Science and Superstition in the Elizabethan Era

The Elizabethan Era occurred during a time where advancements in science began to emerge and superstition was a way for the people to justify unexplainable events. The intellectual changes during the renaissance were greatly impacted by societal shifts from a religious perspective to one controlled by scientific principles (Shreve). Back then, science was known as natural philosophy and the most prominent advancements occurred in astronomy, sparked by Nicolaus Copernicus (Taylor).

Copernicus was the first astronomer to provide reasons supporting the idea that the sun is the center of the universe and that Earth turns on its own axis. This was highly controversial since many theologians believed the heliocentric model to contradict statements from the Bible and people had trouble accepting the fact that the earth is only a small part of the solar system (Alchin). The book in which Copernicus described his conclusion was not released until the end of his life, at which point he received a copy on his deathbed (Alchin). Many scientists afterwards began to discover further evidence to support the heliocentric model.

Possibly the most notable of these people was Italian scientist Galileo Galilei. He created one of the very first telescopes, which had about the same power as an opera glass (Alchin). He used it to observe the sun spinning on its axis, Venus shifting phases according to its position compared to the sun, multiple moons revolving around Jupiter, and thousands of stars making up the milky way (Alchin). In essence, Galileo argued that these discoveries supported Copernicus’ theory (Alchin). Throughout his career, Galileo also managed to derive equations relating acceleration. Time, distance, and velocity expressed as geometric rations (Bergin and Speake). Furthermore, German scientist Johannes Kepler discovered the mathematics and laws behind the movement of planets. This clarified that each planet follows an elliptical orbit around the sun, helping discover the idea of gravitation (Alchin).

Another area of advancement was human physiology. Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish scientist, performed dissections and used them to provide a detailed description of the human body, thus founding anatomy. William Harvey, and English scientist observed animals and ended up discovering the circulation of blood, founding human physiology (Alchin).

The methods of each of these scientists ended up building the scientific method. Prior to these times, most students had accepted what various philosophers, such as Aristotle, had proclaimed to be true, without much verification or justification. For example, Kepler was the very first person to reject Aristotle’s idea that since all “perfect motion” is circular, the planets must too orbit in a circular pathway. Likewise, it was a very long wait before William Harvey revealed that Aristotle had been incorrect in assuming that blood arose in the liver, traveled to the heart, and then through veins was transported throughout the body. The new scientific method was based on observation and experimentation. Students learned how important is was not to take things for granted, how to overlook the “facts” relayed by authority, and instead direct their attention to nature in order to obtain true factual information. What is known as modern science is heavily based on and can trace its roots from the developments that occurred in the scientific fields during the Elizabethan Era (Alchin).

The areas that remained unexplained by scientific discoveries at that time, were usually credited to superstitions that were based off of religion. The most prominent superstition in Elizabethan England was the fear of witches. Nearly all unexplainable events and tragedies were justified as the work of witches. They were especially targeted during times when people died from horrible diseases, like the Black Plague, when animals died, during bad harvests, when houses burned down, and other disasters (Alchin). Witches were most often women who were old, poor, and single with no one to protect them. Out of a total of 270 Elizabethan witch trials, only 23 accused men of witchcraft.

As this fear intensified, the Catholic Church defined a witch as anyone with a knowledge of herbs, such as mandrake, datura, monkshood, cannabis, belladonna, henbane and hemlock, because “those who used herbs for cures did so only through a pact with the Devil, either explicit or implicit (Alchin). Possessing these herbs, led to execution by burning in most of Europe and hanging in England. Sometimes “ducking” would be performed to test if someone was a witch by throwing the person into a river after tying their hands and feet – escape was a sign of witchcraft (Witches and Magic). Before the Renaissance, there were also “wise women” considered white witches who were helpful. However, the difference between these witches and “black witches” who harmed others was lost during witch hunts (Alchin).

There were also many other smaller religious superstitions that were believed in daily life and have lasted until now. For example, saying “God bless you” after a sneeze became commonplace because the people believed it to ward off the devil, who could enter one’s body when they opened their mouth to sneeze (Alchin). A black cat crossing one’s path was also unlucky because black meant evil and cats were associated with witches. Walking under ladders was bad luck because they were used in executions. Leaving shoes on the table invited death. Spilling salt/pepper was told to be bad luck since they were very expensive (Alchin).

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