Witches shed no tears, consorted with demons and flew across the sky with the devil, doing his bidding. They were solitaries who could utter a deadly hex on a neighbor or his livestock. They were healers and midwives who lost patients to infections and diseases no one understood. They were feared and scapegoated, hanged, burned, drowned, pressed to death under boulders, scratched bloody, driven from their communities and condemned to eternal perdition. And then the passion for witch hunts burnt itself out. Education, economics and exhaustion all played a part.

Double, Double Toil and Trouble

One of the reasons there is so much dark superstition attached to Shakespeare's great tragedy, "Macbeth," is that it was rumored the playwright included the language of a real witch's curse in his script. During the Middle Ages and well beyond the Bard's lifetime, a frenzy of speculation and accusation plagued England and Scotland regarding the existence and malevolent practices of witches. Political and religious jockeying for power fueled hysterical charges, prosecutions and punishments. In 1563, both England and Scotland adopted statutes making witchcraft a crime. The issue continued to be a flashpoint during the Protestant Reformation and the struggles of the British monarchs to defy Rome. Poverty, rural superstition and even the Black Plague contributed to fanatical belief in the evils of witchcraft.

Enlightenment and Industrialization

The tide turned gradually, as politics, economics and academics reconfigured the landscape. There was never provable logic to the accusations and convictions; the legal charges were as speculative as the rumors of flying through the air with the devil and other fantastical tales. Trials were disruptive and the threat of a capricious allegation was chilling. Cartesian philosophy shifted thinking away from unscientific and unprovable pagan beliefs. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 did away with the earlier statutes making witchcraft a crime, declared the idea of occult powers to be an illusion and ruled out accusations. Rough justice in the countryside continued to be a problem until the advent of pensions, agricultural industrialization and urbanization. Greater financial security in the early 20th century removed the lure of seeking compensation for economic losses -- like dead cows or chickens -- with charges of witch meddling.

Heresy and the Inquisition

Witches, or those accused of being witches, were tortured, hanged and burned during the Inquisition for heresy, not sorcery. Witchcraft, according to church interpretation, involved a pact with the devil and was therefore a mortal sin, punishable by excommunication and burning at the stake. Prosecutions of alleged heretics by Inquisitorial courts routinely included charges of witchcraft, casting the behavior as an irredeemable breach of faith. The Gutenberg printing press publication of the "Malleus Maleficarum," a detailed primer on identifying witchcraft, made it simpler to determine the signs of demonic possession. A papal bull condemning witches as heretics helped to fuel a frenzy across Europe that built from the early Middle Ages, peaked during the Renaissance and wound down with the help of an edict from the French King Louis XIV in 1687, ending witchcraft prosecutions. Belief in witchcraft was further weakened by skeptical inquisitors and the growing realization that innocent people had been condemned.

Salem's Crucible

Arthur Miller's play, "The Crucible," about the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, captures the roiling confusion of religious fervor, hysteria and ignorance that resulted in nearly 40 deaths on Gallows Hill or in prison in the summer and fall of 1692. The influence of European and British attitudes about pagan practices, devil pacts, and conjuration -- and the eager accusations of hostile or avaricious neighbors -- colored the views of colonial settlements. The British colonies followed British law for prosecuting those suspected of consorting with the devil. But upstanding citizens were slandered and hanged at Salem. The frenzy wore itself out as those condemned proved to be innocent, and the governor of Massachusetts bowed to the influence of Boston's educated class and dismissed the witchcraft courts.

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