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Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, 
Corrected and Commented
by
Brian A. Pavlac, 
Ph.D., Professor of History


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#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.

Corrections and Commentary

#1. The Witch Hunts were an example of medieval cruelty and barbarism.

FACT: While frequently cruel, the Witch Hunts took place after the Middle Ages and were conducted by civilized people.

COMMENTARY:  The key problem is the use of the word "medieval." First, historians usually consider the Middle Ages, which began after the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire around A.D. 500 to be over by A.D. 1500. At that time, changes in the economy with capitalism, in culture with the Renaissance and in religion with the Reformation, created the Early Modern Period. The Witch Hunts, however, were just then getting started, not ending until the 1700s.

Second, the Middle Ages is often used in popular parlance to denigrate something as inferior and ignorant. In my opinion, this exaggerates the worst aspects of medieval times (religious fanaticism, primitive laws which readily apply violence, non-scientific thought, poor economic levels, and strict social hierarchies) to the disadvantage of its noble characteristics (an emphasis on faith, codes of conduct like chivalry, technological innovation, mutual obligations of social classes).

And as Western Civilization in the 20th Century has carried on World Wars (with their trench warfare, strategic bombing, submarine warfare, poison gas, and propaganda), colonial imperialism (with its slave-like exploitation of labor, disparities between rich and poor, and cultural destruction), or totalitarian communism (with its collectivization, gulags, and secret police), it has no real right to criticize the Middle Ages as "barbaric."

In any case, the most highly-educated, literate, well-trained, urban elites conducted most of the hunts. All the advantages of Western Civilization created the Witch Hunts and must assume responsibility for them.

#2. The Church was to blame for the Witch Hunts.

FACT: While Christianity clearly created the framework for the Witch Hunts, no single "Church" was to blame, and many secular governments hunted witches for essentially non-religious reasons.

COMMENTARY: When the Witch Hunts first began to intensify, in the 1400s, one church hierarchy, what I call the Latin Catholic Church, dominated Western Civilization. Even within that one church, however, uniformity in all matters of faith and belief had not been fully imposed.

During the Middle Ages, the predominant Christian view of witchcraft was that it was an illusion. People might think they were witches, but they were fooling themselves, or the Devil was fooling them. Most authorities thought that witchcraft could do no serious harm, because it was not real. It took the arguments of theologians, a number of inquisitors manuals, and a series of papal bulls (written letters of judgment and command) to contradict that traditional Christian idea, and identify witchcraft with a dangerous heresy. Ultimately in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII, in his bull Summis desiderantes, let the Inquisition pursue witches.

There is some legitimate historical debate, though, about how far the bull applied throughout the church, and how many church authorities really believed that witches were a serious danger. In any case, just about at that time the "Church" broke apart because of the Reformation. While Roman Catholicism redefined itself under a papal magisterium, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Anglicanism asserted other sources for divine authority.

Surprisingly, the Protestant reformers often agreed with Rome, that witches were a clear and present danger. All four of the major western Christian "churches" (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican) persecuted witches to some degree or another. (Eastern Christian, or Orthodox Churches carried out almost no witch hunting).

None of these persecutions could have been carried out without the permission and cooperation of secular governments. In only a few small regions, like the Papal States and various Prince-Bishoprics in Germany, were religious and temporal government leaders one and the same. But in all the rest of Western Europe, secular princes ultimately decided whether or not witches were hunted.  Still, religious leaders carry a large share of the blame for the hunts, since secular princes often hunted witches on the advice of the clergy.  Princes hunted witches because Church leaders taught them that witches were disturbers of the peace, destructors of property, and killers of animals and people.  

#3. The Witch Hunts specifically targeted women.

FACT: While many witch hunters explicitly went after women, very often men fell victim to the witch hunts.

COMMENTARY:  Through most of recorded history, in most civilizations, until the last hundred years or so, women have been subordinated to men. Many witch hunters, particularly the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum, held that women were far more susceptible to temptation by the Devil, and thus more frequently became witches. Some witch hunts did almost exclusively target women, in percentages as high as 95% of the victims. Another interesting point is that the members of the legal system its "judges, ministers, priests, constables, jailers, judges, doctors, prickers, torturers, jurors, executioners" were nearly 100 percent male (Anne L. Barstow, Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts: Our Legacy of Violence Against Women (San Francisco: Pandora/Harper Collins, 1994), 142).

Nonetheless, men were often accused of being witches, and executed for it. (The frequent use of "warlock" to describe a male witch is largely based on Hollywood scriptwriters, especially for the 1958 movie Bell, Book, and Candle or the 1960s sitcom, Bewitched.)  In some areas, like Russia, the large majority of victims were male. Further, women did participate in the system, as accusers, witnesses, and sometimes as examiners, prickers, food providers, and jail personnel.

