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To what extent was superstition responsible for the witch-hunts in early modern Britain?

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Introduction

To What Extent Was Superstition Responsible For the Witch-hunts in Early Modern Britain? The people of Early Modern Britain were deeply superstitious and this aspect to their character had a major bearing on the course that the events of the witch-hunts took. The belief in witches was as illogical as many of the other beliefs that were popularly held in Early Modern Britain. The populous held many beliefs that were not based on fact. These beliefs would be very old and passed on from generation and built in to the character of every person. People had always believed in witches throughout Europe but there had not been any official attempt to exterminate them as a group. Witches thought to be causing harm to the community would not have been brought to trial but dealt with in the community, either by lynching them or by ostracising them from the community that they depended on. Superstition governed these proceedings and logical thinking did not figure. Although the existence of witches was not a superstitious belief as many people practised as witches in villages, the belief that they could cause harm by using their 'evil eye' was certainly a superstitious belief. ...read more.

Middle

Notably, these signs of witchcraft, although they do identify someone as a witch, would not secure a death sentence for the accused, at least in England. With the law as it stood, proof of harm through either confessions or victim's testament had to be found. There are many explanations for the witch-hunts of Early Modern Britain. Religious conflict is often cited as an important factor in the commencing of witch-hunts. However, this would not have had the same effect in Britain as it had on the continent, as the reformation was gradual in Britain and the changeover from one denomination to another was relatively smooth. Therefore, in Britain, the reformation would not have had such a great effect on the scale of the witch-hunts unlike Europe. There would have been no Protestant initiated hunts on Catholics or vice-versa. Britain was not Catholic so the papal bull of 1468 declaring witchcraft a crimen exceptum would not have been as effective in building up fear of witches among ordinary people. The period in which most of the witch-hunts took place has been called the 'age of anxiety' due to the prevalence of disease, war, famine, and poverty. ...read more.

Conclusion

However, in Britain, they did not have such a profound effect. There were sixteen German editions of the Malleus before it was translated into English. However, the witch treatises that slowly trickled into England did have an effect on the elite of Britain who then began to pursue the idea of witch-hunting more vigorously. Yet their views never fully penetrated the largely illiterate peasant population and so even though legislation was drafted to enable witch-hunting at their bidding, it was not utilized by the masses. The geography of England may have had a bearing on this. The Channel separating Britain from the continent would have bred an 'insular' attitude and an unwillingness to accept the 'foreign' ideas originating from Europe. Superstition was an integral element of the consciousness of the British people. This had some positive effects in curbing the witch-hunts, as it was not believed that witches formed a pact with the devil but had some negative effects in techniques like 'scratching' a witch. Superstitious belief in the power of witches let their position in society become a threat that needed to be eliminated. Therefore, underlying all of the social conditions necessary for a successful witch-hunt and the triggers in the community, this belief was a crucial driving force behind the persecution of 'witches' in their communities. ...read more.

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