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.

    Like

  2. mountainmae says:

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

    Like

  3. ounoginiri says:

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

    Like

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Writer and women's rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft was born #onthisday in 1759.
#history #art #portrait The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was born #onthisday in AD 121.

Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-80), who appears on the coin set in this ring, is best known for his philosophical work, The Meditations. Although he was the most powerful man in the Roman Empire, he dwelt on the emptiness of glory: 'Shall mere fame distract you? Look at the speed of total oblivion of all and the void of endless time on either side of us and the hollowness of applause... For the whole earth is but a point, and of this what a tiny corner is our dwelling-place, and how few and paltry are those who will praise you.' It is ironic that such sentiments as these have preserved his fame to this day.
#ancientRome #emperor #history #museum #BritishMuseum Good luck to all in the #LondonMarathon today! Be inspired by this Spartan running girl from 520-500 BC, which features in our exhibition #DefiningBeauty It’s World #PenguinDay! This handsome King Penguin on display in the Enlightenment Gallery is on loan from the @natural_history_museum
#penguin #museum #BritishMuseum Born #onthisday in 1599: Oliver Cromwell. Here’s a terracotta portrait bust from around 1759
#history #Cromwell #art #bust Greece lightning: this exquisite bronze depicts Zeus, chief of the Greek gods #FridayFigure

In ancient Greece, powerful, shape-shifting gods provided compelling subjects for artists. The famous sculptor Phidias created a gold and ivory statue of Zeus, ruler of the gods, that was over 13 metres high for his temple at Olympia. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it symbolised the awesome presence of the god at his sanctuary site. There was also drama to be found in the gods’ ability to change their form as a means of disguise. Zeus, ruler of the Olympian gods, could take animal form – he seduced Leda as a swan, carried away Europa as a bull and Ganymede as an eagle.

This bronze statuette splendidly represents the majesty of Zeus, ruler of the gods on Mount Olympus and lord of the sky. Zeus holds a sceptre and a thunderbolt, showing his control over gods and mortals, and his destructive power. Although just over 20cm high, this exquisite work appears to be a copy of a much grander statue that does not survive.

You can see this figure in our exhibition #DefiningBeauty, until 5 July 2015.
Bronze statuette of Zeus. Roman period, 1st–2nd century AD, said to be from Hungary.
#art #museum #exhibition #ancientGreece #Zeus #gods
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