Monday, 25 July 2011

Live From The Witch Trials

There's a meme that's been present in our culture for a good 40 years or more, & it's this: the idea that the 'witchburning' craze of the 15th-18th centuries was in some way simply a war upon women. That it was in fact a "genocide" (or "gendercide") carried out upon women, a "woman's holocaust", with some of the more fanciful claims of the death toll being as high as 9 million. Dan Brown, in his extraordinarily popular blockbuster novel The DaVinci Code makes the claim that "the church burned at the stake an astonishing five million women."

That figure really is astonishing. It's also almost certainly false.

A couple of days ago I was engaged in one of the many fantastically in-depth discussions about ideas & philosophy & the general human tragedy with my wondrous lover F, & I don't know how but somehow we got onto the witchburnings, & I realized that I really ought to know a little more about the claims being made & what is actually known historically about those times.

So then, first stop, as always, was Wikipedia, whose entry on 'witch-hunt' gave these basic figures for the years 1450-1750:

Number of trials Number of executions
British Isles and North America ~5,000 ~1,500–2,000
Empire (Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Lorraine, Austria and Czech) ~50000 ~25000–30000
France ~3,000 ~1,000
Scandinavia ~5,000 ~1,700–2,000
Eastern Europe (Poland and Lithuania, Hungary and Russia) ~7,000 ~2,000
Southern Europe (Spain, Portugal and Italy) ~10,000 fewer than 1,000
Total: ~80,000 ~35,000

The first thing that strikes me immediately about this is that, in the whole of the British Isles & North America combined, over a period of three hundred years, there were in total less than two thousand deaths. That works out around 6 or 7 people a year, & a quarter of those, as you probably already know, were men. An unpleasant business, yes, but hardly a holocaust. To put that in some perspective, more people died in road accidents last year in Britain alone than in all 300 years of witch-burnings.

A note to the aforementioned Wikipedia entry tells us:
 The most common estimates [worldwide] are between 40,000 and 60,000 deaths. Brian Levack (The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe) multiplied the number of known European witch trials by the average rate of conviction and execution, to arrive at a figure of around 60,000 deaths. Anne Lewelyn Barstow (Witchcraze) adjusted Levack's estimate to account for lost records, estimating 100,000 deaths. Ronald Hutton (Triumph of the Moon) argues that Levack's estimate had already been adjusted for these, and revises the figure to approximately 40,000.
While looking for occurences of the '9 million' figure, [which seems to have entered the public at large's conciousness via a documentary film from 1990 called The Burning Times] I came across an interesting site called '' which at first glance I took to be simply more feminist propaganda (the words 'gender' & 'patriarchy', which I usually take as flashing neon warning signs, crop up frequently) but on further reading appeared to hold a much more balanced position, & included these further reports on how many people died:
"The most dramatic [recent] changes in our vision of the Great Hunt [have] centered on the death toll," notes Jenny Gibbons. She points out that estimates made prior to the mid-1970s, when detailed research into trial records began, "were almost 100% pure speculation." (Gibbons, Recent Developments.) "On the wilder shores of the feminist and witch-cult movements," writes Robin Briggs, "a potent myth has become established, to the effect that 9 million women were burned as witches in Europe; gendercide rather than genocide. [See, e.g., the witch-hunt documentary "The Burning Times".] This is an overestimate by a factor of up to 200, for the most reasonable modern estimates suggest perhaps 100,000 trials between 1450 and 1750, with something between 40,000 and 50,000 executions, of which 20 to 25 per cent were men." Briggs adds that "these figures are chilling enough, but they have to be set in the context of what was probably the harshest period of capital punishments in European history." (Briggs, Witches & Neighbours, p. 8.)

Brian Levack's book The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe arrives at roughly similar conclusions. Levack "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 outcomes. On average, 48% of trials ended in an execution, [and] therefore he estimated 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." (Gibbons, Recent Developments.)
Strangely, even though Gendercide admits that 'over 99.9-plus percent of all women who lived during the three centuries of the witch craze were not harmed', & also that in a number of places (such as France, Iceland & Finland) as many or more men than women were accused & sentenced (in France more than half, Finland almost half, in Iceland it was 90% male) it still feels justified in labelling the witch-hunts 'gendercide', which seems to run contrary to the evidence it lists. An interesting site, though - hard to pigeonhole (it covers the enforced military conscription of males alongside female infanticide, for instance). I recommend giving it a look.
A couple more fascinating tidbits from it: the first debunking the widely held notion that the attack on 'witches' was an attack on midwives, thought to be the torch-bearers for the old, 'pre-patriarchal' ways:

One theory, popularized by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in their 1973 pamphlet Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, proposed that midwives were especially likely to be targeted in the witch-hunts. This assertion has been decisively refuted by subsequent research, which has established the opposite: that "being a licensed midwife actually decreased a woman's chances of being charged" and "midwives were more likely to be found helping witch-hunters" than being victimized by them. (Gibbons, Recent Developments; Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History.)
And second, that it was an entirely male hatred & distrust of the female that the innocent accused women struggled under:

"women did testify in large numbers against other women, making up 43 per cent of witnesses in these cases on average, and predominating in 30 per cent of them. ... A more sophisticated count for the English Home Circuit by Clive Holmes shows that the proportion of women witnesses rose from around 38 per cent in the last years of Queen Elizabeth to 53 per cent after the Restoration." (Briggs, Witches & Neighbours, pp. 264-65, 270, 273, 282.)

