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The Rise Of The Witchcraft Craze In 17th Century Britain

2934 words - 12 pages

The Rise of the Witchcraft Craze in 17th Century Britain

Accusations of witchcraft date back to 900 AD, but killing following
accusation reached a fever pitch in the late 16th century Europe, and
late 17th century Britain. Germany and Scotland were the areas that
were most heavily purged, with an estimated 4000 witches dying in
Scotland and 26 000 dying in Germany (Gibbons). The Inquisition in
Britain happened against a backdrop of new ideas competing with
established traditions which created a sense of confusion and
religious hysteria amongst the general population. A number of
theories have developed from historians as to what sparked the
witchcraft craze; ideas of the Reformation and rise of Puritanism have
been published alongside beliefs of the witch hunt being a
'gendercide' (Katz).

The transformation of the established church in Britain alongside the
rise of Puritanism created a sense of disorder and fear. The church
was an integral part of the British society in the 17th century, and
the Reformation which featured the split of the Catholic church under
Henry VIII provoked feelings of uncertainty amongst the general
population. The weakness of the established church had been revealed,
generating disunity among the highly conservative and religious
population. Nachman Ben-Yehuda describes the effect of this
transformation in relation to the witchcraze: "Where the Catholic
Church was weakest {they} experienced a virulent witch craze. Where
the Catholic Church was strong hardly any witch craze occurred". This
correlates to the figures for Italy, Spain and Portugal, countries
where the church was strong, having much lower figures than Britian
and the less religiously indoctrinated population of Germany.

The rise of Puritanism from Protestantism saw an increasing militant
and conservative attitude to witchcraft being adopted. It could be
conceived that this old-fashioned attitude which developed against a
backdrop of scientific development, sparked passion in the Puritan
church to purge their society of witches. Smith, the secularist
historian, and therefore with perhaps a biased view, notes, "A patent
cause of the mania was the zeal and bibliolatry of Puritanism".
Johnson concurs with this statement by observing, "Above all,
Puritanism was the dynamic behind the increase in witch-hunting". Part
of the Puritan belief is the creation of a 'land of saints' which
meant that Puritans would actively seek to banish evil from their
communities, which in the 17th century, took the form of witchcraft.
Mainly stimulated by the Civil War, Puritanism rose in credibility and
following as a religion. Through the desire to create a 'land of
saints' and with papal sanction (Papal Bull 1484), religious believers
were legitimately able to accuse any whom they felt were guilty of

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