RATIONALISM IN EUROPE.
ON THE DECLINING SENSE OF THE MIRACULOUS.
MAGIC AND WITCHCRAFT.
There is certainly no change in the history of the last 300 years more striking, or suggestive of more curious enquiries, than that which has taken place in the estimate of the miraculous. At present, nearly all educated men receive an account of a miracle taking place in their own day, with an absolute and even derisive incredulity which dispenses with all examination of the evidence. Although they may be entirely unable to give a satisfactory explanation of some phenomena that have taken place, they never on that account dream of ascribing them to supernatural agency, such an hypothesis being, as they believe, altogether beyond the range of reasonable discussion. Yet, a few centuries ago, there was no solution to which the mind of man turned more readily in every perplexity. A miraculous account was then universally accepted as perfectly credible, probable, and ordinary. There was scarcely a village or a church that had not, at some time, been the scene of supernatural interposition. The powers of light and the powers of darkness were regarded as visibly struggling for the mastery. Saintly miracles, supernatural cures, startling judgments, visions, prophecies, and prodigies of every order, attested the activity of the one, while witchcraft and magic, with all their attendant horrors, were the visible manifestations of the other.
I propose in the present chapter to examine that vast department of miracles, which is comprised under the several names of witchcraft, magic, and sorcery. It is a subject which has, I think, scarcely obtained the position it deserves in the history of opinions, having been too generally treated in the spirit of the antiquarian, as if it belonged entirely to the past, and could have no voice or bearing upon the controversies of the present. Yet, for more than fifteen hundred years, it was universally believed that the Bible established, in the clearest manner, the reality of the crime, and that an amount of evidence, so varied and so ample as to preclude the very possibility of doubt, attested its continuance and its prevalence. The clergy denounced it with all the emphasis of authority. The legislators of almost every land enacted laws for its punishment. Acute judges, whose lives were spent in sifting evidence, investigated the question on countless occasions, and condemned the accused. Tens of thousands of victims perished by the most agonising and protracted torments, without exciting the faintest compassion; and, as they were for the most part extremely ignorant and extremely poor, sectarianism and avarice had but little influence on the subject. [1:28] Nations that were completely separated by position, by interests, and by character, on this one question were united. In almost every province of Germany, but especially in those where clerical influence predominated, the persecution raged with a fearful intensity. Seven thousand victims are said to have been burned at Trèves, six hundred by a single bishop of Bamberg, and eight hundred in a single year in the bishopric of Würtzburg. [1:29] In France, decrees were passed on the subject by the Parliaments of Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Rheims, Rouen, Dijon, and Rennes, and they were all followed by a harvest of blood. At Toulouse, the seat of the Inquisition, four hundred persons perished for sorcery at a single execution, and fifty at Douay in a single year. Remy, a judge of Nancy, boasted that he had put to death eight hundred witches in sixteen years. The executions that took place at Paris in a few months were, in the emphatic words of an old writer, 'almost infinite.' [1:30] The fugitives who escaped to Spain were there seized and burned by the Inquisition. In that country the persecution spread to the smallest towns, and the belief was so deeply rooted in the popular mind, that a sorcerer was burnt as late as 1780. Torquemada devoted himself to the extirpation of witchcraft as zealously as to the extirpation of heresy, and he wrote a book upon the enormity of the crime. [2:30] In Italy, a thousand persons were executed in a single year in the province of Como; and in other parts of the country, the severity of the inquisitors at last created an absolute rebellion. [1:31] The same scenes were enacted in the wild valleys of Switzerland and of Savoy. In Geneva, which was then ruled by a bishop, five hundred alleged witches were executed in three months; forty-eight were burnt at Constance or Ravensburg, and eighty in the little town of Valery, in Savoy. [2:31] In 1670, seventy persons were condemned in Sweden, [3:31] and a large proportion of them were burnt. And these are only a few of the more salient events in that long series of persecutions which extended over almost every country, and continued for centuries with unabated fury. The Church of Rome proclaimed in every way that was in her power the reality and the continued existence of the crime. She strained every nerve to stimulate the persecution. She taught by all her organs that to spare a witch was a direct insult to the Almighty, and to her ceaseless exertions is to be attributed by far the greater proportion of the blood that was shed. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII. issued a bull which gave a fearful impetus to the persecution, and he it was who commissioned the Inquisitor Sprenger, whose book was long the recognised manual on the subject, and who is said to have condemned hundreds to death every year. Similar bulls were issued by Julius II. in 1504, and by Adrian VI. in 1523. A long series of Provincial Councils asserted the existence of sorcery, and anathematised those who resorted to it. 'The universal practice of the Church was to place magic and sorcery among the reserved cases, and at prônes to declare magicians and sorcerers excommunicated'; [1:32] and a form of exorcism was solemnly inserted in the ritual. Almost all the great works that were written in favour of the executions were written by ecclesiastics. Almost all the lay works on the same side were dedicated to and sanctioned by ecclesiastical dignitaries. Ecclesiastical tribunals condemned thousands to death, and countless bishops exerted all their influence to multiply the victims. In a word, for many centuries it was universally believed, that the continued existence of witchcraft formed an integral part of the teachings of the Church, and that the persecution that raged through Europe was supported by the whole stress of her infallibility. [2:32]
Such was the attitude of the Church of Rome with reference to this subject, but on this ground the Reformers had no conflict with their opponents. The credulity which Luther manifested on all matters connected with diabolical intervention, was amazing, even for his age; and, when speaking of witchcraft, his language was emphatic and unhesitating. 'I would have no compassion on these witches,' he exclaimed, 'I would burn them all!' [1:33] In England the establishment of the Reformation was the signal for an immediate outburst of the superstition; and there, as elsewhere, its decline was represented by the clergy as the direct consequence and the exact measure of the progress of religious scepticism. In Scotland, where the Reformed ministers exercised greater influence than in any other country, and where the witch trials fell almost entirely into their hands, the persecution was proportionately atrocious. Probably the ablest defender of the belief was Glanvil, a clergyman of the English Establishment; and one of the most influential was Baxter, the greatest of the Puritans. It spread, with Puritanism, into the New World; and the executions in Massachusetts form one of the darkest pages in the history of America. The greatest religious leader of the last century [1:34] was among the latest of its supporters.
If we ask why it is that the world has rejected what was once so universally and so intensely believed, why a narrative of an old woman who had been seen riding on a broomstick, or who was proved to have transformed herself into a wolf, and to have devoured the flocks of her neighbours, is deemed so entirely incredible, most persons would probably be unable to give a very definite answer to the question. It is not because we have examined the evidence and found it insufficient, for the disbelief always precedes, when it does not prevent, examination. It is rather because the idea of absurdity is so strongly attached to such narratives, that it is difficult even to consider them with gravity. Yet at one time no such improbability was felt, and hundreds of persons have been burnt simply on the two grounds I have mentioned.
When so complete a change takes place in public opinion, it may be ascribed to one or other of two causes. It may be the result of a controversy which has conclusively settled the question, establishing to the satisfaction of all parties a clear preponderance of argument or fact in favour of one opinion, and making that opinion a truism which is accepted by all enlightened men, even though they have not themselves examined the evidence on which it rests. Thus, if any one in a company of ordinarily educated persons were to deny the motion of the earth, or the circulation of the blood, his statement would be received with derision, though it is probable that some of his audience would be unable to demonstrate the first truth, and that very few of them could give sufficient reasons for the second. They may not themselves be able to defend their position; but they are aware that, at certain known periods of history, controversies on those subjects took place, and that known writers then brought forward some definite arguments or experiments, which were ultimately accepted by the whole learned world as rigid and conclusive demonstrations. It is possible, also, for as complete a change to be effected by what is called the spirit of the age. The general intellectual tendencies pervading the literature of a century profoundly modify the character of the public mind. They form a new tone and habit of thought. They alter the measure of probability. They create new attractions and new antipathies, and they eventually cause as absolute a rejection of certain old opinions as could be produced by the most cogent and definite arguments.
