The early modern period in Europe is often characterized as a period of reason when great strides were made in science and culture. However, it was also a period of religious intolerance and mass hysteria and this is exemplified in the witch-craze that occurred in Europe in the period from 1550-1700. At this time thousands of people were prosecuted for the crimes of witchcraft or sorcery and countless people were executed for these offenses all over Europe. The origins of this Witch Craze are various and complex. This article will demonstrate that the origins of the craze was were class, gender, social and religious conflicts. The prosecution of witches was related to specific problems in the historical period and that alleged witches were as often as not unfortunate scapegoats or the victims of powerful religious and political processes.
[[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 a 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 a 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 malevolent 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.