Witchcraft’s Rebellious History, Modern Transformation

In this new book, Witchcraft’s Rebellious History: The Real Story of the Burning Times and its Transformations, historian Michael D. Bailey explores how witchcraft has been a creative force for social change from medieval times to today. Far from being a tool used by the rich to oppress the poor or an excuse for persecution based on superstition and ignorance, witchcraft was a way for those who were marginalized in society to fight back against their oppression.

I originally wrote this book to challenge the dominant narrative about history of witchcraft that is promoted by mainstream scholars and members of modern Pagan practice alike, Bailey explains. That narrative has it that there was a time in European history when mob violence, torture, persecution, exploitation at the hands of men, injustice by secular authorities, persecution by Church and State, and gender-based oppression were the norm. That time is called ‘the Burning Times’ because it was supposedly a period during which thousands of people, mostly women, were burned at the stake or hung from gallows by religious or secular authorities for committing crimes such as heresy, atheism, Satan worship, sexual libertinism, incest and child murder. Because of the supposed widespread persecution during this time, modern witches identify themselves as victims and opponents of a dominant culture that still holds sway in society today.

However, according to Bailey, there are numerous problems with these assumptions about the history of witchcraft. For example, claims that thousands were killed during the Burning Times are not supported by the evidence. Secondly, he says that historians have found no evidence whatsoever of the existence of witchcraft as it’s generally understood today until the mid- to late-17th century. Before that time, references to witches were made only in the context of heresy and were linked to men who chose this way to rebel against society. Thirdly, Bailey argues that when witch trials did take place they were driven by personal and financial motivations. He cites an example in 1593 when a woman in Toulouse was accused of witchcraft and executed after she refused the sexual advances of her former lover.

Because Bailey’s book is highly critical of dominant views regarding the history of witchcraft, I decided to contact him and ask him to explain his findings.

Michael D. Bailey: I think that what we see in terms of the modern understanding and practice of witchcraft is one of the most important and interesting examples of how beliefs can become transformed through historical processes to take on a meaning very different from their original formulation. To understand early modern European beliefs about witchcraft, we need to understand the history of the category and its changing meanings, some of which we see in this interview.

The earliest evidence we have about European witchcraft beliefs is from medieval times. What we find there men sought out power and influence through becoming magicians or sorcerers. These men were often priests or members of religious orders who used their religious authority to cover up their crimes. They were usually charged by the local authorities, but were able to escape punishment through maneuvering within the Church’s own legal system.