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The Burning Times
or the More Persecuted than Thou Syndrome

The Burning Times is a term referring to the witch persecutions in Europe during the late medieval and renaissance periods. According to Wikipedia, it was first coined by feminist Mary Daly in 1978, who depicted the witch-hunts as a persecution against women. However, the "burning times," without captitalization, does, in fact, appear in Gardner's Witchcraft Today, which predates Daly by about 20 years. Whatever the origin, Wiccans and some other Pagans have certainly adopted the term, and today the phrase generally refers to the theory that Christian witch-hunters were, in fact, attempting to root out practitioners of older pagan religions. The stories of Satanic worship was simply a rouse to convince the masses of the necessity of putting these people down or, at best, the result of confusion and miscommunication. The fact that women were targeted almost exclusively is a result (according to the theory) of the fact that these pagan religions held women in much higher esteem, and women were generally considered the caretakers of magical and divine knowledge.

Not only is the myth of the Burning Times false, it's disrespectful to the real victims of the witch-persecutions who were, at first, heretics and then were generally Christians unfortunate enough to be swept up in a hysteria that swept half a continent. None of the victims were Wiccan - the religion did not exist at the time. Few, if any, had any knowledge of pagan religion. Worse, Wiccans have taken up such slogans as "Never forget, never again" (originally used by Jews in reference to the Holocaust) and spout hugely exaggerated numbers in an attempt to win the Most Persecuted Group in History Award.

Nine million lives were claimed by the Burning Times
This number was first calculated by an 18th century German who used a single location over a short span of time as his sample and then multiplied it to cover the entire period of the trials across the entire continent. Unfortunately, he picked a particularly brutal incident as his sample - which is exactly why survey samples are supposed to be of significant size. The number was the made popular by Matilda Gage in the 19th century and has been repeated time and time again in an example of how even good writers can repeat stupid things. We speak out about hysteria and about how fallacy becomes accepted as fact when it's repeated often enough, yet that is exactly what we're promoting. Historians put the numbers squarely between 40,000 and 100,000, based upon trial records and taking into consideration that not all records have survived or were even taken in the first place. Is a "mere" 40,000 lives not tragic enough?

This is the heart of the More Persecuted than Thou Syndrome. If nine million of "us" were really killed, that puts us above even the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. And some people think that gives them permission to approach the rest of the world with a chip on their shoulder, because the world owes them something. It wasn't nine million, it wasn't "us," and even if it was, that is no excuse to behave badly toward those who happen to share a religion (Christianity) with the witch-hunters of four hundred years ago.

Those persecuted were Wiccans (or at least pagans), not worshippers of the Devil.
The Wiccan argument can simply be ended with the fact that Wicca didn't exist in the time of the witch-persecutions. So let's discuss instead the related argument that those persecuted were pagans, not worshippers of the Devil.

I'm always astounded by the number of people who can't seem to comprehend that those persecuted could have been neither. We are willing to claim that pagans were being wrongly accused of worshipping Satan, but we can't accept that it was simply Christians who were being wrongly accused of worshipping Satan.

The witch-trials didn't begin until more than a millennia after the founding of Christianity. If the Church found these supposed pagans to be such a threat, they sure took their time in dealing with them. Indeed, the major trial period did not occur until centuries after Europe had been Christianized.

The trials have their origins in the persecution of heresy that mostly just got way out of control, in large part because of the destabilization Europe was suffering at the time. The Hundred Years War was killing people by the thousands, as was the Black Death. People needed a scapegoat, and that scapegoat became the mythical witch.

Moreover, while religion was a factor, it was not about paganism. Catholics were accusing Protestants and Protestants were accusing Catholics. Where conflict between these two groups was more severe, witch-trials were likewise more severe. Conversely, in areas where things were more stable, especially on the religious front, the witch-hunts were far less hysterical. The strongly Catholic Spain, for example, had one of the smallest witch-hunts in western Europe.

The persecutions targeted women.
Yes, and no. Most of the victims were indeed women, and being a woman certainly made you a suspect. But that is not to say that the point of the persecutions was to destroy women. The point of the persecutions was to destroy witches, but there were reasons why people thought women were more likely to be witches than men, and the reasons extend far beyond simple misogyny. For more information, read the Women and Witchcraft and Witches and Saints.

And on a final historical note, stop talking about those poor witches burned at Salem. No one was burned at Salem. One was pressed to death; the rest were hanged.

© Catherine Noble Beyer, 2002 - 2011   *     Awards