Re: Historical Background Regarding Witchcraft ... Continued

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Posted by Elaine on January 19, 2000 at 19:13:55:

In Reply to: Historical Background Regarding Witchcraft ... posted by Elaine on January 19, 2000 at 19:04:42:

Here's the continuation. By the way, those killed in Massachusetts were falsely accused and they were most enthusiastic in their denials of witchcraft & 'magick.' Would they welcome candles and flowers by modern witches? Most probably not.


Overall, approximately 75% -80% of the accused were women. However this percentage
varied dramatically. In several of the Scandinavian countries, equal numbers of men and
women were accused. In Iceland over 90% of the accused were men. Central Europe killed
the most witches, and it killed many more women than men -- this is why the overall
percentages are so badly skewed.

Proponents of the misogyny theory generally ignore these variations. Many simply do not
discuss male witches. One of the most egregious examples comes from Anne Llewellyn
Barstow's Witchcraze. Barstow says that Iceland did not have a "real" witch hunt. Now,
Iceland killed more witches than Ireland, Russia, and Portugal combined. Barstow claims
that all these countries had "real" hunts, and offers no explanation of what made Iceland's
deaths "unreal." The only thing I can see is that almost all Icelandic witches were men, and
Barstow's theory cannot handle that.

Given the sexism of the times, it's not difficult to find shockingly misogynist witch trials. But
misogyny does not explain the trial patterns we see. The beginning and end of the
persecution don't correlate to any notable shifts in women's rights. Trials clustered around
borders -- are borders more misogynist than interior regions? Ireland killed four witches,
Scotland a couple thousand -- are the Scots that much more sexist? Barstow admits that
Russia was every bit as misogynist as Germany, yet it killed only ten witches. Her theory
can't explain why, and so she simply insists that there were probably lots of other Russian
witches killed and they were probably mostly women. We've just lost all the evidence that
would support her theory.

From Nine Million to Forty Thousand
The most dramatic changes in our vision of the Great Hunt centered on the death toll. Back
before trial surveys were available, estimates of the death toll were almost 100% pure
speculation. The only thing our literary evidence told us was that a lot of witches died. Witch
hunting propaganda talked about thousands and thousands of executions. Literature focused
on crazes, the largest and most sensational trials around. But we had no idea how accurate
the literary evidence was, or how common trials actually were. So early death toll estimates,
which ranged from several hundred thousand up to a high of nine million, were simply
people trying to guess how much "a lot" of witches was.

Today, the process is completely different. Historians begin by counting all the
executions/trials listed in an area's court records. Next they estimate how much evidence
we've lost: what years and courts we're missing data for. Finally they survey the literary
evidence, to see if any large witch trials occurred during the gaps in the evidence. There's still
guess-work involved in today's estimates and many areas have not yet been systematically
studied. But we now have a solid data-base to build our estimates from, and our figures are
getting more specific as further areas are studied.

When the first trial record studies were completed, it was obvious that early estimates were
fantastically high. Trial evidence showed that witch crazes were not everyday occurrences, as
literature suggested. In fact most countries only had one or two in all of the Great Hunt.

To date, less than 15,000 definite executions have been discovered in all of Europe and
America combined. (If you would like a table of the recorded and estimated death tolls
throughout Europe, and a full list of the sources for these figures, send me a note at Even though many records are missing, it is now clear that death
tolls higher than 100,000 are not believable.

Three scholars have attempted to calculate the total death toll for the Great Hunt using the
new evidence. Brian Levack (The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe) surveyed regional
studies and found that there were approximately 110,000 witch trials. Levack focused on
recorded trials, not executions, because in many cases we have evidence that a trial occurred
but no indication of its outcome. On average, 48% of trials ended in an execution, therefore
he estimated that 60,000 witches died. This is slightly higher than 48% to reflect the fact that
Germany, the center of the persecution, killed more than 48% of its witches.

Ronald Hutton (The Pagan Religions of the British Isles and "Counting the Witch Hunt", an
unpublished essay) used a different methodology. First he surveyed the regional studies and
counted up the number of estimated deaths they contained. When he ran into an uncounted
area, he looked for a counted area which matched it as closely as possible, in terms of
population, culture, and the intensity of witch hunting mentioned in literary evidence. He
then assumed that the uncounted area would kill roughly as many witches as the counted
area. Using this technique, he estimated that 40,000 witches died in the Great Hunt.

Anne Llewellyn Barstow (Witchcraze) estimated that 100,000 witches died, but her
reasoning was flawed. Barstow began with Levack's 60,000 deaths. Then she increased it to
100,000 for two reasons: 1) To compensate for lost records; and 2) Because new trials are still
being found.

This may sound reasonable, but it's not. The 110,000 estimated witch trials that Levack
based his calculations on already did contain a large allowance for lost records. Barstow was
apparently unaware of this, and added more deaths for no good reason. Her point about
new trials is true, but irrelevant. Yes, more deaths are being discovered each year. But the
more we find, the lower the death toll goes. This makes sense once you understand how
historians make their estimates. "New" trials aren't trials we never dreamed existed. They
appear when we count areas and courts that haven't been counted before. Historians have
always known that our data was imperfect, and they always included estimates for lost trials.
So when you find "new" executions, you can't simply add them to the total death toll: you
also have to subtract the old estimate they're replacing. And since old estimates were
generally far too high, newly "found" trials usually end up lowering the death toll.

Why It Matters
These changes make it critically important to use up-to-date research if you're investigating
historical witchcraft. We have perhaps 20 times as much information as we had two decades
ago. Witchcraft studies has also become an inter-disciplinary field. Once the domain of
historians alone, it now attracts anthropologists and sociologists who offer radically new
interpretations of the Great Hunt. Anthropologists point out the ubiquity of witchcraft
beliefs, demonstrating that the Great Hunt was not an exclusively European phenomenon.
Sociologists draw chilling parallels between the Great Hunt and recent panics over Satanic
cults, evidence which hints that we're still not out of the shadow of the Burning Times.

We Neopagans now face a crisis. As new data appeared, historians altered their theories to
account for it. We have not. Therefore an enormous gap has opened between the academic
and the "average" Pagan view of witchcraft. We continue to use of out-dated and poor
writers, like Margaret Murray, Montague Summers, Gerald Gardner, and Jules Michelet.
We avoid the somewhat dull academic texts that present solid research, preferring
sensational writers who play to our emotions. For example, I have never seen a copy of Brian
Levack's The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe in a Pagan bookstore. Yet half the stores
I visit carry Anne Llewellyn Barstow's Witchcraze, a deeply flawed book which has been
ignored or reviled by most scholarly historians.

We owe it to ourselves to study the Great Hunt more honestly, in more detail, and using
the best data available. Dualistic fairy tales of noble witches and evil witch hunters have
great emotional appeal, but they blind us to what happened. And what could happen, today.
Few Pagans commented on the haunting similarities between the Great Hunt and
America's panic over Satanic cults. Scholars noticed it; we didn't. We say "Never again the
Burning!" But if we don't know what happened the first time, how are we ever going to
prevent it from happening again?

Jenny Gibbons has an M.A. in medieval history and minored in the history of the Great
You can contact her at This article originally appeared in issue #5
of the Pomegranate (Lammas, 1998). Reprinted with permission.

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