The Salem witch trials began with the accusation of people in Salem of being witches. But the concept of witchcraft started far before these trials and false accusations occurred. In the early Christian centuries, the church was relatively tolerant of magical practices. Those who were proved to have engaged in witchcraft were required only to do penance. But in the late Middle Ages (13th century to 14th century) opposition to alleged witchcraft hardened as a result of the growing belief that all magic and miracles that did not come unambiguously from God came from the Devil and were, therefore, manifestations of evil.
Those who practiced simple sorcery, such as village-wise women, were increasingly regarded as practitioners of diabolical witchcraft. They came to be viewed as individuals in league with satan. Nearly all those who fell under suspicion of witchcraft were women, evidently regarded by witch-hunters especially susceptible to the blandishments of the evil. A lurid picture of the activities of witches emerged in the popular mind, including covens, or gatherings over which Satanpresided; pacts with the Devil; flying broomsticks; and animal accomplices, or familiars. Although a few of these elements may represent vestiges of pre-Christian religion, the old religion probably did not persist in any organized form beyond the 14th century. The popular image of witchcraft, perhaps inspired by features of occultism or ceremonial magic as well as by theology concerning the devil and his works of darkness, was given shape by the inflamed imagination of inquisitors and was confirmed by statements obtained under torture.
The late medieval and early modern picture of diabolical witchcraft can be attributed to several causes. First, the church experience with such dissident religious movements as the Albigenses and Cathari, who believed in a radical dualism of good and evil, led to the belief that certain people had allied themselves with Satan. As a result of confrontations with such heresy, the Inquisition was established by a series of papal decrees between1227 and 1235. Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of torture in1252, and Pope Alexander IV gave the Inquisition authority over all cases of sorcery involving heresy, although local courts carried out most actual prosecution of witches. At the same time, other developments created a climate in which alleged witches were stigmatized as representatives of evil.
Since the middle of the 11thcentury, the theological and philosophical work of scholasticism had been refining the Christian concepts of Satan and evil. Theologians, influenced by Aristotelian rationalism, increasingly denied that “natural” miracles could take place and therefore alleged that anything supernatural and not of God must be due to commerce with Satan or his minions (see Aristotle). Later, the Reformation, the rise of science, and the emerging modern world all challenges to traditional religion created deep anxieties in the orthodox population. At the dawn of the Renaissance (15thcentury to 16th century), some of these developments began to coalesce into the “witch craze” that possessed Europe from about1450 to 1700.
During this period, thousands of people, mostly innocent women, were executed on the basis of “proofs” or”confessions” of diabolical witchcraft that is, of sorcery practiced through allegiance toSatanobtained by means of cruel tortures. A major impetus for the hysteria was the papal bull SummisDesiderantes issued by PopeInnocent VIII in 1484. It was included as a preface in the bookMalleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), published by two Dominican inquisitors in 1486. This work, characterized by a distinct anti-feminine tenor, vividly describes the satanic and sexual abominations of witches. The book was translated into many languages and went through many editions in both Catholic and Protestant countries, outselling all other books except the Bible. In the years of the witch-hunting mania, people were encouraged to inform against one another.
Professional witch-finders identified and tested suspects for evidence of witchcraft and were paid a fee for each conviction. The most common test was pricking: Allwitches were supposed to have somewhere on their bodies a mark, made by the Devil, that was insensitive to pain; if such a spot was found, it was regarded as proof of witchcraft. Other proofs included additional breasts(supposedly used to suckle familiars), the inability to weep,and failure in the water test. In which, a woman was thrown into a body of water; if she sank, she was considered innocent, but if she stayed afloat, she was found guilty.
This test, along with the others, was obviously dumb. For if the suspected was innocent, she was dead, and if she was a witch, she would be killed. And for the body mark test, to find this so-called “spot” meant the suspect had to be poked and pricked all over her body till a spot that didn’t hurt was found. This obviously caused the suspect a great deal of pain, and if the spot was found the victim still would have gone through torture to find it. The persecution of witches declined about 1700, banished by the Age of enlightenment, which subjected such beliefs to a skeptical eye.
One of the last outbreaks of witch-hunting took place in colonial Massachusetts in 1692, when belief in diabolical witchcraft was already declining in Europe.