The Elizabethan and Renaissance periods were a time of learning for not only England, but the entire world. With this intellectual growth, however, came the concept of witches and witchcraft, along with many other supernatural beings, and even superstitions, some of which related to witchcraft. One of many was saying “God bless you” to an individual after a sneeze, as it was said that the devil himself could enter a person’s body when they opened your mouth to sneeze.
Witches were the most common superstition used by the frightened townsfolk as an explanation for many unexpected events. Things like the frequent Black Death outbreaks and famines were explained by blaming witches. The people of the Elizabethan era had extremely limited knowledge of medical or ecological sciences, so when people died from terrible diseases, bad harvests, when houses were burnt down in fires or even when foods curdled, witches the ones to blame.
Those blamed for witchcraft were more often than not, the poor, old, and unprotected as well as single or widowed women. Of the 270 witch trials in England, 247 were women and only 23 were men. This can possibly be blamed on the immense gender bias of the Renaissance era. Men had much more power and rights than what women had, as they had very few and were expected to completely obey men. Women at the time had completely relied on the male family members to support and protect them. Women were expected to, however, create cures for illnesses along with their normal housekeeping. This was due to the sparsity of doctors, as well as healthcare in the elizabethan era.
‘Wise women’ or ‘cunning folk’ were the nicknames given to those who had used herbs for the purpose. Herbs and plants like mandrake, datura, cannabis, belladonna, hen-bane and hemlock were a few ingredients which were very commonly used in ointments and medicines for medical purposes. However, as the fear of witchcraft increased in Europe the Catholic Church had decided to add to its witchcraft definition that anyone with knowledge of herbs as ‘those who used herbs for cures did so only through a pact with the Devil, either explicit or implicit.’ Possession of such herbs, many of which, like cannabis, had hallucinatory effects, resulted in execution.
Those convicted of witchcraft or sorcery faced capital punishment, either by burning at the stake, hanging, or beheading.
During these said trials, witches were identified in a number of ways. One way was by searching for ‘witch marks.’ these marks were supposed to have been put on a person’s body by the devil himself. Another claim was ‘recovery after counter magic,’ if someone was ill and a spell had helped them recover from said ailment, this was seen as evidence that the original illness was caused by sorcery. Witches were also said to have what were referred to as ‘familiars’, demonic creatures which could appear to be cats, dogs, mice, rats and many other small animals; these familiars would do the witches’ bidding.
Water was another commonly used means of determining whether someone was a witch. Water was seen as pure, so a suspect would be tied up and flung in a body of water; if they sank, the water had ‘accepted’ them and therefore were not a witch, but if they floated, the water ‘rejected’ them, and they were deemed a witch. Many innocent people died from this, however. Yet another way to prove someone of witchcraft was to get a confession. Fearing for their lives and sometimes under torture, there are a few cases of the accused making false confessions and also naming others as witches.
However, the Elizabethan era was home to many revolutions and inventions as well. One of the most well known minds of this era being the scientist and architect, Leonardo da Vinci, who had designed incredibly detailed sketches of the airplane, helicopter, parachute, submarine, as well as an armored car. Other inventions that had changed the world had been invented at the time, some of which were printing and modern astronomy. As science advanced however, the fears of witchcraft slowly died down, prompting the halt of witch trials. Witches, have not been completely forgotten however, as witches are still widely used as demonic characters, and portrayed in Halloween decorations and horror movies.
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