RATIONALISM IN EUROPE.
[First chapter continued from previous file.]
It was natural that a body of learned men like the inquisitors, whose habits of thought were eminently retrospective, should have formed some general theories connecting the phenomena of sorcery with past events, and reducing them to a systematic form. We accordingly find that, in the course of about three centuries, a vast literature was formed upon the subject. The different forms of witchcraft were all carefully classified and associated with particular doctrines; the whole philosophy of the Satanic was minutely investigated, and the prevailing mode of thought embodied in countless treatises, which were once regarded as masterpieces of orthodox theology.
It is very difficult for us in the present day to do justice to these works, or to realise the points of view from which they were written. A profound scepticism on all subjects connected with the Devil underlies the opinions of almost every educated man, and renders it difficult even to conceive a condition of thought in which that spirit was the object of an intense and realised belief. An anecdote which involves the personal intervention of Satan is now regarded as quite as intrinsically absurd, and unworthy of serious attention, as an anecdote of a fairy or of a sylph. When, therefore, a modern reader turns over the pages of an old treatise on witchcraft, and finds hundreds of such anecdotes related with the gravest assurance, he is often inclined to depreciate very unduly the intellect of an author who represents a condition of thought so unlike his own. The cold indifference to human suffering which these writers display gives an additional bias to his reason; while their extraordinary pedantry, their execrable Latin, and their gross scientific blunders, furnish ample materials for his ridicule. Besides this, Sprenger, who is at once the most celebrated, and, perhaps, the most credulous member of his class, unfortunately for his reputation, made some ambitious excursions into another field, and immortalised himself by a series of etymological blunders, which have been the delight of all succeeding scholars. [1:87]
But when all these qualifications have been made -- and, with the exception of the last, they would all apply to any other writings of the same period -- it is, I think, impossible to deny that the books in defence of the belief are not only far more numerous than the later works against it, but that they also represent far more learning, dialectic skill, and even general ability. For many centuries, the ablest men were not merely unwilling to repudiate the superstition; they often pressed forward earnestly, and with the most intense conviction, to defend it. Indeed, during the period when witchcraft was most prevalent, there were few writers of real eminence who did not, on some occasion, take especial pains to throw the weight of their authority into the scale. Thomas Aquinas was probably the ablest writer of the thirteenth century, and he assures us that diseases and tempests are the direct acts of the Devil; that the Devil can transport men at his pleasure through the air; and that he can transform them into any shape. Gerson, the Chancellor of the University of Paris, and, as many think, the author of 'The Imitation,' is justly regarded as one of the master-intellects of his age; and he, too, wrote in defence of the belief. Bodin was unquestionably the most original political philosopher who had arisen since Macchiavelli, and he devoted all his learning and acuteness to crushing the rising scepticism on the subject of witches. The truth is, that, in those ages, ability was no guarantee against error; because the single employment of the reason was to develop and expand premises that were furnished by the Church. There was no such thing as an uncompromising and unreserved criticism of the first principles of teaching; there was no such thing as a revolt of the reason against conclusions that were strictly drawn from the premises of authority. In our age, and in every other age of half belief, principles are often adopted without being fully developed. If a conclusion is drawn from them, men enquire, not merely whether the deduction is correct, but also whether its result seems intrinsically probable; and if it does not appear so, they will reject the conclusion, without absolutely rejecting the premise. In the ages of witchcraft, an inexorable logic, prevailed. Men were so firmly convinced of the truth of the doctrines they were taught, that those doctrines became to them the measure of probability, and no event that seemed to harmonise with them presented the slightest difficulty to the mind. They governed the imagination, while they subdued the reason, and secular considerations never intervened to damp their assurance. The ablest men were not unfrequently the most credulous; because their ability was chiefly employed in discovering analogies between every startling narrative and the principles of their faith, and their success was a measure of their ingenuity.
