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During the early modern period of European history, stretching roughly from 1450 to 1750, thousands of persons, most of them women, were tried for the crime of witchcraft. About half of these individuals were executed, usually by burning.

Some witchcraft trials took place in the various ecclesiastical courts of Europe, institutions which played an important role in regulating the moral and religious life of Europeans during the Middle Ages and the early modern period.
More commonly, especially after 1550, the trials were held in the secular courts – the courts of kingdoms, states, principalities, duchies, counties and towns. The geographical distribution of cases throughout Europe was extremely uneven. In some jurisdictions there were very few prosecutions, if any at all, whereas in others hundreds and sometimes thousands of persons were tried over the course of three centuries. There was also an uneven chronological distribution of witchcraft trials. A gradual increase in the number of prosecutions during the fifteenth century was followed by a slight reduction in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and finally a gradual decline in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Although the number of witches who were tried varied from place to place and from time to time, all of these witchcraft prosecutions can be considered parts of one very large judicial operation that took place only in Europe and only during the early modern period. This general but nevertheless clearly defined historical development is usually referred to as either the European witch-craze or the European witch-hunt.

Witch-hunting involved the identification of individuals who were widely believed to be engaged in a secret activity. Witches were hunted, therefore, in the same way that members of an underground movement or secret organization would be hunted today. This was a task undertaken by various individuals, usually judicial authorities but sometimes professional witch-finders. Acting on the basis of accusations, denunciations or sometimes mere rumour, these men arrested persons whose names came to their attention, interrogated them, and did everything in their power to extract confessions from them. Their cruelty went far. People that didn’t confess, were thrown into a lake with a heavy stone tied to their feet. It was believed that witches didn’t weigh anything, therefore anyone who freed himself and floated on the surface, would be found guilty.
Sometimes judicial authorities continued this investigation by forcing confessing witches to name their accomplices, the type of legal prosecution most commonly associated with the word ‘witch-hunt’ today. The final stage of the witch-hunt was, in most cases, the formal conviction of the accused, followed by their execution, banishment or imprisonment.

It might be added that it's a liberal myth that witch-hunting amounted to an act of genocide against pagans by the church. Wicca as a religion did not exist in those days, and the estimates of millions of pagans killed in witchhunts that are occasionally given are gross exaggeration. This does not, of course, excuse anybody. The church has plenty of blood on its hands. Let's not add any more. The European Witch-hunts were brutal acts of cultural and, it might be argued, religious supression, not to mention ignorance, mob rule, and stupidity. But attempts by persons such as Silver RavenWolf to portray the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages because of alleged genocide of wiccans is to set the understanding of history back two hundred years, and to erect barriers between Christianity and Paganism that should be torn down if either faith is to have a chance in the future.

Addendum: I thought Aero's write-up smacks of revisionist history. I already said it once: The church has plenty of blood on its hands. Let's not add any more. Wicca as a religion in its own right, as opposed to the multifarious pagan cults of varying attractiveness which flourished in Europe up until about 1000 CE, is a relatively new phenomenon. And religious cultural imperialism, of the 'assimilate first, burn later' variety, was something Christianity learned from Roman paganism. Christians were slaughtered in their thousands in astonishingly brutal ways, and in some parts of the world, they still are today. Why do some pagan cults (such as the Celtic) get preferred status from pagans, and others (such as the Roman culti, and the Gallic death-cults) not?

This is not an attack on Wicca. Rather the reverse. I admire Wicca greatly. (Ducks the stream of abuse and accusations of being patronising which are the lot of anyone who respects a religion not their own) But there is a difference between a religion uniting the strands of earlier traditions in the quest for truth, and claiming to be the true inheritor of such a tradition. I do not claim to be Jewish. Wicca is not the faith of my ancestors.

Further addendum: Re-reading Aero's write-up, and my own addendum, I note that this could be misconstrued as an attack on Aero. It is not. Aero's write-up is largely well-informed. I have simply extended my own account.

Aero has agreed with me that the above should stand. People need to hear all sides, and I have to confess to being somewhat biased, and I certainly do not have perfect information on this or any other subject.

For the record, I'm a witch. And the Burning Times were a part of our history which we constantly remind ourselves of, lest we grow complacent in this time of growing tolerance.

That having been said...

Christianity's stance toward the established pagan religions, in the very early days, was not one of persecution, but rather one of embrace and extend. Yes, it was very similar to Microsoft's business strategy. Christians were a minority in the years immediately following the death of Jesus, and for survival's sake, the early missionaries chose to incorporate elements of pagan practices into their own, so that the Christian celebrations and rites wouldn't look terribly different from the pagan ones. Hence we have fertility icons (rabbits and eggs) associated with Easter, holly and evergreen trees at Christmas, All Saints' Day immediately following Samhain, and the like. It's much easier to get people to change their outlook on life when the new way isn't (at least superficially) all that different from the old one. In some parts of Europe, in fact, the pagans would attend Mass during the day along with the Christian members of the community, and then go off at night to perform their own rites, referred to as the Night Mass, or the Black Mass.

Friendly assimilation stopped working when the Christian Church realised that the most powerful covens who owned a lot of land would not be converted and would not sell their lands for any reason. The Church needed land to help consolidate its power, and the patriarchal organisation of the Christians had trouble coping with the matriarchal society of the pagans. The initial executions of witches for accusations of heresy were a power play, to have covenstead lands revert to control of the local nobility, who would in turn hand it over to the Church as a tithe. This had the additional effect of removing women from positions of landed power.

This snowballed, of course. In quite a short time, it became fashionable to accuse someone of witchcraft in order to make a play for their property. The friendly ties between the Christians and the pagans were soon forgotten, and the Black Mass became a synonym for devil worship. Many real witches died during this time, it is true. But a nontrivial number of Christians were executed during this time, as well. This is what most modern-day witches have the biggest problem with: not only were our own kind destroyed for not worshiping the Christian God, but many innocents were also slaughtered and paganism was made the scapegoat -- and that the lies and propaganda which originated in that time are still spread to this day.

Modern paganism has its radical zealots, just as any other religion or group, and like any zealots, they're the most visible and often the most annoying. But the advice which needs to go out to all, regarding all people: do not judge the whole group based on the conduct of the radical fringe.

Tiefling: No offence taken. Between your writeup and mine, the point is pretty much well laid out if the reader can filter out the emotion behind them. This is history, and there are those who wrote it, and also those who look back on it with hatred and sorrow. The "true" story will likely not ever be known -- all that we will ever have will be the official accounts and the attempts of people (like myself) to air out other "facts". And yes, some of those facts can be construed as revisionist. The truth lies somewhere between, and it's up to an individual to find it. (Unlikely as that is, in this day and age of "do the work for me and give me the results, I need instant gratification".) Arguing the point merely keeps the emotional flames high and does nothing to make progress.

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