17th Century Wasn't as Brutal as You Think

The BBC's decision to show graphic scenes of torture and execution in its 17th-century drama Gunpowder has drawn protest. The historical community, though, has been quick to point out that nothing in its depiction of state terror is factually implausible. This was, you see, a brutal age.

In the Times, for example, Kate Williams has mounted a spirited defence of the show. England was ‘a divided, violent nation', she argues, where public executions were ‘sport', with a ‘carnival atmosphere'. Old women were ‘falsely accused, tormented and drowned'. Catholics were ‘burned alive'. Politics was bloody and life for ‘everyday Britons' was ‘riven and violent'. And so it remained, until the Enlightenment, which brought toleration and civility.

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