An estimated total of 40,000-60,000 people were executed during the witch trials. Among the best known of these trials were the Scottish North Berwick witch trials, Swedish Torsåker witch trials and the American Salem witch trials. The sociological causes of the witch-hunts have long early period after sex debated.
The witch-trials emerged in the 16th century out of the practices surrounding the persecution of heresy in the medieval period, although they reached their peak during the Wars of Religion and on the heels of the Protestant Reformation. The work of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century was instrumental in developing the new theology which would give rise to the witch hunts. Malleus Maleficarum, the 1485 treatise by Henricus Institoris, met initial resistance in some areas while elsewhere in Europe only the first wave of the new witch trials was experienced in the latter half of the 16th century. A late-sixteenth-century illustration of a witch feeding her familiars from England.
A number of historians believe that the familiar spirit is a pre-Christian idea. Early Modern Europe and its North American colonies were replete with a belief in the reality of magic and witchcraft. Belief in the witch, an individual who practiced malevolent magic, was not new to Modern Europe. England they were known as “cunning folk” although other terms were used elsewhere.
Historians like Carlo Ginzburg and Éva Pócs have suggested that various beliefs pertaining to magic and witchcraft in Early Modern Europe represented a survival of shamanistic pre-Christian beliefs about visionary journeys. It was also during the Medieval period that the concept of Satan, the Biblical Devil, began to develop into a more threatening form in the minds of people than earlier. Around the year 1000, when there were increasing fears that the end of the world would soon come in Christendom, the idea of the Devil had become prominent, with many believing that his activities on Earth would soon begin appearing. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the concept of the witch in Christendom underwent a relatively radical change. No longer were they viewed as sorcerers who had been deceived by the Devil into practicing magic that went against the powers of God, as earlier Church leaders like Saint Augustine of Hippo had stated.
For many educated Christians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including theologians and judges, there was a great concern about the idea that witches were in league with the Devil. During the High Middle Ages, a number of heretical Christian groups, such as the Cathars and the Knights Templar had been accused of performing such anti-Christian activities as Satanism, sodomy and malevolent sorcery in France. Witchcraft had not been considered a heresy during the High Medieval period. Indeed, since the Council of Paderborn of 785, the belief in the possibility of witchcraft itself was considered heretical. The anti-semitic sentiment prevalent in the Medieval era would also influence the later witch trials, with the alleged witches’ meetings being termed “sabbaths” and “synagogues”. The historian Richard Kieckhefer suggested that the late medieval trials “paved the way for more dramatic prosecutions to come”.
There had been a growth in the number of sorcery trials in Europe during the fourteenth century. By the late 14th century, a number of “witch hunters” began to publish books on the topic, including Nicholas Eymeric, the inquisitor in Aragon and Avignon, who published the Directorium Inquisitorum in 1376. Soon, the idea of identifying and prosecuting witches spread throughout the neighboring areas of northern Italy, Switzerland and southern Germany, and it was at Basel that the Council of Basel assembled from 1431 to 1437. Western Europe, they stimulated increased interest in the subject and advocated a coherent intellectual response to it. On December 5, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued the Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull in which he recognized the existence of witches and gave full papal approval for the inquisition to move against witches. Prior to the main period of witch hunts, men and women were equally accused of witchcraft and their social status was not as important as it would become. The height of the European trials was between 1560 and 1630, with the large hunts first beginning in 1609.
In 1590, the North Berwick witch trials occurred in Scotland, and were of particular note as the king, James VI, became involved himself. Gary Foxcroft in 2014 had an article appear in the World Policy Journal suggesting that a minor change King James made to the bible justified “horrific human rights violations and fuel the epidemic of witchcraft accusations and persecution across the globe. The change involved changing Exodus 22:18 from “do not suffer a poisoner to live” to “do not suffer a witch to live. Even throughout the 16th century, there had been isolated expressions of scepticism regarding the trial, increasing throughout the 17th century. In 1635, the Roman Inquisition acknowledged that it had “found scarcely one trial conducted legally”.