Historical Background Regarding Witchcraft ...

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Posted by Elaine on January 19, 2000 at 19:04:42:

With the recent threads regarding witchcraft seemingly of interest, here's some actual history. It is long but please read it through!
The facts are quite different than the myths ...

Recent Developments in the Study
of The Great European Witch Hunt

by Jenny Gibbons

Since the late 1970's, a quiet revolution has taken place in the study of historical witchcraft
and the Great European Witch Hunt. The revolution wasn't quite as dramatic as the
development of radio-carbon dating, but many theories which reigned supreme thirty years
ago have vanished, swept away by a flood of new data. Unfortunately, little of the new
information has made it into popular history. Many articles in Pagan magazines contain
almost no accurate information about the "Burning Times", primarily because we rely so
heavily on out-dated research.

Beyond the National Enquirer
What was this revolution? Starting in the mid-1970's, historians stopped relying on
witch-hunting propaganda and began to base their theories on thorough, systematic studies
of all the witch trials in a particular area.

Ever since the Great Hunt itself, we've relied on witch hunters' propaganda: witch hunting
manuals, sermons against witchcraft, and lurid pamphlets on the more sensational trials.
Everyone knew that this evidence was lousy. It's sort of like trying to study Satanism in
America using only the Moral Majority Newsletter and the National Enquirer. The few
trials cited were the larger, more infamous ones. And historians frequently used literary
accounts of those cases, not the trials themselves. That's comparable to citing a television
docu-drama ("Based on a true story!") instead of actual court proceedings.

Better evidence did exist. Courts that tried witches kept records -- trial verdicts, lists of
confiscated goods, questions asked during interogations, and the answers witches gave. This
evidence was written by people who knew what actually happened. Witch hunters often
based their books on rumor and hearsay; few had access to reliable information. Courts had
less reason to lie since, for the most part, they were trying to keep track of what was going
on: how many witches they killed, how much money they gained or lost, etc. Witch hunters
wrote to convince people that witchcraft was a grievous threat to the world. The more
witches there were, the bigger the "threat" was. So they often exagerrated the number of
deaths and spread wild estimates about how many witches existed. Also, trial records
addressed the full range of trials, not just the most lurid and sensational ones.

But trial data had one daunting draw-back: there was too much of it. Witch trials were
scattered amongst literally millions of other trials from this period. For most historians, it was
too much work to wade through this mass of data. The one exception was C. L'Estrange
Ewen. In 1929 he published the first systematic study of a country's trial records: Witch
Hunting and Witch Trials. Focused on England, his work offered vivid evidence of how
much data literature missed. In Essex County, for instance, Ewen found thirty times as many
trials as any previous researcher. Scholars were basing their theories on only 3% of the
available evidence. And that 3% was vastly different from the other 97%.

In the 1970's other researchers followed in Ewen's footsteps, so in the last twenty-five years,
the quantity and quality of available evidence has dramatically improved. Now we can look
at all the trials from an area and see what the "normal" trial was really like. Court documents
frequently contain detailed information on the gender, social status, and occupation of the
accused. Today, for the first time, we have a good idea of the dimensions of the Great Hunt:
where the trials occurred, who was tried in them, who did the killing, and how many people
lost their lives.

400 In One Day: An Influential Forgery
Another, smaller breakthrough also profoundly altered our view of the early history of the
Great Hunt. In 1972, two scholars independently discovered that a famous series of
medieval witch trials never happened.

The forgery was Etienne Leon de Lamothe-Langon's Histoire de l'Inquisition en France,
written in 1829. Lamothe-Langon described enormous witch trials which supposedly took
place in southern France in the early 14th century. Run by the Inquisition of Toulouse and
Carcasonne, these trials killed hundreds upon hundreds of people. The most famous was a
craze where 400 women died in one day. No other French historian had noticed these trials.

In the early 20th century, the prominent historian Jacob Hansen included large sections of
Lamothe-Langon's work in his compendium on medieval witchcraft. Later historians cited
Hansen's cites, apparently without closely examining Lamothe-Langon's credentials.
Non-academic writers cited the writers who cited Hansen, and thus Lamothe-Langon's
dramatic French trials became a standard part of the popular view of the Great Hunt.

