Some Myths about the Witch Trials

A 1655 pamphlet illustration of witches being hanged
In England witches were hanged, not burned. This illustration is taken from a 1655 pamphlet by Ralph Gardiner© Bettmann/Getty

Today I was rather surprised to be reminded of one of the misconceptions about the witch trials (or the “Burning Times” as it is often referred to within Pagan circles) that I had thought had been debunked by the 20th century – that some nine million people lost their lives after being accused of witchcraft. Apparently not.

As such, I thought I would share four of the more common misconceptions about the witch trials as discovered by Professor Diane Purkiss (Professor of English Literature at Keble College, University of Oxford).

1. Nine million witches died in the years of the witch persecutions: It is estimated that a more accurate figure is from 30,000 to 60,000 people were executed in the whole of the main era of witchcraft persecutions, from the commencement in 1427–36 in Savoy (in the western Alps) to the execution of Anna Goldi in the Swiss canton of Glarus in 1782. These figures include estimates for cases where no records exist.

Colour drawing showing people being burned in a public square as part of the Spanish Inquisition
The Spanish Inquisition persecuted those perceived as heretics by the Catholic Church, but witchcraft was largely regarded as a superstition, and wasn’t pursued as a heresy by officials except in rare cases© Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

2. Witches were burned at the stake: While people found guilty of practicing witchcraft were burnt at the stake across Europe and in Scotland, they were actually hung in England and America. In Scotland, they were straggled first before being burnt.

3. The Spanish Inquisition and the Catholic Church instigated the witch trials: Four of the major western Christian denominations (the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican churches) persecuted witches to some degree, while the Eastern Christian, or Orthodox, churches carried out almost no witch-hunting. In England, Scotland, Scandinavia and Geneva, witch trials were carried out by Protestant states. The Spanish Inquisition executed only two witches in total.

4. King James I was terrified of witches and was responsible for their hunting and execution: More accused witches were executed in the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558–1603) than under her successor, James I (1603–25). The first Witchcraft Act was passed under Henry VIII, in 1542, and made all pact witchcraft (in which a deal is made with the Devil) or summoning of spirits a capital crime. The 1604 Witchcraft Act under James could be described as a reversion to that status quo rather than an innovation.

In Scotland, where he had ruled as James VI since 1587, James had personally intervened in the 1590 trial of the North Berwick witches, who were accused of attempting to kill him. He wrote the treatise Daemonologie, published in 1597. However, when King of England, James spent some time exposing fraudulent cases of demonic possession, rather than finding and prosecuting witches.

Sources:
Witch: Eight Myths and Misconceptions by Professor Diana Purkiss
“Witch Hunts”: Now and Then, Myths and Realities by Morgan Lamkin
Professor Pavlac’s Witch Hunts by Brian A. Pavlac

Further Reading:
The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present by Ronald Hutton (Yale University Press, 2018)
A New History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans by Jeffrey B Russell and Brooks Alexander (Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2007)
Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History by Alan Charles Kors (editor), Edward Peters (editor) (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000)
The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic by Owen Davies (Oxford University Press, 2017)
The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century by Diane Purkiss (Routledge, 1996)
Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 4: The Period of the Witch Trials by Bengt Ankarloo (editor), Stuart Clark (editor) (University of Pennsylvania, 2002)