What kind of beliefs and superstitions did people have in Elizabethan times?

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Jessica Gardner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The following list was taken from a post on the eNotes blog regarding the strange superstitions of the Elizabethan era, as recalled by a nobleman referred to only as "Sir Cecil" in a document he left behind.

“During the era of my youth,” Sir Cecil recalled, “it was most important these be followed at all times.”

1. One must always say “God bless you” when one wouldst sneeze or else the devil would enter ones body and possess it while the mouth was open.

2. The seventh son of a seventh son possessed great magical properties. If Your Majesty is familiar with the writings of the great contemporary author Miss Joanne Rowling, one wouldst be aware she borrowed this belief though in her literature. It did not apply only to sons but daughters also and the great witch Ginevra Weasley was the seventh child of a father who was a seventh son.

3. Peacocks are ill omens, and the eye on the peacock feather is the evil eye of Satan or one of his foul minions.

4. Trees are filled with magick and one can guard against ill omens like the dreaded peacock feather by touching an object made of wood.

5. One must never put one’s shoes on the table for this shall bring death upon one’s household.

6. If one should spill salt or pepper this is a great ill omen and a great misfortune, for such spices are extremely expensive.

7. The greatest and most wicked of all ill omens is the eclipse. If such a horrible malfunction of the heavens is to occur, it shall bring death, destruction, and poor manners upon the kingdom. Even the great noble houses shall not be immune to its ill effects. One must always be wary of this time of great peril!

Great thanks to Your Majesty for allowing a meager and humble subject such as myself to send you this information I have gathered. May your glorious reign last forever.

Your most loyal subject,

Sir Cecil

durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The execution of witches was still widely accepted in Elizabethan times and fear and superstition controlled much of society. Having converted the country back to Protestantism, Elizabeth I was a strong monarch, even having her Jewish doctor executed for apparently trying to poison her.  

Queen Elizabeth had her own astrologer who she would regularly consult and always believe. Every village would have had someone, often an old wizened woman, who would cast spells to protect them or their cattle or whatever they needed.   

Trust was a huge issue and medical conditions which today can be treated were often believed to be devil possession. Macbeth has superstition at its very core and Lady Macbeth reveals her madness as "more needs she the divine than the physician."  (V.i.72)

Macbeth takes courage from the witches words. He sees the ghost of Banquo and continues his quest to remain undiscovered whilst committing more murders. Ghosts were often used in Elizabethan drama to drive the plot forward and even provoked action from susceptible characters. The ghost in Hamlet serves a s a warning of the consequences still to be faced after death.

Spirits were also a prominent feature in Elizabethan times and fairies. A Midsummer Night's Dream reveals the more humorous side to the fairies and witches dramas which would have allowed the audience to lose themselves in something less serious but imaginative. Dreams would often be interpreted and misunderstandings abound. Audiences would have been able to consider their own sometimes fantastical versions of the truth.