This has been the most difficult generation so far, to get a sense of how we saw the world. I suspect there was a seismic shift in world view that was starting to become visible at this time. It is as if people had one foot in the old reality and one in the new.
This generation saw the last witch trial in Britain. From this generation back, a person could be tried on suspicion of being a witch on the accusation of having caused another to waste away. A generation earlier, number 485, saw the Salem witch trials in North America. And a generation earlier than that, the herbalist Nicholas Culpeper spent a period in prison in London after being convicted of witchcraft.
Secondly, animals could be tried and found guilty of crimes. In Brazil in 1713, a Franciscan monastery was overcome by termites. The termites were summoned to an ecclesiastical tribunal. After legal arguments with the cases for the defence and prosecution thoroughly explored, a compromise was reached. The termites were God’s creatures, and so the monks were commanded to find a suitable home for them. The termites were commanded to stay in their new accommodation.
These two examples point to a different perspective on cause and effect from the one which prevails now. What we would now dismiss as harmless superstition was clearly taken seriously by the legal profession, themselves educated people. It makes me wonder what world view was the norm for the majority of the population, who had less formal education than they did. When a poor family couldn’t afford the services of a doctor, who did they turn to, for example? And if things didn’t turn out favourably, how did they understand it?
The generation that saw these legal trials also saw Isaac Newton as president of the Royal Society: a man who demonstrated that a falling stone and the movement of the planets in their orbits could be understood by the same three laws of motion. He and his colleagues participated in the Enlightenment thinking and exchange of ideas that was gathering momentum in their world. In the same spirit, the first daily newspaper was launched in London during this generation, rapidly followed by others in towns across Britain.
Another phenomenon during this generation – Freemasonry started to enter the public domain. The Grand Lodge of England was formed of the amalgamation of four pre-existing lodges. In the following generation more Grand Lodges were formed, in Scotland and Ireland, and eventually around the world.
Another change: the protestant world (apart from Britain) started to adopt the Gregorian calendar (the one we use now, with a leap year every four years) in preference to the Julian calendar, which was inaccurate and had slipped out of step with the seasons. This meant that days had to be skipped in order to bring it back into line. As the reform had been initiated by pope Gregory over a century previously, the catholic countries of southern Europe and those within their sphere of influence had adopted it long before. But as we have seen, there were barriers between the protestant and catholic worlds.
This generation also saw the end of the Little Ice Age, a cold period that had lasted from the middle of the previous century. The winter of 1709 was particularly harsh. People’s clothes had to be thick to protect them from the cold, which perhaps explains why they look overdressed to us now.
This painting, in the Dutch style, is of a family in Boston at the turn of the century. Given the cold weather, it’s not surprising that it was normal to wear a hat. Women wore bonnets and men wore tricorn hats.