Home > Witchcraft in the Elizabethan Age
Elizabethan age is known as an era of intellectual growth and Renaissance. Strangely enough the intellectualism led to the persecution of the witches and believers in the witchcraft.
The introduction of the press by Johannes Gutenberg gave impetus to the process of learning. The pressmen printed Bibles and books on religious and spiritual subjects. Unfortunately these subjects also discussed the Witchcraft in denigrative terms. This resulted in resistance to witchcraft and witch hunt.
The very fact that witches were hunted, prosecuted and killed in the 15th and 16th centuries testified to the deep belief of the Elizabethan intellectuals in the powers of the witchcraft.
Several books were published on Astrology, Alchemy and Magic, which obviously led to the enhanced interest in witches and their craft. Queen Elizabeth passed the 1562 Elizabethan Witchcraft Act 'agaynst Conjuracions Inchauntmentes and Witchecraftes'.
The Elizabethans had deep faith in witchcraft. The faith, unfortunately, was more in its destructive rather than constructive powers. For example, they blamed the witches for any events that they could not control or explain.
One of such events was the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague or the deadly Black Death for which there was no remedy. When they could not find any logical reason for this epidemic, they blamed the witches for its spread. Similarly, whenever there were bad harvests, fires that burnt down the houses or when the foods were curdled, the blame was targeted at the witches.
They did not understand that the plague could not be cured because of the lack of medical knowledge, or, the losses suffered when the fires burnt down the houses could not be reclaimed due to the absence of fire insurance. And since the losses suffered in terms of human beings and property were huge and irreparable, they released their anger against the witches.
Since the rich and the powerful sections of the Elizabethan society could not be touched, it was the old, poor, unprotected and hapless women who were accused of being witches. According to the historical evidence, out of 270 witches who were tried, 247 were women and 23 men. Of these women, most were singles who kept pets for company. The pets were considered source of witchcraft.
Another reason that more women than men were targeted for witchcraft was that the Elizabethan society was male dominated. Men were all powerful and women enjoyed few rights. They were expected to be subservient to men.
The convents that sheltered and educated the women were closed. This increased the number of poor and unprotected women. Any effort to lend them moral and financial support was resisted by the men. Since there were no trained doctors around, people turned to the wise women who used herbs to cure their ailments. The common herbs used in medicines, brews, ointments and potions were mandrake, datura, monkshood, belladonna, henbane and hemlock.
As the fear of witches and witchcraft increased, the Catholic Church extended its definition of witchcraft to include anyone with the knowledge of herbs. It was alleged that these people had pact with the Devil either “explicit or implicit”.
Those who cured the health problems with psychedelic herbs were burnt to death. The punishment to witches in England under the 1562 law was, however, not by burning at stake, but by hanging.
Queen Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn, herself had been accused of witchcraft on the specious ground that a sixth finger was growing on her fifth finger. Moreover, she had a prominent mole on her neck. The queen, being a woman and the daughter of a victim, had a lenient view on witchcraft. Also, she was learning Astrology from John Dee. This, perhaps, explained her leniency.
Witches passed their knowledge of witchcraft on to their children. They were divided into black and white witches. Black witches were those who practiced the secret arts to harm others. They were naturally persecuted and killed while the white witches were considered wise women or cunning folks.
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