October 22, 2005

Did European witch-hunting kill 9 million?

I've been under the impression that was the real number, ever since I read Gyn/Ecology about 15 years ago. But I see here, that number is entirely wrong:
"For witchcraft and sorcery between 1400 and 1800, all in all, we estimate something like 50,000 legal death penalties," writes Wolfgang Behringer in "Witches and Witch-Hunts" (Polity, 2004). He estimates that perhaps twice as many received other penalties, "like banishment, fines or church penance."

Other recent estimates range from 40,000 to 100,000 executions over those early modern centuries. These remain appalling numbers, even when put in the context of the far greater numbers killed in religious wars and the fact that resort to capital punishment was at one of its high points in European history.

No one should underestimate the cruelty these numbers represent. "Witchfinders," Malcolm Gaskill's full-blooded account, just published by Harvard University Press, of the most notorious witch hunt in English history, makes that clear in engrossing detail.

But contemporary historians bridle at the huge numbers that have become part of the witch hunt mythology-and the implicit or explicit comparisons to the Nazi campaign of genocide. Professor Behringer traced the estimate of nine million victims back to wild projections made by an 18th-century anticlerical from 20 files of witch trials. The figure worked its way into 19th-century texts, was taken up by Protestant polemicists during the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf in Germany, then adopted by the early 20th-century German neopagan movement and, eventually, by anti-Christian Nazi propagandists.

In the United States, the nine million figure appeared in the 1978 book "Gyn/Ecology" by the influential feminist theoretician Mary Daly, who picked it up from a 19th-century American feminist, Matilda Gage.

Do such unfounded myths do anyone any good? Certainly many feminists, including some identifying themselves as neopagans, agree with contemporary historians about the answer: No.

Have any of you folks read "Gyn/Ecology"? Oh, that is a rousing book!

UPDATE: Cathy Young (who also participates in the comments) expresses shock at my "rousing book" compliment to "Gyn/Ecology." (She and I also had some debate about the writings of Andrea Dworkin.) I wrote this in the comments:
I just said it was rousing, not that it was good or right. I went through a period when I read a lot of Dworkin and Daly's books. They were very stimulating, but also ultimately stimulated me into wanting to distance myself from them. There are plenty of things in the treatment of women to be outraged about, but polemical works that demand that you reach and maintain a permanent state of anger just seem sad after a while (or dangerous, if they are actually effective).

19 comments:

whit said...

Another destructive myth is the one about 2 million Africans thrown into the ocean from slaveships in route to America.

Serenity Now said...

Reminds me of an otherwise excellent philsophy professor I had who informed one class that the Spanish Inquisition slaughtered a million people.

I'm surprised the '9 million' figure didn't set off your BS detector.

Charlie Eklund said...

Witch burnings. The Holocaust. Communism. Fascism. Nazism.

Lutefisk.

Would somebody remind me why we're is supposed to believe that Europeans to be morally and intellectually superior to...well, everyone else?

Ann Althouse said...

Charlie: Isn't the argument that they've been doing it for so darned long?

Robert said...

Oh, that is a rousing book!

So was Mein Kampf.

W.B. Reeves said...

Another popular myth about the witchcraft hysteria (there's an ironic terminological coupling for you) is undermined by the cited timeline. Most folks associate the business with the so-called Dark and Middle ages of European history. In point of fact the phenomenon emerged in force at the end of the Medieval period and reached its peak of frenzy post Renaissance and post Protestant Reformation.

This tends to undermine the argument that it represented a patriarchical pogrom against vestiges of a female centric paganism. More likely, it was related to the collapse of the transnational authority the Catholic Church and general social, economic, political and cultural instability. I think it indisputable that the patriarchical character of European society contributed to an estimated 75% the craze's victims being women though.

It's interesting to realize that, in historical terms, the witchcraft hysteria was a modern phenomenon. A fact that lends credence to analogies drawn with later campaigns of religious, political, racial and cultural intolerance.

XWL said...

The native populations undoubtably suffered greatly when Europeans expanded in large numbers in North America. But the idea that their numbers were massive before Columbus border on fairy tales.

For example, the population of Great Britain was less than 5,000,000 in 1500 yet some estimates place the native population of Hispaniola alone at 8,000,000 shortly before Columbus only to dwindle to near zero by 1535 (that's 500 people a day, each day, dying, displaced, or enslaved, for 45 years approx)

Why mention this, well Indian Gaming throughout the United States gets it's legitimacy in part because of the horrific nature of the genocide committed against the many peoples that populated this continent before major European contact. The greater the numbers the greater the guilt which eases the process for expanding and proliferating these casinos. (though sometimes there is overreach, like the attempt to institute native government in Hawaii, or claims on The Hamptons)

lindsey said...