That the disbelief in witchcraft is to be attributed to this second class of influences; that it is the result, not of any series of definite arguments, or of new discoveries, but of a gradual, insensible, yet profound modification of the habits of thought prevailing in Europe; that it is, thus, a direct consequence of the progress of civilisation, and of its influence upon opinions; must be evident to any one who impartially investigates the question, If we ask what new arguments were discovered during the decadence of the belief, we must admit that they were quite inadequate to account for the change. All that we can say of the unsatisfactory nature of confessions under torture, of the instances of imposture that were occasionally discovered, of the malicious motives that may have actuated some of the accusers, might have been said during the darkest periods of the middle ages. The multiplication of books and the increase of knowledge can have added nothing to these obvious arguments. Those who lived when the evidences of witchcraft existed in profusion, and attracted the attention of all classes and of all grades of intellect, must surely have been as competent judges as ourselves, if the question was merely a question of evidence. The gradual cessation of the accusations was the consequence, and not the cause, of the scepticism. The progress of medical knowledge may have had considerable influence on the private opinions of some writers on the subject, but it was never influential upon the public mind, or made the battle-ground of the controversy. Indeed, the philosophy of madness is mainly due to Pinel, who wrote long after the superstition had vanished; and even if witchcraft had been treated as a disease, this would not have destroyed the belief that it was Satanic, in an age when all the more startling diseases were deemed supernatural, and when theologians maintained that Satan frequently acted by the employment of natural laws. One discovery, it is true, was made during the discussion, which attracted great attention, and was much insisted on by the opponents of the laws against sorcery. It was, that the word translated 'witch' in the Levitical condemnation may be translated 'poisoner.' [1:36] This discovery in itself is, however, obviously insufficient to account for the change. It does not affect the enormous mass of evidence of the workings of witchcraft, which was once supposed to have placed the belief above the possibility of doubt. It does not affect such passages as the history of the witch of Endor, or of the demoniacs in the New Testament, to which the believers in witchcraft triumphantly appealed. Assuming the existence of witches -- assuming that there were really certain persons who were constantly engaged in inflicting, by diabolical agency, every form of evil on their neighbours, and whose machinations destroyed countless lives -- there can be no doubt that these persons should be punished with death, altogether irrespectively of any distinct command. The truth is, that the existence of witchcraft was disbelieved before the scriptural evidence of it was questioned. A disbelief in ghosts and witches was one of the most prominent characteristics of scepticism in the seventeenth century. At first it was nearly confined to men who were avowedly freethinkers, but gradually it spread over a wider circle, and included almost all the educated, with the exception of a large proportion of the clergy. This progress, however, was not effected by any active propagandism. It is not identified with any great book or with any famous writer. It was not the triumph of one series of arguments over another. On the contrary, no facts are more clearly established in the literature of witchcraft than that the movement was mainly silent, unargumentative, and insensible; that men came gradually to disbelieve in witchcraft, because they came gradually to look upon it as absurd; and that this new tone of thought appeared, first of all, in those who were least subject to theological influences, and soon spread through the educated laity, and last of all took possession of the clergy.
It may be stated, I believe, as an invariable truth, that, whenever a religion which rests in a great measure on a system of terrorism, and which paints in dark and forcible colours the misery of men and the power of evil spirits, is intensely realised, it will engender the belief in witchcraft or magic. The panic which its teachings will create, will overbalance the faculties of multitudes. The awful images of evil spirits of superhuman power, and of untiring malignity, will continually haunt the imagination. They will blend with the illusions of age or sorrow or sickness, and will appear with an especial vividness in the more alarming and unexplained phenomena of nature.
This consideration will account for the origin of the conception of magic in those ages when belief is almost exclusively the work of the imagination. At a much later period, the same vivid realisation of diabolical presence will operate powerfully on the conclusions of the reason. We have now passed so completely out of the modes of thought which predominated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and we are so firmly convinced of the unreality of witchcraft, that it is only by a strong effort of the imagination that we can realise the position of the defenders of the belief. Yet it is, I think, difficult to examine the subject with impartiality, without coming to the conclusion that the historical evidence establishing the reality of witchcraft is so vast and so varied, that it is impossible to disbelieve it without what, on other subjects, we should deem the most extraordinary rashness. The defenders of the belief, who were often men of great and distinguished talent, maintained that there was no fact in all history more fully attested, and that to reject it would be to strike at the root of all historical evidence of the miraculous. The belief implied the continual occurrence of acts of the most extraordinary and impressive character, and of such a nature as to fall strictly within human cognisance. The subject, as we have seen, was examined in tens of thousands of cases, in, almost every country in Europe, by tribunals which included the acutest lawyers and ecclesiastics of the age, on the scene and at the time when the alleged acts had taken place, and with the assistance of innumerable sworn witnesses. The judges had no motive whatever to desire the condemnation of the accused; and, as conviction would be followed by a fearful death, they had the strongest motives to exercise their power with caution and deliberation. The whole force of public opinion was directed constantly and earnestly to the question for many centuries; and, although there was some controversy concerning the details of witchcraft, the fact of its existence was long considered undoubted. The evidence is essentially cumulative. Some cases may be explained by monomania, others by imposture, others by chance coincidences, and others by optical delusions; but, when we consider the multitudes of strange statements that were sworn and registered in legal documents, it is very difficult to frame a general rationalistic explanation which will not involve an extreme improbability. In our own day, it may be said with confidence, that it would be altogether impossible for such an amount of evidence to accumulate round a conception which had no substantial basis in fact. The ages in which witchcraft flourished were, it is true, grossly credulous; and to this fact we attribute the belief, yet we do not reject their testimony on all matters of secular history. If we considered witchcraft probable, a hundredth part of the evidence we possess would have placed it beyond the region of doubt. If it were a natural but a very improbable fact, our reluctance to believe it would have been completely stifled by the multiplicity of the proofs.
Now, it is evident that the degree of improbability we attach to histories of witches, will depend, in a great measure, upon our doctrine concerning evil spirits, and upon the degree in which that doctrine is realised. If men believe that invisible beings, of superhuman power, restless activity, and intense malignity, are perpetually haunting the world, and directing all their energies to the temptation and the persecution of mankind; if they believe that, in past ages, these spirits have actually governed the bodily functions of men, worked miracles, and foretold future events, -- if all this is believed, not with the dull and languid assent of custom, but with an intensely realised, living, and operative assurance; if it presents itself to the mind and imagination as a vivid truth, exercising that influence over the reason, and occupying that prominence in the thoughts of men, which its importance would demand, the antecedent improbability of witchcraft would appear far less, than if this doctrine was rejected or was unrealised. When, therefore, we find a growing disposition to reject every history which involves diabolical intervention as intrinsically absurd, independently of any examination of the evidence on which it rests, we may infer from this fact the declining realisation of the doctrine of evil spirits.
These two considerations will serve, I think, to explain the history of witchcraft, and also to show its great significance and importance as an index of the course of civilisation. To follow out the subject into details would require a far greater space than I can assign to it, but I hope to be able to show, sufficiently, what have been the leading phases through which the belief has passed.
In the ruder forms of savage life, we find the belief in witchcraft universal, [1:40] and accompanied, in most instances, by features of peculiar atrocity. The reason of this is obvious. Terror is everywhere the beginning of religion. The phenomena which impress themselves most forcibly on the mind of the savage are not those which enter manifestly into the sequence of natural laws and which are productive of most beneficial effects, but those which are disastrous and apparently abnormal. Gratitude is less vivid than fear, and the smallest apparent infraction of a natural law produces a deeper impression than the most sublime of its ordinary operations. When, therefore, the more startling and terrible aspects of nature are presented to his mind, when the more deadly forms of disease or natural convulsion desolate his land, the savage derives from these things an intensely realised perception of diabolical presence. In the darkness of the night; amid the yawning chasms and the wild echoes of the mountain gorge; under the blaze of the comet, or the solemn gloom of the eclipse; when famine has blasted the land; when the earthquake and the pestilence have slaughtered their thousands; in every form of disease which refracts and distorts the reason; in all that is strange, portentous, and deadly, he feels and cowers before the supernatural. Completely exposed to all the influences of nature, and completely ignorant of the chain of sequence that unites its various parts, he lives in continual dread of what he deems the direct and isolated acts of evil spirits. Feeling them continually near him, he will naturally endeavour to enter into communion with them. He will strive to propitiate them with gifts. If some great calamity has fallen upon him, or if some vengeful passion has mastered his reason, he will attempt to invest himself with their authority; and his excited imagination will soon persuade him that he has succeeded in his desire. If his abilities and his ambition place him above the common level, he will find in this belief the most ready path to power. By professing to hold communion with and to control supernatural beings, he can exercise an almost boundless influence over those about him; and, among men who are intensely predisposed to believe in the supernatural, a very little dexterity or acquaintance with natural laws will support his pretensions. By converting the terror which some great calamity has produced into anger against an alleged sorcerer, he can at the same time take a signal vengeance upon those who have offended him, and increase the sense of his own importance. Those whose habits, or appearance, or knowledge, separate them from the multitude, will be naturally suspected of communicating with evil spirits; and this suspicion will soon become a certainty, if any mental disease should aggravate their peculiarities. In this manner the influences of ignorance, imagination, and imposture will blend and cooperate in creating a belief in witchcraft, and in exciting a hatred against those who are suspected of its practice, commensurate with the terror they inspire.
In a more advanced stage of civilisation, the fear of witches will naturally fade, as the habits of artificial life remove men from those influences which act upon the imagination, and as increasing knowledge explains some of the more alarming phenomena of nature. The belief, however, that it is possible, by supernatural agency, to inflict evil upon mankind, was general in ancient Greece and Rome; and St. Augustine assures us that all the sects of philosophers admitted it, with the exception of the Epicureans, who denied the existence of evil spirits. The Decemvirs passed a law condemning magicians to death. A similar law was early enacted in Greece; and, in the days of Demosthenes, a sorceress named Lemia was actually executed.[1:42] The philosophy of Plato, by greatly aggrandising the sphere of the spiritual, did much to foster the belief; and we find that whenever, either before or after the Christian era, that philosophy has been in the ascendant, it has been accompanied by a tendency to magic. Besides this, the ancient civilisations were never directed earnestly to the investigation of natural phenomena; and the progress made in this respect was, in consequence, very small. On the whole, however, the persecution seems to have been, in those countries, almost entirely free from religious fanaticism. The magician was punished because he injured man, and not because he offended God.
In one respect, during the later period of Pagan Rome, the laws against magic seem to have revived, and to have taken a somewhat different form, without, however, representing any phase of a religious movement, but simply a political requirement. Under the head of magic were comprised some astrological and other methods of foretelling the future; and it was found that these practices had a strong tendency to foster conspiracies against the emperors. The soothsayer often assured persons that they were destined to assume the purple, and in that way stimulated them to rebellion. By casting the horoscope of the reigning emperor, he had ascertained, according to the popular belief, the period in which the government might be assailed with most prospect of success; and had thus proved a constant cause of agitation. Some of the forms of magic had, also, been lately imported into the empire from Greece; and were therefore repugnant to the conservative spirit that was dominant. Several of the emperors, in consequence, passed edicts against the magicians, which were executed with considerable though somewhat spasmodic energy. [1:44] But although magicians were occasionally persecuted, it is not to be inferred from this that everything that was comprised under the name of magic was considered morally wrong. On the contrary, many of the systems of divination formed an integral part of religion. Some of the more public modes of foretelling the future, such as the oracles of the gods, were still retained and honoured; and a law, which made divination concerning the future of the emperor high treason, shows clearly the spirit in which the others were suppressed. The emperors desired to monopolise the knowledge of the future, and consequently drew many astrologers to their courts, while they banished them from other parts of the kingdom. [2:44] They were so far from attaching the idea of sacrilege to practices which enabled them to foretell coming events, that Marcus Aurelius and Julian, who were both passionately attached to their religion, and who were among the best men who have ever sat upon a throne, were among the most ardent of the patrons of the magicians.
Such was the somewhat anomalous position of the magicians in the last days of Pagan Rome, and it acquires a great interest from its bearing on the policy of the Christian emperors.
When the Christians were first scattered through the Roman empire, they naturally looked upon this question with a very different spirit from that of the heathen. Inspired by an intense religious enthusiasm, which they were nobly sealing with their blood, they thought much less of the civil than of the religious consequences of magic, and sacrilege seemed much more terrible in their eyes than anarchy. Their position, acting upon some of their distinctive doctrines, had filled them with a sense of Satanic presence, which must have shadowed every portion of their belief, and have predisposed them to discover diabolical influence in every movement of the pagan. The fearful conception of eternal punishment, adopted in its most material form, had flashed with its full intensity upon their minds. They believed that this was the destiny of all who were beyond the narrow circle of their Church, and that their persecutors were doomed to agonies of especial poignancy. The whole world was divided between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. The persecuted Church represented the first, the persecuting world the second. In every scoff that was directed against their creed, in every edict that menaced their persons, in every interest that opposed their progress, they perceived the direct and immediate action of the devil. They found a great and ancient religion subsisting around them. Its gorgeous rites, its traditions, its priests, and its miracles had preoccupied the public mind, and presented what seemed at first an insuperable barrier to their mission. In this religion they saw the especial workmanship of the devil, and their strong predisposition to interpret every event by a miraculous standard, persuaded them that all its boasted prodigies were real. Nor did they find any difficulty in explaining them. The world they believed to be full of malignant demons, who had in all ages persecuted and deluded mankind. From the magicians of Egypt to the demoniacs of the New Testament, their power had been continually manifested. In the chosen land they could only persecute and afflict; but among the heathen, they possessed supreme power, and were universally worshipped as divine.
This doctrine, which was the natural consequence of the intellectual condition of the age, acting upon the belief in evil spirits, and upon the scriptural accounts of diabolical intervention, had been still further strengthened by those Platonic theories which, in their Alexandrian form, had so profoundly influenced the early teachings of the Church. [1:46] According to these theories, the immediate objects of the devotions of the pagan world were subsidiary spirits of finite power and imperfect morality -- angels, or, as they were then called, demons -- who acted the part of mediators; and who, by the permission of the supreme and inaccessible Deity, regulated the religious government of mankind. In this manner, a compromise was effected between monotheism and polytheism. The religion of the state was true and lawful, but it was not irreconcilable with pure theism. The Christians had adopted this conception of subsidiary spirits; but they maintained them to be not the willing agents, but, the adversaries, of the Deity; and the word demon, which, among the pagans, signified only a spirit below the level of a Divinity, among the Christians signified a devil.
This notion seems to have existed in the very earliest period of Christianity; and, in the second century, we find it elaborated with most minute and detailed care. Tertullian, who wrote in that century, assures us that the world was full of these evil spirits, whose influence might be descried in every portion of the pagan creed. Some of them belonged to that band of rebels who had been precipitated with Satan into the abyss. Others were the angels who, in the antediluvian world, had become attached to the daughters of men; and who, having taught them to dye wool, and to commit the still more fearful offence of painting their faces, had been justly doomed to eternal suffering. [1:47] These were now seeking in every way to thwart the purposes of the Almighty, and their especial delight was to attract to themselves the worship which was due to Him alone. Not only the more immoral deities of heathenism, not only such divinities as Venus, or Mars, or Mercury, or Pluto, but also those who appeared the most pure, were literally and undoubtedly diabolical. Minerva, the personification of wisdom, was a devil, and so was Diana, the type of chastity, and so was Jupiter, the heathen conception of the Most High. The spirits who were worshipped under the names of departed heroes, and who were supposed to have achieved so many acts of splendid and philanthropic heroism, were all devils who 'had assumed the names of the dead. The same condemnation was passed upon those bright creations of a poetic fancy, the progenitors of the mediæval fairies, the nymphs and dryads who peopled every grove and hallowed every stream. [1:48] The air was filled with unholy legions, [2:48] and the traditions of every land were replete with their exploits. The immortal lamp, which burnt with an unfading splendour in the temple of Venus; the household gods that were transported by invisible hands through the air; the miracles which clustered so thickly around the vestal virgins, the oracular shrines, and the centres of Roman power, were all attestations of their presence. Under the names of Sylvans and Fauns, and Dusii, they had not only frequently appeared among mankind, but had made innumerable women the objects of their passion. This fact was so amply attested, that it would be impudence to deny it. [3:48] Persons possessed with devils were constantly liberated by the Christians, and tombs of the exorcists have been discovered in the catacombs. [1:49] If a Christian in any respect deviated from the path of duty, a visible manifestation of the devil sometimes appeared to terrify him. A Christian lady, in a fit of thoughtless dissipation, went to the theatre, and at the theatre she became possessed with a devil. The exorcist remonstrated with the evil spirit on the presumption of its act. The devil replied apologetically, that it had found the woman in its house. [1:50] The rites of paganism had in some degree pervaded all departments of life, and all were therefore tainted with diabolical influence. In the theatre, in the circus, in the market-place, in all the public festivals, there was something which manifested their presence. A Christian soldier, on one occasion, refused even to wear a festal crown, because laurels had been originally dedicated to Bacchus and Venus; and endured severe punishment rather than comply with the custom. Much discussion was elicited by the transaction, but Tertullian wrote a treatise [2:50] maintaining that the martyr had only complied with his strict duty.
The terror which such a doctrine must have spread among the early Christians may be easily conceived. They seemed to breathe an atmosphere of miracles. Wherever they turned, they were surrounded and beleaguered by malicious spirits, who were perpetually manifesting their presence by supernatural acts. Watchful fiends stood beside every altar; they mingled with every avocation of life, and the Christians were the special objects of their hatred. All this was universally believed; and it was realised with an intensity which, in this secular age, we can scarcely conceive. It was realised as men realise religious doctrines, when they have devoted to them the undivided energies of their lives, and when their faith has been intensified in the furnace of persecution.
The bearing of this view upon the conception of magic is very obvious. Among the more civilised pagans, as we have seen, magic was mainly a civil, and in the last days of the empire, mainly a political crime. In periods of great political insecurity, it assumed considerable importance; at other periods it fell completely into the background. Its relation to the prevailing religion was exceedingly indeterminate, and it comprised many rites that were not regarded as in any degree immoral. In the early Church, on the other hand, it was esteemed the most horrible form of sacrilege, effected by the direct agency of evil spirits. It included the whole system of paganism, explained all its prodigies, and gave a fearful significance to all its legends. It assumed, in consequence, an extraordinary importance in the patristic teaching, and acted strongly and continually on the imaginations of the people.
