British Museum blog

On witchcraft

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Toil and Trouble looks at a foiled plot to kill a Scottish king.

A church offering in the shape of a ship from Leith, Scotland, which is the object at the centre of today's programme. © National Museum of Scotland

Keith Thomas, historian

The key to understanding why people made witchcraft accusations lies in personal relationships in the villages and in the countryside. Typically, a witch was somebody who lived quite nearby and whom you had encountered. And typically that witch had a grievance. It wasn’t motiveless malignity, there was thought to be some good reason why the witch wanted to do you or your household harm.

Although there were lots of grievances, the most typical one was that the witch had come to the door begging for food or asking to borrow some household utensil and was turned away from the door and the next day the little child in the house fell ill or the wife was taken ill or somebody died. And, in my view, it was really the guilty conscience of the householder that led to the accusation because in those days borrowing and lending was an acknowledged neighbourly duty.

Why is it that witches were predominantly women? I think there is a combination of reasons for this. The first and perhaps most important reason is that old women, widows, were the most dependent members of the community. They are the ones whose names figure most frequently on the lists of people in receipt of poor relief, and they were the ones most likely to be caught up in this situation of begging for help and not getting it. But on top of that there was undoubtedly a feeling that women embodied some curious supernatural dimension. For example, the effects produced by a witch were more or less the same as those which were popularly attributed to a menstruating woman. When a woman was menstruating it was said – and this was even in the case in my boyhood, I grew up on a farm – that they shouldn’t come near the dairy because the butter wouldn’t set and that if they looked at a mirror they’d tarnish it.

In the later 17th century, the belief that old women could harm others supernaturally was beginning to wane among the educated clergy, gentry and academics in universities. At that stage there were those who felt that the belief in the existence and possibility of witchcraft was integral to establish religion because if you said there were no evil spirits at work, you were really denying some primary tenets of Christianity. You were saying effectively that there was no devil or that the devil had no physical powers, and by saying that you were suggesting that God couldn’t intervene in the world either. So a lot of people tried to prop up orthodox religion by reasserting the reality of witchcraft and investigating cases and publishing information about it and so on, to reassure people that the world really was a place where a great contest between good and evil spirits was occurring.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Toil and Trouble

Find out more:

Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. ritaroberts says:

    I don’t think I would have liked living in the 17th century with all that witchcraft. I believe there are good witches today.


  2. mountainmae says:

    Fear based thinking is a frightening today as it was then.


  3. ounoginiri says:

    It’s very interesting how witchcraft has a different colour in different countries and geografic areas.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,503 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Room 95 includes some of the finest Chinese ceramics in the world dating from the 3rd to the 20th centuries, from the collection of Sir Percival David. Some of the ceramics are unique creations, while others were mass-produced in batches of several hundred at a time. Technological innovations and the use of regional raw materials mean that Chinese ceramics are visually diverse.
Porcelain was first produced in China around AD 600. The skilful transformation of ordinary clay into beautiful objects has captivated the imagination of people throughout history and across the globe. Chinese ceramics, by far the most advanced in the world, were made for the imperial court, the domestic market, or for export.
#China #ceramics These white wares date from the late Ming to Republic period (1600–1949). Potters in the late Ming, Qing and Republican periods made copies of Ding wares at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, Zhangzhou in Fujian province and in other southern kilns. Potters at Zhangzhou under-fired the clay, which resulted in a ‘rice-coloured’ body. They then covered the ceramics either with a white slip and thin clear glaze or with an opaque white glaze.
See these amazing ceramics alongside nearly 1,700 objects from the collection of Sir Percival David in Room 95.
#ceramics #China Collector of Chinese ceramics Sir Percival David died #onthisday in 1964. He built the finest private collection of Chinese ceramics in the world. His passion for China inspired him to learn Chinese well enough to translate 14th-century art texts and to give money towards establishing the first public display of Chinese ceramics at the Palace Museum in Beijing. He was determined to use his own collection to inform and inspire people and to keep it on public view in its entirety. His collection is on long-term loan to the British Museum and has been on display in Room 95 since 2009.
Explore nearly 1,700 objects from Sir Percival David’s incredible collection in Room 95, including some of the finest Chinese ceramics in the world, dating from the 3rd to the 20th centuries.
#China #ceramics #todayimet goddess of love, Aphrodite. In this statue the voluptuous Aphrodite crouches down at her bath and turns her head sharply to her right, as if surprised by her audience. This Roman copy from the 2nd century AD is based on an original sculpture from Hellenistic Greece. This statue is lent to the British Museum by Her Majesty the Queen.
You can fall for the goddess of love in Room 23, one of our Greek and Roman sculpture galleries.
We’re celebrating @instagram's 5th birthday by sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the Museum #WWIM12 For @instagram's 5th birthday we’re sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the British Museum.
#todayimet this Ming Dynasty figure, who helped judge people in the underworld! The belief in Hell entered China with Buddhism during the early 1st millennium AD. This figure of a judge’s assistant is holding records of evil deeds under his left arm. Meet this fearsome figure (if you dare!) in our Asia gallery (Room 33) #WWIM12 We’re celebrating @instagram's 5th birthday by sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the Museum.
#todayimet Ramesses II, who ruled Egypt for 67 years over 3,000 years ago. This colossal statue is one of the largest pieces of Egyptian sculpture in the British Museum. Like all Egyptian statues, it was originally painted. Traces of pigment remain: black for the eye pupils, red for the skin, and blue and yellow for the stripes on the headcloth.
Meet the pharaoh for yourself in our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) #WWIM12

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,503 other followers

%d bloggers like this: