The Burning Times Revisited

A still from Donna Read’s 1990 documentary The Burning Times

Rise Up! A Digital Archive of Feminist Activism provides links to many feminist films and filmmakers that emerged from the National Film Board of Canada, and particularly from Studio D. One of these documentary films—Donna Read’s The Burning Timesis an example that is particularly relevant as Halloween approaches. The Burning Times is one of a three-part series that also includes Goddess Remembered, and Full Circle, examining Women and Spirituality. The film situates the witch hunts of early modern Europe in patriarchal and misogynist ideologies within Christianity during the Renaissance and Reformation. One of the film’s central claims is that the witch trials ended with millions of women burned at the stake, and that it was, in part, a patriarchal medical establishment that conspired against women by initiating the witch hunts. In a short article in The Womanist (p. 23), the film is described as proposing that “what led to the persecution of women as witches was the collision of two utterly different systems of belief—the Church and the State, with their emerging values of profit, power, domination, and patriarchal authority, versus the traditions that honored and revered both women and the earth.”

The Burning Times resonated widely. It provided critical commentary on the relationship between witchcraft, women’s longstanding experiences of oppression, and the control exerted by patriarchal institutions, while at the same time providing an important opportunity for women who identified with Goddess worship and feminist spirituality (p. 3) to engage with others who felt the same (p. 14). As well, The Burning Times drew attention to how the expansion of medical knowledge and authority has worked to undermine women’s traditional knowledge as explored in writings like Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English’s influential pamphlet, Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (1973).

Image accompanying short article on The Burning Times in Winter 1991 issue of The Womanist (p. 23)

Although there was a great deal of support for the film, controversy followed The Burning Times’ release as well. More specifically, there was concern about the historical accuracy of the film’s claim that millions of women were executed after being accused of witchcraft in the period that the film examined. In an article for Pandora (p. 6), Sharon Rose documents the controversy emerging from a complaint to the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) by the Catholic Civil Rights League about “the validity of the film’s claim that eight million people were killed as witches, 80 percent of whom were women.” The complaint also asserted that the film spread malicious information about the Catholic Church. Despite a number of articles and letters to the editor, the CRTC ultimately dismissed the complaint.  Many historians have also raised concern about historical inaccuracies in the documentary. In the first chapter of her book The Witch in History (1996), author Diane Purkiss provides a critique of feminist histories of witchcraft and witch hunting. Purkiss identifies that the view of witchcraft as part of a longstanding persecution of women—as presented in The Burning Times—is a myth based on a misreading and misinterpretation of historical evidence.  The construction of this myth was, according to Purkiss, a way that feminists in the 1970s and 1980s used select bits of a complex past to try to justify and explain the present.

 The legitimacy of some historical claims in The Burning Times—such as how many women were murdered during the so-called burning times—remains a site of inquiry. In a recent book chapter entitled “In Memoriam Maleficarum: Feminist and Pagan Mobilizations of the Burning Times,” religious-studies scholar Laurel Zwissler interrogates the “narrative of witch-hunting as gender cleansing” and finds that the truths of this history are multiple. Although claims that millions of women were executed have been discredited, the idea of a historical witch and the burning times itself has important relevance to those looking to connect the past to the present. She writes that “there is no single version of ‘feminist Witch’, or even of ‘The Burning Times’” but that the narrative of those persecutions helps us to understand the “often subtle but real violence that underpins male-dominated culture today.”

Regardless of the historical (in)accuracy of its claims, The Burning Times reveals the links between the past and the present, as well as the ways in which patriarchal institutions have privileged certain forms of knowledge and certain forms of being in ways that still ring true.


This post was written with the ideas of, and in collaboration with, Kiegan Lloyd. Kiegan is an undergraduate student at Luther College at the University of Regina completing a BA honours in History and a BA in Sociology and German. (Kiegan would like to thank Dr. Donica Belisle and Dr. Yvonne Petry for their support in writing this post).

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