Superstition and 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
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. If it weren't for this widely held belief that
witches could cause harm, they would not have been seen as such a
threat that needed to be eliminated.
However, when compared with other European countries, Britain has a
relatively low number of executions for witchcraft. Even in the most
prolific region of England, Essex, only 26% were executed compared to
over 90% in Europe. This statistic can be traced back to the popular
beliefs and superstitions held by the people of Britain. Although it
was generally accepted that witches could cause harm, it was not
thought that this required a pact with the devil. Therefore harmful
witchcraft was tried under the secular crime of maleficium, this meant
that the accused were punished according to the scale of the damage
they caused. Convicted witches could be given short prison sentences
or fines for more minor crimes. In Europe witches would be simply
executed as they had formed a pact with the devil. The belief in
Britain that witches did not necessarily form a compact with the devil
had a crucial impact in curbing the use of state-sponsored torture. If
torture was not used, witch-hunts would not develop as spectacularly
of the mass-hunts of Europe.
The British legal system in the way that it was organised in itself
helped to curb the development of witch-hunts. The system was
organised so that the victims would have to bring proceedings against
the witches as opposed to the 'faceless' state. This would mean the
'victims' of the witchcraft might not initiate a trial for fear of
counter accusation. The way that the secular courts were organised was
also important as the judges presiding over cases...