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The Holocaust History Project.

The Holocaust History Project.

How Many Witches

(v. 5.0 )

by Richard J. Green

I recently received the following comment from a correspondent:

Some nine million women were burned at the stake as witches for being pagans or healers or merely wise or powerful women, with only occasional and timid intervention. I am pained by that holocaust as well.

My suspicion was that this number was greatly exaggerated. The reporting of history, however, can make us myopic of the immensity of catastrophes that have happened to other people, and I had to admit that I did not know that this number was an exaggeration. I asked for some more information and this correspondent responded:

No, historians have not settled on a figure, nor is it likely that they ever will be able to do so. No systematic records were kept, and most records that did exist have been lost. I recall estimates from 7 million to 11 million. I indicated with the word "some" the approximate nature and by grabbing a middle number tried to make the claim moderate. The point isn't the exact number, however, but the intent to wipe out the old religion and any women of energy and influence (as well, no doubt, as some who may have been merely bad-tempered). This attempt succeeded and we remain under the effects of its chilling of women's power.

Most recently I have seen statistics presented in a series that was aired on PBS. There were three shows, one of which was called "Burning Times"; I think that was probably the one which focussed on the holocaust of women. (Yes, some men were burned too, as accomplices or as pagans or as defenders of the accused or intervenor in the persecution of the women.).

The victims of these trials died one by one. I sincerely believe that each of these deaths was a great tragedy. To the people that died it makes little difference whether millions were killed or only thousands. Yet, I believe it is important to report history as accurately as is possible in such affairs. The exaggeration of atrocities tends to play into the hands of those who would deny the horror of such events. Because this information was not enough for me, I decided to find out what I could for myself. My correspondent's remark that this history is poorly documented seems to be accurate as far as I can find. Nevertheless, I have decided to see what I can find. As I am not a historian my goal is to find out from historians what they believe to be accurate rather than doing the necessary historical research myself. This investigation by its very nature is not exhaustive and should be viewed as a report of what I have found out rather than a thesis attempting to prove how many victims there actually were.

The narrator, Martha Henry, in The Burning Times claims that 85% of the victims of the witch hunts were women and that thousands were burned [1]. In this same film a writer, Thea Jensen, is interviewed. She refers to the witch trials as a "women's holocaust" and states that the upper estimate is of 9 million deaths. Unfortunately, I could not locate anything written by Thea Jensen, nor did the film give any further citation for such a number. I was therefore left to my own devices.

Let us first turn our attention to England because that is where my first source, C. L'Estrange Ewen, focuses[2]. It must be emphasized that this author's research centered on only the home circuit where records were available. Nevertheless, we find in the introduction a critique of others' estimates:

It is perhaps idle to attempt to estimate the number of executions for witchcraft throughout the country. Various writers have made suggestions some of which are widely fantastical. On the Continent, where burnings were carried out wholesale, Kurtz has estimated that subsequent to the bull of Innocent VIII (1484) 300,000 witches were brought to the stake[3]*. Such figures may well be true, but what is to be thought of Robert Steele's statements in Social England [4] that 70,000 witches were hanged under the Act of James I. One hundredth part of such a figure would obviously be an over- estimate. One must hesitate also to accept the same writer's suggestion that in Scotland 8,000 women were burnt between the years 1560 and 1600 [2].

Another writer, George Kittredge, also criticizes Steele's figure:

I stand aghast at these figures. There is no sense or reason in them. No records have been published or examined which would justify the assertion that a seventieth part of this monstrous number met their death in the period named. As for the time from the passage of the act in 1604 till the death of James in 1625, Mr. Steele would find it hard to make out an average of more than two or three executions a year [5].

Ewen proceeds to make an estimate:

If records of 77 per centum of the Home Circuit Assizes shew [sic] 112 executions, it is improbable that the total could have exceeded 150, or for the six circuits 900, and adding an equal number for independent courts, 1,800. Such a total would be the result of allowing for 12 times the Essex activities of Hopkins, and it is therefore much in excess of fact, actually the number of executions for witchcraft in England from 1542-1736 may be guessed at less [sic] than 1,000 [2].

Let us now turn our attention to the continent. Levack makes estimates of the deaths in all of early modern Europe (ca. 1450-1750):

Even if we make allowances for trial records that have been lost or destroyed, the total number of persons who were actually tried for witchcraft throughout Europe probably did not greatly exceed 100,000. About half of these persons lived in German lands within the Holy Roman Empire. A project organized by by Heinrich Himmler in the 1930's to obtain information regarding persons tried for magic and witchcraft in the past yielded a file containing data from some 30,000 prosecutions, the great majority of which took place in Germany. Since some of the entries in this file contain the names of more than one person, and since the records of many prosecutions are for one reason or another not included in the file, the total number of German prosecutions could easily have been 50,000 [6].

Levack counts trials in the rest of Europe as follows: Poland: 15,000; Switzerland: 9,000; Lorraine, Franche-Comte, France and "a string of autonomous states within the Empire": 10,000; the British Isles: 5,000 (Levack remarks that more than half of these were in Scotland; note that nevertheless his estimate exceeds Ewen.); Scandinavia: 5,000; Hungary, Transylvania, Moldavia, Wallachia, and Russia: probably not more than 4,000; Spain and the Italian States: 10,000 [6].

Levack comes to a total of 110,000 trials and estimates that, "European communities executed about 60,000 witches during the early modern period [6]. Another source Kors and Peters put a range around that number:

It is impossible to calculate accurately the total number of convicted witches who were burned at the stake or hanged between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, but few students begin guessing below the range of fifty to one hundred thousand, and some would double or triple that figure [7].

