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

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

Join 14,349 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap We’re exploring the Churchill War Rooms – the secret underground headquarters of the British government during the Second World War – in partnership with @ImperialWarMuseums for #MuseumInstaSwap.
The fear that London would be the target of aerial bombardment had troubled the government since the First World War and in 1938 the basement of a Whitehall building was chosen as the site for the Cabinet War Rooms. From 1940 to 1945 hundreds of men and women would spend thousands of vital hours here and it soon became the inner sanctum of British government.
Here you can see the wall of the Map Room, detailing the positions of British convoys across the world, which has not changed since 1945! Today in #MuseumInstaSwap we’re beneath the streets of Westminster to discover the hidden secrets of the #WW2 Cabinet War Rooms, which is part of @ImperialWarMuseums.
This is the underground bunker that protected the heart of Britain’s government during the Second World War as Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his inner circle plotted the route to Allied victory. It’s an amazing experience to step back in time and walk in the footsteps of Churchill, glimpsing what life would have been like during the tense days and nights of the Second World War. This archive photo shows Churchill at his desk in the Map Room at the Cabinet War Rooms. Beside him, Captain Pym of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) takes a telephone call. To this day, the Map Room has remained exactly as it was left on the day the lights were switched off in 1945.
© IWM (HU 44788) The collections of the @ImperialWarMuseums present stories of wartime life from many perspectives. During the First World War, hunger seriously affected the civilian populations of all the combatant nations.
Germany introduced numerous government controls on food production and sale, and these rationing cards show how the distribution of essentials such as meat, bread and milk was restricted. But the British naval blockade caused real suffering, even starvation. Serious shortages of food and resources led to price rises, riots and strikes.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap In the First World War Galleries of @ImperialWarMuseums there are many stories of what life was like for ordinary civilians. These ration books show how staple foodstuffs like meat, butter and sugar were carefully distributed in the UK, where hunger caused by naval blockages was a serious threat on the home front.
The government introduced rationing in London early in 1918 and extended it nationwide by the summer. People now got fair shares of food and although supplies were limited, nobody starved. British civilians defied German expectations by accepting this state intrusion into their daily lives.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap MuseumInstaSwap Today for #MuseumInstaSwap we’re exploring the fascinating First World War Galleries at @ImperialWarMuseums, to learn more about the impact of the war on ordinary people.
Hunger seriously affected the civilian populations of all the combatant nations. Agriculture and food distribution suffered as a result of the war, and naval blockades reduced food imports, which forced up prices and encouraged hoarding. Governments responded by putting price controls on staple foodstuffs.
Women and children queuing for food became a common sight in cities across Europe. This photograph from the archives of @ImperialWarMuseums shows food queues in Reading, England. The need to queue was lessened when rationing was introduced during 1918.
© IWM (Q 56276)
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,349 other followers

%d bloggers like this: