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The Blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead

Boundaries of Belief on the Eve of the Enlightenment

Michael F. Graham

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Thomas Aikenhead, sometime University of Edinburgh student, was in 1697 the last person executed for blasphemy in Britain.

Michael Graham uses the case to open a window into the world of late seventeenth-century Edinburgh and Scotland, exploring the core historical themes in a country in transition from confessional Reformation to polite, literary Enlightenment.

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Table of Figures
A Note on the Text
1: Edinburgh and Scotland in the mid-1690s
2: The Politics of Blasphemy
3: "So unnaturall a seasone": The Dreadful Year 1696
4: The Making of a Blasphemer
5: Trial and Execution
6: The Aftermath: Public Opinion in Scotland and England
Bibliography of Works Cited

About the Author

Michael F. Graham is Professor of History and sometime Director of the Humanities in the Western Tradition programme at the University of Akron, Ohio. His previous publications include 'The Uses of Reform: 'Godly Discipline' and Popular Behaviour in Scotland and Beyond, 1560-1610' (1996), which was awarded the Roland Bainton Prize by the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference. His research focuses on the religious, cultural and social history of early modern Britain.


Aikenhead’s execution is considered a milestone on Scotland’s dark road to the Enlightenment and Graham shows us with vividness and some effective dramatic timing, the worst that can happen when self-righteousness and political expediency join forces.
- Dilys Rose, Edinburgh Review
This is detailed and archivally informed historical writing - exploiting parish, judicial, ecclesiastical and private papers Graham delivers a textured sense of the tense atmosphere riven by a bustling and intellectually robust university and the assumptions of a civic society which assumed the rightness of divine punishment for public sins... An excellent contribution to contextualising both the possibilities and consequences of articulating dissident ideas in an anxious confessional culture.
- Justin Champion, Royal Holloway, University of London, Reviews in History
Michael F. Graham tackles the infamous Aikenhead case with a microhistorical approach. He examines Aikenhead's case in the context of the social history of 1690s Edinburgh and explains how a student became a scapegoat… Graham makes a convincing case that social factors influenced the fate of Thomas Aikenhead.
- Karen Baston, Early Modern Intelligencer
'Michael F Graham uses the “microhistorical method … to give us the best account yet of Aikenhead’s life and hanging. It is painstaking research – all those fugitive legal documents and trawling through ancient library indexes – but it adds up to a rounded and enthralling if necessarily incomplete and speculative picture'
- Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman