The Politics of Witchcraft Studies
Originally published as Another View of the Witch Hunts
(Response to Jenny Gibbons, in Pomegranate: A Journal of Pagan Studies, No.5)

by Max Dashu

I would like to offer an alternative to the locked-in polarity between some of the more uninformed Wiccan takes on history and the denial by many academic historians that repression of social and cultural groups played any role in the witch hunts. Of course, the story is more complex than the Church stamping out paganism, but that suppression is part of the story and can not be disregarded. The history of witch persecution begins with repression by feudal rulers, with a strong patriarchal impetus already visible. It may have very old Indo-European roots. But it’s also clear that priestly advisors urged on kings like Charles the Bald and Alfred the Great. Bishops carried out a less severe but determined repression of the old religions for over a thousand years.

No, a majority of those burned during the mass hunts were not healers and diviners, but yes, these groups were targeted, in significant numbers in places like Italy, the western Alps, and Scotland. Pagan themes do surface in trial testimony, amd turn into diabolist narratives under torture. They also figure in popular images of the witch, though in an increasingly distorted way as diabolism penetrated into popular culture.

There are perceptible differences in the way academic writers approach pagan themes, especially when we compare English and American historians to the Europeans. As a group, the Anglo/Americans seem much more resistant to recognizing the role of diabolism in shaping the hunts and in supplanting still-current beliefs of pagan origin. A lot of exciting work is being done in Europe examining pagan content in the witch trial transcripts themselves, including Juhan Kahk’s studies of Estonian hunts, Gustav Henningsen on trials of faery healers in Sicily, Bengt Ankarloo’s work on Sweden, and Behringer’s book on Bavarian beliefs, _The Shaman of Oberstdorf_. The pagan factor is also recognized by Robert Muchembled, Michèle Brocard-Plaut, William Monter, and Eva Pócs, among many others.

Probably the most impressive body of “pagan” research comes from the Italians, going back over three decades. These historians include not only Carlo Ginsburg, whose work is well known and available in English, but others -- including Lucia Muraro, Giuseppe Bonomo, Carlo Bondí, Ermanno Paccagnini -- whose books have not been translated. They offer an important perspective on the much-overlooked Italian hunts. Some do us the favor of reproducing portions of the original trial transcripts so we can see what the “witch” said, and how she was browbeaten and tortured into repeating diabolist cant.


The Italian hunts were colored by a strong pagan subtext. Starting in the late 1300s, trial records say that witches gathered to revere the goddess Diana, “wise Sibillia,” or the “lady of the good game.” A weaver-diviner tried at Mantua in 1489 said that this “mistress of the games” had appeared to show him “the properties of herbs and the nature of animals.” [Ginsburg, 12, 28, 50] Up through the 1530s, accused witches told inquisitors at Modena that they worshipped not the devil, but Diana. A Brescian trial of the same period refers to the folk goddess as Befana. But gradually, over the course of decades of torture-trials and burnings, the goddess of the witches is demonized, subordinated to the devil, and finally, in the late 1500s, replaced by him.

Pagan content is also rife in the Scottish trial records, with testimony of encounters with the Queen of Elfame and the faery folk. Quite a number of those tried as witches were healers, like Geillis Duncan, whose arrest after a night call to a sickbed touched off the North Berwick craze, or Bessie Dunlop, who had visions of the faery host and learned how to prepare medicine from a dead acquaintance among these “good wights.” Less well-known are the Orkney and Shetland islanders burned during the 1600s for “saining”: performing animist cures with three stones, with fire and water, by stroking, brushing, and charming, or by ritually walking around lakes. The primary charge against many of the accused was “giving you sel furth to haue sick craft and knowledge” or “to have skill to do things.” Although these are technically secular trials, they were driven by the Presbyterian kirk. [Folklore Society #49, pp. 55, 61]

Woodcut of woman preparing herbal bath


The “new chronology” replaces one myth with another. The old historical mythology said that the witch hunts happened in the middle ages. The new academic mythology insists that no significant witch hunting happened until early modern times. (Robin Briggs even claims that there was “no risk” of witch burnings before the 14th century because “until then the relative skepticism of the ruling elites, together with the nature of the legal system, excluded the possibility.”) [Briggs, Witches and Neighbors, 397] Many writers equate witch trials with diabolist trials, going so far as to say that no “real” witch trials occurred until the 1400s. This claim, and the associated failure to analyze the nature of the information we have about medieval witch persecutions, is profoundly anti-historical.

men leading veiled woman to a burning pyre, her feet off the ground   Dragging a woman condemned as a witch to a burning pyre. 11th century London, Cotton Claudius MS. B iv f57r. Notice her feet are off the ground. The stick held up in front of the judge may indicate that she was beaten during the trial or before the execution.

