Once Christianity took hold in the late Middle Ages, the witches who performed magic were seen as devil worshippers who held Black Masses, hexed people and flew around on brooms. This was also the time of the Reformation, which began as an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church but resulted in the creation of Protestant churches. Although it occurred primarily in the 16th century, it had its roots in the 14th century -- about the time when the witch hunt craze started.
Witch hunts in Europe and in the European colonies began around the 1450s and lasted until the 1750s. Because there were so many epidemics (like the Black Plague) and natural disasters, outbreaks of mass hysteria lead to pinpointing witches and witchcraft as the culprits.
During the various witch trials, prosecutors often used extreme torture to extract "confessions" from presumed witches. Innumerable witches were executed by public hanging or burning.
The Salem Witch Trials
In 1692, in Salem, Mass., there was an outbreak of witch hunts and witch trials that all started with some strange behavior from two young girls. The girls were having convulsions and screaming that they were being pinched or bitten. The doctor who examined them eventually decided they were under some sort of spell or bewitchment. One by one, women in the town of Salem and even in surrounding areas began being accused of witchcraft.
The servant of one of the girls' families was West Indian and admitted in court to dealings with the devil, flying on "sticks," and being upset because "they" made her hurt those girls. This testimony clinched the hysteria that was already building. Salem residents were then certain that the devil was alive and very active in their land -- and who knew what would happen next.
Over a period of nine months, more than 100 people were imprisoned for being witches, and 20 were executed. Finally, a new court was constituted to replace the General Court, which had been holding the trials. This court, the Superior Court of Judicature, reversed the policy of the previous court. From this point on, only three more people were found guilty of witchcraft, and those three were later pardoned.
Theories today are varied regarding what was actually wrong with the two young girls who started it all. Some say they were good actresses, and once they had started it and saw all of the attention they were getting, they had to keep it up. Another theory is that they actually had clinical hysteria, which would explain the convulsions.