Understanding the Burning Times

The period of time from roughly the mid-16th through the late 17th centuries during which purported witches were arrested, tortured, and executed (sometimes by burning, sometimes by hanging, sometimes by other means) is of great interest to Wiccans. No matter what kind of Wiccan you are, these witch hunts provide a sort of formative mythology and give all Wiccans an ancestry of persecution and martyrdom .

Such history resonates powerfully for people, and inasmuch as Wiccans can be said to be a people (or a community, or a movement) it takes on a special significance.

Radical witches have a particular interest in the topic of oppression and persecution; they tend to identify with past struggles and bring that feeling of solidarity with a past sister/brotherhood forward into present struggles. All Wiccans can connect with the medieval witch as the outsider, the outcast, the “other,” but radical and feminist witches have the deepest understanding of, and interest in, the persecution of minorities by institutional authorities.

Eclectics, most frequently practicing as solitaries, have a strong connection with the isolation of those persecuted for witchcraft. The image of a witch from an earlier time off by herself, gathering and drying her herbs in secret, saying prayers or spells over some mysterious brew, is not far removed from the private rituals eclectics may perform in a modern setting, particularly if there is a strong component of kitchen witchery in their practice.

Traditional Wiccans know that their own history is directly connected to the study of the witch hunts. Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe posited that the witch hunts were the persecution of a surviving Pagan cult that worshiped a horned god. This book sparked the Pagan witchcraft craze that inspired and excited such luminaries as Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente.

Whatever your opinion about Gardner’s role in Wicca—whether you think he invented, popularized, modernized, or reshaped it—there is no question that Murray was influential. So much so, in fact, that she wrote the preface to Witchcraft Today, Gardner’s first nonfiction book on the topic of witchcraft. Murray is discredited and yet influential. Her theories held great fascination among the public long after scholars had finished laughing and moved on. The idea of a witch cult is so important to the origins of Wicca that the topic retains interest by association, as well as in its own right. Traditional Wiccans whose form of Wicca derives from Gardner and Valiente may have the greatest interest in the witch cult per se, as opposed to the persecution of individual “witches.”

Hundreds of books and articles have been written about the great European witch-hunt of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and during the last few years the subject has received more attention from historians than ever before. But . . . the more is written, the more glaring the disagreements. Were there people who regarded themselves as witches? If so, what did they do, or believe themselves to do? Were they organized, did they hold meetings? What are we to make of covens and sabbats? Again, when and where did the great witch-hunt begin? Who launched it, who perpetuated it, and for what motives? And just how “great” was it—did the numbers of those executed run into thousands, or into tens of thousands, or into hundreds of thousands? On most of these questions, there is still no consensus amongst historians—and even where consensus exists, it is not necessarily correct.

Lots of Wiccans are amateur (or professional) scholars, and many are interested in the period of the witch hunts. Thus, lots of “there was no witch cult” or “the people killed weren’t witches” or “those numbers are inflated” arguments tend to spring up among well-informed or partially informed people. Many of these arguments work at cross-purposes, however. Deciding who was persecuted, whether they were witches, and how many of them were out there, depends a lot on how you define things.6 Who was considered a “witch” during the witch hunts? What defines a “witch hunt”? What is meant by “killed”? What is meant by “the Inquisition”?


It turns out that there were, during the Middle Ages, two entirely different notions of what a witch was, of what sort of person was being arrested, tried, and punished, and of what that person did that was called witchcraft. Long before the Middle Ages, long before Christianity in fact, societies had some notion of a witch as a person who used hexes or magic to cause harm to enemies or society . Such witches are still being persecuted in modern-day Africa. These people may have been ambivalent, performing both good and bad magic.

The real people accused of witchcraft may have practiced the evils of which they were accused, or they may have been cunning folk who crossed the wrong person, or were competitors of other cunning folk, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It seems pretty clear that almost every society has had some kind of a witch in its consciousness, and that, when accusations were going to be made, cunning folk were at high risk. Let’s call these people “folk witches.” It is clear that many accusations of witchcraft during the witch-hunt years were against just such purported folk witches—people accused by neighbors or associates of such typical evils as souring cows, blighting fields, and causing illnesses, accidents, death, and impotence.

It also seems clear that, as the witch hunts progressed, the definition of witchcraft broadened in some places to include what was previously considered good magic. Folk magic itself, always suspect, came to be outright illegal. The other kind of witch was the member of a Satan-worshiping cult.

Prosecution of these witches didn’t depend upon evidence of blighted crops or mysterious fires. These witches were accused of worshiping the devil, having sex with him , and conspiring against Christianity. Let’s call these “Satanic witches.”

Now things start to get muddied, because, in some cases, these two kinds of witchcraft were introduced as evidence at the same trial, leading some scholars to look at trial records and conclude that a cult of magic practitioners or cunning folk was being prosecuted. In fact, other kinds of heresy may also have been introduced. It is certainly true that Inquisitors were interested in Pagan survivals centuries before they were much interested in witches. It is easy to blur these lines, and see them all as evidence of a single “witchcraft”—the survival of a Pagan cult that worshiped in groups and practiced magic.