Feminist historians have been pointing out for a couple of decades that the Renaissance inaugurated the worst witch hunts, but it is also clear that these grew out of an earlier history. Laws empowering kings and lords to persecute witches were enacted throughout western Europe from the early feudal era. The earliest barbarian codes, such as the first Salic law, were more concerned with punishing defamation _as_ witches than with punishing witches themselves. Those who committed magical harm paid a fine, the same as for a physical attack. The Norse codes treated sorcery similarly.

Under christianization, Roman law was brought into play, and burning at the stake appeared. A late recension of the Salic law ordered burning for those who killed with incantations. Roman law heavily influenced the Visigothic code, which ordered burning at the stake for worshipping “demons,” and flogging and enslavement for diviners and other witches. The Lex Rotharii of north Italy forbade witch-burning, but allowed lords to kill their (female) subjects as witches.

Bishops at the Council of Paris (825) called for rulers to “punish pitilessly” witches, diviners, and enchanters who practiced “very certainly the remains of the pagan cult.” [de Cauzons, 118] In 873, the French king Charles the Bald issued new laws ordering all counts of the realm to hunt down and execute sorcerers and witches in their domains “with the greatest possible diligence.” [Quierzy-sur-Oise statutes, in Russell, 73] Alfred “the Great” decreed death, exile or heavy fines for witches and diviners, and of women who consulted charmers and magicians, added: “Do not let them live.” These provisions were repeated by Edward and Guthram; then Ethelred ordered witches exiled; but Ethelstan (928) renewed the call for them to be burned at the stake. [Ewen, 3-4]

I see no reason to assume that these laws went unused. Manorial lords acting as haut-justiciers did not keep records of trials, and very few records of any kind survive from this period they call the Dark Ages. Chroniclers mention witch-executions, such as the women tortured by aristocrats into saying that they had bewitched count Guillaume of Angouleme in 1027, or the executions of Sagae (wisewomen) by Wratislaw II of Bohemia and his brother, the bishop of Prague, in 1080. [Fournier, 63-65; Lea, 1280] Around 1100 Caesarius of Heisterbach reported that judges had witches and wizards burned at Soest in Westphalia. Thirty were burned at Graz in eastern Austria in 1115. [Russel, 321, fn 20-1] The Arab trader Abu Hamid al-Gharnati wrote in 1153 that the Kievans accused old women of witchcraft “about every twenty years,” and subjected them to the water ordeal. “Those who float are called witches and burned...” [Klaniczay, in Magie et Sorcellerie, 217]

Burning seems to originate with the Romans, but witch-executions by drowning are also attested. Chronicles say the Frankish prince Lothair drowned the lady Gerberga as a witch in a river, “as is customary with sorcerers.” [Fournier, 63] In 970, an English widow was drowned as a witch at London bridge (and her male accuser thereby succeeded in seizing her property, a theme reprised some 700 years later). [Crawford, Jane, "Witchcraft in Anglo-Saxon England," (1963) in Levack Vol II: Witchcraft in Anc W and Middle Ages, 1992, p 167] Bishop Serapion reported Russian witch-drownings in the 1270s, and other Russian witch executions are recorded for the 11th to 13th centuries. [see Zguta]

The Spanish reiterated their witch laws in the 11th to 13th centuries, adjudicated by the ordeal of red-hot iron. The Fuero Cuenca is typical: “A woman who is a witch or sorceress shall either be burnt or saved by iron.” [II, 1, 35, in Baroja, 82] Females are the stated targets, and the laws treated the minority of men entangled in sorcery trials with unambiguous favoritism. The Forum Turolii code (1176) ordered female witches to be burned, but shaved a cross on the men’s heads, scourged them and banished them. [Wedeck, 257] Spanish women were subject to the ordeal of incandescent iron, which was used to test female chastity and fidelity, establish paternity, and determine whether a woman had induced abortions, cast spells or prepared potions. [See Heath Dillard’s excellent discussion of these issues.] (In some corners of Europe, such as Transylvania, insubordinate male serfs were also put through this ordeal.) The ordeal of iron was also used as a sexual trial for German women in the same period, as well as in witch trials in 13th century England and the Black Forest in the 15th century.

Witch persecution was reaffirmed by urban communes in Italy, as in the municipal laws of Venice (1181) and later, Florence, Padua and other cities. German magistrates followed suit. The Sachsenspiegel (1225) and Schwabenspiegel (1275) prescribed burning at the stake for witches, then Hamburg, Goslar, Berlin, Groningen and Bremen. The Norman kings of Sicily and England decreed laws against witches, including Henry I and Edward I, who called for burning. This penalty was reiterated in the Fleta code toward the end of the 1200s and in the Britton code a few decades later. The Treuga Henrici (1224) ordered burnings of “heretics, enchanters and sorcerers” in the German empire. [Cauzons, 212] Many more laws were passed across western Europe during the 1300s.