When the Church obtained the direction of the civil power, she soon modified or abandoned the tolerant maxims she had formerly inculcated; and, in the course of a few years, restrictive laws were enacted, both against the Jews and against the heretics. It appears, however, that the multitude of pagans, in the time of Constantine, was still so great, and the zeal of the emperor so languid, that he at first shrank from directing his laws openly and avowedly against the old faith, and an ingenious expedient was devised for sapping it at its base, under the semblance of the ancient legislation. Magic, as I have said, among the Romans, included not only those appeals to evil spirits, and those modes of inflicting evil on others, which had always been denounced as sacrilegious, but also certain methods of foretelling the future, which were not regarded as morally wrong, but only as politically dangerous. This latter department formed an offshoot of the established religion, and had never been separated from it with precision, The laws had been devised for the purpose of preventing rebellions or imposition, and they had been executed in that spirit. The Christian emperors revived these laws, and enforced them with extreme severity, but directed them against the religion of the pagans. [1:52] At first, that secret magic which the decemvirs had prohibited, but which had afterwards come into general use, was alone condemned; but, in the course of a few reigns, the circle of legislation expanded, till it included the whole system of paganism.
Almost immediately after his conversion, Constantine enacted an extremely severe law against secret magic. He decreed that any aruspex who entered into the house of a citizen, for the purpose of celebrating his rites, should be burnt alive, the property of his employers confiscated, and the accuser rewarded. [2:52] Two years later, however, a proclamation was issued, which considerably attenuated the force of this enactment, for it declared that it was not the intention of the emperor to prohibit magical rites which were designed to discover remedies for diseases, or to protect the harvests from hail, snow, or tempests. [3:52]
This partial tolerance continued till the death of Constantine, but completely passed away under his successor. Constantius appears to have been governed by far stronger convictions than his father. He had embraced the Arian heresy, and is said to have been much influenced by the Arian priests; and he directed his laws with a stern and almost passionate eagerness against the forms of magic which verged most closely upon the pagan worship. At the beginning of one of these laws, he complained that many had been producing tempests and destroying the lives of their enemies by the assistance of the demons, and he proceeded to prohibit in the sternest manner, and under pain of the severest penalties, every kind of magic. All who attempted to foretell the future -- the augurs, as well as the more irregular diviners -- were emphatically condemned. Magicians who were captured in Rome were to be thrown to the wild beasts; and those who were seized in the provinces to be put to excruciating torments, and at last crucified. If they persisted in denying their crime, their flesh was to be torn from their bones with hooks of iron. [1:53] These fearful penalties were directed against those who practised rites which had long been universal; and which, if they were not regarded as among the obligations, were, at least, among the highest privileges of paganism. It has been observed as a significant fact, that in this reign the title 'enemies of the human race,' which the old pagan laws had applied to the Christians, and which proved so effectual in exasperating the popular mind, was transferred to the magicians. [1:54]
The task of the Christian emperors in combating magic was, in truth, one of the most difficult that can be conceived; and all the penalties that Roman barbarity could devise, were unable to destroy practices which were the natural consequence of the prevailing credulity. As long as men believed that they could easily ascertain the future, it was quite certain that curiosity would at length overpower fear. As long as they believed that a few simple rites could baffle their enemies, and enable them to achieve their most cherished desires, they would most unquestionably continue to practise them. Priests might fulminate their anathemas, and emperors multiply their penalties; but scepticism, and not terrorism, was the one corrective for the evil. This scepticism was nowhere to be found. The populace never questioned for a moment the efficacy of magic. The pagan philosophers were all infatuated by the dreams of Neo-Platonism, and were writing long books on the mysteries of Egypt, the hierarchy of spirits, and their intercourse with men. The Fathers, it is true, vehemently denounced magic, but they never seem to have had the faintest suspicion that it was a delusion. If Christianity had had nothing to oppose to the fascination of these forbidden rites, it would have been impossible to prevent the immense majority of the people from reverting to them; but, by a very natural process, a series of conceptions were rapidly introduced into theology, which formed what may be termed a rival system of magic, in which the talismanic virtues of holy water, and of Christian ceremonies, became a kind of counterpoise to the virtue of unlawful charms. It is very remarkable, however, that, while these sacred talismans were indefinitely multiplied, the other great fascination of magic, the power of predicting the future, was never claimed by the Christian clergy. If the theory of the, writers of the eighteenth century had been correct; if the superstitions that culminated in mediævalism had been simply the result of the knavery of the clergy; this would most certainly not have been the case. The Christian priests, like all other priests, would have pandered to the curiosity which was universal, and something analogous to the ancient oracles or auguries would have been incorporated into the Church. Nothing of this kind took place, because the change which passed over theology was the result, not of imposture, but of a normal development. No part of Christianity had a tendency to develop into an oracular system; and had such a system arisen, it would have been the result of deliberate fraud. On the other hand, there were many conceptions connected with the faith, especially concerning the efficacy of baptismal water, which, under the pressure of a materialising age, passed, by an easy and natural, if not legitimate transition, into a kind of fetishism assimilating with the magical notions that were so universally diffused.
St. Jerome, in his life of St. Hilarion, relates a miracle of that saint which refers to a period a few years after the death of Constantius, and which shows clearly the position that Christian ceremonies began to occupy with reference to magic. It appears that a Christian, named Italicus, was accustomed to race horses against the pagan duumvir of Gaza, and that this latter personage invariably gained the victory, by means of magical rites, which stimulated his own horses, and paralysed those of his opponent. The Christian, in despair, had recourse to St. Hilarion. The saint appears to have been, at first, somewhat startled at the application, and rather shrank from participating actively in horse-racing; but Italicus at last persuaded him that the cause was worthy of his intervention, and obtained a bowl of water which Hilarion himself had consecrated, and which was, therefore endowed with a peculiar virtue. At length the day of the races arrived. The chariots were placed side by side, and the spectators thronged the circus. As the signal for the start was given, Italicus sprinkled his horses with the holy water. Immediately the chariot of the Christian flew with a supernatural rapidity to the goal; while the horses of his adversary faltered and staggered, as if they had been struck by an invisible hand. The circus rang with wild cries of wonder, of joy, or of anger. Some called for the death of the Christian magician, but many others abandoned paganism in consequence of the miracle. [1:56]
The persecution which Constantius directed against the magicians was of course suspended under Julian, whose spirit of toleration, when we consider the age he lived in, the provocations he endured, and the intense religious zeal he manifested, is one of the most remarkable facts in history. He was passionately devoted to those forms of magic which the pagan religion admitted, and his palace was always thronged with magicians. The consultation of the entrails, which Constantius had forbidden, was renewed at the coronation of Julian; and it was reported among the Christians, that they presented, on that occasion, the form of a cross, surmounted by a crown. [1:57] During the short reign of Jovian, the same tolerance seems to have continued; but Valentinian renewed the persecution, and made another law against 'impious prayers and midnight sacrifices,' which were still offered. [2:57] This law excited so much discontent in Greece, where it was directly opposed to the established religion, that Valentinian consented to its remaining inoperative in that province; but, in other portions of the empire, fearful scenes of suffering and persecution were everywhere witnessed. [3:57] In the East, Valens was persecuting, with impartial zeal, all who did not adopt the tenets of the Arian heresy. 'The very name of philosopher,' as it has been said, became 'a title of proscription'; and the most trivial offences were visited with death. One philosopher was executed, because, in a private letter, he had exhorted his wife not to forget to crown the portal of the door. An old woman perished, because she endeavoured to allay the paroxysms of a fever by magical songs. A young man, who imagined that he could cure an attack of diarrha by touching alternately a marble pillar and his body, while he repeated the vowels, expiated this not very alarming superstition by torture and by death. [4:57]
In reviewing these persecutions, which were directed by the orthodox and by the Arians against magicians, we must carefully guard against some natural exaggerations. It would be very unfair to attribute directly to the leaders of the Church the edicts that produced them, It would be still more unfair to attribute to them the spirit in which those edicts were executed. Much allowance must be made for the personal barbarity of certain emperors and prefects; for the rapacity which made them seek for pretexts by which they might confiscate the property of the wealthy; and for the alarm that was created by every attempt to discover the successor to the throne. We have positive evidence that one or other of these three causes was connected with most of the worst outbursts of persecution; and we know, from earlier history, that persecutions for magic had taken place on political as well as on religious grounds, long before Christianity had triumphed. We must not, again, measure the severity of the persecution by the precise language of the laws. If we looked simply at the written enactments, we should conclude that a considerable portion of the pagan worship was, at an early period, absolutely and universally suppressed. In practice, however, the law was constantly broken. A general laxity of administration had pervaded all parts of the empire, to an extent which the weakest modern governments have seldom exhibited. Popular prejudice ran counter to many of the enactments; and the rulers frequently connived at their infraction. We find, therefore, that the application of the penalties that were decreed was irregular, fitful, and uncertain. Sometimes they were enforced with extreme severity. Sometimes the forbidden rites were practised without disguise. Very frequently, in one part of the empire persecution raged fiercely, while in another part it was unknown. When, however, all these qualifying circumstances have been admitted, it remains clear that a series of laws were directed against rites which were entirely innocuous, and which had been long universally practised, as parts of the pagan worship, for the purpose of sapping the religion from which they sprang. It is also clear that the ecclesiastical leaders all believed in the reality of magic; and that they had vastly increased the popular sense of its enormity, by attributing to all the pagan rites a magical character. Under Theodosius, this phase of the history of magic terminated. In the beginning of his reign, that emperor contented himself with reiterating the proclamations of his predecessors; but he soon cast of all disguise, and prohibited, under the severest penalties, every portion of the pagan worship.