This is something like what Murray found, but she failed to realize that it wasn’t all one big conspiratorial mish-mash. Despite this confusion in many trials, however, we now know that two entirely different definitions of witchcraft were operating, one much older than the other.

It is difficult for modern witches to hear that there have always been accusations of witchcraft, and that our Pagan ancestors didn’t like witches at all. Most Wiccans tend to believe that, when ancient Pagans said “witch,” they meant a “cunning man” or a “wise woman.” But whatever language we explore, we find that there are distinct words for those who help and those who curse. The witch hunts, hideous as they were, are not responsible for giving the word “witch” its negative connotations, but they are responsible for taking a bunch of good things (such as healing illnesses) and dumping them into the “witchcraft” bucket.


The reason it is important to define this term is that it affects our understanding of who was persecuted. There is plenty of evidence that suggests population trends for the persecution of folk witches, but the statistics go out the window when the persecution of Satanic witches is tallied in. Because Satanic witches(an odd term given that witches do not reco0gnize the Devil, most contributing him to a Christian construct). were believed to worship in conspiratorial groups, they were forced, under torture, not just to confess, but to name co-conspirators.

These practices led to “crazes,” in which groups of people were arrested in indiscriminate sweeps. The famous Salem witch hunt was one such craze. Everything we know about the gender (overwhelmingly female in most places), social class (usually poor), and other defining characteristics of those persecuted gets lost once a craze takes hold; all bets are off and anyone can be accused next. Some scholars now argue that there is no evidence that most accused witches were women. This seems mostly intended to counterbalance the feminist argument that witch hunts were a systematic gender persecution. When you separate witch-craze statistics from the slow-and-steady accusations that appear to have been the norm , however, you find that the non-craze statistics bear out the idea that most of the victims in most (not all) places were women.

So, if you define a witch hunt as a witch-craze, there are no verifiable trends to analyze. If you define a witch hunt simply as the occurrence of witchcraft arrests, tortures, and executions, it’s a different story.


Many people still confidently believe Matilda Joslyn Gage’s figure of nine million witches put to death—a number she pulled out of thin air and printed in 1893 in a book called Women, Church, and State. The number is astonishingly large, and that was, perhaps, the point.

Current scholars now place the figure as low as fifty thousand. Here, however, we must stop to ask what is meant by “deaths.”

In Witchcraze, author Anne Llewellyn Barstow points out that the number of those killed is usually counted as equal to the number of those executed. Yet many died in jail while awaiting trial, sometimes as a result of torture and deprivation, and sometimes by suicide.

In addition, many who were found innocent were killed by communities unhappy with the verdict—medieval lynch mobs, in essence. Add to that the number of records not yet uncovered, and Barstow concludes that doubling the current conventional number is justified. She uses a figure of one hundred thousand.


A few years ago, the consensus was that those tortured and killed during the witch hunts were, by and large, the victims of the Inquisition. It turns out this isn’t really true. While this may lead some to argue that the Catholic Church is not responsible for this terrible period in history, let’s be clear that a whitewash is not in order either.

These extreme positions are a normal part of the pendulum swing that characterizes scholarly dialogues about history. First, we think one extreme (It was all the Catholic Church’s fault!); then we think the opposite (The Catholic Church really had very little to do with it!).

The truth is that the Inquisition did not conduct the worst of the witch hunts, and was not generally a direct player where true crazes took hold. But the Inquisition played an important indirect role. Many people who aren’t scholars, but are somewhat well informed about the period in history that Wiccans call “The Burning T imes,” may not be equally well informed about the Catholic Church or what, exactly, the Inquisition is.

To be precise, the Inquisition is a specific church order founded to combat and prosecute heresy. Some people certainly misunderstand the term and use it to mean any prosecution of heresy during the period, even that done by Protestants. Some use the term loosely to mean a tribunal using inquisitorial procedures. This is more significant because, even though it is technically incorrect, it points to innovations of the Inquisition that were influential, in fact crucial, for creating an atmosphere in which witch-crazes could occur.

Before the institution of Inquisitorial procedure, charges, even charges of witchcraft, could only be brought before most courts in Europe through an accusatory procedure in which a plaintiff bore responsibility for his accusation. With the advent of the Inquisitorial procedure, authorities could inquire of any citizen about a crime, and accusations made during such an inquiry didn’t have to be proven by the person making them.

Furthermore, the Inquisitorial procedure allowed for confession by torture. These practices, introduced by the Inquisition for use against Cathars, were adopted by secular courts for later use against witches. This is important, because when people say the Inquisition was responsible for this or that crime against accused witches, burned this or that many people, and so on, the truth or falsehood of the claim rests entirely on whether they mean the acts were committed by a specific office of the Catholic Church, or merely through a procedure introduced into medieval Europe by that office.

From  The Study of Witchcraft

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