The ‘Burning Times’ was a period of history when around 60,000 people were tried and convicted as witches. The majority of these trials took place between 1550 and 1650 CE, however most of the victims of the witch-hysteria were not actually Pagan, and they most certainly were not Wiccan as this is a much newer form of Paganism. In reality, most of them were Christians who had the misfortune to be in the wrong situation, at the wrong time.
In an attempt to answer the question of why these people died, I’ll give you a brief look at the factors that combined to open the way for witch burnings to occur.
These factors can be seen to stretch as far back in time as the year 400 CE, when Pope Damascus decreed that anyone who did not hold Christian beliefs should be punished by death. Emperor Theodosius I ordered the same for anyone practising magic, and demanded that all Pagan temples should be destroyed. Even the Library of Alexandria was caught up in the destruction as the Serapeum of Alexandria, which held part of its works, was plundered.
“Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn people.” – Heinrich Heine
These may have happened centuries before the Burning Times, but they so obviously paved the way that it is impossible to disregard them. These nebulous laws were completely open to interpretation, and made it possible for those who would accuse others of witchcraft to do so with no actual evidence to prove their case. A witch could be identified by any arbitrary sign that an accuser decided on; a mole or birthmark, a relationship with another convicted witch, appearing unafraid while being interrogated or being able to keep from crying out while under torture. These tortures were so brutal, and so effective that many so-called witches were convicted on the basis of a confession wrenched out of them through unimaginable cruelty.
While the centuries-old laws were a contributing factor, a more immediate cause was the unsettled and angry climate that came in the wake of war, plague and revolt. The ruling classes were afraid of another peasants’ revolt and so they used the idea of a common enemy – witches and witchcraft – to unite the people and trick them into focussing their attention on this, instead of on the real causes of their dissatisfaction. Religion has long been used as a tool to distract the working class from their situation, and the Church’s denouncement of witchcraft made it an acceptable target for the people to vent their frustration against. As long as people were hunting for witches they would ignore the flaws of the church or the inequality between classes. They would avoid their ‘evil’ body, try not to think impure thoughts, and keep telling themselves that they loved their church. In the end they would have no time or emotional fortitude to demand the truth.
As well as providing a welcome smokescreen for the church and ruling classes, other people saw ways to use the witch-hunts for their own ends. It wasn’t a huge leap between venting their feelings against those accused of witchcraft to accusing particular people of witchcraft in order to benefit from that person’s punishment.
Women found themselves particularly susceptible to accusations of witchcraft, partly because capitalism was taking its first tentative steps, and they found themselves unable to compete with men in the economic world. Women who were once tavern owners, money lenders and doctors were forced into poverty and then accused of witchcraft by neighbours who wanted their land, or people who wanted their power in the community. Women who were midwives, healers or beggars were easy to blame for illness and injuries and it was easier to point the finger at someone else than accept misfortune or personal responsibility.
Women also suffered the bad luck of being ‘daughters of Eve’. Eve was an evil temptress, and so if a man found a woman arousing, it must have been because she’d cast a spell on him. Widows were the worst to deal with, as they were sexually experienced, and yet no longer under the control of a man. In the end, sexuality almost became an expression of witchcraft.
As well as this, a major law reform had just been passed. The previous system needed an accusing party to bring about a trial. This person could be punished themselves if the person they accused was found to be innocent. The new system replaced the accuser with an ‘inquisitor’ – someone who would ask questions about any matter brought to their attention, and with the power to take the case to court if they thought it necessary. This made it much easier to point fingers freely with no risk of repercussions.
The freedom to make these accusations also gave people a way to solve a psychological phenomenon known as ‘cognitive dissonance‘. This is the holding of two conflicting beliefs and trying to believe them both. You might recognise this idea as ‘doublethink’ from 1984 by George Orwell. An example of the concept would be when you believe you are a good person, but you have unfriendly thoughts about someone, and you believe those thoughts make you a bad person. This kind of dilemma leads to high levels of stress, but instead of abandoning one or both of the ideas, there is an easier solution; those bad ideas are not your own, you are under a spell, or someone has put those thoughts into your head. That makes everything much simpler, and clearer-cut; you are good, and they are bad, and any harm coming to them is deserved. For the rich upper classes, this way of thinking also allowed them to alleviate their guilt over their wealth and the poverty of the working classes by subconsciously depicting them as unworthy.
In conclusion, the most unsettling thing about the Burning Times is the fact that it was simply an excuse for people to indulge their own selfishness and hatred. The hysteria was engineered to distract people from the truth of their situation, and further distorted to serve the whims of people who were not above benefitting from persecution of the innocent, and even murder. Worse than that even, it justified their actions in the name of the same God the so called ‘witches’ believed in.
“An age is called Dark, not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.” – James Albert Michener
The Burning Times – Religious Tolerance
Witch-Hunt – Wikipedia
Falsehoods of the Burning Times – The Wiccan / Pagan Times
The Burning Times – Wicca: For The Rest Of Us
How Many Witches? – The Holocaust History Project
The Burning Times – Spotlight Ministries
The Decline and End of Witch Trials in Europe – Bede’s Library