Let me see if I can sum up the archetypal belief:
All through the middle ages, single women– especially if they lived alone or practiced some sort of medicine– were randomly being accused of witchcraft and burnt alive for it. The Inquisition was the main group killing women, and hundreds of thousands were killed by the Catholic Church. Millions died, many of them Pagans.
Look about right?
Well, here’s a thumbnail that I promise I really didn’t model that off of:
For example, historians have now realized that witch-hunting was not primarily a medieval phenomenon. It peaked in the 17th century, during the rationalist age of Descartes, Newton, and St. Vincent de Paul. Persecuting suspected witches was not an elite plot against the poor; not was practicing witchcraft a mode of peasant resistance. Catholics and Protestants hunted witches with comparable vigor. Church and state alike tried and executed them. It took more than pure Reason to end the witch craze.
Nor were witches secret pagans serving an ancient Triple Goddess and Horned God, as the neopagans claim. In fact, no witch was ever executed for worshipping a pagan deity. Matilda Gage’s estimate of nine million women burned is more than 200 times the best current estimate of 30,000 to 50,000 killed during the 400 years from 1400 to 1800 — a large number but no Holocaust. And it wasn’t all a burning time. Witches were hanged, strangled, and beheaded as well. Witch-hunting was not woman-hunting: At least 20 percent of all suspected witches were male. Midwives were not especially targeted; nor were witches liquidated as obstacles to professionalized medicine and mechanistic science.
On a side note, it seems Germany was utterly nuts for a while; a huge portion of the numbers for her defensible claim of “comparable vigor” comes from a couple of folks there; it might be worthwhile for someone really interested in the subject to find out what all was going on at those times and places– the phrase “prince bishop” worries me a bit, as a purely emotional reaction. I poked around enough to find this history wikia with enough details for someone who’s really curious and has the mind for German history. Apparently Germany had a big criminal law collection called the Carolina which required death for those believed to have harmed someone using magic. Good luck trying to tell what area was Catholic or Protestant, and how solidly so; I’ve seen long running anime that were easier to follow. In Japanese. No wonder even experts acting in good will can argue for decades about stuff.
Speaking of Germany, there’s another question: Alright, so a lady with a master’s on the subject says that, broadly speaking, the standard cliches are bunk. How do you explain that Catholic witch hunting manual from Germany?
The Malleus maleficarum was written by two Dominicans about 1486. The principal author, Heinrich Kramer, was widely recognized as a “demented imbecile” by contemporaries. The bishop of Innsbruck thwarted his attempt to convict women there of witchcraft and forced him out of town. The Malleus competed with the Carmelite Jan van Beetz’s Expositio decem catalogie praeceptum, “an icily skeptical treatment of tales of black magic. Of course, exposés never get the circulation of the lurid originals.
Mr. Flynn is one of my favorites, because he finds things like the fellow from the Spanish Inquisition who was brought a self-professed “witch” to try, and he insisted that she prove she could perform the claimed witchy powers; that Inquisitor may have been copying Vincent of Beavius, who is reported to have chased a supposed witch around the room with a stick when she insisted that she was able to pass through keyholes. Needless to say, both were proven innocent of sorcery.
Mr. Flynn’s mention of some of the Pagan activities against witches that had to be outlawed suggests that Germany may have just had some really, really brutal traditions. Another well read though vague on names scholar, who goes by SuburbanBanshee, observes the pattern that when you go way back, witchcraft was only seen as a problem far from the population centers. Christians ended up saving the supposed witches from those who blamed them for whatever horrible thing was going on at the time. Places where folk tradition was not stronger than formal teaching recognized that “witchcraft” and false gods could not possibly be more powerful than God!
Note: the image at the top isn’t really magical. It’s from a really fun anime called Card Captor Sakura; the Japanese are addicted to pretty stuff, I swear, and there’s a good chance it’s got crypto-Catholic symbols worked into the very weft.