"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).