Witchcraft in the Jacobean Era

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  • 0:03 Jacobean Witchcraft
  • 0:46 Religion in Jacobean England
  • 1:58 Witches
  • 4:04 Witchcraft & Women
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The English have long believed in witches, but this reached a fever-pitch in the Jacobean era. In this lesson, we'll explore Jacobean England and see why their fear of witchcraft reached such extreme heights.

Jacobean Witchcraft

Double, double toil and trouble. European cultures have had some pretty defined ideas about witchcraft - but where did those ideas come from? Many were cemented during the reign of James I (1603-1625), a period we call the Jacobean era of English history. Amongst the many peculiar traits of the Jacobean era was an absolute fascination with witches and black magic. It was in this time that the accusations of demonic possession and magic in English society led to dozens of trials, arrests, and even executions. So, what was happening in this time? Was it social paranoia? Maybe it was a collective madness?

Religion in Jacobean England

To begin unraveling the Jacobean fascination with witchcraft in the early 17th century, we have to start by examining religion. Religion was extremely important in this time period, as all of Europe was divided in the clash between the Protestant and Catholic branches of Christianity. England was a Protestant nation, and anti-Catholic measures were fiercely enforced across England. Some Catholics retaliated by attempting to kill the king. Since James I was the intended victim of the famous Gunpowder Plot in 1605, this event did not encourage him to become more lenient on Catholics.

We can think of religious conflict in Jacobean England as an issue that was nearly omnipresent. People feared Catholics in England, reported their neighbors for non-Protestant behavior, and lived in near-paranoia. During this time, Puritanism reached new levels of popularity and was often defined by the insistence that the Anglican Church needed to be purified of Catholic influences. In this culture of suspicion, fervor, paranoia, and a willingness to eliminate opposition by any means necessary, Catholics were not the only threat: the Devil himself was the ultimate adversary.

Witches

James I came into power already a staunch believer in witchcraft and its demonic influence. In fact, as King James VI of Scotland (his title before he inherited the English throne), he wrote a book on witchcraft entitled Daemonologie, in which he argued that witchcraft was alive and well in England and that it must be vigorously persecuted. Upon becoming King of England, he immediately set out to work with Parliament in passing new laws to increase penalties for witchcraft and other sorts of dark magic.

It is important for us to remember that the belief in witches did not emerge in this period. Beliefs surrounding so-called witches had been part of British society for ages, likely dating back to the first co-mingling of native Anglo and Celtic traditions with Christianity. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church very successfully launched a campaign to eradicate the remnants of pagan religions and practices across Europe by associating practices like healing magic and rituals with devil worship.

By 1600, most English people believed that witches gained their power from making a contract with the Devil and selling their souls. They would use this power to disrupt English life with curses, disease, famine, and discontent. The Devil was said to have given many witches a stick which would fly to him when summoned, which is the origin of the association between witches and broomsticks. This popular view of witches was encouraged by figures like William Shakespeare, who used many folk traditions in his plays. Perhaps his most famous witches are the cauldron-watching sisters in Macbeth, a play first performed around 1606.

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