Such was the policy pursued by the early Church towards the magicians. It exercised in some respects a very important influence upon later history. In the first place, a mass of tradition was formed which, in later ages, placed the reality of the crime above the possibility of doubt. In the second place, the nucleus of fact, around which the fables of the inquisitors were accumulated, was considerably enlarged. By a curious, but very natural transition, a great portion of the old pagan worship passed from the sphere of religion into that of magic. The country people continued in secrecy and danger, to practise the rites of their forefathers. They were told that, by those rites, they were appealing to powerful and malicious spirits; and, after several generations, they came to believe what they were told, without, however, abandoning the practices that were condemned. It is easier for superstitious men in a superstitious age, to change all the notions that are associated with their rites, than to free their minds from their influence. Religions never truly perish except by a natural decay. In the towns, paganism had arrived at the last stage of decrepitude, when Christianity arose; and, therefore, in the towns, the victory of Christianity was prompt and decisive; but, in the country, paganism still retained its vigour, and defied all the efforts of priests and magistrates to eradicate it. The invasion of the barbarians still farther strengthened the pagan element, and at last a kind of compromise was effected. Paganism, as a distinct system, was annihilated, but its different elements continued to exist in a transfigured form, and under new names. Many portions of the system were absorbed by the new faith. They coalesced with the doctrines to which they bore most resemblance, gave those doctrines an extraordinary prominence in the Christian system, and rendered them peculiarly acceptable and influential. Antiquarians have long since shown that, in almost every part of the Roman Catholic faith, the traces of this amalgamation may be detected. Another portion of paganism became a kind of excrescence upon recognised Christianity. It assumed the form of innumerable superstitious rites, which occupied an equivocal position, sometimes countenanced, and sometimes condemned, hovering upon the verge of the faith, associated and intertwined with authorised religious practices, occasionally censured by councils, and habitually encouraged by the more ignorant ecclesiastics, and frequently attracting a more intense devotion than the regular ceremonies with which they were allied. [1:60] A third portion continued in the form of magical rites, which were practised in defiance of persecution and anathemas, and which continued, after the nominal suppression of paganism, for nearly eight centuries. [2:60] These rites, of course, only form one element, and perhaps not a very prominent one, in the system of witchcraft; but any analysis which omitted to notice them would be imperfect. All those grotesque ceremonies which Shakspeare portrayed in Macbeth were taken from the old paganism. In numerous descriptions of the witches' sabbath, Diana and Herodias are mentioned together, as the two most prominent figures; and among the articles of accusation brought against witches, we find enumerated many of the old practices of the augurs.
In the sixth century, the victory of Christianity over paganism, considered as an external system, and the corruption of Christianity itself, were both complete; and what are justly termed the dark ages may be said to have begun. It seems, at first sight, a somewhat strange and anomalous fact that, during the period which elapsed between the sixth and thirteenth centuries, when superstitions were most numerous, and credulity most universal, the executions for sorcery should have been comparatively rare. There never had been a time, in which the minds of men were more completely imbued and moulded by supernatural conceptions; or in which the sense of Satanic power and Satanic presence was more profound and universal. Many thousands of cases of possession, exorcisms, miracles, and apparitions of the Evil One were recorded. They were accepted without the faintest doubt, and had become the habitual field upon which the imagination expatiated. There was scarcely a great saint who had not, on some occasion, encountered a visible manifestation of an evil spirit. Sometimes the devil appeared as a grotesque and hideous animal, sometimes as a black man, sometimes as a beautiful woman, sometimes as a priest haranguing in the pulpit, sometimes as an angel of light, and sometimes in a still holier form. [1:62] Yet, strange as it may now appear, these conceptions, though intensely believed and intensely realised, did not create any great degree of terrorism. The very multiplication of superstitions had proved their corrective. It was firmly believed that the arch-fiend was for ever hovering about the Christian; but it was also believed that the sign of the cross, or a few drops of holy water, or the name of Mary, could put him to an immediate and ignominious flight. The lives of the saints were crowded with his devices, but they represent him as uniformly vanquished, humbled, and contemned. Satan himself, at the command of Cyprian, had again and again assailed an unarmed and ignorant maiden, who had devoted herself to religion. He had exhausted all the powers of sophistry in obscuring the virtue of virginity, and all the resources of archangelic eloquence in favour of a young and noble pagan who aspired to the maiden's hand; but the simple sign of the cross exposed every sophism, quenched every emotion of terrestrial love, and drove back the fiend, baffled and dismayed, to the magician who had sent him. [2:62] Legions of devils, drawn up in ghastly array, surrounded the church towards which St. Maur was moving, and obstructed, with menacing gestures, the progress of the saint; but a few words of exorcism scattered them in a moment through the air. A ponderous stone was long shown, in the Church of St. Sabina at Rome, which the devil, in a moment of despairing passion, had flung at St. Dominick, vainly hoping to crush a head that was sheltered by the guardian angel. The Gospel of St. John suspended around the neck, a rosary, a relic of Christ or of a saint, any one of the thousand talismans that were distributed among the faithful, sufficed to baffle the utmost efforts of diabolical malice. The consequence of this teaching was a condition of thought, which is so far removed from that which exists in the present day, that it is only by a strong exertion of the imagination that we can conceive it. What may be called the intellectual oasis of witchcraft, existed to the fullest extent. All those conceptions of diabolical presence, all that predisposition towards the miraculous, which acted so fearfully upon the imaginations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, existed; but the implicit faith, the boundless and triumphant credulity with which the virtue of ecclesiastical rites was accepted, rendered them comparatively innocuous. If men had been a little less superstitious, the effects of their superstition would have been much more terrible. It was firmly believed that any one who deviated from the strict line of orthodoxy must soon succumb beneath the power of Satan; but as there was no spirit of rebellion or of doubt, this persuasion did not produce any extraordinary terrorism.
Amid all this strange teaching, there ran, however, one vein of a darker character. The more terrible phenomena of nature were entirely unmoved by exorcisms and sprinklings, and they were invariably attributed to supernatural interposition. In every nation it has been believed, at an early period, that pestilences, famines, comets, rainbows, eclipses, and other rare and startling phenomena, were effected, not by the ordinary sequence of natural laws, but by the direct intervention of spirits. In this manner, the predisposition towards the miraculous, which is the characteristic of all semi-civilised nations, has been perpetuated, and the clergy have also frequently identified these phenomena with acts of rebellion against themselves. The old Catholic priests were consummate masters of these arts, and every rare natural event was, in the middle ages, an occasion for the most intense terrorism, Thus, in the eighth century, a fearful famine afflicted France, and was generally represented as a consequence of the repugnance which the French people manifested to the payment of tithes. [1:64] In the ninth century, a total eclipse of the sun struck terror through Europe, and is said to have been one of the causes of the death of a French king. [2:64] In the tenth century a similar phenomenon put to flight an entire army. [3:64] More than once, the apparition of a comet filled Europe with an almost maddening terror; and, whenever a noted person was struck down by sudden illness, the death was attributed to sorcery.
The natural result, I think, of such modes of thought would be, that the notion of sorcery should be very common, but that the fear of it should not pass into an absolute mania. Credulity was habitual and universal, but religious terrorism was fitful and transient. We need not, therefore, be surprised that sorcery, though very familiar to the minds of men, did not, at the period I am referring to, occupy that prominent position which it afterwards assumed. The idea of a formal compact with the devil had not yet been formed; but most of the crimes of witchcraft were recognised, anathematised, and punished. Thus, towards the end of the sixth century, a son of Fredegonda died after a short illness; and numbers of women were put to the most prolonged and excruciating torments, and at last burnt or broken on the wheel, for having caused, by incantations, the death of the prince. [1:65] In Germany, the Codex de Mathematicis et Maleficiis [2:65] long continued in force, as did the old Salic law on the same subject in France. Charlemagne enacted new and very stringent laws, condemning sorcerers to death, and great numbers seem to have perished in his reign. [3:65] Hail and thunderstorms were almost universally attributed to their devices, though one great ecclesiastic of the ninth century -- Agobard, archbishop of Lyons -- had the rare merit of opposing the popular belief. [4:65]
There existed, too, all through the middle ages, and even as late as the seventeenth century, the sect of the Cabalists, who were especially persecuted as magicians. It is not easy to obtain any very clear notion of their mystic doctrines, which long exercised an extraordinary fascination over many minds, and which captivated the powerful and daring intellects of Cardan, Agrippa, and Paracelsus. They seem to have comprised many traditions that had been long current among the Jews, mixed with much of the old Platonic doctrine of demons, and with a large measure of pure naturalism. With a degree of credulity, which, in our age, would be deemed barely compatible with sanity, but which was then perfectly natural, was combined some singularly bold scepticism; and, probably, a greater amount was veiled under the form of allegories than was actually avowed. The Cabalists believed in the existence of spirits of nature, embodiments or representatives of the four elements, sylphs, salamanders, gnomes, and ondines, beings of far more than human excellence, but mortal, and not untinctured by human frailty. To rise to intercourse with these elemental spirits of nature was the highest aim of the philosopher. He who would do so, must sever himself from the common course of life. He must purify his soul by fasting and celibacy, by patient and unwearied study, by deep communion with nature and with nature's laws. He must learn, above all, to look down with contempt upon the angry quarrels of opposing creeds; to see in each religion an aspect of a continuous law, a new phase and manifestation of the action of the spirits of nature upon mankind.