However, as more research was done, Lamothe-Langon's trials began to look odd to
historians. No sources mentioned them, and they were completely different from all other
14th century trials. There were no other mass trials of this nature until 1428, no panics like
this until the 16th century. Furthermore, the demonology in the trials was quite elaborate,
with sabbats and pacts and enormous black masses. It was far more complex than the
demonology of the Malleus Maleficarum (1486). Why would the Inquisition think up this
elaborate demonology, and then apparently forget it for two hundred years?

Questions like these led Norman Cohn (Europe's Inner Demons and "Three Forgeries:
Myths and Hoaxes of European Demonology II" in Encounter 44 (1975)) and Richard
Kieckhefer (European Witch Trials) to investigate Lamothe-Langon's background. What
they found was reasonably conclusive evidence that the great trials of the Histoire had never

First, Lamothe-Langon was a hack writer and known forger, not a historian. Early in his
career he specialized in historical fiction, but he soon turned to more profitable horror novels,
like The Head of Death, The Monastery of the Black Friars, and The Vampire (or, The
Virgin of Hungary). Then, in 1829, he published the Histoire, supposedly a work of
non-fiction. After its success Lamothe-Langon went on to write a series of "autobiographies"
of various French notables, such as Cardinal Richeleau, Louis XVIII, and the Comtesse du

Second, none of Lamothe-Langon's sources could be found, and there was strong reason to
suspect they never existed. Lamothe-Langon claimed he was using unpublished Inquisitorial
records given to him by Bishop Hyacinthe Sermet -- Cohn found a letter from Sermet stating
that there were no unpublished records. Lamothe-Langon had no training in paleography,
the skill needed to translate the script and copious abbreviations used in medieval
documents, and he was not posted in Toulouse long enough to do any serious research in its

Third, under close examination a number of flaws appeared in his stories. He cited records
written by seneschal Pierre de Voisins in 1275, but Voisins ceased being seneschal in 1254
and died not long after. The inquisitor who ran many of these trials was Pierre Guidonis
(nephew of Bernard Gui from The Name of the Rose). But Guidonis wasn't an inquisitor at
the time when the trials were held. Cohn and Kieckhefer published their findings in 1972.
Since, then academics have avoided this forged material. Unfortunately by this point,
Lamothe-Langon's lurid trials had entered into the mythology of witchcraft. While nobody
cites Lamothe-Langon directly anymore, his fictions show up everywhere, including both Z
Budapest's The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries and Raven Grimassi's The Wiccan

There's no simple way to weed out all of Lamothe-Langon's disinformation, but a few
guidelines will help:
a) Use scholarly texts written after 1975. b) Beware of any trial set in Toulouse or
Carcasonne. While these cities did have real cases, only the forged ones get cited regularly. c)
Ignore any trial involving Anne-Marie de Georgel or Catherine Delort; they're forgeries. d)
Ignore any trial that killed "400 women in one day." This never happened. e) Avoid Jules
Michelet's Satanism and Witchcraft. Although he wrote a poetic and dramatic book,
Michelet never found much historical evidence to support his theory that witchcraft was an
anti-Catholic protest religion. What little bit there was came from the Lamothe-Langon
forgeries. So when they were debunked, the last props for his book collapsed. f) The
appendix of Richard Kieckhefer's European Witch Trials contains a list of all known trials
that occurred between 1300 and 1500.

The New Geography of Witch Hunting
The pattern revealed by trial records bears little resemblence to the picture literature painted.
Every aspect of the Great Hunt, from chronology to death toll, has changed. And if your
knowledge of the "Burning Times" is based on popular or Pagan literature, nearly everything
you know may be wrong.

a) Chronology. Popular history places the witchcraft persecutions in the Middle Ages
(5th-14th centuries). 19th century historians considered the Great Hunt an outburst of
superstitious hysteria, fostered and spread by the Catholic Church. "Naturally", therefore, the
persecution would be worst when the Church's power was the greatest: in the Middle
Ages, before the Reformation split "the" Church into warring Catholic and Protestant sects.
Certainly there were trials in the early modern period (15th-18th centuries), but they must
have been a pale shadow of the horrors that came before.

