The term, "The Inquisition" denotes That long period in European history from the 13th Century to the 18th Century wherein the Catholic Church prosecuted Jews, Protestants, so-called witches, and thinkers of the age. Books were banned, many were persecuted and robbed of their good name and properties; a number of people were executed. Mind you, new theories are constantly being developed as new trial records are coming to light. Even though I've been studying this era off and on for several years, I'm even today learning new things. I highly recommend Recent Developments in the Study of The Great European Witch Hunt by Jenny Gibbons, as one of the more recent overviews of the new information. Her article points out things I have never heard spoken of. Thank you, Ms. Gibbons for releasing your excellent article. :)

In general, the history of the Inquisition is usually broken into three major regions:

Covering most of Europe, it was by far the most cruel; torture and execution was rampant in the Spanish arm of the Inquisition.

ITALIAN (Venice and Rome):
This arm of the Inquisition actually began in the 12th century with the banning of books but was primarily interested in the quelling of the apparent tide of Judaic Reformation. By the 15th century, the Italian Inquisitional courts were trying people for heresy from Brescia to Venice, including sculptor Paolo Veronese. The 16th century saw the culmination of the Index of Banned Books, and the further, more harsh attacks on philosophers and scientists, which led to the early 17th Century trials of Galileo, to the trial and execution of philosopher Giordano Bruno, and the silencing of authors such as Boccaccio and Machiavelli. The Venetian Inquisition affected the Northern parts of Italy, Milan, Venice, Brescia, Torrento, Como et al and left behind records of some of the more famous victims: Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Veronica Franco. The Roman arm of the Inquisition affected central Itay from Rome to Florence and Lucca. Heretics were sought out, questioned, basically given an order to cease and desist, and offered penance. Few were executed.

Among those who were, there was most likely another reason for the executions: for instance, Savanrola was executed in the Florentine town square, in 1498, by the Inquisition; but Medician historians (that is, historians concerned with the Medici Family) tend to believe the ruling for his execution was prompted by his short-lived usurption of the Florentine throne from the Medici; likewise, Giordano Bruno was more likely executed because of a broken promise to quit Venice forever, returning in 1600 on invitation from a city official. This led to his immediate arrest and eventual execution.

Most, like Galileo, were imprisoned and/or given house arrest, and ordered to do daily penance; some were pardoned on the performace of said-penance and the confession of guilt and vow to leave behind all questionable practices.

England, Germany, France, America:

On the other hand, the Witch Craze that swept across England, France, Germany and America from the late 16th to the late 17th century, spurred on by that odious late 15th century tome the Malleus Maleficarum, (debunked even in its own time) was (or may have been) attributed to something altogether different than simple religious dispute: food poisoning--particularly in America, may have contributed to the furor. Years of ingesting contaiminated grain caused hallucinations, painful sickness and convulsions. Peasants and learned alike (not to mention the opportunistic envious neighbor) had no better explanation for such behavior and resorted to the superstitious explanations available to them; a rash of accusations sent many innocent men and women to their deaths in England, France, Germany, and Salem Massachussettes.(2)

The Burning Times
Well what is a scholar to say on the popular idea of the "Burning Times"? Hold on to your hats, folks; despite the prevalent saying (on the banner on the previous page, and elsewhere) the theory is erroneous. Truly many were burned, in Europe; in France, Joan of Arc and many others met their death by flame; in Italy, however, only in the last stages of the Inquisition was bonfire the prefered method of execution. In England, Germany and America, the unfortunate accused was treated to death by hanging.

Now we see what that does to the idea that "millions of witches were burned". In truth, it was not so.

The total accused
Were "millions executed as witches"? No. Again what can we say? Erroneous figures and facts on this era are thrown around willy-nilly with little regard, it seems, for historical facts and figures, and great regard for romantic daydreams of "our persecuted Wiccan ancestry".

Well, folks, again, we're facing a falsehood here. From the above we can see there is no doubt that many thousands were affected, many thousands were persecuted and questioned--100,000 trials were conducted, according to some estimates. But the number of the executed may very well come as a huge surprise to you. The total, according to most scholars, is somewhere around 40,000-50,000. A huge number to be sure--one execution is horrific enough--but the historical verifiable number of people executed is not nearly as large as many would like us to believe; you will note the number executed is roughly half the number of those tried. The half that were not were treated to penance and seizure of properties, and in some cases prison time.

Neither were the persecuted and executed only women; of those 40,000-50,000 executed by the European Inquistions and the American witch hunts, "20 to 25 percent were of men". (3) and according to Jenny Gibson's excellent article, there were places in Iceland where the population of the accused (and executed?) were entirely male.

By the end of the 18th century, the age of the Witch Trial--in practice, in Europe and America, at any rate--slowly died away. To be sure there are places still in the world today where the accusing and execution of "witches" still take place, but the occurances are far from widespread, and as you can see, it has little to do with the now-popular beliefs of the so-called Burning Times.

There have been many recent developments and re-trials of those executed as withces. The articles below tell the story further.

circa 2011: Witch trials diary digitized

Diary of Nehemiah Wallington
Exonerating Europe's Last Witch

Circa 2006: There's a new footnote to the subject:
A recent Witch-Pardon report
The Witch of Pungo is no longer a witch

And now, you know all about the era of the Inquisition and the witch craze. :) Happy researching!

Essay Copyright 2002-2010, webmistress.


(1) Source Renaissance Magazine Volume 7 #4 Issue #28

(2)Source: Burman, Edward: The Inquisition: Hammer of Heresy 1984, Dorset Press NY, NY. Chapters 5 and 10;
Peters, Edward: Inquisition 1988, Unversity of California Press, Berkley, pp 105-121

(3)Source: Nova: Secrets of the Dead: Witches' Curse

(4)Briggs, Robin, Witches and Neighbors, 1996, Penguin Books, New York. p 8

Also Cited
Recent Developments in the Study of The Great European Witch Hunt by Jenny Gibbons

For More on the Salem Witch Trials, see:
National Geographic: Salem Witch-Hunt--Interactive

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Updated March 3, 2014

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