I don't know about the European witch trails but I've read that the Salem witch trials were caused by food poisoning. The fungus from which LSD is made got into the food supply.

W.B. Reeves said...

Ergot poisoning has been suggested as a contributing factor to the European witch craze too. It isn't really a full explanation though. At best it explains the symptoms of the supposedly bewitched. All of the administrative decision makers as well as the Judges who oversaw the Salem trials were from outside of Salem and exhibited no such symptoms.

Witch hunts in both the Old an New World weren't the localized outburst of delusional mobs. They were legal and judicial proceedings sanctioned and administered by governmental authority. The Institutional obsession with Witchcraft is something that can't be explained by isolated outbreaks of ergot poisoning.

Ruth Anne Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ann Althouse said...

Ruth Anne: That's rich. Great comment!

Cathy Young said...

What's shameful is that a lot of colleges, women's studies classes at least, continue to teach this blatant misinformation even though the debunking has been going since at least 1996, when Witches & Neighbors by British historian Robin Briggs was published.

Ann (I hope you don't mind the first name), I know we've been through this before with Andrea Dworkin, but I'm rather taken aback by your glowing reference to Mary Daly. I tried reading Gyn/Ecology years ago and found it to be a hate-filled, paranoid screed. A sampling of quotes can be found here.

For my take on this see my blogpost:

Witch-hunts: Hysteria then and now

Ann Althouse said...

Cathy: I just said it was rousing, not that it was good or right. I went through a period when I read a lot of Dworkin and Daly's books. They were very stimulating, but also ultimately stimulated me into wanting to distance myself from them. There are plenty of things in the treatment of women to be outraged about, but polemical works that demand that you reach and maintain a permanent state of anger just seem sad after a while (or dangerous, if they are actually effective).

LizardAbroad said...

And how many witches were burnt by the Holy (a.k.a. "Spanish") Inquisition? Nada. Zippo. None. They figured that there was no such thing as witches. Witch burning was a Protestant phenomenon, and the Kulturkampfern from the 19th century could have easily tracked where the "witches" were put to death and matched it to the religion of the area (Cuius Regio, Eius Religio).

LizardAbroad said...

And how many witches were burnt by the Holy (a.k.a. "Spanish") Inquisition? Nada. Zippo. None. They figured that there was no such thing as witches. Witch burning was a Protestant phenomenon, and the Kulturkampfern from the 19th century could have easily tracked where the "witches" were put to death and matched it to the religion of the area (Cuius Regio, Eius Religio).

W.B. Reeves said...

Witch burning was a Protestant phenomenon

Sorry, but this is false. One of the most famous Witch Trials was carried out in the city of Loudon in Catholic France. Aldous Huxley's "The Devils of Loudon", gives a thorough exploration of the case which illumines many of the underlying political, economic, psychological and religious motivations at play. It also provided the basis for Ken Russell's film The Devils.

Emily said...

XWL- your comment about the indigenous peoples of the Americas is wrong. Most of the clans and tribes who lived here before Columbus, Cortes, & co. arrived were small in number and nomadic or semi-nomadic, true.

But don't forget that the Aztec and the Inca empires were huge. They had huge cities, vast expanses of land and subjects, a class structure that included a nobility, etc.

I suggest you read up on primary sources such as the writings of Cortes, Pizarro, and de las Casas. Of course, while reading it is important to understand that the men needed to emphasize and/or exaggerate in order to get more funds for their cause. But even taking that into account, it is clear that they had come into contact with large civilizations.

If you were only discussing the majority of the North American and Caribbean peoples, then i understand. Still, the Aztecs and the Incas should not be overlooked and ought to be specified.

Aspasia M. said...

It seems to me that a estimated number of deaths has no meaning if we can't compare it to the number of the overall population.

New York in the 18th century was around 15 thousand people. (or thereabout)

Heraclitis said...

More bad news. The Inquisition probably executed less than 15,000 heretics. In strong Catholic countries like Spain and Italy there were relatively few trials for witchcraft. It tended to happen in politically unstable areas, especially those with a mix of Protestants and Catholics.

Europe was perceived as culturally superior due to the quality of their ale and wine. Microbrews and the judgement of Paris in 1976 have pretty much put an end to that.