Modern research has debunked this theory quite conclusively. Although many stereotypes
about witches pre-date Christianity, the lethal crazes of the Great Hunt were actually the
child of the "Age of Reason." Lamothe-Langon's forged trials were one of the last stumbling
blocks that kept the theory of medieval witch hunting alive, and once these trials are
removed, the development of witchcraft stereotypes becomes much clearer. All pre-modern
European societies believed in magick. As far as we can tell, all passed laws prohibitting
magickal crimes. Pagan Roman law and the earliest Germanic and Celtic law codes all
contain edicts that punish people who cast baneful spells. This is only common sense: a
society that believes in the power of magick will punish people who abuse that power.

Many of the stereotypes about witches have been with us from pre-Christian times. From
the Mediterranean to Ireland, witches were said to fly about at night, drinking blood, killing
babies, and devouring human corpses. We know this because many early Christian
missionaries encouraged newly converted kingdoms to pass laws protecting men and
women from charges of witchcraft -- charges, they said, that were impossible and
un-Christian. For example, the 5th century Synod of St. Patrick ruled that "A Christian who
believes that there is a vampire in the world, that is to say, a witch, is to be anathematized;
whoever lays that reputation upon a living being shall not be received into the Church until
he revokes with his own voice the crime that he has committed." A capitulary from Saxony
(775-790 CE) blamed these stereotypes on pagan belief systems: "If anyone, deceived by the
Devil, believes after the manner of the Pagans that any man or woman is a witch and eats
men, and if on this account he burns [the alleged witch]... he shall be punished by capital

In the Middle Ages, the laws on magick remained virtually unchanged. Harmful magick
was punished, and the lethal trials we know of tended to occur when a noble felt that he or
she had been bewitched. The Church also forbade magick and assigned relatively mild
penalties to convicted witches. For instance, the Confessional of Egbert (England, 950-1000
CE) said that "If a woman works witchcraft and enchantment and [uses] magical philters, she
shall fast [on bread and water] for twelve months.... If she kills anyone by her philters, she
shall fast for seven years."

Traditional attitudes towards witchcraft began to change in the 14th century, at the very end
of the Middle Ages. As Carlo Ginzburg noted (Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbat),
early 14th century central Europe was seized by a series of rumor-panics. Some malign
conspiracy (Jews and lepers, Moslems, or Jews and witches) was attempting to destroy the
Christian kingdoms through magick and poison. After the terrible devastation caused by the
Black Death (1347-1349) these rumors increased in intensity and focused primarily on
witches and "plague-spreaders".

Witchcraft cases increased slowly but steadily from the 14th-15th century. The first mass
trials appeared in the 15th century. At the beginning of the 16th century, as the first
shock-waves from the Reformation hit, the number of witch trials actually dropped. Then,
around 1550, the persecution skyrocketed. What we think of as "the Burning Times" -- the
crazes, panics, and mass hysteria -- largely occurred in one century, from 1550-1650. In the
17th century, the Great Hunt passed nearly as suddenly as it had arisen. Trials dropped
sharply after 1650 and disappeared completely by the end of the 18th century.

b) Geography Before Lamothe-Langon's forgeries were discovered, the earliest great hunts
appeared to come from southern France. in an area once the home of the Cathar heresy. This
led some historians to suggest a link between Catharism and witchcraft, that witches were
the remnants of an old dualist faith. After you delete the forged trials, the center of the early
cases shifts to "Switzerland" and northern Italy, away from Cathar lands.

When all trials are plotted on a map, other surprising patterns emerge. First, the trials were
intensely sporadic. The rate of witch hunting varied dramatically throughout Europe, ranging
from a high of 26,000 deaths in Germany to a low of 4 in Ireland. Robin Briggs' Witches
and Neighbors can give you a good feel for how erratic the trials were. It contains three
maps showing the distribution of trials throughout Europe, throughout Germany, and
throughout the French province of Lorraine, which Briggs studied in depth. They reveal that
some of the most enormous persecutions (like the panics of Wurzburg, Germany) occurred
next to areas that had virtually no trials whatsoever.

