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Once heretical groups, such as the Cathars and Hussites had been crushed and exterminated by the Church, it turned its attention to alleged witches. Beginning from the sixteenth century there was a series of moral panics regarding witchcraft across much of the continent. There was a clear and discernable pattern to these events. There was usually some incident when suspicions often unfounded would be raised about an individual or more usually a groups’ activities. Those who were on the margins of society and women were very vulnerable to the charge of witchcraft. Accusations would be made by members of the public and this resulted in many being charged with the capital offence of witchcraft or sorcery. These were investigated by the secular and the religious authorities and based upon usually unsubstantiated evidence a trial would take place. Before any trial took place, alleged witches were tortured to extract a confession. These trials were rarely fair and those who were accused of witchcraft could expect a death sentence. It is not known for certain how many people died in the European witch craze, but it has been estimated that at least 40,000 people were executed often gruesomely. Those who were found guilty of witchcraft were hung, drowned or burned alive. It was considered necessary to kill them in a barbarous way to deter others from following their example. The witch craze occurred in both Catholic and Protestant countries and it was a truly Pan-European event. There were mass executions of ‘witches’ in France, Germany, Spain, England and Italy. Some academics believe that the witchcraft craze was in two waves the first wave was concerned with the suppression of heresy but ultimately the craze became an effort to silence political opponents and dissidents. By 1650 the elite was no longer as credulous about witchcraft as before and this led to a reduction in the number of witch trials by the eighteenth century<ref> Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England. (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971), p. 167</ref>.
[[File: Witches two|200px|thumb|left|Witches being burned in Switzerland]]
There have been very many attempts to explain the causes of the witchcraft trials and craze. Anthropologists have argued that these witchcraft trials served an important function in early modern society. This era was one that was plagued by a series of disasters. Many societies were unstable, and they were regularly devastated by famine, war and pestilence. This was also a time when the old certainties were challenged. Many agricultural communities were destabilized by the growth of capitalism and the ‘price revolution’ caused by the massive inflows of gold and silver from the Americas led to high inflation<ref> Thomas, p. 111</ref>. To compound the economic problems, beginning from the later sixteenth century Europe experienced climatic changes, a so-called mini-Age age which led to great hardship and poor harvests. It is widely believed that the standard of living in many countries fell and famines became more common. Some studies have suggested that Germany experienced many outbreaks of witchcraft trials because it suffered greatly from war and famine. There is evidence of a direct link between those societies who were most impacted by war and the number of witches put on trial. This would help to explain that rise in the number of accusations brought against those who were called the ‘consorts of the devil’ <ref> Thomas, p. 114</ref>. However, there were also large-scale witchcraft trials in areas that had escaped the ravages of war. Some have argued that the trials were a form of scapegoating and that it was a deliberate policy by the elite to divert attention away from their, own failings. Given the instability of the times, many have argued that the trials became a form of social control. It was a way for the rich and aristocracy to control the poor who during periods of war and famine could become restive.