It is these considerations that give the writings of the period I am referring to so great an importance in the history of opinions, and which also make it so difficult for us to appreciate their force. I shall endeavour to lay before the reader, in as concise a form as I am able, some of the leading principles they embodied; which, acting on the imagination, contributed to produce the phenomena of witchcraft; and, acting on the reason, persuaded men that the narratives of witches were antecedently probable. [1:89]
It was universally taught that innumerable evil spirits were ranging over the world, seeking the present unhappiness and the future ruin of mankind; that these spirits were fallen angels, who had retained many, if not all, the angelic capacities; and that they, at all events, possessed a power and wisdom far transcending the limits of human faculties. From these conceptions, many important consequences were evolved. If these spirits are for ever hovering around us, it was said, it is surely not improbable that we should meet some signs of their presence. If they delight in the smallest misfortune that can befall mankind, and possess far more than human capacities for inflicting suffering, it is not surprising that they should direct against men the energies of superhuman malice. If their highest object is to secure the ultimate ruin of man, we need not wonder that they should offer their services to those who would bribe them by the surrender of their hopes. That such a compact can be made -- that it is possible for men to direct the energies of evil spirits -- was established by the clearest authority. 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,' was the solemn injunction which had been more than once repeated in the Levitical code; and the history of the witch of Endor furnishes a detailed description of the circumstances of the crime. The Fathers had denounced magic with a unanimous and unvarying voice, and the writings of every nation bear traces of the universality of the belief. In an age which was essentially retrospective, it was impossible to name a tenet which could seem more probable, for there was none which was more closely connected with antiquity, both ecclesiastical and profane.
The popular belief, however, not only asserted the possibility and continued existence of witchcraft, it also entered into many of what we should now deem the most extravagant and grotesque details. In the first place, one of the most ordinary operations of the witch, or of the Devil acting at her command, was to cause tempests, which it was said frequently desolated the fields of a single person, leaving the rest of the country entirely untouched. If any one ventured to deny that Satan possessed, or was likely to exercise this power, he was speedily silenced by a scriptural precedent. We read in the Old Testament that the Devil, by the Divine permission, afflicted Job; and that among the means which he employed was a tempest which destroyed the house in which the sons of the patriarch were eating. The description, in the book of Revelation, of the four angels who held the four winds, and to whom it was given to afflict the earth, was also generally associated with this belief; for, as St. Augustine tells us, the word angel is equally applicable to good or bad spirits. Besides this, the Devil was always spoken of as the prince of the air. His immense knowledge and his immense power would place the immediate causes of atmospheric, disturbances at his disposal; and the sudden tempest would, therefore, be no violation of natural laws, but simply an instance of their application by superhuman power. These considerations were, it was thought, sufficient to remove all sense of the antecedent improbability of the facts which were alleged; but every uncertainty was dispelled by the uniform teaching of the Church. At all times, the Fathers and the mediæval saints had taught, like the teachers of every other religion in the same early stage of civilisation, that all the more remarkable atmospheric changes resulted from the direct intervention of spirits. [1:91] Rain seems to have been commonly associated, as it still is in the Church of England, with the intervention of the Deity; but wind and hail were invariably identified with the Devil. If the Devil could originate a tempest, it followed, as a necessary consequence, that witches who had entered into compact with him had the same power.
The same principles of argument applied to disease. The Devil had afflicted Job with horrible diseases, and might therefore afflict others. Great pestilences were constantly described in the Old Testament as the acts of the angels; and the Devil, by the permission of the Deity and by virtue of his angelic capacities, might therefore easily produce them. The history of the demoniacs proves that devils could master and derange the bodily functions; and, therefore, to deny that they could produce disease, would be to impugn the veracity of these narratives; and the later ecclesiastical testimony on the subject, if not unanimous, was, at least, extremely strong. As, therefore, the more striking atmospheric disturbances were ascribed generally to the Devil, and, when the injury was spread over a small area, to witches; so, the pestilences which desolated nations were deemed supernatural, and every strange and unaccountable disease that fell upon an individual, a result of the malice of a sorcerer. If the witch could produce disease by her incantations, there was no difficulty in believing that she could also remove it. [1:92]
These propositions were unanimously and firmly believed. They were illustrated by anecdotes, the countless numbers of which can only be appreciated by those who have studied the literature at its source. They were indelibly graven on the minds of men by hundreds of trials and of executions, and they were admitted by almost all the ablest men in Christendom.
