Common Misconceptions: Geography & Intensity

To: all
From: Jenny
Date: 17 Jan 1998
Time: 11:34:33


B. Geography and Intensity 1. The persecution was very intense in all countries. 2. Witch crazes were common occurrences. 3. The earliest panics occurred in the 14th century, in southern France. 4. It's not right to compare American and European Witch hunts. America's persecution was just a pale shadow of what happened in Europe.

B1. The persecution was very intense in all countries.

Witch hunting was worst in central Europe: in Germany, Switzerland, and France. Generally speaking, the further you got away from this area, the less persecution there was.

The table of current estimates lists the probable death tolls for various countries. Germany was the worst, with approximately 25,000 deaths. Thousands of Witches were killed in France, Switzerland, Scotland, and (perhaps) Poland. Hundreds died in most areas. But there were also a number of countries that passed through the Burning Times virtually unscathed. For example, Ireland, Portugal, and Russia all had less than a dozen executions.

Persecution wasn't even equally intense within a particular country. Witch hunting was more extreme near borders, particularly the borders of two countries with different religions. Northern Italy killed hundreds of Witches; southern Italy, nearly none. In France, trials clustered around the German and Spanish borders; central and north-western France had far fewer trials. Central Spain experienced little Witch hunting, while the region bordering France had the largest craze of the Burning Times.

B2. Witch crazes were common occurrences.

Crazes were rare, extreme types of Witch hunting. Most countries only had one or two in all of the Burning Times.

There are two types of Witch hunts: endemic and epidemic hunts. Endemic Witch hunting is the low-level stream of isolated, individual trials that went on throughout the Burning Times. Usually one to six Witches died. Epidemic Witch hunts, on the other hand, are the Witch crazes: the great panics that swept the countryside, killing dozens or hundreds of people.

Some countries like Russia and Ireland only had endemic hunting. Most had endemic hunts throughout the Burning Times, plus one epidemic. For example, America had sporadic trials and then the Salem craze. In England, the one panic was the Essex craze of the Interregnum. The major exception to this generalization is Germany, which had a number of crazes. Panics were far more common there than anywhere else.

B3. The earliest panics occurred in the 14th century, in southern France.

The first mass trial occurred in Valais, Switzerland, in 1428.

Older texts do indeed say that mass trials first appeared in 14th century France. Up until 1972, historians believed that the first great Witch crazes occurred around 1320, in the French cities of Toulouse and Carcassonne. The handiwork of the French Inquisition, they were some of the worst crazes of the Burning Times. Many popular and Pagan texts mention these monstrous affairs where as many as 400 women were killed in one day!

In reality, these trials never happened. They're the product of a creative 19th century forger, Etienne Leon de Lamothe-Langon.

Lamothe-Langon wrote a book called _Histoire de l'Inquisition en France_ which purported to be a study of the French Inquisition. In it, he described the great 14th century Witch crazes of southern France. Lamothe-Langon is our only source for these trials. No trial records exist for them. No sermon or Witch hunting manual mentions them. None of the Inquisition's records breathes a word about them. And when scholars tried to check the sources Lamothe-Langon "cited", they found they didn't exist.

By the 1950s, historians were extremely skeptical about the 14th century crazes. They simply didn't fit the pattern of Witch hunting. Their demonology was far too elaborate for a medieval trial, more complex even than that in the _Malleus Maleficarum_ of 1484. Why would the Inquisition develop this convoluted demonology and then apparently "forget" it for several centuries? Moreover the vocabulary of the trials was wrong. An example: most early trials called a group of Witches a "synagogue". These 14th century trials called such groups "sabbats", a word that wouldn't appear in a Witch trial again for over a hundred years. For these and many other reasons, the 14th century trials seemed terribly odd. It was as if someone had taken a trial from the 16th century, from the height of the Burning Times, and plunked it down in the late Middle Ages.

In 1972, we learned that that was exactly what someone *had* done. Two historians -- Norman Cohn and Richard Kieckhefer -- independently discovered that _Histoire de l'Inquisition en France_ was a forgery. They learned that Lamothe-Langon was a noted forger, writing fake autobiographies of numerous 18th century notables. He claimed that his book was based on unpublished documents given to him by a famous French librarian, but Cohn found a letter in which this librarian stated that this was not true -- there were no unpublished sources. And under close examination, errors appeared in Lamothe-Langon's supposedly "ancient" documents. For instance, the inquisitor he said presided over the trials wasn't an inquisitor at the time the panics supposedly occurred.

For these and dozens of other reasons, historians today are confident that these 14th century trials never occurred. There were no mass trials before the 15th century, and there never was a craze where 400 women died in one day.

B4. It's not right to compare American and European Witch hunts. America's persecution was just a pale shadow of what happened in Europe.

American Witch hunting was as intense as European Witch hunting. In fact, when you compensate for its low population, New England hunted Witches as fiercely as Scotland, one of the worst countries in the Burning Times.

Many older texts say that American Witch hunting was vastly different than the persecutions in Europe. Why? Because back before trial verdicts were studied, historians assumed that tens of thousands of Witches died in most European countries. (See the death toll pages for more information on why this assumption is wrong.) America's trial records were well-preserved and well-studied. Historians have long known that 37 American Witches died. And it seemed obvious that 37 American executions was nothing like, say, 70,000 deaths in Scotland.

Once historians studied trial verdicts, they learned that our early estimates of the European death toll were far, far too high. Most European countries killed hundreds of Witches, not tens of thousands. America had a tiny population and it wasn't colonized in the first two centuries of the Burning Times. When you compensate for these factors, you find that America hunted Witches about as intensely as the moderately fierce portions of Europe did. In a relatively short period of time, America killed more Witches than several European countries, including Iceland, Portugal, Ireland, and Russia.