Date: 28 Jan 1998
Twenty years ago, some people thought we'd finally found *the* reason the Burning Times happened: the Reformation. When Christian protestors split off from the Catholic Church and formed their own "Protestant" churches, it triggered a century and a half of intense religious warfare in central Europe. Each rival faction fought desperately to inflict its form of Christianity on all others.
What's this got to do with Witchcraft? Well, when trial record studies first started rolling in, one fact was immediately obvious: the intensity of Witch-hunting correlated *brilliantly* with the intensity of the Reformation. Germany, homeland of the Reformation, was the center of the Burning Times. Countries like Switzerland that suffered some of the worst warfare also suffered the worst Witch hunting. Persecution of Witches was worst along borders, particularly borders where countries with different religions touched. Northern Italy (a Catholic region bordering Protestant parts of Switzerland) killed hundreds of Witches; southern Italian, none that we know of. Lorraine, a French Catholic province bordering Protestant Switzerland, killed thousands; isolated Brittany killed a fraction that many.
In some case, the link looked perfect. All of Iceland's Witchcraft trials -- except one -- came after Protestantism was introduced to the land. Poland didn't have Witch trials until the 17th century. Before that time, Protestants and Catholics co-existed peacefully, a rather unique circumstance for that time! However in the mid-17th century, the Catholic government became increasingly intolerant of Protestants and began passing laws against. At the *exact* same time, Witch trials popped up, and soon Poland became on the of the deadliest countries in the Burning Times.
These and other facts lead some historians to believe that Witch hunting was heretic hunting: Catholics called Protestants Witches, Protestants said the same about Catholics. There were no Witch trials in the Middle Ages because there were no Protestants then. (The Protestant Reformation occured in the 16th century, which is the beginning of the modern age.)
Unfortunately, under closer examination this theory fell apart, too. Why? Because when we looked at the Witches' religion, it clearly wasn't true. In almost all times and places, Catholics countries accused Catholics as frequently as Protestants; Protestants showed no preference for Catholic Witches. There are exceptions, cases where intra-Christian rivalry played a role. But it is obviously not accurate to say that Catholics called all Protestants Witches to justify killing them. Frankly, they just called them "Protestants" and thought that was grounds enough for death. Both Catholics and Protestants considered the other sect heretical. They didn't need accusations of Witchcraft to "justify" persecution.
There are other isolated facts that undermine this theory. Witch hunting pre-dates the Reformation, stretching back to the late Middle Ages. The first mass panic occurred about a hundred years before there were Protestants. Witch hunting *dropped* during the first years of the Reformation, though it skyrocketed after the warfare dragged on. The Inquisition -- which was fanatically opposed to Protestantism and persecuted it fiercely -- was luke-warm when it came to Witches. In Switzerland, where Protestant and Catholic cantons existed side by side, Witchcraft trials *increased* cooperation between the different sects. When Protestant officials complained that Witches had fled to Catholic lands, the Catholic authorities generally handed the Witches back over to them. If Protestants were calling Catholics "Witches", the Catholics obviously wouldn't help them!
That leaves us with a conundrum: if Witch-hunting isn't Christian-hunting, why do Witch trials align so perfectly with the religious warfare of the Reformation? No one knows. One theory is that Witch hunting was a community's way of relieving tensions. When things were going bad, towns blamed and attacked a scapegoat. Witch trials generally increase after wars. Witches aren't actually accused of causing those wars, but something about wars seems to make people more likely to attack Witches. To apply this to the Reformation, religious persecution didn't make people think that the other sect was Witchcraft, but it did make them more likely to attack "Witches" of any faith.