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Witches had appeared both in literature – most prominently with the character of Circe in Homer's Odyssey – and in reality, with many individuals writing curses on leaden tablets across the Roman Empire.In parts of Early Medieval Europe there was a widespread and long-lasting belief in witches who rode out with a goddess, varyingly known as Diana, Herodias, Holda, or Perchta; in the Canon Episcopi, the Roman Catholic Church maintained that cavalcade did not really happen, and that instead it was an erroneous superstition caused by the Devil.Historians like Carlo Ginzburg and Éva Pócs have suggested that various beliefs pertaining to magic and witchcraft in Early Modern Europe represented a survival of shamanistic pre-Christian beliefs about visionary journeys.It was also during the Medieval period that the concept of Satan, the Biblical Devil, began to develop into a more threatening form in the minds of people than earlier.As a part of this, they gained new, supernatural powers that enabled them to work magic, which they would use against Christians.It was believed that they would fly to their nocturnal meetings, known as the Witches' Sabbath, where they would have sexual intercourse with demons.The witch-trials emerged in the 16th century out of the practices surrounding the persecution of heresy in the medieval period, although they reached their peak during the Wars of Religion and on the heels of the Protestant Reformation.This was accompanied by a number of developments in common Christian belief, i.e.
Belief in the witch, an individual who practiced malevolent magic, was not new to Modern Europe.
As Thurston noted, "By about 1200, it would have been difficult to be a Christian and not frequently hear of the devil ...
[and] by 1500 scenes of the devil were commonplace in the new cathedrals and small parish churches that had sprung up in many regions." In the 14th and 15th centuries, the concept of the witch in Christendom underwent a relatively radical change.
During the High Middle Ages, a number of heretical Christian groups, such as the Cathars and the Knights Templar had been accused of performing such anti-Christian activities as Satanism, sodomy and malevolent sorcery in France.
While the nucleus of the early modern "witch craze" would turn out to be popular superstition in the Western Alps, reinforced by theological rationale developed at or following the Council of Basel of the 1430s, what has been called "the first real witch trial in Europe", Thurston (2001) speaks of a shift in Christian society from a "relatively open and tolerant" attitude to that of a "persecuting society" taking an aggressive stance towards minorities characterized as Jews, heretics (such as Cathars and Waldensians), lepers or homosexuals, often associated with conspiracy theories assuming a concerted effort on the part of diabolical forces to weaken and destroy Christianity, indeed "the idea became popular that one or more vast conspiracies were trying to destroy Christianity from within." An important turning-point was the Black Death of 1348–1350, which killed a large percentage of the European population, and which many Christians believed had been caused by their enemies.
Among the best known of these trials were the Scottish North Berwick witch trials, Swedish Torsåker witch trials and the American Salem witch trials.