The burning times were those years in history when witch executions were at their peak. Scholars now believe the number of lost souls was much lower than believed.
Scholars of the “burning times” now believe much of the information collected from history has long been misinterpreted, exaggerated or embellished for sensationalism. Even in the 16th century, the printed broadsheets needed to sell and these sensational accounts made money for the printers. They were also written to scare people.
Modern Research into the Burning Times
Modern research into the “burning times,” is based not just on early sensational reports and early books on the subject, but researchers have dug deeper for validation of the information found in those materials. And they are discovering that many historical reports are inaccurate. Today, unbiased scholars believe no more than 100,000 people were tried and executed, not the 9 million quoted by neopagan sources, nor the 3000 quoted by the Roman Catholic Church.
Genre and Execution
Genre and execution varied hugely. Of the persons tried and executed during “the burning times,” modern scholars believe 75% were women. Men are believed to represent the remainder with very few children being brought to the courts.
Women were natural healers and this put them at risk. They acted as nurse to the sick which put them in close proximity to the dying and were often blamed for the deaths. They were also mid-wives and blamed if a mother died giving birth or the child was born dead or shortly afterward. The mid-wife’s job was always precarious.
Early Church Beliefs
Prior to the 12th century, church beliefs did not include witches roaming the earth and the people were told not to believe the rumors they heard about cursed cows or storms at sea perpetrated by witches. In the 9th century, however, the church did believe healers, mostly women, could create and use magical healing potions, but the penalties for these women were mild, and a far cry from being strangled and burned to ashes in a barrel of tar, the Scottish method of witch execution in the mid-17th century. No, in the 9th century, the church demanded a period of fasting on bread and water.
The Cathar Movement
It wasn’t until 1203 when Pope Innocent 111 denounced the Cathar Movement of the Gnostic Christians and demanded their total extermination. By 1321, the Cathar Movement was wiped out.
From 1203 AD, a string of Catholic Popes took a strong hand against heresy. It wasn’t about executing witches, but the removal of religious heretics in general by any means possible. This was the busiest period of the Inquisition. And torture was widely used to ensure a higher conviction rate. However, during this inquisition period most people accused and tried for witchcraft specifically were pardoned if they confessed and showed repentance.
Most trials took place in local courts, generally overseen, if not guided by the Church. Faith, belief and fear played a strong role in medieval and early modern thinking and culture. Non-Christians or those individuals who questioned Church doctrine or whose beliefs differed slightly from those of the Church were thought to be heretics.
The Age of Enlightenment
In Europe and Great Britain, the ancient belief in witches and the resulting condemnation dissolved with the Age of Enlightenment beginning in the late 18th century. People began to discuss and question faith and doctrine more openly and without fear. The trials and executions of witches and religious heretics had ended.