The term burning times has come to refer to “any threatened return of prejudice against or persecution of Witches and neo-Pagans by other religious groups, law enforcement agencies, employers, politicians and others.” (See: Helms Amendment)
Historically the term designated, especially for witches, the period within Western history in which there occurred intense burning, also the various types of murdering of witches. This period is known for its vindictive witch-hunts which extended from the mid-15th century to the early 18th century.
The idea of burning witches, one of the cruelest forms of execution, is said to have originated with Saint Augustine (354-430), who said “that pagans, Jews, and heretics would burn forever in eternal fire with the Devil unless saved by the Catholic Church.”
Witches, also were classed as heretics, during the time of the Inquisition. Heretics were not only disbelieves of the church doctrine, but, many also were accused of beings servants of the Devil by forming compacts with him to get his help. The accused were sentenced to execution by burning when found guilty of heresy, and few escaped this conviction of the church, which practically controlled every aspect of human life, because “Fire itself is the element of purification, and nothing less than fire could negate the evil that was said to be witches.”
The 16th century demonologist, Jean Bodin, stated in De la Demonomanie des Sorciers:
Even if the witch has never killed or done evil to man, beast, or fruits,
and even if he has always cured bewitched people, or driven away
tempests, it is that he has renounced God and treated with Satan that
he deserves to be burned alive…Even if there is no more than the
obligation to the Devil, having denied God, this deserves the most cruel
death that can be imagined.
However, all witches were not burned at the stake. It seems various countries had their preferred forms of execution. Hanging was preferred in England and the American colonies. In France, Scotland and Germany it was the custom to first strangle the condemned witches, as an act of mercy, before sending them to the hanging stand or garroting, and then cremating them to ashes.
Many witches were burned alive, needless to say. It is alleged by church authorities that many who were burned had either recanted their confessions at the last moment or did not repent for their crimes. The burnings were executed by civil authorities because the church would have no part in the murdering of people. An elaborate accounting system connected with the burnings was established which included expenses for the trail and the prisoner’s incarceration in jail. Some trial in Scotland show that the burning of a witch consumed 16 loads of peat plus wood and coal. This debt was attached to the condemned person’s estate or relatives. If the debt was so large, more than the person’s estate value, or more than one generation of relatives could pay off, then it was carried over to the next generation.
It might be asked who collected this money? Usually it was collected by three parties in the time of the Inquisition: the Church, the Inquisitors, and the civil authorities. Here might be added two interesting details which helps to explain the popularity and the terminus of the Inquisition. The Church did not favor the Spanish Inquisition because the Royalty did not give a proportion of the property of the condemned to the church, and when the Papacy said such property could no longer be confiscated the Inquisition abruptly ended.
Witch lynchings and burnings continued infrequently into the late 19th century in England, Europe and Latin America. There are no reliable accounts as to the exact number of witches executed. Only estimates can be made. During the 150 year period of the Inquisition, in Germany where the most fierce witch hunts occurred, the minimum estimates range from 30,000 to 100,000.
A witch burning was a great public spectacle. Most of the village’s population turned out to witness it. It has been pointed out that more burnings occurred in small hamlets than larger towns or cities because in the villages people were more superstitious. Also, neighbor was more likely to spy and tell on neighbor. This did occur, especially during the torturing of the witches. Many said their neighbors were witches in order to escape more suffering.
Usually the burning occurred shortly after sentencing. The interval between was just long enough to hire the executioner, construct the execution site and gather the fuel. However, in Scotland, the burning was preceded by days of fasting and preaching. The witch was strangled first, sometimes not completely. Then she was drugged unconscious or semiconscious to where she was tied to a stake or dumped into a barrel of tar and set afire. If the witch was not dead and managed to escape the flames then onlookers would shove her back into the fire. A.G.H.