It is not difficult to detect the conception which underlies this teaching. As, however, no religious doctrine can resist the conditions of the age, these simple notions were soon encrusted and defaced by so many of, those grotesque and material details, which invariably resulted from mediæval habits of thought, that it is only by a careful examination that their outlines can be traced. It was believed that it was possible for philosophers to obtain these spirits in literal marriage; and that such a union was the most passionate desire of the spirit-world. It was not only highly gratifying for both parties in this world, but greatly improved their prospects for the next. The sylph, though she lived for many centuries, was mortal, and had in herself no hope of a future life; but her human husband imparted to her his own immortality, unless he was one of the reprobate, in which case he was saved from the pangs of hell by participating in the mortality of his bride. This general conception was elaborated in great detail, and was applied to the history of the Fall, and to the mythology of paganism, on both of which subjects the orthodox tenets were indignantly spurned. Scarcely any one seems to have doubted the reality of these spirits, or that they were accustomed to reveal themselves to mankind; and the coruscations of Aurora are said to have been attributed to the flashings of their wings. [1:67] The only question was, concerning their nature. According to the Cabalists, they were pure and virtuous. According to the orthodox, they were the incubi who were spoken of by St. Augustine; and all who had commerce with them were deservedly burnt. [2:67]
The history of the Cabalists furnishes, I think, a striking instance of the aberrations of a spirit of free-thinking in an age which was not yet ripe for its reception. When the very opponents of the Church were so completely carried away by the tide, and were engrossed with a mythological system as absurd as the wildest legends of the hagiology, it is not at all surprising that the philosophers who arose in the ranks of orthodoxy should have been extremely credulous, and that their conceptions should have been characterised by the coarsest materialism. Among the very few men who, in some slight degree, cultivated profane literature during the period I am referring to, a prominent place must be assigned to Michael Psellus. This voluminous author, though he is now, I imagine, very little read, still retains a certain position in literary history, as almost the only Byzantine writer of reputation who appeared for some centuries. Towards the close of the eleventh century he wrote his dialogue on 'The Operation of Demons;' which is, in a great measure, an exposition of the old Neo-Platonic doctrine of the hierarchy of spirits, but which also throws considerable light on the modes of thought prevailing in his time. He assures us that the world was full of demons, who were very frequently appearing among his countrymen, and who manifested their presence in many different ways. He had himself never seen one, but he was well acquainted with persons who had actual intercourse with them. His principal authority was a Grecian, named Marcus, who had at one time disbelieved in apparitions; but who, having adopted a perfectly solitary life, had been surrounded by spirits whose habits and appearance he most minutely described. Having thus amassed considerable information on the subject, Psellus proceeded to digest it into a philosophical system, connecting it with the teachings of the past, and unfolding the laws and operations of the spirit world. He lays it down as a fundamental position that all demons have bodies. This, he says, is the necessary inference from the orthodox doctrine that they endure the torment of fire. [1:68] Their bodies, however, are not, like those of men and animals, cast into an unchangeable mould. They are rather like the clouds, refined and subtle matter, capable of assuming any form, and penetrating into any orifice. The horrible tortures they endure in their place of punishment have rendered them extremely sensitive to suffering; and they continually seek a temperate and somewhat moist warmth in order to allay their pangs. It is for this reason that they so frequently enter into men and animals. Possession appears to have been quite frequent, and madness was generally regarded as one of its results. Psellus, however, mentions that some physicians formed an exception to the prevailing opinions, attributing to physical what was generally attributed to spiritual causes, an aberration which he could only account for by the materialism which was so general in their profession. He mentions incidentally the exploits of incubi as not unknown, and enters into a long disquisition about a devil who was said to be acquainted with Armenian.
We find then that, all through the middle ages, most of the crimes that were afterwards collected by the inquisitors in the treatises on witchcraft were known; and that many of them were not unfrequently punished. At the same time the executions, during six centuries, were probably not as numerous as those which often took place during a single decade of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the twelfth century, however, the subject passed into an entirely new phase. The conception of a witch, as we now conceive it -- that is to say, of a woman who had entered into a deliberate compact with Satan, who was endowed with the power of working miracles whenever she pleased, and who was continually transported through the air to the Sabbath, where she paid her homage to the Evil One -- first appeared. [1:69] The panic created by the belief advanced at first slowly, but after a time with a fearfully accelerated rapidity. Thousands of victims were sometimes burnt alive in a few years. Every country in Europe was stricken with the wildest panic. Hundreds of the ablest judges were selected for the extirpation of the crime. A vast literature was created on the subject, and it was not until a considerable portion of the eighteenth century had passed away, that the executions finally ceased. [1:70]
I shall now endeavour to trace the general causes which produced this outburst of superstition. We shall find, I think, that in this as in its earlier phases, sorcery was closely connected with the prevailing modes of thought on religious subjects; and that its history is one of the most faithful indications of the laws of religious belief in their relation to the progress of civilisation.
The more carefully the history of the centuries prior to the Reformation is studied, the more evident it becomes that the twelfth century forms the great turning point of the European intellect. Owing to many complicated causes, which it would be tedious and difficult to trace, a general revival of Latin literature had then taken place, which profoundly modified the intellectual condition of Europe, and which, therefore, implied and necessitated a modification of the popular belief. For the first time for many centuries, we find a feeble spirit of doubt combating the spirit of credulity; a curiosity for purely secular knowledge replacing, in some small degree, the passion for theology; and, as a consequence of these things, a diminution of the contemptuous hatred with which all who were external to Christianity had been regarded. In every department of thought and of knowledge, there was manifested a vague disquietude, a spirit of restless and feverish anxiety, that contrasted strangely with the preceding torpor. The long slumber of untroubled orthodoxy was broken by many heresies, which, though often repressed, seemed in each succeeding century to acquire new force and consistency. Manichæism, which had for some time been smouldering in the Church, burst into a fierce flame among the Albigenses, and was only quenched by that fearful massacre in which tens of thousands were murdered at the instigation of the. priests. Then it was that the standard of an impartial philosophy was first planted by Abelard in Europe, and the minds of the learned distracted by subtle and perplexing doubts concerning the leading doctrines of the faith. Then, too, the teachings of a stern and uncompromising infidelity flashed forth from Seville and from Cordova; and the form of Averroes began to assume those gigantic proportions, which, at a later period, overshadowed the whole intellect of Europe, and almost persuaded some of the ablest men that the reign of Antichrist had begun. [1:71] At the same time, the passion for astrology, and for the fatalism it implied, revived with the revival of pagan learning, and penetrated into the halls of nobles and the palaces of kings. Every doubt, every impulse of rebellion against ecclesiastical authority, above all, every heretical opinion, was regarded as the direct instigation of Satan, and their increase as the measure of his triumph. Yet these things were now gathering darkly all around. Europe was beginning to enter into that inexpressibly painful period in which men have learned to doubt, but have not yet learned to regard doubt as innocent; in which the new mental activity produces a variety of opinions, while the old credulity persuades them that all but one class of opinions are the suggestions of the devil. The spirit of rationalism was yet unborn; or if some faint traces of it may be discovered in the teachings of Abelard, it was at least far too weak to allay the panic. There was no independent enquiry; no confidence in an honest research; no disposition to rise above dogmatic systems or traditional teaching; no capacity for enduring the sufferings of a suspended judgment. The Church had cursed the human intellect by cursing the doubts that are the necessary consequence of its exercise. She had cursed even the moral faculty by asserting the guilt of honest error.
