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The Burning Times:

The time line: the Dark Ages to now

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The Witchhunt timeline: 

bulletPrior to the 9th century CE: There was a widespread popular belief that evil Witches existed. They were seen as evil persons, primarily women, who devoted their lives to harming and killing others through black magic and evil sorcery. The Catholic church at the time officially taught that such Witches did not exist. It was a heresy to say that they were real. "For example, the 5th century Synod of St. Patrick ruled that 'A Christian who believes that there is a vampire in the world, that is to say, a witch, is to be anathematized; whoever lays that reputation upon a living being shall not be received into the Church until he revokes with his own voice the crime that he has committed.' A capitulary from Saxony (775-790 CE) blamed these stereotypes on pagan belief systems: 'If anyone, deceived by the Devil, believes after the manner of the Pagans that any man or woman is a witch and eats men, and if on this account he burns [the alleged witch]... he shall be punished by capital sentence." 1

bullet906 CE: Regino of Prum, the Abbot of Treves, wote the Canon Episcopi. It reinforced the church's teaching that Witches did not exist. It admitted that some confused and deluded women thought that they flew through the air with the Pagan Goddess Diana. But this did not happen in reality; it was explained away as some form of hallucination.

bulletCirca 975 CE: Penalties for Witchcraft and the use of healing magic were relatively mild. The English Confessional of Egbert said, in part: "If a woman works witchcraft and enchantment and [uses] magical philters, she shall fast for twelve months...If she kills anyone by her philters, she shall fast for seven years." Fasting, in this case, involved consuming only bread and water.
bulletcirca 1140: Gratian, an Italian monk, incorporated the Canon Episcopi into canon law.

bulletcirca 1203: The Cathar movement, a Gnostic Christian group, had become popular in the Orleans area of France and in Italy. They were declared heretics. Pope Innocent III approved a war of genocide against the Cathars. The last known Cathar was burned at the stake in 1321 CE. The faith has seen a rebirth in recent years.

bullet1227: Pope Gregory IX established the Inquisitional Courts to arrest, try, convict and execute heretics.

bullet 1252: Pope Innocent IV wrote a papal bull titled "Ad exstirpanda" which authorized the use of torture during inquisitional trials. This greatly increased the conviction rate.

bullet1258: Pope Alexander IV instructed the Inquisition to confine their investigations to cases of heresy. They were to not investigate charges of divination or sorcery unless heresy was also involved.

bullet 1265: Pope Clement IV reaffirms the use of torture.

bullet 1326: The Church authorized the Inquisition to investigate Witchcraft and to develop "demonology." This is the theory of the diabolic origin of Witchcraft. 1

bullet 1330: The popular concept of Witches as evil sorcerers is expanded to include belief that they swore allegiance to Satan, had sexual relations with the Devil, kidnapped and ate children, etc. Some religious conservatives still believe this today.

bullet1347 to 1349: The Black Death epidemic killed a sizeable part of the European population. Conspiracy theories spread. Lepers, Jews, Muslims and Witches were accused of poisoning wells and spreading disease.

bullet1430's: Christian theologians started to write articles and books which "proved" the existence of Witches. 2 

bullet1436-7: Johannes (John) Nider wrote a book called Formicarius, which describe the prosecution of a man for Witchcraft. Copies of this book were often added to the Malleus Maleficarum in later years. Some sources say that the author Thomas of Brabant; this is apparently an error.

bullet1450: The first major witch hunts began in many western European countries. The Roman Catholic Church created an imaginary evil religion, using stereotypes that had circulated since pre-Christian times. They said that Pagans who worshiped Diana and other Gods and Goddesses were evil Witches who kidnapped babies, killed and ate their victims, sold their soul to Satan, were in league with demons, flew through the air, met in the middle of the night, caused male impotence and infertility, caused male genitals to disappear, etc. Historians have speculated that this religiously inspired genocide was motivated by a desire by the Church to attain a complete religious monopoly, or was "a tool of repression, a form of reining-in deviant behavior, a backlash against women, or a tool of the common people to name scapegoats for spoiled crops, dead livestock or the death of babies and children." Walter Stephens, a professor of Italian studies at Johns Hopkins University, proposes a new theory: "I think Witches were a scapegoat for God." 3 Religious leaders felt that they had to retain the concepts of both an omnipotent and an all-loving deity. Thus, they had to invent Witches and demons in order to explain the existence of evil in the world. This debate, about how an all-good and all-powerful God can coexist in the world with evil is now called Theodicy. Debate continues to the present day.

