The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Shofar FTP Archive File: miscellany/witches/how-many-witches

(v. 4.1 )

by Richard J. Green
copyright 1996 by the author

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

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 noter 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]  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.

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