Deborah Willis's study of "Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England" similarly finds it "clear ... that women were actively involved in making witchcraft accusations against their female neighbours"
[Alan] Macfarlane finds that as many women as men informed against witches in the 291 Essex cases he studied; about 55 percent of those who believed they had been bewitched were female. The number of witchcraft quarrels that began between women may actually have been higher; in some cases, it appears that the husband as "head of household" came forward to make statements on behalf of his wife, although the central quarrel had taken place between her and another woman. ... It may, then, be misleading to equate "informants" with "accusers": the person who gave a statement to authorities was not necessarily the person directly quarreling with the witch. Other studies support a figure in the range of 60 percent. In Peter Rushton's examination of slander cases in the Durham church courts, women took action against other women who had labeled them witches in 61 percent of the cases. ... J.A. Sharpe also notes the prevalence of women as accusers in seventeenth-century Yorkshire cases, concluding that "on a village level witchcraft seems to have been something peculiarly enmeshed in women's quarrels." To a considerable extent, then, village-level witch-hunting was women's work. (Willis, Malevolent Nurture, pp. 35-36.)

So where did that "9 million" figure come from, & why? Why is that estimate so far out? It's no coincidence that both that number & also the term "holocaust" have come to be used: when we hear that word & think of millions dead we think specifically of the Jewish holocaust of the second world war, in which somewhere in the region of 6 million died.

"What should trouble everyone," write Nathanson & Young, about the aforementioned Burning Times documentary,"is the fact that this film tries to upstage the Jewish tragedy for political purposes, to exploit the suffering of Jews in order to score political points for the suffering of women. Burning claims not merely that women have suffered just as Jews have suffered, but that women have suffered more than Jews and even that female suffering is the paradigm of all suffering." 

The very real horrors of the witch-trials have been inflated & exploited by feminism for political ends, to score higher victim points, to claim greater victim status, which in feminism thinking tends to mean you have won the argument: Who Suffers Loudest Wins.

A final word on this from Sanctifying Misandry, by Paul Nathanson & Katherine K. Young: 
'Even if we could study history exclusively in terms of gender, even if we could reduce history effectively to the story of relations between men and women, misogyny would still be an inadequate explanation. The Burning Times acknowledges several possible causes of the witch hunts, to be sure, but it takes only misogyny seriously. Literary evidence notwithstanding, it is by no means self-evident that all or even most men have ever hated women. What does seem self-evident is that most or even all men have been ambivalent about women. The fact is that, at one time or another - paradoxically, often at the same time - men feel both anger and love for women, both fear and respect, both envy and admiration. Moreover, the same is true in reverse. Most or all women have been ambivalent about men. The same is true of the way all people feel about their parents, children, relatives, friends, and communities. Ambivalence is a universal feature of the human condition, largely because ambiguity is a universal feature of reality itself (or, at least, of the ways in which finite beings perceive the world). The witch hunts surely do represent a period when misogyny took hold. At issue for historians of the witch craze, however, is not why misogyny exists but why it swept away all other attitudes toward women - who included wives, sisters, daughters, even mothers - at a particular time and place. That is a task for historians, not for political activists masquerading as scholars.'


  1. As something like an afterword, another thing not so widely known is that, in Britain at least, for all the familiar depictions in popular culture, almost no-one was burned for witchcraft. Witchcraft was a hanging offence, & burning was reserved for treason, at least in women (men, as usual, got the heavier sentence: they were hung, drawn & quartered).

    Similarly, in the notorious Salem trials, all who died were hung, not burned.

  2. Gendercide Watch contains several good accounts of a lot of different instances of "gendercide." But some of their characterizations are a little odd. For instance, they consider maternal mortality to be gendercide in certain countries where routine medical care is largely unavailable. Many of these women apparently die of complications from self-inflicted wounds and abortions, as well as from childbirth. The medical neglect of the poeple of these countries is deplorable and perhaps it affects pregnant women more than others, but can it really be called "gendercide?"

    They also refer to the "Montreal Massacre" of 1989 in which 14 women were killed. This was one act committed by one raving lunatic that is being held out as representing the misogyny prevalent in society. While this definitely targeted women one can hardly refer to it as "gendercide" due to the small scale and single perpetrator. Also, if it truly represented a prevalence of misogyny in society I think we would have seen considerably more incidents and a larger number of perpetrators.

    They also list three instances of what they call "simultaneous gendercide." This is gendercide carried out against both men and women of a particular society at the same time. Since "gendercide" is a term that specifically indicates the targeting of one particular gender, it is difficult to see how instances of "genocide," like the Holocaust, that target both genders qualify as "gendercide."

    It is also interesting to note that the most horrific gendercides listed on the site were committed against young "military age" men, not women.

    Excellent commentary on the witch hunts, btw. the gross overexaggeration of the numbers of dead originated with 2nd wave feminists who were attempting to demonstrate the ways in which men oppressed women throughout history and is a prime example of the intellectual dishonesty present in Women's Studies.


  3. Thanks old chap :)

    Gendercide is a bit of an odd fish, but the fact that they include, as you point out, the exclusive extermination of men in war, made me want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  4. Look deeper and you will find more males were burnt than females

  5. Anonymous said...
    Look deeper and you will find more males were burnt than females

    8 August 2011 13:23

    Cite your source please.

  6. Two witches were burned in England, for Treason in one case and petit treason in the other, as additional offences committed. Men were executed for heresy, by burning, at somewhat higher rates. Most famously by "Bloody" Mary Tudor.