While it cannot be denied that the witch trials were one of the darkest points in European and American history a lot of the things people believe about them today are either distorted or wildly inaccurate. While it is important that the lessons of the trials are never forgotten, particularly given the tendency to repeat them whether it is McCarthy’s hunt for Communists or the panic of Satanic Ritual Abuse in the 80s, it does a disservice to those who suffered and died to distort the facts simply to push an agenda.
1) Myth: 9 million women were executed during the Witch Trials: This number is a guess from the 19th century that is now completely dismissed by credible historians. More modern estimates suggest it was between 50 and 100 thousand people executed (some estimates go as high as 200 thousand). This number is not as extreme as it sounds (although given most if not all of these individuals weren’t guilty of any crime it’s still a travesty) it should be remembered that this number is from across Europe and for a period of hundreds of years.
2) Myth: the witch hunts were a product of the middle ages/dark ages: In fact the bulk of the trials took place between the 14th and 18th centuries falling into the reformation and enlightenment. The early church even explicitly outlawed and condemned accusations of witchcraft (both the Council of Paderborn in 785 and Emperor Charlemagne condemned it) and noted theologian Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote that the belief in witches itself was incorrect.
3) Myth: The Inquisition was responsible for the witch hunts: While it is true that the Inquisition executed many people it was primarily concerned with heretics like the Cathars and Jews. It wasn’t even till 1320 that Pope John XXII authorized the Inquisition to hunt witches and even then more of their energy was aimed at other groups. Catholics and Catholic countries certainly did execute alleged witches but this also ignores that these hunts were conducted by Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anglicans as well. Even when the Inquisition was behind a hunt it did not actually execute the accused, which was outside of it’s authority. Instead the witch was turned over to the secular authority that carried out the execution. In addition to this many witch trials were carried out by secular authorities without direct involvement from any church.
4) Myth Witches were burned at the stake: It was actually uncommon, although not unknown, for witches to be burned at the stake as a means of execution. Most of the time they were either hanged or decapitated and then the body were burnt and the ashes scattered to guard against any mischief after death. IN particular none of the witches in Salem, or in fact any England colony, were ever burned to death and such a punishment was forbidden under English law.
5) The trials were an attempt to suppress paganism in Europe: For the most part paganism had ceased to exist in Western Europe before the trials began. It is true that some Christians continued to practice rituals and symbols drawn from pagan routes but this is not the same as actively worshiping pagan gods. There is no evidence of any kind for example that Wicca or the other modern forms of paganism existed at the time, the theories of Margaret Murray have largely been dismissed by the majority of historians as groundless. Further as far as the records of the trials show the people accused were themselves Christians. They didn’t consider themselves pagan and the charges leveled against them do not resemble modern neo pagan practices (wiccans for example do not sacrifice babies to Satan, curdle milk or cavort with demons). It should be noted that saying neo pagan religions are modern is not a condemnation of their theological beliefs (every religion from Hinduism to Christianity was new at some point in its history) simply a comment on what is historically documented.
6) Antifeminism/ergot poisoning/greed/<insert other pet explanation here> is why the witch trials happened: There are a huge list of theories that claim to definitively explain the trials and all of them have problems. The largest of which relates to a simple question: which trials does the theorist mean? England, Scandinavia, Germany, France, Russia, the Balkans, and the Colonies are just some of the places these trials took place. And they don’t all neatly fit into one simple explanation. For example while it’s true that the majority of victims across all of the trials (estimated to be between 75-85%) in some areas, notably Russia, the Balkans and Scandinavia, nearly every single accused and executed witch was in fact male. So while certainly misogyny played a role in many of the trials, Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum has a clearly anti female agenda, it doesn’t hold true for all of them. Ergot poisoning is mostly associated with the Salem trials but isn’t consistent with the symptoms the girls who made the accusations suffered. Greed as well often played a role (land disputes played a major role in the Salem trials) the most common group of accused witches were poor outcast women who had little money or land for the hunters to seize and in some places land wasn’t seized at all. The causes of the trials are a complex subject and cannot be simplistically labeled as all one thing or another.
7) Witch trials are a thing of the past: The most tragic of all the misconceptions is the idea that the trials have ended. While for the most part execution for witchcraft has been illegal in Europe since the late 18th century (England outlawed it with the Witchcraft Act of 1735 where Germany held out to near the end of the 18th) these accusations continue in some parts of the world. Several parts of Africa and the Middle East (it remains a crime in Saudi Arabia for example with individuals being executed by beheading for it as recently as 2012) continue to see the persecution and even execution of alleged witches.
Article by Doctor Brian A. Pavlac: departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witch/werror.html
New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/22/national/22beliefs.html?_r=0