Second, the trials were concentrated in central Europe, in Germany, Switzerland, and eastern
France. The further you got away from that area, the lower the persecution generally got.

Third, the height of the persecution occurred during the Reformation, when the formerly
unified Christian Church shattered into Catholic and Protestant sects. In countries like Italy
and Spain, where the Catholic Church and its Inquisition reigned virtually unquestioned,
witch hunting was uncommon. The worst panics took place in areas like Switzerland and
Germany, where rival Christians sects fought to impose their religious views on each other.

Fourth, panics clustered around borders. France's major crazes occurred on its Spanish and
eastern fronts. Italy's worst persecution was in the northern regions. Spain's one craze
centered on the Basque lands straddling the French/Spanish border.

Fifth, although it has become commonplace to think of the outbreaks of witch hunting as
malevolent pogroms imposed by evil elites, in reality the worst horrors occured where
central authority had broken down. Germany and Switzerland were patchwork quilts, loose
confederacies stitched together from dozens of independent political units. England, which
had a strong government, had little witch hunting. The country's one and only craze took
place during the English Civil War, when the government's power collapsed. A strong,
unified national church (as in Spain and Italy) also tended to keep deaths to a minimum.
Strong governments didn't always slow witch hunting, as King James of Scotland proved.
But the worst panics definitely hit where both Church and State were weak.

c) Christianity's Role in the Persecution For years, the responsibility for the Great Hunt has
been dumped on the Catholic Church's door-step. 19th century historians ascribed the
persecution to religious hysteria. And when Margaret Murray proposed that witches were
members of a Pagan sect, popular writers trumpeted that the Great Hunt was not a mere
panic, but rather a deliberate attempt to exterminate Christianity's rival religion.

Today, we know that there is absolutely no evidence to support this theory. When the
Church was at the height of its power (11th-14th centuries) very few witches died.
Persecutions did not reach epidemic levels until after the Reformation, when the Catholic
Church had lost its position as Europe's indisputable moral authority. Moreover most of the
killing was done by secular courts. Church courts tried many witches but they usually
imposed non-lethal penalties. A witch might be excommunicated, given penance, or
imprisoned, but she was rarely killed. The Inquisition almost invariably pardoned any witch
who confessed and repented.

Consider the case in York, England, as described by Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline
of Magic). At the height of the Great Hunt (1567-1640) one half of all witchcraft cases
brought before church courts were dismissed for lack of evidence. No torture was used, and
the accused could clear himself by providing four to eight "compurgators", people who were
willing to swear that he wasn't a witch. Only 21% of the cases ended with convictions, and
the Church did not impose any kind of corporal or capital punishment.

The vast majority of witches were condemned by secular courts. Ironically, the worst courts
were local courts. Some authors, like Anne Llewellyn Barstow (Witchcraze), blame the
death toll on the decline of the "community-based" medieval court, and the rise of the
centralized "national" court. Nothing could be further from the truth. "Community-based"
courts were often virtual slaughterhouses, killing 90% of all accused witches. National courts
condemned only about 30% of the accused.

Why were the execution rates so vastly different? Civil courts tended to handle "black"
witchcraft cases, trials involving charges of magickal murder, arson, and other violent crimes.
Church courts tried more "white" witchcraft: cases of magickal healing, divination, and
protective magick. Trial evidence shows that courts always treated healing more leniently
than cursing. Additionally, secular and religious courts served two different purposes. Civil
courts "protected" society by punishing and killing convicted criminals. In theory, the
Church's court system was designed to "save" the criminal -- to make him or her a good
Christian once more. Only unrepentant sinners were to be executed. The differences
between local and national courts are also easy to explain. Witchcraft cases were usually
surrounded by general fear and public protests. "Community-based" courts drew their
officials from the community, the group of people affected by this panic. National courts had
more distance from the hysteria. Moreover national courts tended to have professional,
trained staff -- men who were less likely to discard important legal safeguards in their haste to
see "justice" done.

d) The Inquisition But what of the Inquisition? For many, the "Inquisition" and the "Burning
Times" are virtually synonymous. The myth of the witch-hunting inquisition was built on
several assumptions and mistakes, all of which have been overturned in the last twenty-five
years. First, the myth was the logical extension of 19th century history, which blamed the
persecutions on the Catholic Church. If the Church attacked witches, surely the Inquisition
would be the hammer She wielded.