There were other details, however, which excited considerable discussion. One of the most striking of these was the transportation of witches through the air. That an old woman could be carried some hundreds of miles in a few minutes on a broomstick or a goat, or in any other way the Devil might select, would, in the present day, be regarded as so essentially and grotesquely absurd, that it is probable that no conceivable amount of testimony would convince men of its reality. At the period of which I am writing, this rationalistic spirit did undoubtedly exist in a few minds; for it is noticed, though with extreme contempt, by some of the writers on the subject, who treated it as a manifest mental aberration; but it had not yet assumed any importance. The measure of probability was still essentially theological; and the only question that was asked was, how far the narratives conformed with the theological conception of a spirit. On this point there seemed, at first sight, much difficulty, and considerable ingenuity was applied to elucidating it. Satan, it was remembered, had borne Christ through the air, and placed him on a pinnacle of the temple; and therefore, said St. Thomas Aquinas, if he could do this to one body he could do it to all. The prophet Habakkuk had been transported by a spirit from Judea to Babylon, and Philip the Evangelist had been the object of a similar miracle. St. Paul had likewise been carried, perhaps in the body, into the third heaven.
This evidence was ample and conclusive; but other perplexing difficulties arose. Nothing in the witch trials was more minutely described than the witches' Sabbath, and many hundreds of women had been burnt alive for attending it. Occasionally, however, it happened that, when a woman had been condemned on this charge by her own confession, or by the evidence of other witches, her husband came forth and swore that his wife had not left his side during the night in question. The testimony of so near a relative might, perhaps, be explained by perjury; but other evidence was adduced which it was more difficult to evade. It was stated that women were often found lying in a state of trance, insensible to pain, and without the smallest sign of life; that, after a time, their consciousness returned, and that they then confessed that they had been at the witches' Sabbath. These statements soon attracted the attention of theologians, who were much divided in their judgments. Some were of opinion that the witch was laboring under a delusion of the Devil; but they often added that, as the delusion originated in a compact, she should, notwithstanding, be burned. Others suggested a bolder and very startling explanation. That the same portion of matter cannot The in two places at once, is a proposition which rests entirely on the laws of nature; but those laws have no existence for the miraculous; and the miracle of transubstantiation seems to destroy all the improbability of the pluri-presence of a human body. At all events, the Devil might furnish, for the occasion, a duplicate body in order to baffle the ministers of justice. This latter opinion became extremely popular among theologians; and two famous Catholic miracles were triumphantly quoted in its support. St. Ambrose was, on one occasion, celebrating mass in a church at Milan, when he suddenly paused in the midst of the service. His head sank upon the altar, and he remained motionless, as in a trance, for the space of three hours. The congregation waited silently for the benediction. At last the consciousness of the saint returned, and he assured his hearers that he had been officiating at Tours at the burial of St. Martin, a statement which was, of course, in a few days verified. A similar miracle was related of St. Clement. This early saint, in the midst of a mass at Rome, was called away to consecrate a church at Pisa. His body, or an angel who had assumed its form, remained at Rome; but the saint was at the same time present at Pisa, where he left some drops of blood upon the marble for a memorial of the miracle. [1:95] On the whole, the most general opinion seems to have been, that the witches were sometimes transported to the Sabbath in body, and sometimes in spirit; and that devils occasionally assumed their forms in order to baffle the sagacity of the judges. [2:95]
Another important and much discussed department, was the connection between evil spirits and animals. That the Devil could assume the form of any animal [3:95] he pleased, seems to have been generally admitted; and it presented no difficulty to those who remembered that the first appearance of that personage on earth was as a serpent, and that on one occasion a legion of devils had entered into a herd of swine. St. Jerome also assures us that, in the desert, St. Antony had met a centaur and a faun -- a little man with horns growing from his forehead -- who were possibly devils; [1:96] and, at all events, at a later period, the lives of the saints represent evil spirits in the form of animals as not unfrequent. Lycanthropy, however, or the transformation of witches into wolves, presented more difficulty. The history of Nebuchadnezzar and the conversion of Lot's wife, were, it is true, eagerly alleged in support of its possibility; but it was impossible to forget that St. Augustine appeared to regard lycanthropy as a fable, and that a canon of the council of Ancyra had emphatically condemned the belief. On the other hand, there was no opinion more universally held among the ancients. It had been accepted by many of the greatest and most orthodox theologians, by the inquisitors who were commissioned by the popes, and by the law courts of most countries. The evidence on which it rested was very curious and definite. If the witch was wounded in the form of an animal, she retained that wound in her human form, and hundreds of such cases were alleged before the tribunals. Sometimes the hunter, having severed the paw of his assailant, retained it as a trophy; but when he opened his bag, he discovered in it only a bleeding hand, which he recognised as the hand of his wife. [1:97]
The last class of anecdotes I shall notice is that which appears to have grown out of the Catholic conception of celibacy. I mean the accounts of the influence of witchcraft upon the passions.
