The Burning Times – A Pagan Myth
Written 2001 – © Val Dobson
The “Burning Times” are what Pagans, Wiccans et al call the period in the Middle Ages when tens of thousands of people all across Europe were tortured and executed on charges of witchcraft. Just what are the known historical facts about the these times?
Europe has a long history of vicious persecution of religious heretics, stretching right back to 1st-century Rome. There, members of a cult that allegedly practiced sexual promiscuity, infanticide, incest and cannibalism as part of its rites were enthusiastically put to death for their horrific crimes. (The cult, by the way, was Christianity; their righteous persecutors were all pagans.)1
Right up until the 12th century, persecuted heretics were members of unorthodox Christian groups – Cathars, Bogomils, Arians, etc. After that, Jews, lepers and male homosexuals were added to the list. Witches only started making the list fairly late on; they weren’t formally identified as heretics until 1450.
In 15th century Spain, Jews were offered the choice of expulsion from the country or conversion to Christianity. Some of those who chose conversion continued to practice Judaism in private; in the main, it was these ‘secret Jews’ who were hunted down by the Spanish arm of the Inquisition (which had been founded to stamp out heresy). In the popular imagination of the Christian majority of the Middle Ages, Jews were depraved and wicked Christ-killers who invoked Satan by sacrificing Christian children (sounds familiar?) and this may well have fed the folk-idea of devil-worshippers meeting in secret to plot evil.
Belief in witchcraft was already established throughout Europe since the 7th century and before, but it was generally regarded in a pretty neutral light. Like the weather, it was a fact of life that witches existed; some individual witches were nasty – they were the ones you had to be careful of, but were useful if some enemy needed cursing. Some were OK and could be relied on for healing spells and potions. However, none of them were a threat to society as a whole. Neither did they meet together in covens – at most, two or three members of a family might (in the popular imagination) get together to produce spells; far more often, witches were perceived as solitaries.
This then, was the reality of witchcraft in the early Middle Ages – no feminist fantasies of wise-women celebrating the Goddess and curing all ills with a herb and a smile – just ordinary peasants who believed that some people were born with special gifts and powers of healing and cursing.
Rather than persecuting witches, the authorities then were anxious that people should not believe in them. In some areas, it was a defamatory crime to accuse someone of witchcraft, and Charlemagne the Great ordered the death penalty for anyone killing a witch. Church authorities declared that belief in witches and in the power of witchcraft was unchristian, since it implied that God did not have supreme power in the universe.
The practice of witchcraft wasn’t confined to the lower classes either – highly placed people, including minor members of royalty, were known to have used it; although, just to confuse modern historians, ‘high magic’ – alchemy and the like – was then regarded as a branch of science. (A clear demarcation was made at the time between the upper-class ritual magician experimenting with his mercury and saltpetre, and the peasant herbalist dispensing powders and simples from his hovel; it has been suggested that the mediaeval witch-hunts were part of an attempt to keep the uppity lower orders in their place.)
It wasn’t until the Christian church hugely increased its temporal power, and the rise of literacy helped to spread and establish Christian orthodoxy, that the ‘soft’ attitude to witchcraft began to harden. It was then that witches began to be perceived as heretics – that is, as people who actively and secretly organised to attack and undermine Christianity.
It was then that the fantasies of cannibalism, orgies, baby-killing and secret night-time meetings that Christian heretic groups had previously been accused of were applied also to witches. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, increasing literacy was bringing previously little-known Christian ideas to the masses. Amongst those ideas was a belief in demons and diabolism, propagated by two of the early Church founders, Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Augustine declared that demons had supernatural powers, while Aquinas speculated that they could take on human form and have intercourse with humans; both writers theorised that the Devil was at the top of an extensive hierarchy of demons whose sole aim was to do evil. Heretic-hunters took these theories as proven fact and witches became anti-Christian devil-worshippers who made pacts with demons.
It is evident that, from about 1400 onwards, all kinds of deviance became classified as either heresy or witchcraft, as a means of controlling an increasingly restive populace. Political radicals, like the Lollards in England, were sometimes tried under the witchcraft acts, on wafer-thin evidence of charming or spell-making. Even slightly unorthodox Christians who looked like they might be claiming some of the Church hierarchy’s powers as their own, were defined as witches.2
General political instability and a lack of consistent state-wide laws and legal frameworks meant that one town might be heaving with witchcraft allegations and rumours of witchcraft, while in another town twenty miles away the local herbalists and charmers would still be quietly going about their business. That same political and social instability (the Black Death had ravaged Europe, while a long cycle of unusually cold weather caused poor harvests for decades on end) produced an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, in which neighbourhood rivalries or property disputes might be settled by accusations of witchcraft.
So, the “Burning Times” were far more complex than any simplistic myth about “nine million European women” dying could ever allow for. And just how many died anyway?
That oft-quoted figure of 9 million women appears to have come from an American suffragist named Matilda Joslyn Gage, who came up with this number in an 1893 book called Women, Church and State. Where she got it from is a mystery, as the historians’ most accurate estimate is that only some 40-50,000 people were executed as witches in the three centuries of witch-hunting – and around a quarter of those were men! As Gage was American, it is possible that she used the unique American meaning of ‘million’, denoting a figure of 100,000 rather than the figure of 1,000,000 that is the accepted European meaning. So if she wrote ‘nine million’ (I haven’t seen the original quotation), she may actually have meant a figure of 900,000. If so, just possibly, she might have arrived at it by doubling the accepted figure of 40-50 thousand dead and throwing in an extra nought for good measure. “Nine hundred thousand European w-o-o-men, they died…” Doesn’t scan nearly as well, does it?
We pagans love our myths – witness the many Hereditary Wiccan covens claiming lineages stretching back centuries but using Books of Shadows written in 20th century English. And there are plenty of people like the 19-year old (male) pagan who, complaining about the omission of Paganism from a National Union of Students leaflet on religious intolerance, claimed: “They (the NUS) were refusing to acknowledge the nine million pagans burnt at the stake by Christians during the burning times.”3 Yes, we have to have our Holocaust, our genocides, our martyrs, our persecutions just like the other minority groups – we must be worth something if other people hate us enough to kill us!
Such an attitude reveals a pathetic insecurity about one’s inner faith. We jeer at Christians who cling to the belief that the Bible is the literal truth, yet many of us pagans cling with equal desperation to the whole boatload of Burning Times myths – millions of wisewomen-healers burnt at the stake, pentagram-wearing Goddess-followers meeting in oak groves every Full Moon, gentle matriarchal societies destroyed by jealous patriarchs, generations of witches handing on carefully-preserved Books of Shadows to their children.
Our core faith, our inner beliefs, should not have to depend on myths! If somebody needs their faith to be propped up with historically dubious folk-stories, then they should find themselves another faith, one that can stand up on its own. As far as I am concerned, paganism is such a faith.
1. Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons (1976)
2. A modern example of how witchcraft laws could be used against people who had nothing to do with witchcraft occurred in Britain in 1943, when the spiritualist medium Helen Duncan was the last person to be tried and convicted under the Witchcraft Act (since repealed). She was arrested after having twice passed on messages from the ‘Other Side’ containing supposedly secret information about the movements of British warships. The authorities, unable to discover where the security leak was coming from, had her charged under a section of the Witchcraft Act dealing with fraudulent mediumship, as a desperate measure to silence her before she started attracting the attention of enemy agents. Although some British Witches have recently tried to have her commemorated as a ‘victim’ of anti-witch prejudice, she would, as a Spiritualist, have been a practicing Christian and horrified by the very idea of Witchcraft.
3. Guardian (UK), Education Supplement, 11th April 2000