When pope Innocent IV gave his blessing to inquisitorial torture in the 1252 bull _Ad Extirpanda_, he called on rulers to punish heretics “as if they were sorcerers.” [Lea, 431] The pope was addressing people still accustomed to thinking of the stake as a punishment for witchcraft, and so referred to the long-standing precedent of feudal witch-burning as a model for the repression of heresy.

This brief summary of early witch persecutions sketches their importance as a foundation for the mass hunts. The elements of sex, class and pagan content already figure in strongly. This early data also raises questions about the numbers which have been so confidently declared as the maximum of witch-executions. I don’t find an argument from silence convincing, since documentation for this period is so sparse, and manorial trials (and even municipal ones) nearly invisible in the historical record.

In the late middle ages, a sea change took place as diabolism was injected into the witch persecutions. This ideology originated among theologians and scholastics, with hefty helpings of Roman-era themes of orgies, unguents, and baby-killing. Imposed by church and state over a period of centuries, against considerable resistance, it became the crucial ingredient in forging the mass hunts. The blood libel in particular was the wedge that shattered the historic solidarity of the common people against elite repression of their culture(s).

There is much more to be said about the evolution of diabolist hunts in the 1300s than I have space to discuss here. Hansen rightly pointed to the western Alpine countries as the early crucible of diabolist witch trials. Ginsburg has contributed an important part of the puzzle: how the scapegoating of Jews and lepers, with charges of poison powders and blood libel, spread and evolved into diabolist persecutions of “new sects” of witches. More remains to be uncovered about how these secular witch hunts in Dauphiné, Savoy and Valais were related to the intensive inquisitorial purges (backed up by invading armies) in these regions during the 14th century. It’s crucial to note that these repressions were propelled by elite powers and interests.

Popular resistance to the clergy’s repression of their folk rites and healers comes into focus in the sermons of the famous preacher Bernardino da Siena. In 1427, this “saint” used inflammatory charges of baby-murder to turn people against their traditional folk healers, which he called femmine indiavolate, “devilish women.” He deplored Romans’ disbelief of his stories about witches (“what I said was to them as if I was dreaming”) and the fact that the Sienese chose to “help and pray for” witches denounced to the secular lord. Bernardino implored his audience to denounce the witches, not to feel sympathy for a woman who (he claimed) had diabolically killed twenty or thirty babies: “If it happened to you, that she had killed one of your children, how would that look to you? Think of others!”

Fra Bernardino told people that it was their duty to denounce all suspected witches to the Inquisition right away; otherwise they would have to answer for it on Judgement Day. After a series of these incendiary sermons in 1427, so many people were reported as incantatori and streghe that the friar had to consult with the pope about how to handle all the denunciations pouring in. Their solution is typical of witch-hunting illogic: they decided to arrest those accused of the worst crimes. So those whose enemies told the tallest tales were burned. [Bonomo, 262-3]


Jenny Gibbons writes of “the myth of the witch-hunting Inquisition,” repudiating the 19th century historians who pointed to papal inquisitors’ role in inflating witch persecution into a craze. Unfortunately, she doesn’t address the solid evidence assembled by those historians -- notably Henry Charles Lea and Joseph Hansen -- of inquisitorial hunts in northern Italy, eastern France and the Rhineland during the 1400s and early 1500s. Lea can be excused for including the Lamothe-Langon fabrications, since this forgery was not exposed until a century later. But its misinformation was far from being “the last great piece of ‘evidence’” of witch-hunting inquisitors, as Gibbons claims.

In 1258 Alexander IV denied inquisitors’ petition for authority to try divination and sorcery cases, limiting them to cases manifestly savoring of heresy. However, it didn’t take inquisitors of a demonological bent long to invent pretexts to work around the papal ruling. Only forty years later, canonist Johannes Andreae added a gloss that effectively nullified it: “Those are to be called heretics who forsake God and seek the aid of the devil.” He broadened the definition of heretical sorcery to include pagan prayer, offerings and divinations (all demonized, of course) as well as sorcery based on christian symbolism. [See Russell, 174; and Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, 131]

The trend of redefining witchcraft as heretical grew in various inquisitorial manuals of 1270, 1320, and 1367. A shift occurred in the later 1300s, as the relatively sedate attitude to folk witchcraft visible in Gui’s 1320 manual gave way to Eymeric’s scholastic diabolism in 1367, and to the first recorded inquisitorial witch burnings -- which involved women charged with invoking a pagan goddess -- a few decades later. The bishops’ centuries-long campaign against pagan observances was seen as manifestly ineffectual, and the more militant inquisitors were eager to take a turn. To ensure their jurisdiction, they claimed that a dangerous “new heresy” of devil-worshipping witches had arisen and was threatening christendom.

