"During the 300 years of witch-hunts, the Church burned at the stake an astounding 5 million women" (Dan Brown, "The Da Vinci Code," p. 125). Like so much else in "The Da Vinci Code," this statement is flatly untrue.

Indeed, it actually contains five errors: 1) the great European witch-hunt lasted nearly four centuries, not three; 2) the witches were condemned not just by the Church, but also by the state, and by Protestants as well as Catholics; 3) witches were killed by hanging, strangling, be-heading and drowning, not just burning; 4) approximately 50,000 people were executed for witchcraft, not 5 million; and 5) not all these were women -- 20 to 25 percent were males, both children and adults.

Sadly, Dan Brown's falsehoods now infect the minds of millions.

Of course, long before "The Da Vinci Code"was published, witch-hunts of the past played a vivid role in the American imagination, especially the Salem witch trials carried out by Puritans in colonial Massachusetts. Many people would also associate witch burning with the Inquisition and the Middle Ages.

Secularists and neo-pagans in particular have often cited the persecution of witches as a favorite complaint against Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. But the historical realities are not so simple. The truth is more favorable to the Church than her enemies charge, but it's less favorable than some of her defenders have claimed.

Witchcraft in Many Cultures

The fear of witchcraft is hardly peculiar to Christendom. Most cultures throughout the world have believed that certain people have been able to manipulate nature through spells, potions, talismans, rituals and even dealings with dark powers. Witches claim the power to heal, lift curses, attract love and find lost property. Yet their clients feel ambivalent: Perhaps those who cure can also kill.

Moreover, in many cultures evil witches were believed to gather secretly for abominable rites to harm crops, beasts and men. They were dreaded in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, executed in pagan Rome, hunted by American Indians. And they are still being lynched in contemporary Africa, India and Papua New Guinea. Punishing witches has in fact often been seen as a means of purifying and renewing society.

The Church's hostility toward witchcraft is rooted in the Old Testament -- "You shall not let a sorceress live" (Ex 22:17) -- and in ancient Roman attitudes. Church Fathers, especially St. Augustine, denied the possibility of innocent "white" magic. Magicians and witches, they insisted, always worked their wonders with the aid of demons. Using magic required a pact with the devil, explicit or implicit.

Middle Ages and Reformation

The barbarian peoples who overwhelmed Rome and brought about the so-called Dark Ages had their own suspicion of witchcraft. In the early medieval period, European kingdoms issued laws against harmful magic (malefice) that led to sporadic executions of witches.

Meanwhile, the Church's developing canon laws came to dismiss night-flying and other powers claimed by witches as baseless superstitions. Witchcraft of that sort was a delusion. Correction, not killing, was prescribed.

The flowering of the Middle Ages unfortunately included revivals of heresy and occultism. The suppression of the Cathars in Provence (France) and a series of trials for black magic at papal and royalty courts heightened sensitivity toward any sort of spiritual deviance. The papal Inquisition, established in 1233, at first unleashed its special judges against heretics. But over the next two centuries, heretics, learned magicians and neighborhood witches were all blurred together as enemies of God who must be exterminated by any means necessary.

The infamous Malleus Maleficarum (1486), credited to Dominicans Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, presented witchcraft as the worst possible crime, one founded on lust, murder and Satanism. Both Church and state, it insisted, must sternly prosecute this diabolical, woman-run conspiracy against humanity.

Although the Malleus was the first printed manual on witch-hunting, it did not trigger the Great European Witch-Hunt. That had started five decades earlier, around 1430, in Savoy, and spread to regions that are now part of France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy. Inquisitor Kramer (actually the sole author of the Malleus) had already ordered scores of witches burnt. At least 500 witchcraft trials had been held and several thousand people executed by the time the Reformation started.

Popular superstitions had mixed with learned concepts of demonology, through academic treatises, trial testimony, sermons and luridly illustrated pamphlets that circulated among Catholics and Protestants alike. More and more people were persuaded that witches lurked everywhere, ready to cause sickness, death, sterility, crop failure and sacrilege.

Witches, they believed, had sold their souls to the devil and fornicated with him. They flew through the air to gather for orgies and cannibalistic feasts called sabbats. Imps (demons) in animal form aided them as "familiars."

Nevertheless, held the popular belief, these criminals could be detected by blemishes on their bodies or marks in their eyes. And anyone who defended them was as guilty as they were.

The Extent of the Great Witch-Hunt

So, stakes, scaffolds and gibbets kept busy throughout Europe, with deaths peaking between the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Yet witch-hunting was anything but uniform across the land. Three quarters of the Continent never saw a single trial, but half of all witches -- 25,000 people -- perished within the present boundaries of Germany.

