Thursday, May 7, 2015


How many were burned for witchcraft? Feminists in the 1970s asserted in "The Burning Times" that nine million women met this fate. Anne Barstow's Witchcraze estimated 100,000. However, recent historians lower this to 40,000-50,000. Also, about a fifth were men, further complicating figures on this controversy.

My FB feed today generated a Halloween 2013 essay  "What Witches Have to Do With Women's Health." In Salon, Soraya Chemaly links to Barstow as "the latest scholarship."
As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English explain in the 2010 revision to their classic book “Witches, Midwives & Nurses,” between the 14th and the 17th centuries, tens of thousands of people were killed as witches. Estimates range, but the latest scholarship puts the number at roughly 100,000 people, 80-85 percent of them women. By the mid-16th century there were villages where all but one woman had been killed for practicing witchcraft.
Looking this up, I figured nearly twenty years ago may not be the most recent research. In the preview of the Ehrenreich-English book online, on pg, 14, they explain in the 1973 original (only the introduction is updated) that they relied on figures of between 50,000-100,000, and that others have claimed as many as a million murdered. They cite the leading American historian of the witch hunts, John Demos, in a necessary aside, that those killed were but a fraction of those accused or suspected.

I did find in my reviews medievalist Jeffrey Burton Russell's 2007 revision of Brook Alexander's A History of Witchcraft. This expert on witchcraft reckons 60,000 victims hanged or burned for heresy. Russell and Alexander remind us of the difficulty of defining victims. "Sorcerers, heretics, and pagans" comprise a triple definition of a "witch". If 4:5 are women, this may align with the estimate  accepted by reputable scholars today. Relying on accusers, as on hearsay, may lead to devilish errors.

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