The persecution of people practicing witchcraft in the 16th century began in England in 1589. However, the country's concern with witchcraft had been growing throughout the century, largely in response to the current social, economic and religious conditions in the country. Although people accused of practicing witchcraft had been persecuted since the 15th century, the height of the hysteria that included witch hunts, trials and mass executions occurred from the mid-16th to the mid-17th century. This dark time period is often referred to as the Burning Times. By 1550, churches and courts made witchcraft illegal by passing strict laws against its practice. These laws included harsh methods of punishment for those found guilty. These punishments were swiftly carried out and ranged from forcing the accused people to confessing and naming other witches to public hanging or being burned to death. Witches stood trial in a variety of ways that ranged from a community open forum to a church hearing to secular court trials. The majority of accused witches were females who were social misfits or community outcasts. Older women who did not regularly attend church were often among the unfortunate to be accused and killed, thanks to their diminished role in male-dominated society. Men also died if they were identified as practicing witchcraft or being an accomplice to one.
As recently as the 14th century, society took a very tolerant attitude toward witchcraft. However, thanks to the changing religious and social climates, society turned a hard eye to witchcraft and began using it as an excuse for many unexplained negative occurrences. From the Black Plague to hallucinations and out-of-character behavior, witchcraft became the reason for the inexplicable. By the 1550s, England was passing strict laws that prohibited the use of witchcraft and resulted in severe punishment for witches. One of the tipping point cases in England was the Witches of Warboys trials in 1589. That prominent trial fanned the flames of witch hunting hysteria for nearly another century. By the late 17th century the hysteria had reached the American colonies, resulting in the well-known Salem Witch Trials. However, the witch hunt had much more devastating effects in Europe than it did in the colonies. In some European countries, nearly 25,000 witches were sentenced to death. In the colonies, only about 150 were accused and less than half that number died. Additionally, in the colonies many who died did so of poor jail conditions, not from execution.
The 16th century witch-hunts were widespread geographically. They started in Europe and included both Eastern and Western European countries (from Finland to England). By the 17th century concerns about witchcraft had also spread to the American colonies.
Patrons of witchcraft were accused of doing a number of different "evil" things. Among their sins were the ability to cast spells, communicate with the Devil and take a different form (often an animal) and do "evil" things. Witches were identified as evil due to their association with the Devil, which was heresy against the church and state. It was believed that a witch received her powers from a pact with the Devil. The Devil communicated with the witch and gave him or her the knowledge necessary to carry out evil acts. Most witches were accused by someone they had recently come in contact with who suddenly fell ill or experienced inexplicable fits. Often times other witnesses came forward and testified...