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The Burning Times: The Witch Hunts, Trials, and Massacre in Europe

Updated on March 21, 2018
kittythedreamer profile image

Holding a complete fascination with the folkloric witch, Kitty has studied the history and folklore of witchcraft since she was a child.

Witches on Trial

When people hear the words "Witch Trials", the first thing that usually pops into their minds is Salem. What most would be surprised to learn is that the unnecessary and heinous act of trying, torturing, and killing "witches" goes back centuries before the Salem Witch Trials, actually originating in the fifteenth century in Europe. The first witch trials were held in a town located in Southern France and then spread like wildfire across the entire continent of Europe and eventually made its way to the US colonies. An "estimated" forty to sixty thousand women, men and even children were tortured and killed during these trials; however, many scholars believe the numbers were even greater than that.

One of the speculated main reasons why these witch trials began was due to an overwhelming fear that Satan and his followers were going to outnumber and destroy Christianity. Because the old Pagan beliefs and rituals were still being practiced by some, the Christian church felt extremely threatened and needed a means in which to completely rid the world of the "old beliefs", which to them were blasphemous. Many women were accused of being Satan's witches, a large number of these women being midwives. In case you didn't know, a midwife is a woman who aids a pregnant mother during her labor and delivery of her child and also aids in the starting process of nursing the child after birth. There were many midwives back in those days and one of the theories is that the male doctors felt threatened and wanted to rid the continent of these midwives...apparently they were taking too much business away from the doctors!

The sad part of the Burning Times was that women and even some men who were considered allies and healers to their communities were inevitably turned against and turned into the Church and the law for being Satan's soldiers. The Church preached that anyone with supernatural abilities, in many cases (particularly midwives) with the knowledge to heal, was in cohorts with the devil and acquired these superhuman abilities from a pact made with him. For many years during the Middle Ages, the actual belief in witches and witchcraft was against the law, but thanks to Bernadino of Siena and Pope Innocent VIII. These two Christian men sort of paved the way for the mass hysteria that would grip the continent of Europe, beginning in the late fifteenth century.

Much of the stereotypes and images that we imagine witches today has been fed and fueled by the Burning Times of Early Modern Europe. Riding on brooms, meeting at night to perform evil-doings, shape-shifting into cats, and the like can all be attributed to the ignorance that can be found in large masses of sheep-like crowds.

Methods of Testing and Torturing

Many of us are aware of the fact that these tried women and men would be burned in the end, sometimes hung; however, we forget that during many of these trials these people were actually succumbed to despicable "tests" to ascertain their wickedness.

After the church's court had questioned the so-called "witch", one of the ways in which to tell if she was Satan's wife was to weigh her on a scale on one side against a heavy, metal-bound Bible on the other side. If she was a witch, she would weigh less than the Bible. How ridiculous? I'm almost one hundred percent sure many of these women were young women, and also many of these women were peasants so how much meat could they have had on their bones anyway? Weigh a hundred pound, eighteen-year-old girl against a hundred and twenty pound, metal-bound Bible, which do you think will weigh more? Have you ever seen a Bible from those times? They were huge!

More tests involved forcing the witches to recite the Lord's Prayer without mistake and also tying rocks around their ankles and seeing if they sank or floated when thrown into the river. If they floated, they were proclaimed to be a witch and killed. If they sank, it was said that they were innocent but most of the time those people died by drowning before anyone could pull them up from the bottom! Another stupid test was to examine the body of an accused witch for the "mark of the devil", which was said to be a black or dark mark somewhere on the body. If they poked it with something sharp and it did not bleed, they figured that the person was a witch. With how incredibly stupid these "tests" were, it makes me did these people wipe their own butts in the morning?

If these tests were not performed, many would die by hunger or disease in a dungeon or prison cell before they could even go to trial. Others would be tormented and told that if they confessed to witchcraft that they would be let off the hook...when in reality many of these people were burned at the stake anyway. So think about this...even the women who considered themselves totally innocent and faithful Christian women, who would not give in to the Church's methods of torture and confess to "witchcraft" would then be tortured, publicly humiliated, separated from their families, and then slain in an agonizing fashion...many times by burning.

A Patron Saint Accused of Witchcraft?

