I first saw it when looking at their faces while showing The Burning Times in class — the blank stares, the pained expressions, the tears, the looking away. The scenes and sounds of women tortured and burned alive touched something deep and ancient in them. Here it was — the historical trauma of women.[i] The lasting impact of historical trauma is experienced by subsequent generations for hundreds of years, manifesting in such things as depression, PTSD, self-destructive behaviors, anger, violence, suicide, and more. As Native LGBTQ activist and writer Chris Stark so eloquently put it: “The experiences of our grandparents and great-grandparents are written into the library of our bodies . . . . My ancestors’ loss and screams are written in me – their pain and murder and rape merged with my own as a child. . . We carry them through time. We remember.”
At this time of Samhain, Halloween, All Saint’s Day, and Día de los Muertos, it seems fitting to reflect on the historical trauma of descendants of “the burning times” – the hundreds of years from the 13th to the 18th centuries in which vast numbers of the peasant populations of northern Europe were accused of witchcraft, imprisoned, tortured, and burned alive. The estimates of the numbers of those killed varies from sixty thousand to nine million, but that about 85% of these were women is undisputed. “Were there two million or nine million witches burned?” asks Susan Griffin. “Whatever the number, we must imagine a conflagration, a mass terror, the constant odor of burning flesh, whole villages massacred, children whipped or thrown on the flames with their mothers.”[ii]
Poor women, wise women, healers, widows, spinsters – women living outside of patriarchal authority – were most vulnerable to charges of witchcraft. “Whilst not all women were the target of accusations,” Enya Holland pointed out, “it can be argued that ‘anomalous’ women were.” And it can be said, as Mary Daly did, that “the torture and burning of women as witches became normal and indeed normative in ‘Renaissance’ Europe.”[iii]
Why women? Historian Irving Smith believed it was because more women than men survived the plague, and the women healers and wise women were a threat to authorities, the Church, and the male medical profession. But I and others believe it was due to the association of women with the devil. That the Church considered women to be in league with the devil dated back to Tertullian in the 2nd Century CE who wrote of women, “You are the gateway of the devil; . . . Woman, you are the gate to hell.”[iv]
With the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum by two Dominican priests in 1486 the association of women with witchcraft reached unparalleled levels: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable. For the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils.. . . “[v] It became widely believed that “witches copulated with the devil, rendered men impotent. . . devoured newborn babies, poisoned livestock . . . .”[vi] And so it was easy to make women, especially certain women, scapegoats for the Black Plague and the poverty of peasant populations forced off their lands.
As Susan Griffin recognized, “. . . these deaths were only the climax of a series of events. For the witches were arrested first, and then put on trial, they were bound up and tortured and told to give evidence against themselves. . . .” In order extort confessions, the accused were “. . . hung upside down, beaten with whips and mallets, their fingernails were pulled out, they were put on a rack which violently stretched the body, a tortillon squeezed the ‘tender parts,’ . . . . “[vii]
That the torture was so sexual in nature must be stressed. While imprisoned, the accused would be stripped and most likely raped by the torturer’s assistants.[viii] They would be forced to face the priests, jailers, judges, torturers, and executioners — all of whom were men — naked.[ix] Their bodies were routinely searched for the “devil’s mark.” Torturers applied hot fat and tongs to the accused’s eyes, armpits, breasts, and vaginas.[x] Naked, forced to sit on a bed of nails, thumb screws would be applied to their toes and fingers. If they did not confess with the first level of torture, a second would be applied, and if not then, then that of the third degree in which all would confess. Mary Daly asserted that, “a witch was forced to relieve her torture by confessing that she acted out the sexual fantasies of her male judges as they described these to her,” presuming that they “ . . . achieved erotic gratification from her torture, from the sight of her being stripped and gang raped, . . . from her spiritual and physical slow death.”[xi]
How could this trauma not be felt and passed on for generations of women to come? As Resmaa Menakem notes, thehistorical trauma of Europeans has spread throughout the globe as Europeans colonized much of the rest of the world, bringing their trauma and tactics with them. Menakem, however, lacks a gendered analysis, failing to note that certain sexualized brutality was specific to women. The same tactics of sexualized violence and torture of women accused of witchcraft would be inflicted on Native and enslaved women in North America, as they would be on Jewish women during the Holocaust and colonized populations of indigenous women around the globe.[xii] The lasting impact of this historical trauma continues in the silence and internalized oppression of women, as well as in ongoing tactics of sexual terrorism — pornography, sexual and domestic violence, trafficking, efforts to ban contraception and abortion and threats to imprison and murder those who would assist a woman in that — used to frighten, dominate, control, and silence.
The effects of “the burning times” are still with us. On this Samhain, may we remember and honor those who died, and in doing so, begin the long task of healing.
Part 2 on healing, can be read here.
[i] Intergenerational trauma occurs when the trauma experienced by someone(s) is passed down epigenetically, psychologically, and physiologically to the next generation, and becomes transgenerational when the trauma continues to be passed down to subsequent generations. Historical trauma is more sweeping – mass trauma deliberately and systematically inflicted by a subjugating power to a targeted group over an extended period of time (Manalay, Menakem). Native, African American, and Jewish peoples have been most often recognized as carrying decades and centuries of historical trauma. More recently attention has been given to Japanese Americans and other people of color, LGBTQ, immigrant, impoverished populations. Rarely are women as a group considered a targeted population, despite the ongoing trauma of living under patriarchy, the vast amounts of intimate partner violence and sexual assault, and the hundreds of years of the European witch burnings, dubbed by Andrea Dworkin “gynocide,” and its impact on indigenous women as Europeans colonized the globe.
[ii] Griffin, Pornography and Silence, 80.
[iii] Daly, Gyn/Ecology, 201.
[iv] Tertullian, De Cultu Feminarum, (On the Apparel of Women) Sec. 1.1, part 2.
[v] Kramer & Sprenger, Malleus. One of the first books published using the printing press, at the time it was second only to the Bible in numbers of copies published.
[vi] Ehrenreich and English, For Her Own Good, 35.
[vii] Griffin, 80.
[viii] Daly citing Rossell Hope Robbins, 201-202
[ix] Thea Jensen, in The Burning Times.
[x] Barstow, Witchcraze.
[xi] Daly, 214.
[xii] In her book, Conquest, Andrea Smith makes a similar argument regarding the sexualized violence inflicted on Native and African American women.
Barstow, Anne L. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. New York: Harper One, 1995.
Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon, 1978.
Dworkin, Andrea. Woman Hating. New York: Plume, 1975.
Ehrenreich, Barbara & Deirdre English. For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women. New York: Anchor Books, 1979.
Elkins, Caroline. Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.
Griffin, Susan. Pornography and Silence: Culture’s Revenge Against Nature. New York: Harper, 1981.
Holland, Enya. “The European Witchhunts: A Mass Murder of Women?” The York Historian blog. March 11, 2017. The European Witch Hunts: A Mass Murder of Women? | The York Historian
Kramer, Heinrich and James Sprenger. Malleus Maleficarum. Trans. Montague Summers. Dover, 1971.
Manaley, Anita. “Cultural and Historical Trauma.” Webinar. Somatic Experiencing International.
Menakem, Resmaa. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017.
Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge: South End Press, 2005.
Stark, Chris. “Healing: Generational Trauma.” Minnesota Women’s Press, 2017.
The Burning Times. Directed by Donna Read. National Film Board of Canada. 1990.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.