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The Salem Witch Trials

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Essay title: The Salem Witch Trials

The Salem witch trials began with

the accusation of people in Salem

of being witches. But the concept

of witchcraft started far before

these trials and false accusations

occurred. In the early Christian

centuries, the church was

relatively tolerant of magical

practices. Those who were proved to

have engaged in witchcraft were

required only to do penance. But in

the late Middle Ages (13th century

to 14th century) opposition to

alleged witchcraft hardened as a

result of the growing belief that

all magic and miracles that did not

come unambiguously from God came

from the Devil and were therefore

manifestations of evil. Those who

practiced simple sorcery, such as

village wise women, were

increasingly regarded as

practitioners of diabolical

witchcraft. They came to be viewed

as individuals in league with


Nearly all those who fell under

suspicion of witchcraft were women,

evidently regarded by witch-hunters

as especially susceptible to the

Devil's blandishments. A lurid

picture of the activities of

witches emerged in the popular

mind, including covens, or

gatherings over which Satan

presided; pacts with the Devil;

flying broomsticks; and animal

accomplices, or familiars. Although

a few of these elements may

represent vestiges of pre-Christian

religion, the old religion probably

did not persist in any organized

form beyond the 14th century. The

popular image of witchcraft,

perhaps inspired by features of

occultism or ceremonial magic as

well as by theology concerning the

Devil and his works of darkness,

was given shape by the inflamed

imagination of inquisitors and was

confirmed by statements obtained

under torture.

The late medieval and early modern

picture of diabolical witchcraft

can be attributed to several

causes. First, the church's

experience with such dissident

religious movements as the

Albigenses and Cathari, who

believed in a radical dualism of

good and evil, led to the belief

that certain people had allied

themselves with Satan. As a result

of confrontations with such heresy,

the Inquisition was established by

a series of papal decrees between

1227 and 1235. Pope Innocent IV

authorized the use of torture in

1252, and Pope Alexander IV gave

the Inquisition authority over all

cases of sorcery involving heresy,

although local courts carried out


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