This reality is especially important to recognize because one often-cited but preposterous figure of 9 million witches burned was based on an 18th-century calculation that extrapolated the casualties in one German city to the entire continent. The claim was publicized in the 19th century by anti-clericals and by American feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and in the 20th century by Nazis, feminists and neo-pagans.

In any case, from its beginnings in Alpine valleys, the witch-hunt spread up the "witch road" to the Low Countries, where Catholic territories executed 10 times as many witches as Protestant ones. But even within Protestant lands, the phenomenon varied considerably: Calvinist Scot-land dispatched 1,300 witches, while more populous Anglican England hanged about 500.

Trials peaked in Central Europe before they had even started farther east in Hungary and Poland or north in Sweden. Northeastern Lutheran Germany saw severe panics such as the 2,000 killed in Mecklenburg. Mixed Catholic/Protestant territories in southwestern Germany were worse, with 3,200 dead.

Worse yet were nine Catholic "witch-bishops" of the Rhineland, civil as well as religious rulers of their lands, who burnt 6,400 people (including small children) between 1581 and 1634. The cruelest judge was the attorney general of Catholic Lorraine, who condemned 900 witches in one decade (1581-91). The highest national execution rate per capita occurred in Liechtenstein, where one person in 10 perished between 1648 and 1680. But in this case, the ruler who was responsible died in prison.

A remarkable exception to patterns elsewhere is the record of the Inquisitions of Rome, Spain and Portugal. Although traveling inquisitors had sentenced hundreds before the Reformation, these tribunals now doomed no more than a handful of witches throughout their vast dominions. The Spanish Inquisition scoffed at the Malleus and stopped civil courts in Catalonia from hanging witches. In 1610, a Spanish inquisitor named Alonso Salazar y Frias ended a huge panic in the Basque country by demonstrating that witchcraft was an illusionary crime, thus sparing 1,500 people.

Eastern Christian rulers hunted far fewer witches than Western ones, perhaps because they had not equated witchcraft and heresy. The Muslim Ottoman Empire forbade witch-hunts entirely. In Ireland, the English anti-witchcraft laws were not enforced.

Who Were the Witches?

The witch is the ultimate "outsider," but not all fit the isolated hag stereotype. There are well-known cases of marginalized old women whose hostile or odd behavior had annoyed their neighbors for years before witchcraft accusations broke. But on the average, 20 to 25 percent of witches were male, with the ratio shifting from region to region.

Nearly all English witches were female. Nearly all Scandinavian ones were male. Shepherd lads were convicted in Normandy, delinquent teenaged boys in Salzburg. Poorer people tended to be targeted by their betters in small panics, but large chain-reaction panics saw elites accused by the humble. In some cases, malicious children (Sweden and Salem) and zealous witch-finders (Burgundy and England) sparked panics.

Witch persecution was not concocted by rulers to control their subjects. Pressure to punish often came from below, driven by desperate fear. Even those acquitted of witchcraft charges were sometimes lynched by their neighbors.

Contrary to the claims of some feminists, midwives were not especially targeted. Nor did mass suicide of accused women ever occur. And European witches were not really secret, goddess-worshiping pagans. Although unlimited torture could make anyone confess, some did so voluntarily in suicidal depression.

We should also note that not every witch was innocent. Some had actually tried to harm others through magic -- and boasted about it. Real sacrileges occasionally happened. Some witches might well have sought to enter a pact with the devil, though such matters are extremely difficult to discern.

Evil intent is sinful, whether diabolical spells worked or not. This is not to say that such people deserved execution, but rather that ordinary people who accused witches had often actually suffered harm.

The horrors of the European witch-hunt have long been used to attack the Christian faith. Though Catholics were not solely culpable, they bore a heavy burden of responsibility for this tragedy. Catholic theologians and jurists spun the theories. Catholic clerics and laity put them into practice. Even such canonized saints as Bernardine of Siena, Pope Pius V and Charles Borromeo caused witches' deaths.

Nevertheless, brave Catholics such as the priest Salazar y Frias and the critic Friedrich von Spee spoke out for sanity. Catholics and non-Catholics both helped abolish witch-hunting.

When confronted with this matter, perhaps the best apologetic response is that of Pope John Paul II: We must recognize past horrors, then repent and resolve not to permit them in the future. TCA

Sandra Miesel is a historian of the medieval era and the author of more than 400 essays, reviews, translations and how-to articles for Catholic publications. She is also co-author, with Carl E. Olson, of "The Da Vinci Hoax" (Ignatius, 2004).