Second, a common translation error muddied the waters. Many records simply said that a
witch was tried "by inquisition". Some writers assumed that this meant "the" Inquisition.
And in some cases it did. But an "inquisition" was also the name of a type of trial used by
almost all courts in Europe at the time. Later, when historians examined the records in
greater detail, they found that the majority did not involve the Inquisition, merely an
inquisition. Today most historians are careful about this, but older and more popular texts
(such as Rossell Hope Robbins' Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology) still have the
Inquisition killing witches in times and places where it did not even exist.

Third, the only witch-hunting manual most people have seen was written by an inquisitor.
In the 1970's, when feminist and Neo-Pagan authors turned their attention to the witch
trials, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) was the only manual readily
available in translation. Authors naively assumed that the book painted an accurate picture
of how the Inquisition tried witches. Heinrich Kramer, the text's demented author, was held
up as a typical inquisitor. His rather stunning sexual preoccupations were presented as the
Church's "official" position on witchcraft. Actually the Inquisition immediately rejected the
legal procedures Kramer recommended and censured the inquisitor himself just a few years
after the Malleus was published. Secular courts, not inquisitorial ones, resorted to the

As more research was done and historians became more sensitive to the "an inquisition/the
Inquisition" error, the inquisitorial witch-hunter began to look like a rare bird.
Lamothe-Langon's trials were the last great piece of "evidence", and when they fell, scholars
re-examined the Inquisition's role in the Burning Times. What they found was quite
startling. In 1258 Pope Alexander IV explicitly refused to allow the Inquisition from
investigating charges of witchcraft: "The Inquisitors, deputed to investigate heresy, must not
intrude into investigations of divination or sorcery without knowledge of manifest heresy
involved." The gloss on this passage explained what "manifest heresy" meant: "praying at the
altars of idols, to offer sacrifices, to consult demons, to elicit responses from them... or if [the
witches] associate themselves publicly with heretics." In other words, in the 13th century the
Church did not consider witches heretics or members of a rival religion.

It wasn't until 1326, almost 100 years later, that the Church reversed its position and
allowed the Inquisition to investigate witchcraft. But the only significant contribution that
was made was in the development of "demonology", the theory of the diabolic origin of
witchcraft. As John Tedeschi demonstrates in his essay "Inquisitorial Law and the Witch" (in
Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen's Early Modern European Witchcraft) the
Inquisition still played a very small role in the persecution. From 1326-1500, few deaths
occurred. Richard Kieckhefer (European Witch Trials) found 702 definite executions in all of
Europe from 1300-1500; of these, only 137 came from inquisitorial or church courts. By the
time that trials were common (early 16th century) the Inquisition focused on the
proto-Protestants. When the trials peaked in the 16th and 17th century, the Inquisition was
only operating in two countries: Spain and Italy, and both had extremely low death tolls.

In fact, in Spain the Inquisition worked diligently to keep witch trials to a minimum. Around
1609, a French witch-craze triggered a panic in the Basque regions of Spain. Gustav
Henningsen (The Witches' Advocate) documented the Inquisition's work in brilliant detail.
Although several inquisitors believed the charges, one skeptic convinced La Suprema (the
ruling body of the Spanish Inquisition) that this was groundless hysteria. La Suprema
responded by issuing an "Edict of Silence" forbidding all discussion of witchcraft. For, as the
skeptical inquisitor noted, "There were neither witches nor bewitched until they were talked
and written about."