Almost all the demonologies of the 1400s and early 1500s were written by inquisitors, who often refer to witch trials that they or other inquisitors conducted. The formative diabolist literature was penned by Dominican inquisitors, including Eymeric, Nider, Vineti, Jacquerius, Visconti, de Spina, Prieiras and Rategno, as well as Kramer and Sprenger. Their books build on the demonological framework laid by scholastic theologians and by papal bulls like Gregory IX’s 1233 Vox in Rama (which attacked insurgent peasants as devil-worshipping heretics led by “sibyls”). Inquisitor Etienne de Bourbon tried witches in the early decades of the Inquisition, using the same diabolist paradigm as Gregory: a devilish black cat presiding over orgies, while his colleague Bernard de Caux tried a woman in 1245 for healing and “other sorceries.” But there is no evidence of executions in these early trials, and records of (Inquisition) witch executions only begin to appear in the late 1300s.

In 1385, inquisitor Antonio da Savigliano was already blending witchcraft with heresy in trials at Pignarolo and Turin. Inquisitors at Milan tried Sibilla Zanni and Pierina de’ Bugatis as witches in 1384 and burned them for relapse four years later. (Their testimony was loaded with pagan content, revolving around a goddess who revealed the secrets of nature and revived the animals the witches feasted on.) Other trials were going on in this period, according to Bernardo Rategno, inquisitor at Como, who wrote in 1508 that “the sect of witches began to pullulate only within the last 150 years, as appears from the old records of trials by inquisitors of our Inquisition at Como.” [Tractatus de Strigiis, cited in Bonomo and Ginsberg] These records do not seem to have survived -- though Ginsberg points out that scholars have not been allowed to examine the Como archives -- but such testimony points to early Inquisition persecutions. The diabolist inquisitor Prieiras made a parallel comment, dating the “witch sect” back to 1404.

By this time witchcraft-minded inquisitors clearly had papal support. In 1409 pope Alexander V commissioned Pons Feugeyron to prosecute people spreading “new sects and forbidden rites,” who practiced “witchcraft, soothsaying, invocations to the devil, magic spells, superstition, forbidden and pernicious arts.” In 1437 Eugenius IV issued a bull to all inquisitors authorizing them to prosecute people for sorcery: not just magical harm-doing, but also divination, healing, weather-witching, and adoration of “demons.” [Lea, 224] In 1451 Nicholas V authorized the head inquisitor of France to prosecute diviners (and to punish those who spoke ill of this bull as rebels). [Cauzons, 409] Some years later, Calixtus III ordered witch-inquisitions in numerous cities of northern Italy. The 1484 Hexenbulle of Innocent VIII clearly had its precedents. Papal calls for witch-inquisitions accelerated and continued through most of the next century.

Some of the most severe witch hunts of the 1400s were carried out by Italian inquisitors in the alpine foothills, at Como, Bergamo, Valtellina, Mendrisio, Turin, and in Piemonte. They were already raging by mid-century. In 1484, the inquisitor of Como carried out mass arrests of witches, so many that secular officials warned him not to overdo it. Popular memory still recalls 1484 as a year of burnings. The following year, 41 witches were burned in nearby Bormio. Other burnings took place at Milan, where few documents have survived. But these burnings were numerous enough to provoke a rebellion in 1516, when peasants protesting inquisitorial witch hunts brought them to a temporary halt. In 1518, at the other end of the Alps, inquisitors burned eighty witches in Val Camonica, “valley of the witches,” and informed the Senate of Venice that another 70 were in prison, while 5,000 more were suspected. Inquisitors also had a large number burned at Bologna in 1523, where Pico della Mirandola wrote that executions went on daily, under mounting protests. [See Bonomo for a fuller description of these Italian hunts; see also Ermanno Paccagnini’s In Materie de Stregarie, 1989]

Savoy was another epicenter, and western Switzerland, especially by inquisitors at Vevey and Neuchatel around 1437-42. Among those arrested in France in the 1430s were two women who defended the memory of Jeanne d’Arc -- whose burning inquisitors had collaborated in -- and the one who refused to recant was burned. This is according to Nider’s Formicarius, which refers to other witch trials by an inquisitor at Evian. In northern France during the mid 1400s, inquisitors Nicholas Jacquier and Pierre le Broussard hunted witches, as well as an unnamed inquistor of Artois, and others active at Dijon and Lyons in Burgundy from 1460 to about 1480. German inquisitors tried witches at Thalheim and Heidelburg between 1446-75.

