The Lie of the “Burning Times”

Okay. So since we’re nearing Halloween (or more favorably called Samhain by the legions of neo-pagans)–all the comments about the Burning Times and witch persecution throughout history are rampant and cropping up ever more all over the internet. Which of course, leads to all the cries about persecution and how awful Christians are for having mass-executed witches throughout history.

Basically — Halloween makes this stuff pour out of the woodwork, almost like some freaking sugar for flies. So the closer we get to Halloween, the more this crops up, and the ever more annoyed I am with the whole community and everyone who keeps spouting this kind of stuff. Because there are some major issues about the whole phrase “Burning Times” and the way that the majority of the pagan community tends to handle this.

Which is pretty much an ongoing struggle, and I’m really about ready to go off on a rant here about the whole subject and what a load of crock the very phrase is.


Let’s start off with some small history of the time period we’re discussing though (oh, my history degree is gloriously useful here). Because this is bound to be a bit of a rant all on its own. But I’ll swing on back to the actual topic shortly, promise.

Starting off with the most famous document, arguably speaking, to do with the whole time period, witch hunts, and witchcraft. The rather infamous Malleus Maleficarum – by Heinrich Kramer, written in 1486. Who himself is a ridiculously annoying and complicated character. Kramer got expelled from Innsbruck for attempting to run a witchcraft trial against the bishop’s wishes. So then he proceeded to write this gem of a document to explain his own beliefs, opinions, and to try and convince people to use his methods to hunt down witches (whom he claimed were more often women). There’s really not a whole lot about Kramer’s motivations to dig into. Some say he penned this as revenge when the local bishop of the Tyrol region refused to let him run an inquisition and prosecute witches in the area. Others say he was just writing it to get business–because there is a lot in the Malleus that is about how he would run things, and it could be seen as an attempt to gain work. Then there’s a host of other speculations that are all less to more understandable, depending on what research one has done.

The attribution to Jacob Sprenger is more tenuous, and probably was not written at all by Sprenger. However, there is still some debate open on that front. Because some historical records state that Sprenger was used just for his name to get it published, while others state he was a writer of portions of the text. Still, there is no doubt that Kramer is the driving force behind this document.

Most importantly though, contrary to what most people claim: the Catholic Church condemned this text when it was first printed. They refused to use it, and it was actually totally against the Church’s ideas. The points that Kramer was going on about, and the sheer basis of his whole text were against accepted Catholic theology. Main point: the Catholic Church had, for nearly 600 years been of the absolute belief, well established, that magic and witchcraft were not real. Those who claimed the reality of these things, they were said to have been mislead or seduced by Satan/the Devil. Still–the rise of heresies across Europe in the 12th century and continuing on were driving factors behind the paranoia and frenzy of beliefs that were the culmination that led to this type of document. — and the Malleus was used by secular courts and their trials, it was never whole-heartedly embraced or accepted by the Church and its courts.

Hell, in 1490 (within 3 years of its initial publication in 1487) the Catholic Church condemned the whole document as false and they constantly cautioned people not to use it as a basis for any investigation or trial–even if some of its points might look valid. So this was not the document of the Church or of Christian persecution that people like to claim.

Though admittedly, as more scholarship comes out, and the more we study, the more we know that the Malleus Maleficarum may not have been nearly so influential as earlier claims have made. It was not the major text that defined and drove the witch hunts and witch trials across Europe. There was some influence, there is no disputing that. However, it is not as though this was a universally accepted, revered and trusted text that everyone believed in. It was controversial from the very start.

Pamphlet from Schiltach, Germany – 1533

Culturally and sociologically, this time period is not at all like the modern western world that most neo-pagans call home. To our modern eyes, the early modern period of the Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation are highly horrific to contemplate. I mean, women as property, utter misogyny in how they are viewed through today’s lenses–and just the lack of technological, social, and cultural advancements we now have. And there’s no denying that the general phenomena of the witch trials in the early modern period had their horrific points.