It is not difficult to conceive the order of ideas that produced that passionate horror of the fair sex which is such a striking characteristic of old Catholic theology. Celibacy was universally regarded as the highest form of virtue, and in order to make it acceptable, theologians exhausted all the resources of their eloquence in describing the iniquity of those whose charms had rendered it so rare. Hence, the long and fiery disquisitions on the unparalleled malignity the inconceivable subtlety, the frivolity, the unfaithfulness, the unconquerably evil propensities of women, which were the terror of one age, and which became the amusement of the next. It is not very easy to read these diatribes with perfect gravity; but they acquire a certain melancholy significance from the fact, that the teaching they represent had probably a considerable influence in predisposing men to believe in witches, and also in producing the extreme callousness with which the sufferings of the victims were contemplated. The question why the immense majority of those who were accused of sorcery should be women, early attracted attention; and it was generally answered, not by the sensibility of their nervous constitution, and by their consequent liability to religious monomania and epidemics, but by the inherent wickedness of the sex. There was no subject on which the old writers expatiated with more indignant eloquence, or with more copious illustration. [1:99] Cato, they said, had declared that 'if the world were only free from women, men would not be without the converse of the gods.' Cicero had said, that 'many motives will urge men to one crime, but that one passion will impel women to all crimes.' Solomon, whose means of observation had in this respect been exceedingly extensive, had summed up his experience in a long series of the most crushing apophthegms. Chrysostom only interpreted the general sentiment of the Fathers, when he pronounced woman to be 'a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril, a deadly fascination, and a painted ill.' Doctor after doctor echoed the same lugubrious strain, ransacked the pages of history for illustrations of the enormities of the sex, and marshalled the ecclesiastical testimonies on the subject with the most imperturbable earnestness and solemnity. Men who had most seriously formed this estimate of the great majority of women; who esteemed celibacy the highest of virtues, and every temptation to abandon it the direct consequence of Satanic presence; came, by a very natural process, to regard all the 'phenomena of love' as most especially under the influence of the Devil. Hence, those wild gleams of strange and grotesque romance which, from time to time, light up the literature of witchcraft. Incubi and succubi were for ever wandering among mankind, alluring by more than human charms the unwary to their destruction, and laying plots which were but too often successful against the virtue of the saints. Sometimes, the witches kindled in the monastic breast a more terrestrial fire; and men told, with bated breath, how, under the spell of a vindictive woman, four successive abbots in a German monastery had been wasted away by an unholy flame. [1:100] Occasionally, with a still more refined malice, the Evil One assumed the appearance of some noted divine, in order to bring discredit upon his character; and an astonished maiden saw, prostrate at her feet, the form of one whom she knew to be a bishop, and whom she believed to be a saint! [2:100] Nor was it only among those who were bound to celibacy that the deadly influences were exercised. The witches were continually disturbing, by their machinations, the joys of wedlock; and none can tell how many hundreds have died in agonies for afflicting with barrenness the marriage bed. [3:100]