In the early 1500s, Inquisition witch trials took place in the Rhineland and over much of eastern France and northern Italy, as well as in Navarra, Catalunya and Aragón. The feminist-humanist Agrippa was forced into exile from Metz in 1519 after intervening to save an accused witch. (The only evidence against her was that her mother had been burned as a witch.) Inquisitor Nicholas Savin lost no time in torturing and burning another woman. Agrippa later described the inquisitors as “rapacious wolves” and “vultures gorged with human blood.” [Lea, 545; Bonomo, 247-8]



Edward Peters’ influential book Inquisition omits all mention of inquisitorial witch trials. (The bias of this author is best illustrated by his description of heresy as “theological crime” -- a worthy companion to Orwellian “thought crime.”) Peters employs a clever leger-de-main to avoid describing witch trials by papal inquisitors; just as his narrative arrives at the cusp of these persecutions, he skips over to deal with the (state-run) Spanish Inquisition, then returns to describe reformation of the papal Inquisition into the Roman Inquisition (from 1540). In this way, he nimbly side-steps the diabolist witch frenzy of papal inquisitors in the 1400s and early 1500s, which shaped the ideology, methods, and course of the witch craze, including later secular trials.

Surprisingly, Peters’ complete omission of any discussion of inquisitorial witch hunts has been widely adopted. Many writers ignore the 15th century and early 16th century trials and literature, without ever bothering to critique what has been written about them previously. Under this new orthodoxy, it no longer seems to be considered necessary to discuss the role of diabolism, or any period other than the height of the Burning Terror. Discussion can then focus on the less severe procedures of the post-1600 inquisitors, and even praise their relative “lenience.” However, this approach begs the question of their original role in fueling the hunts.

The generalizations drawn from this narrowed focus are false, or at best, misleading. Gibbons states that, “The Inquisition almost invariably pardoned any witch who confessed and repented.” This was just not true in the 1400s and early 1500s. Church law required that a witch who “confessed” (said what the inquisitors wanted) be spared from death -- the first time. If she was arrested again, she was burned as a relapsed heretic. This became a common pattern: once accused and tried, a “witch” was likely to be suspected and denounced again. In practice, a second arrest was not necessary for a burning; if the witch retracted a “confession” obtained under torture, she could be treated as relapsed.

The fiction that “the Church abhors blood” required that those convicted by the Inquisition be turned over to “the secular arm” for execution. Its charade of recommending mercy was sometimes exposed when civil authorities balked at carrying out the execution, as when the mayor of Brescia refused to burn witches condemned by inquisitors in 1486, or in 1521, when the Venetian government blocked the burning of more witches. The pope became furious that the expected death sentences were not carried out. [H.C. Lea’s century-old account of these events is still well worth reading.]

Even in the 1600s, it is inaccurate to say witches were “pardoned.” Exile was a common penalty in both Italy and Spain (and especially dangerous for women). The Spanish also flogged “witches” with 30 or 100 or 200 lashes (the latter penalty being common) and sentenced them to jails and workhouses. [Cirac Estopañan, 230-46] Other penalties subjected the “witches” to a public spectacle of humiliation and injury: they were forced to ride backwards on an ass, naked to the waist, wearing mitres painted with devils while the mob swarmed around, shouting insults and throwing stones and filth at them.

What’s more, the Spanish Inquisition increased its witch trials (though not burnings) from 1615-1700, and Portugal from 1700-1760. [Bethancourt, MSE, 186-7] Both Iberian Inquisitions were actively repressing pagan Indian and African religions in Latin America during the same period, using the same diabolist models as in Europe. [Especially important sources are Laura De Mello Souza’s, O Diablo e a Terra de Santa Cruz: Feitiçaria e Religiosidade Popular no Brasil Colonial, São Paolo: 1987 (Companhia das Letras) and Silverblatt, Irene, Moon, Sun, and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru, Princeton: 1987 (Princeton U Press)]

How “lenient” the methods of the Roman Inquisition had been can be gauged from a document attempting to reform witch trial procedure as late as 1623: “The gravest errors in trials for witchcraft are daily committed by inquisitors, so that the Inquisition has scarcely found one trial conducted legally, with women [emphasis added] convicted on the most slender evidence, with confessions extorted by legal means, and has had to punish its judges for inflicting excessive tortures.” [find cite: G. Romeo?] Even after this, torture remained a factor, though more restricted, and death in prison a possible outcome.



