During the early modern period of European history, stretching roughly from 1450 to 1750, thousands of persons, most of them women, were tried for the crime of witchcraft
About half of these individuals were executed, usually by burning.
Some witchcraft trials took place in the various ecclesiastical courts of Europe, institutions which played an important role in regulating the moral and religious life of Europeans during the Middle Ages and the early modern period.
More commonly, especially after 1550, the trials were held in the secular courts – the courts of kingdoms, states, principalities, duchies, counties and towns. The geographical distribution of cases throughout Europe was extremely uneven. In some jurisdictions there were very few prosecutions, if any at all, whereas in others hundreds and sometimes thousands of persons were tried over the course of three centuries. There was also an uneven chronological distribution of witchcraft trials. A gradual increase in the number of prosecutions during the fifteenth century was followed by a slight reduction in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and finally a gradual decline in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
Although the number of witches who were tried varied from place to place and from time to time, all of these witchcraft prosecutions can be considered parts of one very large judicial operation that took place only in Europe and only during the early modern period. This general but nevertheless clearly defined historical development is usually referred to as either the European witch-craze or the European witch-hunt.
Witch-hunting involved the identification of individuals who were widely believed to be engaged in a secret activity. Witches were hunted, therefore, in the same way that members of an underground movement or secret organization would be hunted today. This was a task undertaken by various individuals, usually judicial authorities but sometimes professional witch-finders. Acting on the basis of accusations, denunciations or sometimes mere rumour, these men arrested persons whose names came to their attention, interrogated them, and did everything in their power to extract confessions from them. Their cruelty went far. People that didn’t confess, were thrown into a lake with a heavy stone tied to their feet. It was believed that witches didn’t weigh anything, therefore anyone who freed himself and floated on the surface, would be found guilty.
Sometimes judicial authorities continued this investigation by forcing confessing witches to name their accomplices, the type of legal prosecution most commonly associated with the word ‘witch-hunt’ today. The final stage of the witch-hunt was, in most cases, the formal conviction of the accused, followed by their execution, banishment or imprisonment.