[[File:Witches one.jpg|200px|thumb|left|An drawing of witches from the 16th century]]
Europe at the time of the witch-craze was a deeply divided continent and it was experiencing something of a socio-economic crisis. The population of Europe had grown, and this was putting pressure on scarce agricultural resources. Europe had been wracked by wars over religion from at least the mid-sixteenth century and much of the continent had been devastated by the 30 years war and the Huguenot Wars<ref> Bailey, Michael D. Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present. (London, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), p. 5</ref>. The witch-trials emerged in the 16th century out of need to persecute heretics who were deemed to be a threat to Christendom and this fear was eventually projected onto those regarded as witches. It was widely believed that there were groups of people who served the devil and were engaged in black magic. Before the late fifteenth century there had been no real interest in witchcraft but after the publication of Malleus Malefic arum, the 1485 treatise by Henricus Institoris there was a growth of interest in the area <ref> Bailey, p. 12</ref>. There had been widespread belief in the existence of witches and the power of black magic in much of Europe as the beliefs of the Church had failed to change the folk-beliefs of the country-people, who often remained half-pagan. It seems that countless people practiced folk-medicine that often involved cures and charms. These had long been tolerated by the authorities and were not considered a danger. There was a change in the legal definition of sorcery during the 15th century and sorcery was deemed to be heretical<ref> Cohn, Norman. Europe's Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt. Sussex and London: Sussex University Press and Heinemann Educational Books, 1975), p. 6</ref>. The Christian community also at this time began to formulate a definite sense of witchcraft and this involved Black Sabbaths, demonic worships and black magic that harmed people and their property. This led to the folk religion and practices of the uneducated rural population, becoming regarded as sorcery and associated with the Devil. This doctrinal shift meant that the folk religion of the people was criminalized and considered to be demonic<ref> Cohn, p. 14</ref> It should be noted that some of the popular magical practices in rural areas were often malicious and involved cursing victims. This form of malignant magic was used as evidence for the existence of witches. By the 15th century Europe which had been relatively open and tolerant began to become reactionary. Those who did not follow the prescribed practices and beliefs were marginalized and often terrorized by the elite. By 1500 there was a widespread acceptance that there was a conspiracy of witches who in league with the devil were trying to harm Christians and even overthrow the Christian religion. The Renaissance is often seen as a rational cultural movement but there was a strain of the irrational in it. Many leading Renaissance thinkers believed in magic and occultism and they persuaded many of the elite to take seriously, the idea of magic and sorcery.
[[File: Witches 3.png|200px|thumb|left|A popular image of the devil in the early modern era]]
==Persecution of Witches==
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 offense 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>.