It’s no wonder that Christians have traditionally believed that sinners are tormented by Hell-fire for all eternity after death. Fire is the stuff of nightmares.
The ritual of burning a “criminal” alive in a public place was a reminder of the fire that supposedly awaited the victim in the afterlife. This spectacle was also a terrifying warning to the onlookers not to disobey the authorities of the time, both religious and secular. For anyone who doesn’t know about this aspect of history, there is often a reference to the “burning times” or the “witch-craze” in the media in the weeks before Halloween.
Despite a vague belief that such barbarity took place in the Middle Ages, execution by burning was not meted out for “witchcraft” until the Renaissance, a time of invention and discovery.
Traditionally, a variety of folk practises (spells for changing the weather, influencing the growth of crops, causing or ending disease, attracting love or wealth) coexisted with Christianity without attracting much attention from the Church or the local government. Then Pope Innocent (hah) VIII set up the Christian Inquisition, and this body produced a report in Latin, the Maleus Malificarum, or The Hammer of/against Evil-Doers, in the late 1480s. This was a manual for witch-finders, and it explicitly targeted women as being more susceptible to corruption by evil forces than men, although men in high places could be accused of leading covens, and tortured into confessing.
From approximately 1500 to approximately 1700—when increasing rationalism caused faith in the power of spells to wane—millions of people in Europe, mostly women, were burned to death at the stake for “witchcraft.” In England and its colonies, however, spell-casting per se was considered less serious than heresy or treason: open rebellion against the official church or the government of the reigning monarch. Therefore English “witches” were hanged from the gallows, not burned. Members of the English judicial system prided themselves on being civilized enough to save the worst punishments for the worst offenses.
Note that in the religious wars of the Reformation (1500s/1600s), beginning with King Henry VIII’s founding of his own church in 1534 defiance of the Pope, English Catholics were burned to death as “heretics” by Protestant authorities, and vice versa. (What is it about leaders with VIII in their titles?) Outlawed beliefs were not the same thing as “witchcraft.”
If you have ever imagined the gruesome burning deaths of the “witches” of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, rest assured that this scene never took place. As English colonists, the Salem “witches” were all hanged instead.
Of course, Scotland and Ireland were separate kingdoms. Convicted “witches” there were not so lucky.
While whole populations must have lived in fear of being intentionally set on fire for saying or doing the wrong thing, keeping a low profile must have seemed like the best defense. Unfortunately, fire was ever-present in human communities in past centuries.
It’s not hard to guess why fire was so often used as a cheap, convenient, and effective means of destroying people. It was a side-effect of human civilization.
Almost every city that was founded before the twentieth century has been the site of a disastrous fire. Before electricity was discovered, people couldn’t live without open flames in fireplaces, torches and lamps. When fire was used for cooking and heating within wooden buildings placed close together, the question was not whether but when the next big fire would break out.
This brings us to the issue of fire control. If everyone was in potential danger, surely neighbours must have co-operated for mutual protection? Not exactly.
The earliest known firefighting service was formed in ancient Rome by a nobleman who used male slaves to provide a free fire service, using bucket chains. Slaves seemed like the obvious choice to do this work, since they were considered more disposable than free citizens. The Emperor Augustus established a public fire department in 24 BCE, composed of 600 slaves distributed amongst seven fire stations in Rome. Impressive.
Alas, the public services of ancient Rome disappeared along with the Roman Empire. After that, individual households were responsible for their own fire-protection until insurance companies got involved, when there was money to be made.
The Great Fire of London destroyed much of the city in 1666, and some superstitious people who had read the Book of Revelation thought this was God’s punishment for various sins in accordance with the mysterious biblical claim that “666” was “the number of the Beast.”
In the smoldering aftermath, as Londoners were struggling to rebuild their homes, businesses, and lives, property insurance companies sprang up to offer protection against similar destruction in the future. The first such insurance company was founded in 1667, and ten more appeared in London before 1832. Each company had its own sign, a plaque that would be attached to the outside of each insured building. A company’s fire brigade would only put out a fire if the building displayed the right sign.
The city of Boston, Massachusetts, established America’s first publicly funded, paid fire department in 1679. Note that this was even before the Salem Witch Trials. As an entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin imported the London model of fire insurance to Philadelphia in the 1700s, and as an inventer, he improved the equipment used to put out fires. His company was associated with a volunteer fire brigade.
The city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, set up a fire and emergency department in 1754. In a sense, this was Canada’s first fire department, although Canada didn’t become an independent nation until 1867.
How well did private enterprise in the form of insurance companies compete with publicly-formed and funded fire departments? Not well. In the nineteenth century, the scandal of private fire brigades refusing to put out fires in buildings that were uninsured led to a demand for fire protection for all. Cities began to form their own fire departments as a civil service to the public, forcing private fire companies to shut down. Many merged their fire stations into the city’s fire department. In 1833, London’s ten independent brigades all merged to form the London Fire Engine Establishment, and this was the beginning of fire-fighting as a widespread public service.
As the winter holiday season approaches, opportunities for house-fires increase. Additional electric lights, open flames (for historic atmosphere), flammable objects, and drunken partying all contribute to the risk that something might ignite. If fire is the Beast, however, ways and means of fighting him are already in place.
Today, we are better-protected from Hell-fire on earth than ever before. (I won’t speculate on the afterlife.) However, we can’t take our safety for granted. I would like to propose a holiday toast to public bodies that put out fires instead of starting them. My story in On Fire was inspired by the heroic volunteers of yesteryear who made it their mission to keep fire under control. (The information in this piece is from various sources, mostly accessible on-line.)
Jean Roberta lives on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. She teaches literature, composition and creative writing in the local university. Her diverse fiction (mostly erotic) has appeared in many print anthologies, and in the single-author collection Obsession(Renaissance). Her gothic fantasies include “The Water-Harp” in Underwater (Transmundane), and “Roots” (in the “Treasure Chest”). Follow her on her website, blog, or Facebook page.