It is easy to perceive that, in such a state of thought, the conception of Satanic presence must have assumed a peculiar prominence, and have created a peculiar terror. Multitudes were distracted by doubts, which they sought in vain to repress, and which they firmly believed to be the suggestions of the devil. Their horror of pagans and Mahometans diminished more and more, as they acquired a relish for the philosophy of which the first, or the physical sciences of which the second were the repositories. Every step in knowledge increased their repugnance to the coarse materialism which was prevalent, and every generation rendered the general intellectual tendencies more manifestly hostile to the Church. On the other hand, that Church presented an aspect of the sternest inflexibility. Rebellion and doubt were, in her eyes, the greatest of all crimes; and her doctrine of evil spirits and of the future world supplied her with engines of terrorism which she was prepared to employ to the uttermost. Accordingly we find that, about the twelfth century, the popular teaching began to assume a sterner and more solemn cast, and the devotions of the people to be more deeply tinctured by fanaticism. The old confidence which had almost toyed with Satan, and in the very exuberance of an unfaltering faith had mocked at his devices was exchanged for a harsh and gloomy asceticism The aspect of Satan became more formidable, and the aspect of Christ became less engaging. Till the close of the tenth century, the central figure of Christian art had been usually represented as a very young man, with an expression of untroubled gentleness and calm resting on his countenance, and engaged in miracles of mercy. The parable of the Good Shepherd, which adorns almost every chapel in the catacombs, was still the favourite subject of the painter; and the sterner representations of Christianity were comparatively rare. In the eleventh century, all this began to change. The Good Shepherd entirely disappeared, the miracles of mercy became less frequent, and were replaced by the details of the Passion and the terrors of the Last Judgment. The countenance of Christ became sterner, older, and more mournful. About the twelfth century, this change became almost universal. From this period, writes one of the most learned of modern archæologists, 'Christ appears more and more melancholy, and often truly terrible. It is, indeed, the rex tremendæ majestatis of oui Dies Iræ. It is almost the God of the Jews making fear the beginning of wisdom.' [1:74] In the same age, we find the scourgings and the 'minutio monachi' -- the practice of constant bleedings -- rising into general use in the monasteries; [2:74] and, soon after, the Flagellants arose, whose stern discipline and passionate laments over prevailing iniquity directed the thoughts of multitudes to subjects that were well calculated to inflame their imaginations, Almost at the same time, religious persecution, which had been for many centuries almost unknown, amid the calm of orthodoxy, was revived and stimulated. In the beginning of the thirteenth century, Innocent III. instituted the Inquisition, and issued the first appeal to princes to employ their power for the suppression of heresy; and, in the course of the following century, the new tribunal was introduced; or, at least, executions for heresy had taken place in several great countries in Europe.
The terrorism which was thus created by the conflict between an immutable Church and an age in which there was some slight progress, and a real, though faint spirit of rebellion, gradually filtered down to those who were far too ignorant to become heretics. The priest in the pulpit or in the confessional; the monk in his intercourse with the peasant; the Flagellant, by his mournful hymns, and by the spectacle of his macerations; above all, the inquisitor, by his judgments, communicated to the lower classes a sense of Satanic presence and triumph, which they naturally applied to the order of ideas with which they were most conversant. In an age which was still grossly ignorant and credulous, the popular faith was necessarily full of grotesque superstitions, which faithfully reflected the general tone and colouring of religious teaching, though they often went far beyond its limits. These superstitions had once consisted, for the most part, in wild legends of fairies, mermaids, giants, and dragons; of miracles of saints, conflicts in which the devil took a prominent part, but was invariably defeated, or illustrations of the boundless efficacy of some charm or relic. About the twelfth century they began to assume a darker hue, and the imaginations of the people revelled in the details of the witches' Sabbath, and in the awful power of the ministers of Satan. The inquisitors traversed Europe, proclaiming that the devil was operating actively on all sides; and among their very first victims were persons who were accused of sorcery, and who were, of course, condemned. [1:75] Such condemnations could not make the belief in the reality of the crime more unhesitating than it had been, but they had a direct tendency to multiply the accusations. The imaginations of the people were riveted upon the subject. A contagious terror was engendered. Some, whose minds were thoroughly diseased, persuaded themselves that they were in communion with Satan; all had an increasing predisposition to see Satanic agency around them.
To these things should be added a long series of social and political events, into which it is needless to enter, for they have very lately been painted with matchless vividness by one of the greatest of living writers. [1:76] A sense of insecurity and wretchedness, often rising to absolute despair, had been diffused among the people, and had engendered the dark imaginations, and the wild and rebellious passions, which, in a superstitious age, are their necessary concomitants. It has always been observed by the inquisitors that a large proportion of those who were condemned to the flames were women; whose lives had been clouded by some great sorrow; and that music, which soothes the passions, and allays the bitterness of regret, had an extraordinary power over the possessed. [2:76]
Under the influences which I have attempted to trace the notion of witchcraft was reduced to a more definite form, and acquired an increasing prominence in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Most of the causes that produced it advanced by their very nature with an accelerating force, and, the popular imagination became more and more fascinated by the subject, In the fourteenth century, an event occurred which was well calculated to give a fearful impulse to the terrorism; and which may, indeed, be justly regarded as one of the most appalling in the history of humanity. I allude, of course, to the black death. A great German physician has lately investigated, with much skill and learning, the history of that time; and he has recorded his opinion that, putting aside all exaggerated accounts, the number of those who died of the pestilence during the six years of its continuance, may be estimated, by a very moderate computation, at twenty-five millions, or a fourth part of the inhabitants of Europe. [3:76] Many great towns lost far more than half their population; many country districts were almost depopulated.
It would be scarcely possible to conceive an event fitted to act with a more terrific force upon the imaginations of men. Even in our own day, we know how great a degree of religious terror is inspired by a pestilence; but, in an age when the supernatural character of disease was universally believed, an affliction of such unexampled magnitude produced a consternation which almost amounted to madness. One of its first effects was an enormous increase of the wealth of the clergy by the legacies of the terror-stricken victims. The sect of the Flagellants, which had been for a century unknown, reappeared in tenfold numbers, and almost every part of Europe resounded with their hymns. Then, too, arose the dancing mania of Flanders and Germany, when thousands assembled with strange cries and gestures, overawing by their multitudes all authority, and proclaiming, amid their wild dances and with shrieks of terror, the power and the triumph of Satan. [1:77] It has been observed that this form of madness raged with an especial violence in the dioceses of Cologne and Trèves, in which witchcraft was afterwards most prevalent. [2:77] In Switzerland and in some parts of Germany the plague was ascribed to the poison of the Jews; and though the Pope made a noble effort to dispel the illusion, immense numbers of that unhappy race were put to death. Some thousands are said to have perished in Mayence alone. More generally, it was regarded as a divine chastisement, or as an evidence of Satanic power; and the most grotesque explanations were hazarded. Boots with pointed toes had been lately introduced, and were supposed by many to have been peculiarly offensive to the Almighty. [1:78] What, however, we have especially to observe is, that the trials for witchcraft multiplied with a fearful rapidity. [2:78]
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they may be said to have reached their climax. The aspect which Europe then presented was that of universal anarchy and universal terrorism. The intellectual influences which had been long corroding the pillars of the Church had done their work, and a fearful moral retrogression, aggravated by the newly-acquired ecclesiastical wealth, accompanied the intellectual advance. Yet, over all this chaos, there was one great conception dominating unchanged. It was the sense of sin and Satan; of the absolute necessity of a correct dogmatic system to save men from the agonies of hell. The Church, which had long been all in all to Christendom, was heaving in what seemed the last throes of dissolution. The boundaries of religious thought were all obscured. Conflicting tendencies and passions were raging with a tempestuous violence, among men who were absolutely incapable of enduring an intellectual suspense, and each of the opposing sects proclaimed its distinctive doctrines essential to salvation. Doubt was almost universally regarded as criminal, and error as damnable; yet the first was the necessary condition, and the second the probable consequence, of enquiry. To tally unaccustomed to independent reasoning, bewildered by the vast and undefined fields of thought from which the opposing arguments were drawn; with a profound sense of the absolute necessity of a correct creed, and of the constant action of Satan upon the fluctuations of the will and of the judgment; distracted and convulsed by colliding sentiments, which an unenlightened psychology attributed to spiritual inspiration, and, above all, parched with a burning longing for certainty; the minds of men drifted to and fro under the influence of the wildest terror. None could escape the movement. It filled all Europe with alarm, permeated with its influence all forms of thought and action, absorbed every element of national life into its ever-widening vortex.
