View Category:Era -> 1700-1799
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Hoaxes in the Eighteenth Century
During the eighteenth century, hoaxes became more than just a tool for cheating, scamming, fooling, and deceiving others. Instead, they were raised to a noble art. They became a means of educating and enlightening the public, and of improving the human condition itself.
By the early 1700s, international commerce had dramatically increased the wealth of Europe and America. As a result, a prosperous middle class emerged, committed to the forward-looking ideals of education and progress. But as the members of this middle class looked around themselves, they saw a popular culture still mired in medieval superstition. It was this lingering medievalism the educated classes felt had to be swept away in order for society to progress. Satirical hoaxes proved to be an excellent tool for exposing the credulous medieval mindset.
Enlightenment satirists such as Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Defoe crafted hoaxes that hammered away at medieval beliefs. For instance, Franklin mocked belief in witchcraft in his Witch Trial at Mount Holly hoax from 1730. And in 1708, Swift lampooned astrology in a mock almanac in which he predicted the death of a rival astrologer.
Likewise, when charlatans attempted to take advantage of superstitious beliefs, enlightenment scholars were quick to expose their falsehoods. For instance, when in 1726 a woman claimed to have given birth to rabbits, London doctors quickly exposed her lie (although a few initially believed her). During the medieval period, such a claim would likely have gone unchallenged.
Science and Literature
During the eighteenth century, people read and wrote more than in any previous period of history. They developed new ways of sharing information, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, newspapers, and periodicals. Literacy rates rose dramatically. As a consequence of this new emphasis on reading, print-based hoaxes and literary forgeries flourished. (See Eighteenth-Century Literary Hoaxes.)
Researchers were collecting so much new information about foreign lands and natural phenomena, that it was often difficult to tell the real from the false. For instance, confusion reigned when explorers first encountered the Duckbilled Platypus in Australia. Was this creature real or an ingenious fake? Similarly, reports of South American giants generated uncertainty in Europe.
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