There are reasons why we should look at some aspects of the witch hunt as a crime against women, yet we should not go too far to make it only about women. I agree with Christine Larner who states that "Witchcraft was not sex-specific, but it was sex-related."

#4. The Witch Hunts were an attempt at "femicide" or "gendercide," meaning the persecution of the female sex, equivalent to genocide.

FACT: While a few witch hunters abhorred all women, the necessity for women to be involved in procreation of our species and the lack of means to carry out the extermination of every woman prevented any realistic approach toward genocide.

COMMENTARY: See #3 above, about women as targets. Nowadays it seems the term genocide is bandied about quite a bit whenever one group feels particularly persecuted.

Accordingly, some feminists use these descriptions of the Witch Hunts as a rallying cry to complain about ongoing male oppression. But it is absurd to compare the Witch Hunts with a genuine attempted genocide, such as the Holocaust/Shoah/Final Solution done by the German Third Reich during World War II. The Nazis had the means (the death camps) and had the will (anti-Semitic ideology) to carry out a genocide.

In no conceivable way could have or would have Western Europeans killed all women between 1400 and 1800. Killing all the women could not be done by early modern methods of execution, nor were all women considered worthy of death by any governing authority. There is no evidence that even the worst witch hunters wanted all women dead.

#5. The Witch Hunts are/were all alike.

FACT: While the Witch Hunts share some essential similarities, they were enormously different depending on time and place.

COMMENTARY:  Briefly, most witch hunts involved government authorities deciding that a problem with witches existed. Usually the danger was seen in an organized conspiracy led by the Devil. Or the concern was witches causing harm (maleficia) through spells: raising storms, killing people or livestock, and/or causing bad luck. The authorities then pursued an investigation that often included secret informants and torture to acquire information and confessions. Finally, convicted witches were often executed. Some hunts involved only a few condemned, others might exterminate hundreds.

Some parts of Europe suffered many intense hunts, such as provinces in France and Germany; others experienced several moderate persecutions, such as England or Hungary; others held comparatively few trials, such as Spain or the Dutch Netherlands. None of the hunts were constant over the years 1400 to 1800, but came in concentrated periods, especially intense between 1550 and 1650.  

Historians are still trying to explain the reasons for this great variety in witch hunting.  Important factors could have been:  the power of the central government; the independence of local authorities; tensions created by war, failing economies, or famine; and uncertainties about religious conformity.

The bigger question is why the authorities would consider the witches a danger (as opposed to traditional scapegoats like Jews, heretics, homosexuals, foreigners, or even sorcerers)?   Specific hunts were often rooted in specific local circumstances.  Still, historians have tried to come up with general explanations for the complex phenomenon of witch hunts. One should be wary of any author who suggests one cause for all the Witch Hunts.  I discern ten general trends that some historians have tried to argue as causes for the hunts. See Witch Origin Theories.

Note also the contemporary concept of a "Witch Hunt," Myth #9 below.

#6. Millions of people died because of the Witch Hunts.

FACT: While millions of people might have been affected, the best estimates of recent historians range from 50,000 to 200,000 dead.

COMMENTARY: The earlier estimates, too often the figure of 9 to 10 million dead is cited, were grossly exaggerated;  no respectable historian supports them anymore. Modern figures concerning the number of executed witches are based on a much closer examination of the surviving historical records, combined with reasonable guesswork and statistical analysis for those areas and periods lacking clear sources. The hunts were anything but constant, systematic or frequent.

That some villages were wiped out by witch hunters is also an exaggeration. There is little evidence for such devastation. One extreme example is reported from 1589, where only two women were left in one village in the Trier diocese after a hunt (Wolfang Behringer, ed. Hexen und Hexenprozesse in Deutschland, 4th ed. (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2000), 205, #124). But that left the men. In any case, such thoroughness and ferocity were extremely rare. Further, any particular area had hunts irregularly, and many regions had no hunts at all.

Even the much lower figure of under 50,000 dead would have meant over a hundred thousand put on trial. Then, considering all the personnel involved in the justice system as court officials and witnesses, friends and family members, and those who even felt the "fear" caused by the hunts, millions of peoples lives changed, usually for the worse, because of the witch hunts.

#7. People condemned during the Witch Hunts were burned at the stake.

FACT: While indeed governments did burn many witches at the stake, most were executed by other means.