bullet1450: Johann Gutenberg invented moveable type which made mass printing possible. This enabled the wide distribution of Papal bulls and books on Witch persecution; the witch hunt was greatly facilitated. 

bullet1484: Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull "Summis desiderantes" on DEC-5 which promoted the tracking down, torturing and executing of Satan worshipers.

bullet1486-1487: Institoris (Heinrich Kraemer) and Jacob Sprenger published the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches' Hammer). It is a fascinating study of the authors' misogyny and sexual frustration. It describes the activities of Witches, the methods of extracting confessions. It was later abandoned by the Church, but became the "bible" of those secular courts which tried Witches.

bullet1500: During the 14th century, there had been known 38 trials against Witches and sorcerers in England, 95 in France and 80 in Germany. The witch hunts accelerated. "By choosing to give their souls over to the devil witches had committed crimes against man and against God. The gravity of this double crime classified witchcraft as crimen exceptum, and allowed for the suspension of normal rules of evidence in order to punish the guilty." 7 Children's testimony was accepted. Essentially unlimited torture was applied to obtain confessions. The flimsiest circumstantial evidence was accepted as proof of guilt.

bullet1517: Martin Luther is commonly believed to have nailed his 95 theses on the cathedral door at Wittenburg, Germany. Apparently it never happened; he published his arguments in a less dramatic way. This triggered the Protestant Reformation. In Roman Catholic countries, the courts continue to burn witches. In Protestant lands, they were mainly hung. Some Protestant countries did not allow torture. In England, this lack of torture led to a low conviction rate of only 19%. 4


Circa 1550 to 1650 CE: Trials and executions reached a peak during these ten decades, which are often referred to as the "burning times." They were mostly concentrated in eastern France, Germany and Switzerland. Witch persecutions often occurred in areas where Catholics and Protestants were fighting. Contrary to public opinion, suspected witches -- particularly those involved in evil sorcery -- were mainly tried by secular courts. A minority were charged by church authorities; these were often cases involving the use of healing magic or midwifery. 1

bullet1563: Johann Weyer (b. 1515) published a book which was critical of the Witch trials. Called "De Praestigiis Daemonum" (Shipwreck of souls), it argued that Witches did not really exist, but that Satan promoted the belief that they did. He rejected confessions obtained through torture as worthless. He recommended medical treatment instead of torture and execution. By publishing the book anonymously, he escaped the stake. 8

bullet1580: Jean Bodin wrote "De la Demonomanie des Sorciers" (Of the punishments deserved by Witches). He stated that the punishment of Witches was required, both for the security of the state and to appease the wrath of God. No accused Witch should be set free if there is even a scrap of evidence that she might be guilty. If prosecutors waited for solid evidence, he felt that not one Witch in a million would be punished.

bullet1584: Reginald Scot published a book that was ahead of its time. In Discoverie of Witchcraft, he claimed that supernatural powers did not exist. Thus, there were no Witches.

bullet1608: Francesco Maria Guazzo published the "Compendium Maleficarum." It discusses Witches' pacts with Satan, the magic that Witches use to harm others, etc.

bulletcirca 1609: A witch panic hit the Basque areas of Spain. La Suprema, the governing body of the Inquisition, recognized it as a hoax and issued an Edict of Silence which prohibited discussion of witchcraft. The panic quickly died down.

bullet1610: Execution of Witches in the Netherlands ceased, probably because of Weyer's 1563 book.

bullet1616:  A second witch craze broke out in Vizcaya. Again an Edict of Silence was issued by the Inquisition. But the king overturned the Edict and 300 accused witches were burned alive.

bullet1631: Friedrich Spee von Langenfield, a Jesuit priest, wrote "Cautio criminalis" (Circumspection in Criminal Cases). He condemned the witch hunts and persecution in Wurzburg, Germany. He wrote that the accused confessed only because they were the victims of sadistic tortures.

bullet1684: The last accused Witch was executed in England.

bullet1690's: Nearly 25 people died during the witch craze in Salem, MA: one was pressed to death with weights because he wouldn't enter a plea; some died in prison, the rest were hanged. 5 There were other trials and executions throughout New England. 
bullet1745: France stopped the execution of Witches.

bullet1775: Germany stopped the execution of Witches.