Jenny Gibbons asserts that the trial sources come from “people who knew what actually happened” and who had “less reason to lie.” I find this disingenous. These records were produced by judges who presided over torture trials, attempting to extract from accused witches “confessions” in line with diabolist doctrine. Their hunts were based on lies: that witches had sex with devils, murdered and ate babies, made powders to cause disease or hail. The defendant had to lie to stop the torture, then repeat the lies at the stake, (or assent to the lies being read out) in order to receive the favor of being strangled before burning.

The assumption that “trial records addressed the full range of trials...” is seriously flawed. In country after country, specialists note that trial records only began to be kept after a certain time -- before that, there is little or nothing. Even afterwards, the archives are notoriously riddled with lacunae. Records for entire cities, counties or regions are often missing. Gibbons rightly praises Ewen’s scholarship, but overlooks his point that judicial records only begin to be sent to the royal archives in the 1330s, and much later (or never) for many counties. Even for the 1400s, wrote Ewen, the Public Record Office contains few records of assizes, and many later judicial documents were destroyed: “For the reign of Henry VIII practically nothing has been preserved... [and for Elizabeth] the bulk has been destroyed.” [Ewen, 40, 102-9, 71]

This pattern repeats itself in studies of most countries, with no records available until early modern times: 1576 in Denmark; the 1590s in Norway; the 1630s for Latvia -- and even these are thin and incomplete. For Hungary, Gabor Klaniczay notes that “The loss of complete series of court records is especially frequent for the period before 1690...” He concludes that lynchings were a frequent occurence during the Turkish occupation. [EMod, 221]

In Savoy, Brocard-Plaut observes that that out of 800 trials cited by two judges of the period 1560 to 1674, only 40% appear on record. She states that many documents have been destroyed -- not least because of the Savoyard practice of hanging the court record around the victim's neck before burning. [Brocard, 153] In the Swiss Jura, judicial records are missing but burnings are visible in fiscal accountings for loads of wood, tar and executioners’ fees. Monter writes that “... even when the records seem to be in fairly good condition, as for 17th century Valangin, the chance discovery of a parallel source can double the number of known trials for a particular decade.” He adds that the gaps in the prison registers often occur in years known to have experienced “extremely heavy waves of trials throughout the canton.” [Monter, 91]

Inquisition documents for entire periods appear to have been destroyed, as intimated by Bernardo Rategno's 1508 reference to inquisitorial records of Italian witch trials from the mid-1300s, no longer extant. Local inquisitorial archives for Venice, Aquilea, and Naples are full of gaps, according to Bethancourt, who refers to a “massive loss of the trials...” [Magie et Sorcellerie, 187-90] Of Italian cities, only Reggio Emilio has complete inquisitorial archives and many others, none at all. [Romeo, Giovanni, Inquisitori, esorcisti e streghe nell’Italia della Controriforma, Florence: 1990 (Sansoni Editore), 53] An unknown number of records were lost after Napoleon carried off the papal Inquisition's archives.

Political reasons sometimes account for incomplete record-keeping and deliberate destruction of records. Secular officials in the Basque country, for example, pursued hunts in defiance of the Inquisition’s belated attempts to brake them. In France, 17th-century trial records were destroyed on a grand scale as local courts defied the central government in pursuing witch trials. Robert Mandrou notes large gaps in the Toulouse archives, with “only a few traces” of trials during the worst craze periods, when one lawyer wrote that its Parlement was dealing with cases “daily.”

The skimpy 17th-century court records of Bordeaux -- missing cases known from other sources and with no record of the “innumerable” mass trials of 1643-45 -- are easily explained; its parlement burned its secret registries in 1710. Pau, another southwestern capital where witch hunts were intense, also burned all of its Archives du Parlement shortly after 1700. [Mandrou, 19, 377-84] Mandrou also describes how freelance witch-finders ravaged the provincial hinterlands in 1620-1650, leaving no judicial traces. The French hunts are possibly the most underestimated witch hunts in Europe.

These massive, systemic gaps make me extremely skeptical of the conservative estimates -- 20,000 to 40,000, or even as low as 10,000 -- being advanced by some writers as the toll of witch hunt dead. Their adjustments for unrecorded executions seem inadequate and based on shaky assumptions (not least, the claim that deaths before 1400 were negligible). Historians have a tendency to be ruled by the nature of available documentation, which in this case is demonstrably flawed and incomplete. I appreciate that the popular figure of nine million burned is mythical, though my own count would have to include not only those who were burned, but also those drowned, branded, beaten, attacked and “scored” (cut to draw blood), fined, imprisoned, exiled, shunned, expropriated or deprived of their livelihoods). This much is certain: no one knows how many were killed.



