The Salem witch trials

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

Nearly all those who fell under
suspicion of witchcraft were women,
evidently regarded by witch-hunters
as especially susceptible to the
Devil’s blandishments. A lurid
picture of the activities of
witches emerged in the popular
mind, including covens, or
gatherings over which Satan
presided; 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’s
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 between
1227 and 1235. Pope Innocent IV
authorized the use of torture in
1252, 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 11th
century, 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 (15th
century to 16th century) some of
these developments began to
coalesce into the "witch craze"
that possessed Europe from about
1450 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 to
Satan—obtained by means of cruel

A major impetus for the hysteria
was the papal bull Summis
Desiderantes issued by Pope
Innocent VIII in 1484. It was
included as a preface in the book
Malleus 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: All
witches 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. Twenty
people were executed in the wake of
the Salem witch trials, which took