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.


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Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together the incredible Iron Age, Roman and early medieval collections of the British Museum and @nationalmuseumsscotland.
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Slab of grey sandstone with a cross on one side. From Monifieth, Angus, Scotland, c. AD 800–900. National Museums Scotland.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together stunning objects from the British and Irish Isles as well spectacular loans from across Europe.
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