COMMENTARY: The favorite neo-pagan term for the period of the Witch Hunts is "the Burning Times." The most common form of execution, though, was hanging. Admittedly, burning was important in many of these cases also, since to further protect against any malevolence from the dead witch, authorities often burned the remains afterward. Other popular forms of execution for witches included beheading, drowning, and breaking on the wheel.  Witches were rarely buried alive, boiled alive, impaled, sawed in two, flayed, drawn and quartered, or disemboweled, as other contemporary criminals were.  Other punishments inflicted on convicted witches included mutilating (cutting off of a hand or ear for example), branding, whipping, dunking, locking in the the stocks, jailing, fining, banishing, or selling into slavery.  

A notoriously common myth is that the alleged witches at Salem in colonial Massachusetts were burned. All of the convicted during the Salem Witch Hunt in 1692 died by hanging.  Others died by natural causes before conviction or execution, and Giles Corey was pressed to death. In fact, no witches were executed by burning in the English colonies of North America. English law did not permit it.

#8. During the time of the Witch Hunts, witches actually existed and worked magic.

FACT: While some people have claimed to be able to work witchcraft, there is no scientific, empirical, reasonable proof that any actual witches existed or that the magic they claimed to perform actually did what it was supposed to do.

COMMENTARY:  I have tried to limit my commentary to the European Witch Hunts from 1400 to 1800 and what can be argued historically from them. Before 1400 authorities were unconcerned about witches. Between 1400 and 1800 authorities saw demonically empowered witches as a real danger, and condemned witches for many crimes against the community. After 1800 witches were again no longer a concern. Most of the crimes of witches sprung from the imaginations of the hunters, the ravings of the insane, and the agonies of the tortured.   Even those who confessed to witchcraft crimes could not prove a cause and effect relationship between their witchcraft and actual events.

I admittedly and openly draw my writing from a world-view that accepts the reality of scientific evidence and the validity of the historical method. Some people (from deconstructionists to fundamentalists) might argue about such a perspective, denying the efficacy of an empirical and rational perception of the universe. Likewise, some people today claim to be witches or believers in various metaphysical systems like Wicca, Neo-paganism or Satanism. Now, I myself am a strong supporter of religious freedom and religious toleration. And all religions, including Christianity, have elements of the nonsensical, absurd and improbable. Thus, I consider that any people who like to think that they are themselves witches or that witchcraft can affect the physical world, are free to do so. 

But no one has been able to prove that things like magic/magick, paranormal phenomena, occult powers, or even miracles have any scientific validity. All such supernatural stuff, from alien visits to earth to the Devil possessing young girls, is insufficiently supported by sound facts, both historically and today. While I enjoy reading and watching science fiction and fantasy stories, I know when it is make-believe. While I draw inspiration from the Bible and the saints, I know that it relies on faith (believing what cannot be proven).

If anyone wishes to argue for the objective reality of spiritual matters, please do not write to me. Instead, have any metaphysical claims tested by the James Randi Educational Foundation, and earn a million dollars. As Carl Sagan has said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

#9. In modern usage, the term "Witch Hunt" can be applied to any organized persecution of a group of people.

FACT: While the term "Witch Hunt" does involve persecution of a group,  that group may or may not exist in an organized fashion;  and the proper use of the term especially requires that the targeted group is not a real threat to society.

COMMENTARY:  Literally, a "witch hunt" is an organized attempt to identify and eliminate people who are believed to be able to use supernatural powers to harm society. Authorities carried out many hunts in Europe between 1400 and 1800, but historians recognize now that there never were any witches with real powers that could have endangered society.  One unique thing about the European Witch Hunts between 1400 and 1800 was the belief that the Devil, or Satan, was organizing people as a destructive force for society.  Such a diabolic/satanic belief was false, since no evidence has shown that witches were organized.  

The great tragedy of the Witch Hunts is not only was there no conspiracy of witches, but even if there were, they could do no serious harm to society.  See #8, above.  Another significant aspect that made the European Witch Hunts was the large-scale involvement of government authorities.  Today, in some parts of the world (especially in Africa, including Ghana, Senegal or South Africa, New Guinea, as well as Saudi Arabia), people are persecuting other people for allegedly being witches (even in London!);  but governments rarely support these persecutions with much interest, if it at all.  If they did, we might have proper "witch hunts."   (Zimbabwe, however, lifted the ban on persecuting people for witchcraft in 2006, and thus may start witch hunts).

We often use the term "witch hunt" figuratively now, to mean an organized persecution of a group which is actually harmless or does not even exist.  In recent American history the term "witch hunt" has been applied to things like McCarthyism in the 1950s and Ritual Satanic Murders in the 1990s. In the former case, there may have been a few communists in America, but they were poorly organized at best, and certainly not a serious threat to our way of life. For example, I dont think that anyone can produce evidence that communists in Hollywood did, or could have done, anything to successfully to promote world domination by the Soviet Union or damage the patriotism or resolve of Americans.

Concerning Satanic Ritual Murders, the FBI has failed to find any evidence of an organized plot to sacrifice children. Certainly children are murdered in America, every day. But not as part of a world-wide plot to worship Satan. Likewise, children are molested in America. But widespread accusations of Child Molestation Rings in day care centers have also been proven false.  And worse, those people targeted by government authorities were often accused and convicted on the evidence of children -- a dangerous policy as shown by the historical Witch Hunts (see False Memory Syndrome).  

If a group is organized and a real threat to society, such as certain kinds of terrorists, then efforts to persecute that group are not a "witch hunt," even if governments use illegal means, torture, and fear, as in the original hunts.  So, to apply the figurative term "witch hunt" to a persecuted group, government takes an important part and the group cannot be a real threat.

#10. Modern witchcraft/magick/wicca is a direct descendent of those practices done by people during the Witch Hunts of 1400-1800.

FACT: While modern witches and pagans have tried to resurrect witchcraft activities described by witch hunters, there exists only a very tenuous connection between modern witches and those before 1800.

COMMENTARY: Historians have been unable to establish a concrete connection between any popular folk magic or witch traditions from before A.D. 1800 with modern organized witch movements. Most seem to have been inspired by the writings of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964), who created for themselves new versions of witch rituals and organizations based on a loose interpretation of modern superstition and historical legacies. Many different people founded branches of witches in the 1960s and 1970s, with many new publications and handbooks coming out in the last ten years. While some of these diverse witch circles use historical research to establish some of their ideas, most seem to rely on imagination, fantasy, and a robust eclecticism.

CITATION

If you use any information from this page, be sure to properly cite it, for example using the following format:

Pavlac, Brian A. "Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, Corrected and Commented," Prof. Pavlac's Women's History Resource Site. (2 May 2012). URL: <http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witcherrors.html> (date accessed).

Witch Hunt Select Bibliography

Below is my brief selection of some books in English that are especially valuable and sound in trying to understand the Witch Hunts. I would suggest that the reader/researcher always be wary of books that lack a scholarly apparatus (footnotes or endnotes), accept uncritically the worst accusations of feminists or atheists, and/or suggest that witches actually existed during the time of the hunts.

Barry, Jonathan, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts, ed. Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Past and Present Publications. Cambridge University Press, 1996. 

Breslau, Elaine G., ed. Witches in the Atlantic World: A Historical Reader & Primary Sourcebook. New York: New York University Press, 2000.  

Klaits, J. Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch-hunts. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Farrington, Karen. Dark Justice: A History of Punishment and Torture. New York: Smithmark, 1996.

Kors, Alan Charles and Edward Peters, ed. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Levack, Brian P. The Witch Hunts in Early Modern Europe. 3rd ed. London: Longman, 2006.

Levack, Brian P., ed. The Witchcraft Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2004.

Oldridge, Darren, ed. The Witchcraft Reader. London: Routledge, 2002. 

Pavlac, Brian A. Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2009).

Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.

Scarre, Geoffrey. Witchcraft and Magic in 16th and 17th Century Europe. Studies in European History. London: Macmillan Press, 1987.

Wiesner, Merry E. "Witchcraft," pp. 218-238 in Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

See also an annotated bibliography.

Authors Disclaimer

The world-wide-web/internet, bookstores, and libraries are full of all sorts of information about witches. Too much of the popular information about the history of allegedly demonically empowered witches is inaccurate, silly, and incorrect. As someone who believes in the beneficial power of knowledge, I am trying to present some of what professional historians do know about the witch hunts.  See also the commentary for Myth #8.

What I write as a "FACT," most rational, reasonable persons would agree with, based on the current state of the scientific/historical evidence. These are unlikely to change much. What I right as "COMMENTARY" reflects viewpoints developed out of my own professional historical training and skeptical background, as well as my personal Weltanschauung. Some scholars might, with cause, disagree with some of my interpretations and emphases.

I am basing the above debunking of myths and correction of errors on research for my college on the witch hunts and my book, Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials. For more information, see my syllabus, the bibliography above, other information on linked webpages, and my personal homepage.

Questions, Suggestions, Comments? e-mail bapavlacATkings.edu

  Ten Theories about the Causes of the Witch Hunts

Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts

Timeline

Annotated Bibliography

Suffer your own persecution!
Try a witch hunt simulation:  

Annotated Links

 

URL: http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witch/werror.html
Prof. Pavlac's Women's History Site
Originally Published: 31 October 2001
Last Revision: 30 April 2013
Copyright © MMXII by
Brian A. Pavlac

Questions, Suggestions, Comments? e-mail bapavlacATkings.edu