Few people familiar with modern witchcraft haven’t heard the term “burning times” to describe the infamous witch trials of Europe between 1400 and 1780.

What isn’t readily clear is the scope- or indeed the significance- of the witch trials and what they mean to modern witches.

First, some facts about the matter to clear the air:

Even the most enthusiastic scholarly estimates put the number executed at around 100,000, although 40,000-60,000 is the general consensus among historians.

Second, no discussion of the witch trials should be approached without pointing out that very few of those convicted were actually practicing witches.

Third, the proposed, hidden “witch cult” theory is impossible to prove.  There have been covens for at least the last 120 years who claim to be a direct continuation, but if you want to talk about scholarly proof, we modern-day witches have little to offer.

These facts do not change the broader picture of what the Burning Times meant, I don’t think.

First, you have to realize that execution was not the only fate those accused endured.  Often those accused would be spared if they recanted and named others as witches, as in the case of the Salem witch trials.  Punishments such as banishment and imprisonment were also not unheard of.  If those not executed are added among the victims of the witch hysteria of the early modern period, that becomes significant.

Second, it is likely that some of the accused were, in fact, magic users.  Henry VIII made the practices of certain “wise men” and “wise women” a capital offense, and although that law was repealed under his son’s reign, punishments for something as simple as a love spell remained harsh.

Third, there is almost no dispute that most of those accused of witchcraft were women, outcasts, and people who were generally disliked in the community.  Men- and particularly men of the nobility- were very rarely charged at all, let alone punished.  It was a mechanism of brutish social control that women suffered under disproportionately, that much is certain, and there is no need to exaggerate the scope or numbers to make a feminist case for the witch trials.

But the most important thing to remember is that the witch trials, at their heart, represent the very worst in organized fear and hatred.  They are a warning- not just to today’s witches, who seek to build on those few shreds of folk belief that have survived the ages- but for anyone who isn’t part of the ruling status quo.

There are even those who, today, defend the Inquisition and the witch trials as a righteous endeavor.  In 1999, Jean-Claude Dupuis penned these words (bold text from the original article):

But if the Church recognizes the freedom of conscience of the individual in his innermost heart, if the individual is free, at the risk of his salvation, to refuse the faith, it does not follow that he can propagate his errors and thus lead other souls to hell. So, the Church respects the freedom of conscience of individuals, but not the freedom of expression of false doctrines.

These are the kind of attitudes today’s witches have to keep an eye on, the whole “you can believe whatever you want, but we’d better not find out about it” approach that pervades nearly every strain of conservative thinking.  That spirit is alive and well, and always waiting in the wings.

Maybe there wasn’t a hidden witch-cult that was nearly snuffed out in the early modern period.  Maybe there weren’t, as some suggest, nine million killed in the name of the Church.  But the spirit of hate, distrust, fear, and hysteria were all real, and all simmer in the background of history.

That is what the Burning Times mean, and why we should never forget them.