And at this time, you have the great cultural clashes of the era going on. The “Middle Ages” are coming to an end. There is the huge rebirth of scientific exploration (in rudimentary forms), the flourishing of arts, culture, beginnings of trade and commerce re-starting and reforming into new patterns and forms–which allowed more conversation and interaction with foreign ideas, peoples, cultures and religions. So there’s a beginning of melting pot re-occurring in Europe. There is also a huge change in economy, culture, social norms, and changes in the climate and environment that people found themselves living in.

Just like today, huge shifts or even what are considered “big shifts” in cultural, economic, or societal changes–back then the same things occurred throughout history. For example, there is certainly bound to be no surprise that the rise of “heresies” against the Church precedes the beginning of the rise of witch trials and prosecutions (along with other changes at that time period, which are too numerous and extensive to accurately account here).

In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued the “Witch-Bull of 1484”, which was the Church’s first official, large admittance that witchcraft was real. And it allowed the Inquisition to move against witches. Thus sparring Kramer’s writing of the Malleus just 2 short years later. This was just one such reaction, others handled the situation in other methods.

But the huge numbers of witch trials occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. Though the general period of the “witch trials” is more broadly defined as being 14th to 18th centuries; naturally with a few outliers in certain areas. The huge peak came in the late 16th and early 17th centuries – roughly 1580s to 1630s or so. And it takes no small research to figure out a very big reason why that time period was vastly tumultuous and why this becomes the peak of these trials.

Outside all other concerns, during this time period, there is a massive upheaval within Christendom. There is the Reformation, the huge upheaval of what was normal, what was right, and what was religiously correct. The uncertainty, upheaval and utter terror and confusion caused economically and politically during the Wars of Religion and both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation was enough to unsettle major populations. And the religious upheaval upset trade, commerce, business and international politics between different kingdoms and groups. There’s no surprise that the very religious wars that split Europe were enough to raise up enough panic and terror over financial stability to unseat Europe’s masses and the general fears of other things happening.

Bild 017
Bamberger Malefizhaus

Culturally – there are some pretty huge patterns in who was accused of witchcraft. Now, these do not hold universally. It is impossible for everyone to fit under labels; however, these patterns are pretty good indicators. And there are of course the social and cultural ideas of those alive at the time.

It does not do, as so many people in the modern era like to, to attempt to analyze what happened through a modern lens. For example, the “blatant misogyny” of the witch trials that modern people harp about, was not really seen as such at the time. And while we today might call it such (and I have been known to do that myself, to give frame of reference) – in the late medieval and early modern period, this was not blatant or deliberate misogyny at work. There were just certain “facts” of life that they held as true, which formed the basis for their beliefs and their actions. Now today we see things differently, but today’s eyes are not the right ones to understand how this happened.

1579 – Woodcut of a witch and her familiars

Standard speaking – there was a higher percentage of women that were tried and convicted than men. Ideas at the time were that women were less intelligent, more susceptible to sin, and therefore were more likely to be tempted/seduced by the Devil into becoming witches. But this really only applies to those areas that we call “western Europe” today. Other regions had more men tried than women (i.e. Russia for example). Still, that’s just the male-female demographic to consider.

There were a majority of factors that led to accusations. For example, across trials, there were people tried for causing famines, killing crops, killing/maiming/harming livestock, causing harm/damage to a neighbor’s business/craft, to multiple other reasons. There is also something to the consideration that the bulk majority of those who were charged with being witches came from the very bottom of society: peasants, workers, tenants. It was far more rare (at least in Europe) to be charged if one were of a higher social class; of course it did happen, just not nearly as frequently.

But an undeniable thread that weaves through some of the stories is of neighborly disputes. For example, there are multiple stories of neighbor A claiming that neighbor B (witch) hexed or performed witchcraft on his field, and that’s why A’s fields are fallow and barren. Now, in this scenario, B has a good field, perhaps better soil or more favorably situated near to water, or whatever. Still, B gets charged, convicted and executed for witchcraft. And now A owns her land.

And in many locations it was true–if you reported someone for witchcraft and they were found guilty, the reporting party took possession of whatever the condemned owned. So think about it like this: you report your neighbor who has good land, or whose business is doing better than yours, and they get convicted (which was a joke back then–even Inquisitors admitted that the trials were not up to judicial review, and were shams in many cases). That gives you instant possession of most/all of the land or goods of that convicted person. Of course, the court could claim some–but many did not, and just let these reported goods go to the reporting party.

