If you've ever lived in a small town, you know that small sleights or misinterpreted gestures can quickly become a big deal when the local rumor mill kicks into gear. Rural Europe was no different during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Well, on second thought, there was one big difference: A scorned neighbor in the late Renaissance Europe might accuse you of being a witch.
Take a second to imagine what that would be like. You bring some food over to a neighbor who's just had a baby, and the next day the child comes down with a terrible illness. Or maybe you get upset with someone and make a half-joking quip wishing him harm. You didn't mean it! But before you know it, local officials are dragging you off to a witch trial where logic doesn't matter and torture is the preferred way to draw a confession. Hopefully you can somehow convince the superstitious executioner that you aren't a witch, but if not, you'll be hanged, beheaded or burned at the stake. Yikes!
By the late 1700s, the witch craze was largely over, but not before some 40,000 to 100,000 people had been killed under such outrageous circumstances as those mentioned above. Women — particularly elderly women — bore the brunt of this fanaticism: Eighty percent of those brutally executed in this dark chapter of European history were female. But as the examples above show, these killings weren't some kind of systematic cleansing by the Catholic Church to wipe out pre-Christian religions and the women who perpetuated them. The witch trials, sadly, had more to do with petty, vindictive and superstitious accusers who were empowered by low-level local authorities [source: Miller].