Burning Times – How Many Died?

The number of people killed during the witch hunts is often misrepresented as 9,000,000 (with at least one site claiming that 85% of which were women).1 Many sites, though, now represent the number as between 50,000 to 200,000 people, including the ever popular Wikipedia. So, where did the larger number come from, and why do many scholar and Pagans now believe the number to be so much smaller?

According to Ronald Hutton2, a historian in the small German town of Quedlinburg first reported the number of dead as 9,442,994 in 1793. The historian arrived at this number by taking the number of executions in his own village and assuming they would reflect the number of executions in all other villages in Europe. A few calculations later, he declared that 9,442,994 people had been executed as witches.

This number was later picked up by a Viennese professor of the Old Testament, and rounded down to the easier to handle 9,000,000 figure we are most familiar with. In 1893, the figure was used by Matilda Joslyn Gage in her book Woman, Church, and State, one of the earliest books to try to provide a reimagined women’s history. Gage claimed that most of the women killed were pagan priestess and healers, who the Church feared were too independent.

Gage was read by many members of the growing Pagan revival movement, including Gerald Gardner and Margaret Murray. Her ideas helped to inform their works, and were further propagated to more modern authors, like Starhawk.

Thankfully, many new works by Pagans and scholar include the more realistic numbers, ranging from 40,000 in Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon to 60,000 in Brian Levack’s The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. These new, smaller, numbers come from a reexamination of the number of trials and their outcomes, as well as a realization that in a population of about 20,000,000 people, it is unlikely that 9,000,000 were executed with no significant outcry.

1. http://realmagick.com/articles/27/127.html
2. Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Ronald Hutton