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An overview of the witch craze that swept europe

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: Everyone knew that this evidence was lousy.

The few trials cited were the larger, more infamous ones.

  1. Statements were given on oath. As we will see in the modern-day case-studies below, such generalized stress -- including the prevalence of epidemics and natural disasters -- is nearly always central to outbreaks of mass hysteria of this type.
  2. Those sentenced to death were executed by hanging. I intend to give your towne a visit suddenly.
  3. In the rest of Europe witches were usually burned but normally they were strangled first.

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! 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: 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.

The Background to the Witch Trials

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: 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. 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.

Beliefs About Witches

In Essex County, for instance, Ewen found thirty times as many trials as any previous researcher. 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.

  • In the Kenyan case, as was also true in a handful of European countries, the witch-hunts appear predominantly to target males;
  • If charity was refused or an argument ensued it was not uncommon for curses to be cast in anger;
  • Statements were given on oath.

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: 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.

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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? What they found was reasonably conclusive evidence that the great trials of the Histoire had never occurred. First, Lamothe-Langon was a hack writer and known forger, not a historian.

Then, in 1829, he published the Histoire, supposedly a work of non-fiction. 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.

  • However torture was not used in England and after 1594 it was not used in Holland, which is probably one reason why there were fewer executions for witchcraft there;
  • Medicine could do nothing against magick, and doctors were loathe to admit that they were powerless against a disease.

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 archives.

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. But Guidonis wasn't an inquisitor at the time when the trials were held.

  1. Red hot pincers were used to tear off flesh and breasts, and the spider, a sharp iron fork was used to mangle breasts. My children have gone away and now I have nothing.
  2. However witchcraft was not a gender-specific crime and men were not exempt from accusation. A group of people visited the Inkanga [village witch-doctor] to see who was responsible.
  3. On the basis the witch had a familiar which requiring feeding, an accused witch would be stripped naked and dressed in a loose shift.
  4. However witchcraft was not a gender-specific crime and men were not exempt from accusation.
  5. Following repeated disputes with Parliament for failing to vote supply, Charles determined to rule without it, and did so from 1629 to 1640.

Cohn and Kieckhefer published their findings in 1972. Since, then academics have avoided this forged material.

There's no simple way to weed out all of Lamothe-Langon's disinformation, but a few guidelines will help: While these cities did have real cases, only the forged ones get cited regularly. 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. 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. Popular history places the witchcraft persecutions in the Middle Ages 5th-14th centuries. Certainly there were trials in the early modern period 15th-18th centuriesbut 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. 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: 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 an overview of the witch craze that swept europe being shall not be received into the Church until he revokes with his own voice the crime that he has committed.

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. As Carlo Ginzburg noted Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbatearly 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".

  • There is no record of familiars being encountered during the watching;
  • A legal trial was often a last resort because it was an expensive process.

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. This led some historians to suggest a link between Catharism and witchcraft, that witches were the remnants of an old dualist faith.

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.