A quiet revolution has taken place in the historical study of witchcraft and the Great European Witch Hunt. Many theories that reigned supreme for 30 years have been swept away by a flood of new data. Unfortunately, because little of the new information has made it into popular consciousness, many pagan articles and books on the topic contain almost no accurate information about the Burning Times.
Ever since the Great Hunt itself, we've relied on witch hunters' propaganda: witch hunting manuals, sermons against witchcraft, and lurid pamphlets. The few trials cited were the larger, more infamous ones, and historians frequently used literary accounts of those cases, not the trials themselves, which is comparable to citing a television docudrama instead of actual court proceedings.
Better evidence did exist. Courts that tried witches kept records: verdicts, lists of confiscated goods, questions asked during interrogations and answers given. These records included the full range of trials, not just the sensational ones. The pattern revealed by trial records bears little resemblance to the picture literature has painted.
Pre-modern European societies believed in magic and had laws prohibiting magical crimes. Early Christian missionaries encouraged newly converted kingdoms to pass laws protecting men and women from charges of witchcraft--charges, they said, that were impossible and un-Christian. In the Middle Ages, the laws on magic remained virtually unchanged: The church simply forbade magic and assigned relatively mild penalties to convicted witches.
Traditional attitudes toward witchcraft began to change at the very end of the Middle Ages. Early-14th-century Central Europe was seized by a series of rumor-panics that some malign conspiracy (Jews and lepers, Moslems, or Jews and witches) was attempting to destroy the Christian kingdoms through magic and poison. After the terrible devastation caused by the Black Death (1347-1349), these rumors increased in intensity and focused on witches and "plague-spreaders."
Witchcraft cases increased slowly but steadily from the 14th to the 15th century, when the first mass trials occurred. Then around 1550, persecution skyrocketed. What we think of as "the Burning Times"--the crazes, panics, and mass hysteria--largely occurred from 1550 to 1650. Trials dropped sharply after that time and disappeared completely by the end of the 18th century.
The height of the persecution occurred during the Reformation, when the formerly unified Christian Church shattered into Catholic and Protestant sects. In countries like Italy and Spain, where the Catholic Church and its Inquisition reigned virtually unquestioned, witch hunting was uncommon. The worst panics took place in areas like Switzerland and Germany, where rival Christians sects fought to impose their religious views on each other.
Although it has become usual to think of the outbreaks of witch hunting as malevolent pogroms imposed by evil elites, in reality the worst horrors occurred where central authority had broken down. Moreover, most of the killing was done by secular courts. Church courts tried many witches, but they usually imposed nonlethal penalties. A witch might be excommunicated, given penance, or imprisoned, but she was rarely killed. The Inquisition almost invariably pardoned any witch who confessed and repented.
For many, the Inquisition and the Burning Times are virtually synonymous. A common translation error muddied the waters. Many records simply said that a witch was tried "by inquisition." Some writers assumed that this meant "the Inquisition," and sometimes it did. But an "inquisition" was a type of trial used by almost all courts in Europe at the time. Later, when historians examined the records in greater detail, they found that the majority of witch trials did not involve the Inquisition, merely an inquisition. By the time trials were common (early-16th century), the Inquisition was focused on the proto-Protestants.
Court records show that there was no characteristic that the majority of witches shared in all times and places. The only thing that united them was the fact that they were accused of witchcraft. Certain factors increased a person's odds of being accused. Most witches were women. Many were poor or elderly; many seem to be unmarried. Most were alienated from their neighbors, or seen as "different" and disliked. Traditional magic users might have a slightly higher chance of being accused of witchcraft, but the vast majority of known "white" witches were never charged.