There has been a disturbing trend lately among the younger, Web-aware set to fan the flames of "Never again the Burning Times!" higher than any pyre ever seen at an auto-da-fe. One "fact" that has been seen floating around out there with some regularity is that nine million witches were burned by the Inquisition.
Patently false, on a number of counts. Going back to Innocent III's papal bull, it was in actuality an order elevating the practice of witchcraft to heresy, and not a specific condemnation of witchcraft as such. The net result was that the Inquisitors had another charge that they could level against persons who needed to be eliminated for one reason or another.
It's true that the only place where witches were burned was Scotland, in the strict sense that they were executed by burning for being witches. On the Continent, many heretics were indeed burned. Some of those heretics had been charged with practicing witchcraft, but the capital crime was heresy and would have been recorded as such.
Let's run some numbers. The only figure I have found, and this is in a history book, is that between the issuance of the papal bull in 1474 and the repeal of England's anti-witchcraft laws in 1752, 200,000 witches were executed (by burning as heretics, or other means as witches). While it could be argued that this is a case of history written by the victors, the fact that there was an economic motivation behind any accusation of heresy indicates that Church authorities had little reason to modify this number. A heretic's property was surrendered to the Church upon conviction, regardless of whether a death sentence was carried out. Records would have been kept of such seizures. The number may be a little on the low side to account for corruption and some skimming off the top, but not by the almost two orders of magnitude necessary to get a figure of nine million.
But for the sake of argument, let's accept for just a moment the possibility that there were nine million witch victims burned at the stake. It's well known that not everyone accused of witchcraft and burned was actually a witch, so that means that far more non-witches than witches were burned. How many more? With apologies to Bill Clinton, that depends on what your definition of a witch is. Let's play fast and loose with that definition to the degree that a full 25% of those executed -- oops, burned -- were practicing some sort of witchcraft, even if it was just a bit of herb lore. That means that 36 million people would have been burned under a charge of witchcraft in slightly less than 200 years. That's a good sight better than the Black Death, which (as a middle-of-the-road estimate) was responsible for 25 million deaths, which was somewhere between one quarter and one half of the entire population of Europe at the time. Another quarter to half of the population executed starting a century later? Who's left?
In addition, executions on that scale would have resulted in mass graves, at least one of which should have been found by now. Plus, if so many were burned at the stake as purported, that would have required -- admittedly, over two centuries -- one massive quantity of wood. Finally, consider the Holocaust of the 20th century. In less than a dozen years, the Nazis exterminated "only" six million Jews, plus a few dozen thousand members of other "undesirable" groups. If they had had as long to operate as the Inquisition had, they would have managed on the order of 120 million. Five hundred years of improvements in the science of systematically killing people, and they could only do it four times as fast?
What's troubling, though, is not the speciousness of the arguments for the figure of nine million, but the zealotry with which this number is defended. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, whether it's in the name of Yahweh or Allah or Pan or Odin or Cerridwen or Diana or whomever. The young'uns who float this number refuse to believe that anything else could be true, and any attempt to educate them otherwise is just helping those who would have us all burned again. And that is the real crime here. Rabid anti-Christian rhetoric is just as harmful as anything that was ever done by the Christians themselves.