Remember learning about the courageous and fearless warrior Joan of Arc, who led her people to victory and saved a nation? This lovely and god-sent woman was also accused of witchcraft because she claimed to have talked to Saints and they also did not like the fact that she wore "men's clothing." They captured her, tried her, tested her, and could not find any fault with her answers to their mocking questions. But in 1431, Joan of Arc (now a patron Saint, by the way) was burned at the stake in front of a crucifix which she had requested to be there to comfort her during her passing into god's arms.

The End to the Madness

Following the Salem Witch Trials in America, the last witch trials in Europe occurred in Scotland in the mid-1700s. This was due to a few movements and laws put into place by some respectable men who claimed that the trying and accusations against old feeble women was improbable and incorrect. These women were referred to as "Moll Whites", which is interesting because where I grew up in Maryland there was a woman in the early settlement of St. Mary's County known as "Moll Dyer", who the townsfolk blamed to be a witch. Her story is a sad one and can be read in my other hub: American Witches (link below).

There has been numerous amounts of theories as to why this mass hysteria and massacre occurred; however, not one particular theory has stuck as the real true reason behind the insanity. Some modern-day Pagans believe it was a sexist revolution against women, brought about by men of the Church who were doctors or just in search to scare women into submission (by means of eradicating many midwives from their industry). Interestingly, some cases of tried witches were also accused of being "werewolves" and "vampires", as well! The belief that witches could shift into werewolves was more of a Northern European tale, one of the most famous cases being that of Hans the Werewolf (link to my werewolf hub below which tells the whole tale of Hans).

Whatever the cause of this genocide, we can be content that such idiocy is through in Europe and the United States. We have freedom of religion in the United States and I thank my lucky stars for that, because if I lived in the Burning Times I have a feeling I would be one of the first women to go!

© 2011 Kitty Fields


Submit a Comment
  • DNHarley profile image


    3 years ago

    I don't want to rake through this, point by point, but I really would recommend that you read some of the extensive historical literature of the last 30 or 40 years. It really is impossible to make sweeping generalizations about this subject.

    Prosecutions took place, in various countries, from the 15th to 18th centuries, with the peak in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It was by no means an organized campaign, so the level of prosecutions in different jurisdictions ranged from thousands to almost none. The Mediterranean Inquisitions were notably averse. In the whole history of the Portuguese Inquisition, only six witches were "relaxed" to the secular power for execution.

    Moreover, as the prosecutions were mainly driven from below, with neighbours making the accusations against members of their own communities who were mostly elderly widows but also of many other types, the sorts of accused varied widely, according to local cultural stereotypes. In Iceland, for example, the accused were nearly all men. In Russia, men were an overwhelming majority.

    Rates of accusation, prosecution, and conviction also varied widely, depending on the legal system involved and the attitude of judges and jurists. Thus, the Parlement de Paris threw out most of the convictions that were appealed to it. England had a high acquittal rate. And so on.

    Three specific points --

    Midwives were perhaps the least likely group of women to be prosecuted. They did get caught up in witch crazes, where torture was used, partly because everyone knew them, as also with innkeepers. However, there were none accused in many jurisdictions, and where they were accused they were usually outnumbered by aristocrats. Thus, in the great Cologne witchcraze, six cases were brought against midwives, four in the city itself, out of some 2000 cases.

    The suggestion that the persecution of midwives was caused by the ambitions of doctors is clearly false. By the time man-midwifery was beginning to be seen in Western Europe, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, emerging from the surgeons' traditional role in emergency cases, there were hardly any prosecutions of witches in the countries concerned. By then, even the popes and their physicians were trying to discourage prosecutions by secular courts.

    Secondly, the print above which has been coloured derives from a print in Foxe's Book of Marytrs. It depicts the burning of Protestants on the island of Guernsey during the reign of Mary Tudor.

    Thirdly, there is no factual connection between the Satanists and Wiccans of today and those who were prosecuted as witches. The first two are following religions created in the 20th century. The last hardly ever claimed to be part of a cult, except under torture or extreme pressure. There is no evidence of an underground cult in early modern Europe, except in the minds of the persecutors, who introduced this belief and superimposed it on popular accusations about cursing. Without the demonic pact, it was impossible for intellectuals to explain the efficacy of curses. Sceptics mocked this idea from the outset.

