As the extraordinary The Violence records at double-album length, 17th century British people believed in witches — believed in them enough to hang a few hundred poor, defenseless old women. Surely this has to be the apogee of superstition?
But there was another aspect to 17th century Britain, one that we would call ‘modern’. These are some of the things that happened in 17th century Britain: the introduction of coffee, tea and drinking chocolate; the introduction of coffee houses, where you could drink a cup of coffee and read a newspaper; the first printed newspapers; the first playing cards; the first gambling on horses; the first (indeed the only) written constitution in the history of England; the first cabinet government; the creation of the Bank of England; the first banknotes; the creation of the National Debt; the invention of the forceps to deliver babies; the invention of the pressure cooker; the first documentary histories; the introduction of opera to London; the first professional women actors; the introduction of telescopes and microscopes; the discovery of the vacuum; the creation of the scientific method of experiments, and the use of a journal to disseminate scientific knowledge.
Now this may sound as if the 17th century had one foot in the ancient and one foot in the modern. But this is not an entirely helpful way of seeing it. Because witch-persecution seemed perfectly reconcilable with all of the above to almost everyone. It’s to us that they seem incompatible. In a way an interest in witchcraft and magic and astrology not only coexisted with the scientific method; they were different elements of the same belief system. Isaac Newton believed in alchemy and angels and magic, and revolutionised modern mathematics.
No doubt there were charlatans among the astrologers in London; but there were also honest and sincere people. The song ‘Bold Astrologer’ tells of one. In the song the astrologer is visited by a young serving girl; but later the same day he might have been visited by Shakespeare, Cromwell, or Isaac Newton. Plenty of people, especially the educated, expressed scepticism about astrology, but nonetheless attended them, or bought their books.
There was not only a civil war in the 1640s and 50s but also a political revolution. Men and women (mainly men) argued about the democratic franchise and property rights. In a debate held in a church in 1647, one colonel in Cromwell’s army famously said: “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore … every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice [i.e. a vote] to put himself under”. People argued about the king’s prerogative and the power of parliament. They argued about whether a republic