The Edict worked, quickly dissipating the panic and accusations. And until the end of the
Great Hunt, the Spanish Inquisition insisted that it alone had the right to condemn witches --
which it refused to do. Another craze broke out in Vizcaya, in 1616. When the Inquisition
re-issued the Edict of Silence, the secular authorities went over their head and petitioned the
king for the right to try witches themselves. The king granted the request, and 289 people
were quickly sentenced. Fortunately the Inquisition managed to re-assert its monopoly on
trials and dismissed all the charges. The "witches" of Cataluna were not so lucky. Secular
authorities managed to execute 300 people before the Inquisition could stop the trials.

e) The Witches Court records showed that there was no such thing as an "average" witch:
there was no characteristic that the majority of witches shared, in all times and plac es. Not
gender. Not wealth. Not religion. Nothing. The only thing that united them was the fact
that they were accused of witchcraft. The diversity of witches is one of the strongest
arguments against the theory that the Great Hunt was a deliberate pogrom aimed at a
specific group of people. If that was true, then most witches would have something in

We can isolate certain factors that increased a person's odds of being accused. Most witches
were women. Many were poor or elderly; many seem to be unmarried. Most were
alienated from their neighbors, or seen as "different" and disliked. But there is no evidence
that one group was targeted. Traditional magick users might have a slightly higher chance of
being accused of witchcraft, but the vast majority of known "white" witches were never

Before trial evidence was available, there were two major theories on who the witches were.
Margaret Murray (The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches)
proposed that witches were members of a Pagan sect that worshipped the Horned God.
Murray's research was exceptionally poor, and occasionally skated into out-right textual
manipulation. She restricted her studies to our worst evidence: witch hunting propaganda
and trials that involved copious amounts of torture. She then assumed that such evidence
was basically accurate, and that the Devil was "really" a Pagan god. None of these
assumptions have held up under scrutiny.

In 1973, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English suggested that most witches were
mid-wives and female healers. Their book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses convinced
many feminists and Pagans that the Great Hunt was a pogrom aimed at traditional women
healers. The Church and State sought to break the power of these women by accusing them
of witchcraft, driving a wedge of fear between the wise-woman and her clients.

The evidence for this theory was -- and is -- completely anecdotal. Authors cited a number of
cases involving healers, then simply assumed that this was what the "average" trial was like.
However a mere decade after Witches, Midwives, and Nurses was published, we knew
that this was not true. Healers made up a small percentage of the accused, usually between
2% and 20%, depending on the country. There was never a time or a place where the
majority of accused witches were healers. In 1990, D. Harley's article, "Historians as
demonologists: the myth of the midwife-witch" (in Social History of Medicine 3 (1990), pp.
1-26.) demonstrated that being a licensed midwife actually decreased a woman's changes of
being charged.

And there was worse to come. Feminist and Pagan writers presented the healer-witch as the
innocent, enlightened victim of the evil male witch hunters. Trials showed that as often as
not, the "white" witch was an avid supporter of the "Burning Times." Diane Purkiss (The
Witch in History) pointed out that "midwives were more likely to be found helping
witch-hunters" than as victims of their inquiries. How did witches become witch-hunters?
By blaming illnesses on their rivals. Feminist authors rightly lambasted male doctors who
blamed unexplained illnesses on witches. Trial records suggest that this did happen, though
not terribly often. If you look at doctors' case books you find that in most cases doctors found
natural causes when people thought they were bewitched. When they did diagnose
witchcraft, doctors almost never blamed a particular healer or witch. They were trying to
explain their failure, not to destroy some individual.

Traditional healers and "white" witches routinely blamed diseases on witchcraft. For a
doctor, diagnosing "witchcraft" was admitting failure. Medicine could do nothing against
magick, and doctors were loathe to admit that they were powerless against a disease.
However baneful magick was the forte of the helpful (or "white" witch). Folk healers
regularly blamed illnesses on magick and offered counter-spells to cure their patients. Many
were even willing to divine the name of the cursing witch, for a fee.

f) Gender Issues One basic fact about the Great Witch Hunt stands out: most of the people
accused were women. Even during the Hunt itself, commentators noticed this. Some
speculated that there were 10,000 female witches for every male witch, and a host of
misogynist explanations were trotted out to account for this fact. Later, the predominance of
women led some feminists to theorize that "witch" and "woman" were virtually
synonymous, that the persecution was caused by Europe's misogyny.

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