“Where we burn one man, we burn maybe ten women.” —von Kaiserback, Die Emeis, early 1500s

The scapegoating of women was a major dynamic in the persecutions. They were the majority of those burned, however you want to slice it: averaging eight females to one male. In places the percentage of females exceeds 90%. Few regions show a male majority -- and these rarely involve sizeable hunts. The action of misogyny is even more striking when you study the winnowing-out of accused males who were not prosecuted; who, when prosecuted, were convicted at significantly lower rates than women; and when convicted, often received more lenient sentences.

The pattern of witch hunts in most countries started with arrests of women, especially poor old women, the stereotypical witch. The numbers of men tended to rise as the net widened, a consequence of the demand that the accused name other “witches” under torture (as well as officials’ greed for confiscated property). When the number of men (and women related to important men) reached critical mass, a shut-off kicked in and halted the craze, until the next time. A significant number of accused men were related to women burned as witches. Other risk factors included age, disability, deformation. Given the diabolist fantasy of same-sex orgies, gays were probably targeted too, though this information was not recorded.

Some writers have claimed that medieval persecutions were directly mostly at men, focusing on the famous political trials spurred by court intrigues. But these trials were atypical; the very fact of their documentation is a result of the primary defendants’ prominence. Yet these trials hauled common witches into court as an instrument to bring down the magnates. And burned them, whether or not the elite targets got off (as they often did). This is what happened in the 1315 trial of the bishop of Châlons; three women were tortured until they testified that he had gotten poison from them to kill his predecessor. The women were burned, while the bishop got off. Even earlier, in 1309, the royal minister Enguerrand de Marigny forced a poor sorcière to testify against the bishop of Troyes. The sorcery charge was later turned back on Marigny, who eventually went to the gallows -- but only after his valet’s wife was burned at the stake. In England, too, the Witch of Eye was burned in 1441 in a successful plot to eliminate the Duchess of Gloucester, who escaped with exile. [de Cauzons, 308-9; Lea, 185-92; Ewen, 40-1]

Witch-hunting was saturated with sexual politics. The frequent accusations of impotence “knottings” and female love magic designed to attract or bring back a mate attest to its most obvious occurences. But female expression, mobility, and freedom were also at stake. During the mass hunts, women became suspect for going out at night, or being alone in the woods, or kindling a fire on a hilltop, or dancing, alone or in groups. Having drunk pints together at a tavern and caroused at each others’ houses was enough to indict some Scottish female revellers. Female speech had become dangerous, especially when a woman expressed anger at a wrong done to her. If she defended herself against verbal attacks, answered back to harassers, her defiance could be blamed for male impotence, or a dead horse, or a hailstorm.

In innumerable cases, the charge of witchcraft was a weapon ready for use against women. In Britain, Germany and Italian Switzerland, husbands accused their wives. Tiziana Mazzali found so many cases of husband-accusers in Poschiavo that she concluded that they “were able to easily get rid of their wives in this way,” observing that these men were frequently batterers. [Mazzali, 154-5] Conversely, having a husband or other male relative willing to stand up for her significantly increased a woman’s chances of beating the charges. [Karlsen, 71-5. Though her study concentrates on New England, this was true in Europe as well.]

Men as a group often enjoyed an entrenched presumption of immunity. In New England, males who incriminated themselves tended to be disbelieved or let off. [See Karlsen, 53, 58-9] Male witch-finders claiming magical powers and even attendance at sabbats caused arrests and lynchings of many women in France and Bavaria. In the Italian Friuli, male benandanti acted as witch-finders, while their female counterparts were accused and tried as witches. (Later, after their usefulness in crushing the shamanic traditions was over, the men were also repressed by the Inquisition.) Even in Finland, where most of those executed for witchcraft in the 1500s were men, the numbers of accused women rose under Swedish colonization, passed that of male defendants in the 1650s until, at the height of the Finnish hunts, two thirds of those convicted were female. But the inland (non-colonized) Finns, who continued to think of sorcerers as men, tried very few witches. [EMod, 383-86; 324-5]

Tracking the patriarchal repression of the hunts does not mean that this was ever their sole function, without relation to other socio-economic factors. It requires a longer view, taking the persecutions in their full historical context. Otherwise, the temptation to see them as rising full-fledged during the diabolist Terror leads to all sorts of misconceptions.