After initially writing this report, I discovered some of the sources for higher numbers. Walker does indeed refer to a larger number:

The real reason for the persistence of the witchcraft idea was that Christian authorities couldn't let it die, without admitting that God's word was wrong , and God's servants had committed millions of legal murders and tortured millions of helpless people without cause [8].

Although Walker cites references for other aspects of her study, this passage on page 1087-8 of Walker's work gives no reference for the number in the millions. In the section on witches and the section on witchcraft, I find no other reference to a total number of victims. The work is large and perhaps she is more specific elsewhere, but I find no cross reference to such a passage.

By chance, however, I have come upon the source for the nine million. While browsing in a bookstore, I came across Ann Llewellyn Barstow's Witchcraze. Barstow writes [9]:

Among the feminist writers claiming millions of deaths is Andrea Dworkin. Working from the only estimates available in the 1970's, Dworkin made the claim, "In Europe, women were persecuted as witches for nearly four hundred years, burned at the stake, perhaps as many as nine million of them...."[10] The "nearly four hundred years" almost doubles the years of actual major persecution (1560-1760), and the "nine million of them" is off by about 8,900,000. Even further off the mark is the claim by certain German feminists that ten million women were killed [11]. Faced with such exaggereations, the historian is forced to make an estimate based on the records, no matter how incomplete they may be.

Barstow is correct that Dworkin mentions the nine million figure:

It is hard to arrive at a figure for the whole of the Continent and the British Isles, but the most responsible estimate would seem to be 9 million. It may well, some authorities contend, have been more. Nine million seems almost moderate when one realizes that the Blessed Reichhelm of Schongan at the end of the 13th century computed a number of the Devil-driven to be 1,758,064,176. A conservative, Jean Weir, physician to the Duke of Cleves, estimated the number to be 7,409,127[10].

It should be noted that the latter two numbers are estimates of how many witches there were whereas the 9 million is an estimate of executions. The comparison of the figure of 9 million people executed with an impossible 1.8 billion figure for the number of witches does not make it a more reasonable figure. Unfortunately, Dworkin does not tell us how she arrives at the figure of 9 million. Barstow seems to think that it is Dworkin's estimate. I don't think so. For much of her history of the witchcraze Dworkin relies on another source: Witchcraft by Pennethorne Hughes, originally written in 1952. In this book we find the curious comment:

The number who died as witches is purely problematical. Someone has suggested nine millions. It may be many more [12].

I suggest that Hughes may be the source of the 9 million figure. Perhaps, "someone" suggested it before him, but unfortunately, he doesn't say who. I would be most interested in earlier references to such a number if anyone comes upon them.

Preparing us for her own estimate Barstow writes:

Wanting to record every known victim, to ensure that the historical record finally acknowledges her death, I offer the most complete record available at this time.

She critiques Levack:

The most careful totals made so far are those of Brian Levack, who estimates 110,000 accusations and 60,000 deaths [6]. I believe that though his are reasonable figures, they are almost certainly too low.

Barstow claims 200,000 accusations and 100,000 executions. Anyone interested in her method should consult appendix B of her book.

Because I have yet to see any methodology for the 9 million, I cannot believe these figures. I am willing to consider such a figure if I can find out how and why someone believes it to be true. I invite correspondance in this regard. I am especially interested in estimates that cannot be traced back to Hughes. In the mean time let's look at the other sources. These sources suggest a figure between 60,000 [6] and 300,000 [2] deaths in all of Europe due to the witch hunts. History is an evolving field; as new evidence comes to light and models change, so by necessity do the estimates of such tragedies. At the moment, I must say that I am persuaded by Barstow.

I believe the term holocaust is the proper term for the witch hunts as many of the victims were literally burnt alive. It should be noted that these events occurred at a time when there was only one city in all of Europe with over a million people, Paris. The events must have been devastating. I do not wish to compare people's pain: an unjust murder is an unjust murder regardless of how many other people are murdered. It should be noted, however, lest we think times have changed, that the efficiency of murder in our own time would seem to dwarf that of early modern Europe. In the early 1970's the Khmer Rouge Government murdered 2-3 million people in the the small nation of Cambodia. It seems that if we have changed, the change is only in the efficiency with which we conduct our witch hunts.

  1. M. Armstrong, M. Pettigrew, S. Trow, The Burning Times, series: Women and spirituality series ; 2 National Film Board of Canada. Studio D. Los Angeles, Calif. : Direct Cinema Ltd., 1990. 1 video cassette (58 min.) : sd., col. ; 1/2 in. ISBN 1-55974-330-1
  2. C.E. Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials: The Indictments for Witchcraft from the Records of 1373 Assizes held for the Home Circuit A.D. 1559-1736, The Dial Press (New York), 1929
  3. Kurz Church History, (ed. Nicoll), ii, 197 [citation in 2, I was unable to find this one ]
  4. [4] R. Steele ,Social England, (editor H.D. Traill), 1903, iv 120 G. P. Putnam's sons (New York).
  5. G.L. Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, Russell & Russel (New York), 1956
  6. B.P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt, Longman (New York), 1987
  7. A.C. Kors and E. Peters, Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia), 1972
  8. B.G. Walker, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets 1st ed. San Francisco : Harper & Row, c1983.
  9. A. L. Barstow, Witchcraze: A New History of The European Witch Hunts London: Pandora 1995
  10. A. Dworkin, Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality New York: Feminist Press, 1973.
  11. G. Heinsohn and O. Steiger, "Warum wurden Hexum verbrannt?" Der Spiegel 43 (1984):111-28.
  12. P. Hughes, Witchcraft, London: Penguin, 1970
    * numbering changed to fit my citation scheme.

Last modified: December 9, 2000
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