  • JamaGenee profile image

    Joanna McKenna 

    7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    I suspect equal parts of both. ;D

  • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

    Kitty Fields 

    7 years ago from Summerland

    JamaGenee - Thanks so much, yes it still makes me angry, as well. I'm sure not all of these women were Pagan at all...maybe some...but yes, I agree that it was mainly about money and gain of property from these poor people. The ergot-infested rye would be a good cause for the madness, as well...or could it simply just be the brainwashing of the church? Thanks!

  • JamaGenee profile image

    Joanna McKenna 

    7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Great points about the causes of the Burning Times (which still makes me angry!), but I have to add that the only "crime" of many of the women executed for witchcraft was having the misfortune to outlive a wealthy, land-rich husband with no heirs other than the widow. Such woman were specifically targeted by the cash-greedy Church and others seeking to increase personal wealth and power.

    Also, the ergot-infested rye that caused the "witch madness" in Salem is believed to have been responsible for the same type of behavior that led to accusations of witchcraft in Europe during the Burning Times. ;D

  • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

    Kitty Fields 

    7 years ago from Summerland

    ram_m: Yes, it must be a gene! I am hopefully learning to overcome that gene, though. Unfortunately this does keep repeating in is truly sad to see. Thanks for commenting! :)

  • ram_m profile image


    7 years ago from India

    This is a thought provoking hub. I think the innate tendency to persecute is ingrained in we homo sapiens. As history is nothing but a chronicle of our follies, it is bound to repeat again and again. Great hub Kitty.

  • Alastar Packer profile image

    Alastar Packer 

    7 years ago from North Carolina

    Excellent article. In addition some new things I didn't know like the scales with the Bible, Moll Dyer and Hans the Werewolf. Those horrible inquisitions against suspected witches didn't give them much of a chance with tests like the water one. I wonder what Joan of Arc really saw? Super good pic selection too kitty.

  • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

    Kitty Fields 

    7 years ago from Summerland


    Everything you have stated here is very true! And before Christianity was the main religion sweeping the European nations, guess who was hating on them? Pagans! Yup, sad but true and you're right when you say it's just those people who want to feel superior and push others around. Sickening, really. This is not how god (or gods or the great spirit whatever you want to call it) intended us to live our lives or treat others. But as long as there are people who are insecure and feel better in controlling others, there will be battles over religion, sexual preference, race, etc. etc. etc. When they say "history repeats itself", I totally agree that it does in many ways! While others find this comment stupid and say "what do we have to learn from history? it's the past!"...that's actually an ignorant statement because we have much to learn from history! if people would only look back at history, maybe we could examine our mistakes and learn from them. Thanks, Jeff. Very well put and wonderful insight.

  • travislang profile image


    7 years ago

    very well written and researched, i loved the article

  • Jeff Berndt profile image

    Jeff Berndt 

    7 years ago from Southeast Michigan

    Hiya, Kitty,

    A good overview of the persecution of 'witches' in Europe, but did you know that in addition to witches, lots of Christians met the same (or near enough as makes no difference) fate at the hands of their fellow Christians? Heretics were treated at least as barbarically as accused witches were, simply because they refused to bow (or insisted upon bowing) to the Pope's authority. The 30 Years War (between Catholics and Protestants) devastated Germany.

    But it's all the same in the end. Some folks will always want to push others around, and many of those folks will use their religion as an excuse to do so. Just look at today's headlines. Lots of folks are doing everything in their power to stop two members of the same sex not only from getting married but even from being allowed to visit each other in the hospital when one of them is sick. Why? Because people like to feel superior, and pushing other people around is a great way to feel superior. It's easy when they've got a huge advantage in numbers, and it absolves them of any responsibility for personal excellence. They don't have to work and achieve to feel proud; all they need do is bully others.

    History is great for providing insights into modern life...:)

  • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

    Kitty Fields 

    7 years ago from Summerland

    Oh, yes...the people are always to blame for these sorts of things. Don't apologize for offending anyone, if that's how you feel and hey, I agree with you!

  • Mrs. J. B. profile image

    Mrs. J. B. 

    7 years ago from Southern California

    Back then PEOPLE were the ones that started all this crazy crap! Those holier than thou fake religious nuts. I grew up just 20 minutes from Salem MA. they used to lay these ??witches??? down and place flippin boulders on them till they died and of course there were the gallows... Those religious nuts back then are to blame for all of this.. Sorry if anyones offended but give someone a bible and man they walk on water

  • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

    Kitty Fields 

    7 years ago from Summerland

    Hey, Lucky Cats! Glad it caught your eye. And as always, thank you so much for your votes. :) You rock!

