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(2/5) Witchcraft was a normal practice in Europe until the 15th century when the Church condemned witchcraft due to its pagan heritage. The first book to thoroughly condemn witchcraft was published in 1487 and entitled Malleus Maleficarum. This book provided instructions for identifying witches and called for their mass extermination. It was the second best-selling book (after the Bible) in Europe for over 200 years. It was at this point that witchcraft became associated with evil imagery: black garb, night flying, devil-worship, orgies. This led to the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe and New England. During this period, thousands of women and girls (and a few men) were accused of witchcraft, tried in court, and executed. Those guilty of witchcraft were mostly hanged and their bodies burned.
There are many theories as to why witchcraft accusations became widespread. Some historians believe that witchcraft accusations were used as a tool of persecution by the bigoted Church imposed on superstitious peasantry. Others note that accusations of witchcraft were often imposed to punish certain moral taboos, such as pre-marital sex and adultery, therefore it was a method to preserve moral cohesion. Historians have also pointed out that these accusations occurred during a major economic recession in Europe. People were less likely to donate to charity, so when someone refused to donate they felt guilty, then when some misfortune befell them they blamed it on having been cursed by the beggar they turned away. This is also why witches are often portrayed as “old hags” since elderly women were the ones most likely to ask for charity. Interestingly, some poor women would actually claim to be witches to scare neighbors into giving them food or money (“trick or treat”). Accusations and obsession with witchcraft dampened during the Enlightenment as new learning led to an understanding of the world that was less congruent with demonology.
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