Jenny Gibbons asks, if the hunts were about sexism, why shouldn’t we be able to find greater bias against women in the border areas that were often flashpoints during the mass hunts? Although this question is already an oversimplification of the problem, I would answer that in some cases, at least, the reverse was true. The most dramatic example would be the Basques, whose high status for women is attested in ancient and medieval sources, and whose pagan culture survived into the 20th century. (For the record, Basque witch persecutions become historically visible in the late 1200s, with secular burnings and ordeals recorded during the 1300s.) We could also look to lowland Scotland, whose women were noted for their “smeddam” (feistiness), or the legendary freedom of Occitanian women. Both of these regions were stricken by mass hunts in the 1600s. I see plenty of reason to think that witch persecutions acted to curtail women’s power, and brought about a behavioral devolution from earlier public expressions of that power.

But returning to the complexity of causes, I would emphasize that the peripheral areas are very often colonized regions which underwent hunts in the aftermath of colonization. Think of Sicily, Finland, Estonia, Catalunya, and even the southern French provinces, or the Spanish Netherlands. For that matter, the alpine societies qualify too, especially if you look at the common pattern of villagers being hauled off the mountains to be tried in urban centers. This colonial dynamic also had implications for the degradation of female status. There’s quite a lot of evidence for cultural colonization’s negative impact on women, including loss of professions and public roles disapproved in the dominant society.

The subject of witch hunts is loaded with political ramifications. It is not just the feminists or the pagans whose analysis is colored by political interpretation. The orthodox camp visibly add spin to their history, whether it is in habitually defining witchcraft as diabolist maleficia while erasing all folk rituals and animist culture; or in Peters’ highly selective, bald apologia for the Church Militant; or Middelfort and Sebald arguing for a “positive function” of witch hunting. Unexamined assumptions are rife in the sources most praised for their “rigor,” as when Cohn calls the accused witches “deluded women,” or Levack and Quaife dismiss them as “senile.”

Most stunning of all is the refusal to deal with the massive body of evidence that women were the primary targets of witch persecution, and the impact of that reality on Western civilization. Aldegonde de Rue gave voice to the sexual politics of the European sorcery charge when she was accused in 1601: "But look, they say that all women are witches!" [Muchembled (1987), 194]


SOURCES CITED (others listed in body of text):

Baroja, Julio Caro, _The World of the Witches_, translated by Nigel Glendinning, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1961

Bonomo, Giuseppe _Caccia alle Streghe_, Palumbo, 1959

Black, G.F., and Thomas, Northcote W., eds, _Examples of Printed Folklore Concerning the Orkney and Shetland Islands_, Folklore Society Publ #49, Nendeln, 1967 (Kraus Reprint Ltd)

Brocard-Plaut, Michele, _Diableries et Sorcelleries en Savoie_, Editions Horvath, 1986

de Cauzons, Theodore, _La Magie et la Sorcellerie en France_, Paris: Librairie Dorbon-Ainé, 1908

Cirac Estopañán, Sebastian, _Los Procesos de hechicería en la Inquisicion de Castilla la Nueva_, Sebastian Cirac Estopañan, Madrid, 1942

Dillard, Heath, "Women in Reconquest Castile," _Women in Medieval Society_, ed. Susan Mosher Stuard, U of Penn Press, 1976

Ewen, C. L'Estrange, _Witch Hunting and Witch Trials_, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, London, 1929
Fournier, Pierre-François, _Magie et Sorcellerie_, Editions Ipomée, 1977

Ginzberg, Carlo, _Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the 16th and 17th Centuries_, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi, Penguin, 1985

Henningsen, G, and Ankarloo, B, eds., _Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries_, Oxford, 1988 (footnoted as EMod)

Karlsen, Carol, _The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England_, WW Norton, 1988

Lea, Henry Charles, and Howland, Arthur C., _Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft_, New York, 1957

Mandrou, Robert, _Magistrats et Sorciers en France au XVIIe Siecle: Une Analyse de Psychologie Historique_, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1980

Mazzali, Tiziana, _Il Martirio delle Streghe: una Nuova Drammatica Testimonianza dell’ inquisizione laica del seicento_, Milan, 1988 (Xenia Edizione)

Monter, William, _Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands during the Reformation_, Cornell U Press, Ithaca, 1964

Muchembled, Robert, ed, _Magie et Sorcellerie en Europe du Moyen Age à Nos Jours_, Paris, 1994 (Armand Colin)

Muchembled, Robert, _Sorcières, Justice et Société aux 16ième et 17ième Siecles_, Editions Imago, Paris, 1987

Russell, Jeffrey Burton, _Witchcraft in the Middle Ages_, Cornell U Press, Ithaca, 1972

Wedeck, Harry E., _A Treasury of Witchcraft: A Sourcebook of the Magic Arts_, Citadel Press, NY 1970


Articles | Catalog | Home | Secret History of the Witches | About Max Dashu