  • Lucky Cats profile image


    7 years ago from The beautiful Napa Valley, California

    Kitty, very interesting and informative hub about an extremely unfortunate part of history. Thank you! Up and USEFuL!

  • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

    Kitty Fields 

    7 years ago from Summerland

    cogerson - no, thank you for taking the time to read a lot of them! it is so very much appreciated, you have no idea!

    rod marsden - thank you so much for your insight on this topic. you have written a summary of everything that i was trying to convey in this hub, but better than my own! you know a LOT on this topic, it shows. i had no idea about the term "warlock" being derogatory, so thank you for that tidbit of information...very intriguing indeed! can't wait to read some of your hubs, friend!

    dahoglund - of course it had to do with politics, but their reasoning (although untrue) was that she was a witch and a heretic. pathetic excuse, right?

  • dahoglund profile image

    Don A. Hoglund 

    7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

    In the case of St. Joan I think it is clear that politics was more evident than witchcraft.

  • Rod Marsden profile image

    Rod Marsden 

    7 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

    Not a bad write up. Three things that prompted all this madness.

    One was that Christianity was once a minor and persecuted religion of the Roman Empire. Back then Christians were blamed for all sorts of things that went wrong from floods to well water going bad to the burning of Rome. When they became the power and it was their turn they turned out to be just as bad if not worse than those who had persecuted them.

    Saint Augustine spoke against the harming of witches and those who believed in witchcraft. His take was that witches didn't have any real powers and it was all self deception. He felt sorry for them and pagans in general. He was 4th Century Christian so maybe he understood about persecution and didn't want it to be put onto some other group. Or maybe he could see how this kind of folly can really get out of hand.

    Two was that the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church saw power in medicine and healing in general and wanted it as a monopoly for themselves. Some of it could be doled out to nuns but certainly not to the general public. There was a movement in the Middle ages in which Mother Mary worship took dominance over the worship of Jesus. This movement was stamped out where it could be stamped out. It was controlled where stamping out proved to be impractical.

    The third was to find social scapegoats for when things did go wrong. This was evident at Salem and made all too clear in the play The Crucible. The Spanish inquisition came about after the Jews of Spain were given an ultimatum. They had to either convert to Christianity or leave. If they stayed and continued to be Jews they would die. There were quite a few who converted but the ones who did convert, including the women, were thought to be false Christians who practiced Judaism on the quiet. Some were caught doing this but for too many just the accusation was enough. Then people who were never Jews were accused of unchristian acts.

    Why were people accused of witchcraft? Some were actually Wiccans or members of some other old religion. Very few were Satanists. For the most part a lot were ordinary people who's land was valuable and desired by either the Church or another powerful authority. The best way to get such a property for nothing is to accuse someone of witchcraft.

    It should be noted that the term Warlock is actually a derogatory term for a male witch or Wiccan and therefore is not used by the Wiccan community except to point out how they have been treated in the past. It originated as far as I can work out in Scotland.

    Accusing the strange and different among us just to be rid of them is still with us. I once saw a documentary on the SS that basically stated that the number of officials appointed to sniff out Jews, Gypsies and other undesirables were too small to do the job that was done in Germany and other countries without the help of the general public. Another documentary said the same thing about the Spanish inquisition. I rated up for this hub.

  • Cogerson profile image


    7 years ago from Virginia

    Very nicely done kittythedreamer, I can tell you put lots of time in doing this hubs....and your work is greatly appreciated....I will be checking out the Moll Dyer story...voted up ...great job.

  • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

    Kitty Fields 

    7 years ago from Summerland

    Hi, 4elements! How awesome to hear that you enjoyed it and thought it clarifying. Blessed be to you and don't worry, I'd be right next to you! Not that I would be a witch so to speak, but because I like to speak my mind and feel that women should feel empowered, not held down! :) Have a wonderful week, love! Toodles.

  • 4elements profile image


    7 years ago

    This was an outstanding hub. It appeared well researched and well worded. Thank you for clearing some of the stupidity of witches, up. I to am glad we have freedom of religion, because i know for a fact i would be burned at the stake. I am a practicing witch, as well as wiccan, Again thank you. Blessed be!


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