I make no apology for having dwelt so long on a series of doctrines and arguments which the reader will probably deem very puerile, because their importance depends, not on their intrinsic value, but upon their relation to the history of opinions. The follies of the past, when they were adopted by the wisest men, are well worthy of study; and, in the case before us, they furnish, I think, an invaluable clue to the laws of intellectual development. It is often and truly said, that past ages were pre-eminently credulous, as compared with our own; yet the difference is not so much in the amount of the credulity, as in the direction which it takes. Men are always prepared to accept, on very slight evidence, what they believe to be exceedingly probable. Their measure of probability ultimately determines the details of their creed, and it is itself perpetually changing under the influence of civilisation. In the middle ages, and in the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century, the measure of probability was essentially theological. Men seemed to breathe an atmosphere that was entirely unsecular. Their intellectual and imaginative conceptions were all coloured by theological associations; and they accepted with cheerful alacrity any anecdote which harmonised with their habitual meditations. The predisposition to believe in the miraculous was so great, that it constructed, out of a small germ of reality, this vast and complicated system of witchcraft; accumulated around it an immense mass of the most varied and circumstantial evidence; persuaded all the ablest men for many centuries that it was incontestably true; conducted it unshaken through the scrutiny of the law courts of every European nation; and consigned tens of thousands of victims to a fearful and unlamented death. There was not the smallest desire to explain away or soften down miraculous accounts, in order to make them harmonise with experience, because the minds of men were completely imbued with an order of ideas that had no connection with experience. If we could perceive evil spirits, untrammelled by the laws of matter, actually hovering around us; if we could observe them watching every action with a deadly malignity, seeking with all the energies of superhuman power the misery of mankind, and darkening with their awful aspect every sphere in which we move; if we could see the angel of destruction brandishing the sword of death over the Assyrian hosts, or over the streets of Jerusalem; and could behold Satan transporting Christ through the air, or the demoniacs foaming in agony beneath his grasp, we should probably reason on these matters in much the same spirit as the theologians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Our minds would be so pervaded by these awful images, that they would form a measure of probability entirely different from that which is formed by the experience of life; a nervous consciousness of the continual presence of evil spirits would accompany us for ever, and would for ever predispose us to discover manifestations of their power.
The foregoing pages will, I trust, be sufficient to elucidate the leading causes upon which witchcraft depended. They will show that it resulted, not from accidental circumstances, individual eccentricities, or even scientific ignorance, but from a general predisposition to see Satanic agency in life. It grew from, and it reflected, the prevailing modes of religious thought; and it declined only when those modes were weakened or destroyed. In almost every period of the middle ages, there had been a few men who in some degree dissented from the common superstitions; but their opinions were deemed entirely incomprehensible, and they exercised no appreciable influence upon their contemporaries. Indeed, their doctrines, being generally veiled in a mystical form, were so perverted and materialised, that they not unfrequently increased the prevailing gloom. As long as the general credulity continued, as long as the minds of men were directed towards the miraculous and the Satanic, no efforts could eradicate the superstition. In such a condition of thought, men would always be more inclined to accept than to reject the evidence. They would refuse to scrutinise it with jealous suspicion; and, though they might admit the existence of some imposture, they would never question the substantial justice of the belief. Not until the predisposition was changed; not until men began to recoil from these narratives, as palpably and grossly improbable; not until the sense of their improbability so overpowered the reverence for authority, as to make them seek in every way to evade the evidence, and to make them disbelieve it even when they were unable to disprove it, could this deadly superstition be rolled away. Its decline marks the rise, and its destruction the first triumph, of the spirit of rationalism in Europe.
