For about 150 years, religous inquisitions raged throughout Europe, taking the lives of thousands of innocent men and women who were accused of witch craft. Finally subsiding around 1700, these trials were one of the darkest periods in the history of the West, and one of the longest periods of such mass hysteria. There were many causes for the trials, but three main reasons are readily apparent: there were economic, religous, and education crisis that all converged at the same time.

At the end of the 15th century, Europe was in an economic upheavel: many western European peasants had been granted release from serfdom, and now either owned or leased their lands. The plagues had made their labor more valuable, so their lot in life improved over much of Europe. However, in some areas the cheap importation of grain again left them struggling to make ends meet. And in eastern Europe, more peasents were enserfed than before. This upheavel left many of the citizens vying for money and land, a valuable asset to those whose life depended on making excess food. Most of the witches accused were poor and powerless members of this new society, but had valuable land that would often go to those who either accused or convicted the “witches”. Since the witches were poor, they often would resort to begging or even stealing enough food just to survive.

If the elderly woman went begging, she was often scorned and turned away empty. Often times if anything would go wrong at the farm to which she had gone seeking substinance, it was blamed on the occult and she was accused of being a witch, even though the events were totally unrelated. As one observer exasperatedly remarked, “and presently my child, my wife, myself, my horse, my cow, my cat, or somewhat, was thus and thus handled in such a strange manner, as I dare swear she is a witch...” (Thomas Ady) .

This remark shows the variety of events which could and did count as “witchery”. Often, if turned away too much, these old ladies would resort to stealing in the middle of the night, taking milk or food from their neighbors. Creeping around in the middle of the night was plenty of evidence for a neighbor to accuse a witch, and they often did, blowing a relatively small crime far out of proportion. Again, these neighbors who would accuse the witches would often get the land of the executed witches, so they were also financially motivated and rewarded for turning in others, even if just the slightest indication was given, as well as the blessing of the church. The judges, too, had an interest in finding the witches guilty. While they were deliberating, they would be fed “cheese, butter, pigs, and geese”, and treated as royalty. They were praised and paid for their wisdom in seeking out the “Evil One”, in whatever suprising avenue he might lie. The penalty for a judge speaking out against the witch trials, however, was being portrayed as a heretic, an atheist, or even a witch himself, and he was often outcast from the society. Judges and neighbors were not the only ones to profit from the continuation of the trials: the executioners, torturers, innkeepers, and scribes all made a hefty profit during these times.

This period was also a time of heightened religous tensions and zealotry. The Protestant and Catholic Reformations were in full swing, and both sides fervently was hunting the “Evil One” by whatever means necessary. The Protestant Reformation, believing the current church was corrupt, sought out witches everywhere, and was encouraged in this frenzy by Luther, who emphasized the real existence of witches and dependence on the literal meaning of the Bible. His follower John Calvin also spoke in graphic terms about how Christians must wage war on Demons and Witches, who lay everywhere waiting for an easy target.
But by no means was the persecution limited to Protestants: The Pope issued several Bulls concerning Witches, allowing inquisitors to be free of any normal restrictions in finding alleged evil or occult practices. This freedom was often abused, and inquisitors would endlessly torture there victims seeking a confession and yet more names of those who were supposedly witches. The victims only respite would be to confess and the cycle would repeat, with even more innocents drawn in and convicted of witch craft. All this talk of witches and demons had a decided affect upon the often uneducated population of peasents and towns people. There was an intense fear of hell and demons that was common, and tensions were high as a result, making people more likely to turn in neighbors or aquaintances who were acting oddly.

Finally, the general level of education and knowledge was low in these times. The scientific revolution was just beginning at the end of the hysteria, and it is often attributed as one of the major causes of the madness subsiding. Little was known about germs and mental illness. A literal interpetation of the Bible often said that the aforementioned were symptoms of curses and demons, which was ample evidence to prove a witch was involved. In fact, witches were almost universally believed in at the time, and those who didn’t believe their existence were ostracized from both general and scientific communities. The Church’s stance was that they existed as well, and since they educated most of the educated population,it became common and accepted knowledge that they existed. Scholars even went so far as to give methodical ways to seek out and confirm a witch. As a result, the inquisitors had a fairly methodical approach and form, as more often then not the resulting trials verdict: guilty. This provided a certainty about the univere where such certainty and understanding was severely lacking. Most people didn’t know what caused changes in the weather, or understand the cause and effect of simple things. It was much easier to simply attribute the unexplainable to witch craft. Many of these unexplainable things had to deal with medicine and healing herbs, a branch of science that many farm women knew much about, such as what herbs etc. healed what ailements.
These natural remedies seemed quiet supernatural to those who witnessed them, who would often dismiss the science as witch craft, taking the poor women to be tortured and eventually burned. This is apparently why most of those executed were the wives of farmers or common laborers.

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