witchcraft has its basis from many places, some in ancient history, some in modern practices from the last two centuries.
As I research the next book, I keep coming across articles that relate to the nine million deaths due to the witch craze in the Middle Ages. Now let me be perfectly honest here. I’ve never believed in that nine million figure. I’d never heard a number like that in connection to the witch madness in years past, when I was actually studying the phenomenon. In fact, the first time I remember hearing such a number was sometime after the end of the Second World War, when it became known to the world that Hitler murdered six million Jews in his death camps and other locations. So, the nine million figure has always sounded like one-upsmanship to me. And that is definitely untrustworthy.
The other day, I found a place that lists the actual number of death sentences handed down during the witch madness, separated by country. In some countries, only a portion of that area was counted, and no count was given for the remaining sections of the same country, so the numbers they allow as actual deaths are also untrustworthy. Add to that the fact that although there may have been a death sentence, there may not be an actual record of death due to that sentence. Consider those who were imprisoned, for instance, in Salem, MA, and awaiting the death to which they had been sentenced, when the entire matter was vacated, and the prisoners – those still alive, that is – were released. And what of the accused persons who died because of treatment in questioning, or conditions in jail, some still awaiting trial? There was no mention on this list of those deaths.
Another site mentioned that most of the victims were tried executed by local, community courts, not by the Church, thus disproving claims made by modern pagans. Aren’t they still dead? Didn’t they still die because of some imagined crime, whether it was brought by a local constable or a prince of the church? It also says that a substantial minority of victims — about 25% — were male, not female, disproving the claim that only women were tortured and murdered as witches. There are records galore of men, indeed entire families, being wiped out. Some were included in the madness because they dared to stand up for others, some for their own imagined crimes. I know of no modern pagan who believes that men were excluded from the craze that swept the continent. It concludes that many countries in Europe largely escaped the burning times: Ireland executed only four “Witches;” Russia only ten. The craze affected mostly Switzerland, Germany and France. This is so transparent, it’s laughable. If they didn’t call the accused a “witch”, the death didn’t count as one from the witch craze. The word alone diminishes the count. Italy and Spain aren’t even mentioned, and it is historical fact that deaths occurred due to a finding of witchcraft in both those countries. It isn’t enough to point to the worst offenders, and thereby release the others from liability.
In conclusion, it doesn’t really matter to me whether nine million died, or one. Even one would have been too many.