There certainly never has been a movement which, in its ultimate results, has contributed so largely to the emancipation of the human mind from all superstitious terrors as the Reformation. It formed a multitude of churches, in which the spirit of qualified and partial scepticism that had long been a source of anarchy, might expatiate with freedom, and be allied with the spirit of order. It rejected an immense proportion of the dogmatic and ritualistic conceptions that had almost covered the whole field of religion, and rendered possible that steady movement by which theology has since then been gravitating towards the moral faculty. It, above all, diminished the prominence of the clergy, and thus prepared the way for that general secularisation of the European intellect, which is such a marked characteristic of modern civilisation. Yet, inappreciably great as are these blessings, it would be idle to deny that, for a time, the Reformation aggravated the very evils it was intended to correct. It was, for a time, merely an exchange of masters. The Protestant asserted the necessity and the certainty of his distinctive doctrines, as dogmatically and authoritatively as the Catholic. He believed in his own infallibility quite as firmly as his opponent believed in the infallibility of the Pope. It is only by a very slow process that the human mind can emerge from a system of error; and the virtue of dogmas had been so ingrained in all religious thought, by the teaching of more than twelve centuries, that it required a long and painful discipline to weaken what is not yet destroyed. The nature of truth, the limits of human faculties, the laws of probabilities, and the conditions that are essential for an impartial research, were subjects with which even the most advanced minds were then entirely unfamiliar. There was, indeed, much cultivation of logic, considered in its most narrow sense; but there was no such thing as a comprehensive view of the whole field of mental science, of the laws and limits of the reason. There was also no conviction that the reason should be applied to every department of theology, with the same unflinching severity as to any other form of speculation. Faith always presented to the mind the idea of an abnormal intellectual condition, of the subversion or suspension of the critical faculties. It sometimes comprised more than this, but it always included this. It was the opposite of doubt and of the spirit of doubt. What irreverent men called credulity, reverent men called faith; and although one word was more respectful than the other, yet the two words were with most men strictly synonymous. Some of the Protestants added other and moral ideas to the word, but they firmly retained the intellectual idea. As long as such a conception existed, a period of religious convulsion was necessarily a period of extreme suffering and terror; and there can be little doubt that the Reformation was, in consequence, the most painful of all the transitions through which the human intellect has passed.
If the reader has seized the spirit of the foregoing remarks, he will already have perceived their application to the history of witchcraft. In order that men should believe in witches, their intellects must have been familiarised with the conceptions of Satanic power and Satanic presence, and they must regard these things with an unfaltering belief. In order that witchcraft should be prominent, the imaginations of men must have been so forcibly directed to these articles of belief, as to tinge and govern the habitual current of their thoughts, and to produce a strong disposition to see Satanic agency around them. A long train of circumstances, which culminated in the Reformation, had diffused through Christendom a religious terror which gradually overcast the horizon of thought, creating a general uneasiness as to the future of the Church, and an intense and vivid sense of Satanic presence. These influences were, it is true, primarily connected with abstruse points of speculative belief, but they acted in a twofold manner upon the grosser superstitions of the people. Although the illiterate cannot follow the more intricate speculations of their teachers, they can, as I have said, catch the general tone and character of thought which these speculations produce, and they readily apply them to their own sphere of thought. Besides this, the upper classes, being filled with a sense of Satanic presence, will be disposed to believe in the reality of any history of witchcraft. They will, therefore, prosecute the witches, and, as a necessary consequence, stimulate the delusion. When the belief is confined to the lower class, its existence will be languishing and unprogressive. But when legislators denounce it in their laws, and popes in their bulls; when priests inveigh against it in their pulpits, and inquisitors burn thousands at the stake, the imaginations of men will be inflamed, the terror will prove contagious, and the consequent delusions be multiplied. Now, popes and legislators, priests and inquisitors, will do these things just in proportion to the firmness of their belief in the conceptions I have noticed, and to the intensity with which their imaginations have been directed to those conceptions by religious terrorism.
We have a striking illustration of the influence upon witchcraft of the modes of thought which the Reformation for a time sustained in the life of Luther. No single feature was more clearly marked in his character than an intense and passionate sense of sin. He himself often described, in the most graphic language, how, in the seclusion of his monastery at Wittenberg, he had passed under the very shadow of death, how the gates of hell seemed to open beneath his feet, and the sense of hopeless wretchedness to make life itself a burden. While oppressed by the keenest sense of moral unworthiness, he was distracted by intellectual doubt. He only arrived at the doctrines of Protestantism after a long and difficult enquiry, struggling slowly through successive phases of belief, uncheered for many years by one word of sympathy, and oscillating painfully between opposing conclusions. Like all men of vivid imagination who are so circumstanced, a theological atmosphere was formed about his mind, and became the medium through which every event was contemplated. He was subject to numerous strange hallucinations and vibrations of judgment, which he invariably attributed to the direct action of Satan. Satan became, in consequence, the dominating conception of his life. In every critical event, in every mental perturbation, he recognised Satanic power. In the monastery of Wittenberg, he constantly heard the Devil making a noise in the cloisters; and became at last so accustomed to the fact, that he related that, on one occasion, having been awakened by the sound, he perceived that it was only the Devil, and accordingly went to sleep again. The black stain in the castle of Wartburg still marks the place where he flung an ink-bottle at the Devil. In the midst of his long and painful hesitation on the subject of tran substantiation, the Devil appeared to him, and suggested a new argument. In such a state of mind, he naturally accepted, with implicit faith, every anecdote of Satanic miracles. He told how an aged minister had been interrupted, in the midst of his devotions, by a devil who was grunting behind him like a pig. At Torgau, the Devil broke pots and basins, and flung them at the minister's head, and at last drove the minister's wife and servants half crazy out of the house. On another occasion, the Devil appeared in the law courts, in the character of a leading barrister, whose place he is said to have filled with the utmost propriety. Fools, deformed persons, the blind and the dumb, were possessed by devils. Physicians, indeed, attempted to explain these infirmities by natural causes; but those physicians were ignorant men; they did not know all the power of Satan. Every form of disease might be produced by Satan, or by his agents, the witches; and none of the infirmities to which Luther was liable were natural, but his ear-ache was peculiarly diabolical. Hail, thunder, and plagues are all the direct consequences of the intervention of spirits. Many of those persons who were supposed to have committed suicide, had in reality been seized by the Devil and strangled by him, as the traveller is strangled by the robber. The Devil could transport men at his will through the air. He could beget children, and Luther had himself come in contact with one of them. An intense love of children was one of the most amiable characteristics of the great Reformer; but, on this occasion, he most earnestly recommended the reputed relatives to throw the child into a river, in order to free their house from the presence of a devil. As a natural consequence of these modes of thought, witchcraft did not present the slightest improbability to his mind. In strict accordance with the spirit of his age, he continually asserted the existence and frequency of the crime, and emphatically proclaimed the duty of burning the witches. [1:84]
I know, indeed, few stranger, and at the same time more terrible pictures, than are furnished by the history of witchcraft during the century that preceded and the century that followed the Reformation. Wherever the conflict of opinions was raging among the educated, witchcraft, like an attendant shadow, pursued its course among the ignorant; [2:84] and Protestants and Catholics vied with each other in the zeal with which they prosecuted it. Never was the power of imagination -- that strange faculty which casts the shadow of its images over the whole creation, and combines all the phenomena of life according to its own archetypes -- more strikingly evinced. Superstitious and terror-stricken, the minds of men were impelled irresistibly towards the miraculous and the Satanic, and they found them upon every side. The elements of imposture blended so curiously with the elements of delusion, that it is now impossible to separate them. Sometimes an ambitious woman, braving the dangers of her act, boldly claimed supernatural power, and the haughtiest and the most courageous cowered humbly at her presence. Sometimes a husband attempted, in the witch courts, to cut the tie which his church had pronounced indissoluble; and numbers of wives have, in consequence, perished at the stake. Sometimes a dexterous criminal availed himself of the panic; and, directing a charge of witchcraft against his accuser, escaped himself with impunity. Sometimes, too, a personal grudge was avenged by the accusation, or a real crime was attributed to sorcery; or a hail-storm, or a strange disease, suggested the presence of a witch. But, for the most part, the trials represent pure and unmingled delusions. The defenders of the belief were able to maintain that multitudes had voluntarily confessed themselves guilty of commerce with the Evil One, and had persisted in their confessions till death. Madiness is always peculiarly frequent during great religious or political revolutions; [1:85] and, in the sixteenth century, all its forms were absorbed in the system of witchcraft, and caught the colour of the prevailing predisposition. [2:85] Occasionally, too, we find old and half-doting women, at first convinced of their innocence, but soon faltering before the majesty of justice, asking timidly whether it is possible to be in connection with the Devil without being conscious of the fact, and at last almost persuading themselves that they had done what was alleged. Very often, the terror of the trial, the prospect of the most agonising of deaths, and the frightful tortures that were applied to the weak frame of an old and feeble woman, [3:85] overpowered her understanding; her brain reeled beneath the accumulated suffering, the consciousness of innocence disappeared, and the wretched victim went raving to the flames, convinced that she was about to sink for ever into perdition. The zeal of the ecclesiastics in stimulating the persecution was unflagging. It was displayed alike in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Flanders, Sweden, England, Scotland, and Ireland. An old writer who cordially approved of the rigour tells us that, in the province of Como alone, eight or ten inquisitors were constantly employed; and he adds that, in one year, the number of persons they condemned amounted to a thousand; and that during several of the succeeding years, the victims seldom fell below one hundred. [1:86]
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