Katharina Henot am Turm des Kölner Rathauses
Katharina Henot

One of the most famous cases of a probable conspiracy is that of Katharina Henot (I wrote about her here, in German) of Cologne, Germany. She and her brother inherited the postal office from their father. It was running quite well up until the local Count decided he wanted to run his own post office. So, as was the natural order of things in this time–the rumors begin to spread that she’s a witch and has caused a local nun to become possessed. Henot refused to admit anything under torture up until her being burned at the stake in 1627. Her brother campaigned to try and save her, and when that failed due to the refusal of the Imperial Court to listen (the local Count was attached to the Court), after her death, he attempted to have her name cleared. He was nearly put to the same fate as another “witch” until the sudden halt of the witch trials came before he could be punished. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion now that the local government deliberately lied, charged her, and executed her, all to clear the way for the Count and his own people in the government to create their own post office and get rid of the competition.

So really, what we have is simple information about this time period.

Social, cultural, political, religious changes all lead to upheaval. Then there is the general panic and grabbing of locals fighting their neighbors. So you have people willing to level charges on the hope of getting things that they covet or want. Disputes of business, or land could lead to charges. All in all–hysteria and panic. Not uncommon. We see the same types of panic and hysteria even up unto the modern world.

And just a short word on the numbers–there were not millions killed. Tens of thousands, yes. Those numbers are certain, perhaps between 30-40.000 people killed. But this bullshit that gets spread about 9 million witches being killed is utter claptrap and totally ridiculous. There is no proof of it, and anyone spouting that number is uneducated. Which is not necessarily a problem, so long as they learn. But anyone clinging to that number, well they need a wake-up call. Because that “millions of witches” were killed is physically impossible. There is no way that medieval and early modern records could have lost that much documentation. And that many people is just totally unfeasible. We would need massive records of huge numbers of mass-trials, which just don’t exist. So realistic numbers are important here.

Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse - 1886
Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse – 1886

Now onto the religious aspect!

(Told you I’d get to it eventually; but I won’t apologize for the long historical rambling, since that’s pretty much my modus operandi in writing things like this)

Many modern pagans like to claim the “Burning Times” were Christian persecution of witches–like actual, practicing witches such as those who practice today. There are fundamental problems with this. Because modern glasses again, are wrong. And our modern definitions of witchcraft, pagan and Christian are not going to hold true for the early modern period.

And it is not up to us to do anything at all in rewriting history. So that means, taking off the modern glasses and perspective on what constitutes witchcraft, paganism and Christianity. In the early modern period, things were fundamentally different than they are today, and we need to respect, remember and accept that as open fact and information.

Because here are some facts:

  1. The people who were accused of “witchcraft” were predominantly Christian.
  2. There was no “witchcraft” tradition like today.

Point 1: The people who were accused of “witchcraft” were predominantly Christian.


Much as modern pagans and witches like to cry persecution and yelp and bleat about how Christians were killing our “ancestors” and their witchy forefathers–this is utter bullshit and needs to stop. It’s an insult to the people who were charged, executed and otherwise had their lives ruined by the witch hunts and trials.

So to stomp on the little feelings of everyone who says otherwise–in Europe in the early modern period there was no such thing as a “pagan witch” like modern view holds it. The people who were charged were all Christian (at least in most of Europe), Jewish or occasionally there were Muslim victims (mostly in the former Moorish kingdoms/regions). But given the prior centuries of expulsion of anyone not Christian–majority were Christians.

Now, I’m not denying that things we call witchcraft existed back then. There were healers, apothecaries, wise men and women, seers, etc…all sorts of professionals that locally worked and assisted with their neighbors. Hell, many even considered midwives among this group. Because they dealt with “mysterious forces”, i.e. childbirth–and the judges in the witch trials were men, and childbirth was strange and mysterious to them. And there are remedies, actions, spells, incantations and the like that have come down to us throughout the years through historical records. Magic and witchcraft did exist. It’s just not a bunch of pagans that were doing it.

These are things we now call witchcraft. But at the time, these were services, professions, and titles of the locals. They were not called witches in their communities, and would have likely been insulted to be called such. They were known for their wares and work, and did their services, whether as full-time employment or as side business against their regular work (such as farming, seamstress, tending crops or livestock, working in local businesses or houses, etc). These were devout Christians, who also used their talents, learning and gifts to assist their community. And I’m sure also to deal with problems, when those arose. But these people, charged or not, were not pagans.

It is an insult to their memories to call them pagans. And many of them would probably be insulted to be called a witch–which was pejorative at the time. So I see no reason to insult those of history by mislabeling them with what they would see as a pejorative term. These were Christians who fell prey to times and events beyond their control. Some of them were even valued professionals, i.e. the midwives, who were punished for things that had long been their job and long been considered necessary services within the community.

Point 2: There was no “witchcraft” tradition like today.

By this I mean only that the people would not recognize what we today call witchcraft as such. It was wise craft, herb lore, apothecary work, healing, medical work, etc. Their work was not witchcraft to them. These are services, and were rendered such. And the people who did them did this in addition to, and in full understanding of it falling underneath their Christian faith.

There existed no unbroken, pagan witchcraft tradition like people like to claim. That’s another false claim that needs checking. Ancient pagan religions died out, were preserved as folk traditions and superstitions, or were only preserved in written records. There is no unbroken pagan tradition across the centuries from old pagandom (pre-Christianity) to today. It’s impossible that something like that existed without any records through the centuries.

And on top of that, the witchcraft that most people modern practice stems from Romantic revivals of ancient beliefs, religions and research. So we can all thank our modern traditions of witchcraft (in the western European sense) to the 19th century western Europeans who all butchered their archaeology and ancient research and created the basis of all those things that we today work from.

Now, I know there are certain points of craft, and certain family traditions that probably do extend back two hundred or so years. And there is some argument to the claim that certain old cultural superstitions can be considered by some to be forms of witchcraft. But this is different than the claim of “unbroken” witchcraft and pagan tradition before Christianity went and “ruined” everything. So no…what is claimed by people on that front doesn’t exist.

Basically it boils down to this.

The “Burning Times” didn’t exist. Yes, there was a dark period of time where the common sense of the day led to the murder of many innocent people as “witches”. However, this is not an attack on the community’s pagan forebearers. It was the actions of cultures, peoples and governments in upheaval, and social concerns that led to these actions. Witch hunts existed, the Inquisition existed, for sure. But the “Burning Times” are absolutely not existing as the modern day community likes to harp on about.

And we owe it to history and to ourselves to not be delusional. Sure, research the past. Research the witch trials of early modern Europe. Get to know what actually happened. Learn the stories and history of who and what were involved. All of that is respectful and fine. But we should not name people by labels they would have refused. These people who were killed were not witches. They were overwhelmingly good Christians, and they deserve the respect of us and future generations honoring their beliefs, just like we demand that others honor our own.

That means we admit that the “Burning Times” never existed. There was no massive conspiracy to kill witches. It was a historical event, a time period with many contributing factors that led to the killing of thousands of men and women under dubious and false pretenses.

So enjoy research–learn about history of belief and religion across the world. But do not be an asshole and do not co-opt the deaths of other people for one’s pet cause and claim that the Church deliberately was searching to exterminate everyone who was a witch or pagan. That just harms everyone involved.








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I'm a bibliophile who loves collecting books. Definite cat person. Amateur historian and major geek, who loves all things Tolkien and Star Trek. I'm also fluent in German.

2 thoughts on “The Lie of the “Burning Times”

  1. BRAVA!!!!!! YES!!!!! Witchcraft as such is NOT an ancient religion. It is, if anything, a modern, synthetic amalgram of 19th century romanticism, Theosophy and CM (with a bit of Masonicism) along with some Hermetic Neo-Platonism, which had influenced Theosophy and CM along with Gnosticism. See where I am going here — there is actually more of Christianity than of any polytheistic religion in Wicca. (Persian Zoroastrianism and Gnosticism were heavy influences however much they might try to deny it. The dichotomous “heresies” are natural to Christianity because it is built upon them.)


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