bullet1782: Switzerland stopped the execution of Witches.

bullet1792: Poland executed the last person in Europe who had been tried and convicted of Witchcraft. A few isolated extra-legal lynchings of Witches continued in Europe and North America into the 20th century.

bullet1830's: The church ceased the execution of Witches in South America.

bullet 1980: Dr. Lawrence Pazder (1936 - 2004) and Michelle Smith wrote "Michelle Remembers." The concept of humans in league with Satan, which had been largely dormant for decades, was revived. Although the book has been shown to be a work of fiction, it is presented as factual, based on Michelle's recovered memories. 6 This book was largely responsible for triggering a new Witch/Satanist/Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) panic in the U.S. and Canada.

bullet1980 to 1995: Two types of trials were held in North America, which repeated many of the same features of earlier Witch trials:
bulletStaff at some pre-schools, day care facilities and Sunday schools were accused of ritual abuse of children. Evidence was based on faulty medical diagnoses and memories of non-existent abuse implanted in the minds of very young children.

bulletTens of thousands of adults, victimized by Recovered Memory Therapy, developed false memories of having been abused during childhood. In about 17% of the cases, these memories escalated to recollections of Satanic Ritual Abuse. Hundreds of parents were charged with criminal acts. Almost all of them were innocent. Most of the charges involved acts that never actually happened.

Sanity has since prevailed. Most of the accused have been released from jail. Those held in the state of Massachusetts were among the last to be released.

bullet1990's: Some conservative Christian pastors continue to link two unrelated belief systems: 
bulletThe imaginary religion of Satan-worshiping Witches promoted by the Church during the Renaissance, and 

bulletWicca and other Neopagan religions which are nature-based faiths and which do not recognize the existence of the Christian devil.

bullet1994 to 1996: Several hundred people were accused of witchcraft in the Northern Province of South Africa, and were lynched by frightened mobs. 8

bullet1999: Conservative Christian pastors occasionally call for a renewal of the burning times, to exterminate Wiccans and other Neopagans. One example shows the intensity of misinformation and hatred that fear of Witches can continue to generate in modern times. In 1999-AUG, Rev. Jack Harvey, pastor of Tabernacle Independent Baptist Church in Killeen, TX allegedly arranged for at least one member of his church to carry a handgun during religious services, "in case a warlock tries to grab one of our kids...I've heard they drink blood, eat babies. They have fires, they probably cook them..." During speeches which preceded his church's demonstration against Wiccans, Rev. Harvey allegedly stated that the U.S. Army should napalm Witches. One of the Christian's signs read "Witchcraft is an abomination" on one side and "Burn the witches off Ft. Hood" on the other. 9 (Ft. Hood is a large army base near Killeen TX. A Wiccan faith group is active there.)


21st Century: Due to a number of factors, including:

  • The collapse of the Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax of the 1980's to 1995.
  • The broadcast of many accurate TV documentaries about Wicca and other Neopagan religions.
  • Many Wiccans going public with their religious faith

the fear of Witches, Wiccans and other Neopagans has largely evaporated.

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  1. Jenny Gibbons, "Recent developments in the study of the great European Witch hunt," at:
  2. "Why are there Witches? History of Witchcraft for Halloween", News release, Johns Hopkins University Office of News and Information, 1999-OCT-11. 
  3. Walter Stephens, "Demon lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and Belief," University of Chicago, (2000). 
  4. "Witches: a psychoanalytic exploration of the killing of women," Free Association Books, (1999) Chapter 1.  Review/order this book The first chapter is available online.
  5. "A village possessed: A true story of Witchcraft," by Discovery Online, at:
  6. Lawrence Pazder & Michelle Smith, "Michelle Remembers," Pocket Books, (1980) This book was out of stock on 1999-DEC-14, but may become available.
  7. Elisa Slattery, " 'To Prevent a "Shipwreck of Souls': Johann Weyer and 'De Praestigiis Daemonum'," published in "Essays in History," by the Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia, Volume 36, (1994), Page 76. See:
  8. Stephen Hayes, "Christian responses to Witchcraft and sorcery," at:
  9. Barry Shlachter, "Bothered and bewildered; Wiccans at Hood shrug off media hubbub," Fort Worth Star Telegram, 1999-AUG-7
  10. "The Papal Bull," at:

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Copyright © 1999 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-DEC-14
Latest update: 2012-MAR-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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