We frequently find, in the writings of the inquisitors, language which implies that a certain amount of scepticism was. even in their time, smouldering in some minds. It was not, indeed, sufficient to make any deep impression on public opinion. It is identified with no great name, [1:103] and produced no great book; but it was yet sufficiently evident to elicit the anxiety of some theologians, 'Those men,' wrote Gerson, 'should be treated with scorn, and indeed sternly corrected, who ridicule theologians whenever they speak of demons, or attribute to demons any effects, as if these things were entirely fabulous. This error has arisen among some learned men, partly through want of faith, and partly through weakness and imperfection of intellect ... for, as Plato says, to refer everything to the senses, and to be incapable of turning away from them, is the greatest impediment to truth.' [1:104] Sprenger also, in a long chapter, instructed theologians how to meet a spirit of vague scepticism which had arisen among certain laymen; 'who had, indeed, no fixed method of reasoning, but were blindly groping in the dark, touching now on one point, and now on another.' An assembly of doctors of the University of Cologne, [2:104] which was held in 1487, lamented, and severely and authoritatively condemned, a still more startling instance of rebellion, arising from a quarter in which it was least to be expected. When the panic was raging most fiercely in the diocese of Cologne, some priests had attempted to allay the alarm by questioning the reality of the crime. About thirty years later, Spina mentions [3:104] that, in some places, the innumerable executions had aroused a spirit of most acrimonious opposition. Indeed, in the north of Italy, a positive rebellion had broken out, accompanied by a tone of incredulity which that theologian piteously laments. 'Most imprudent, most undevout, and most unfaithful men will not believe the things they ought to believe; and what is still more lamentable, they exert all their influence to obstruct those who are destroying the enemies of Christ.' Such a conduct, Spina justly observes, was full of danger for those who were guilty of it, as they might themselves be justly punished for conniving at the crime; and it was a distinct reflection upon the Church which was represented by the inquisitors and upon the Pope by whom the inquisitors were commissioned. We find, too, the clergy claiming, in a very peremptory tone, the supreme jurisdiction of these cases, and occasionally alleging the misconduct of lay judges who had suffered witches to depart unharmed. All this scepticism, however, appears to have been latent and undefined; and it was not till 1563 that it was thrown into a systematic form by John Wier, in his treatise 'De Præstigiis Dæmonum.'
Wier was a learned and able physician of Clèves. He was convinced as a doctor that many of the victims were simply lunatics, and, being a very humane man, was greatly shocked at the sufferings they endured. He was a Protestant, and therefore, perhaps, not quite as much trammelled by tradition as some of his contemporaries; though in the present day his reverence for authority would be regarded as an absolute infatuation. He had not the slightest wish to revolt against any of the first principles of the popular teaching, or even to free himself from the prevailing modes of thought. He was quite convinced that the world was peopled by crowds of demons, who were constantly working miracles among mankind; and his only object was to reconcile his sense of their ubiquity, with his persuasion that some of the phenomena that were deemed supernatural arose from disease. He was of opinion that all the witches were labouring under the delusions of the Devil. They did not make an unholy compact, or ride through the air, or arouse tempests, or produce disease, or become the concubines of Satan; but the Devil had entered into them, and persuaded them that they had done these things. The idea of possession was thus so enlarged as to absorb the idea of witchcraft. The bewitched person was truly afflicted by the Devil, but the Devil had done this directly, and not by the intervention of a witch, and had then thrown suspicion upon some old woman, in order that the greatest possible amount of suffering might be produced. Persons, he said, were especially liable to diabolical possession, when their faculties were impaired by disease, and their tempers acidulated by suffering. In an eloquent and learned chapter on 'the credulity and fragility of the female sex,' he showed, by the authority of the Fathers and the Greek philosophers, that women were peculiarly subject to evil influences. He also showed that the witches, in mental and moral infirmities, were pre-eminent among their sex. He argued that the word translated witch, in the Levitical law, may be translated poisoner; and that the patristic notion of the intercourse between angels and the antediluvian women, was inadmissible. The gross improbabilities of some parts of the popular belief were clearly exhibited, and illustrated with much unnecessary learning; and the treatise was prefaced by an earnest appeal to the princes of Europe to arrest the effusion of innocent blood.
The scepticism of this work cannot be regarded as audacious. In fact, Wier stands alone in the history of witchcraft, and differs essentially from all the later writers on the subject. He forms a link connecting two periods; he was as fully pervaded by the sense of the miraculous as his opponents, and he never dreamed of restricting the sphere of the supernatural. Such as it was, however, this book was the first attack of any importance on the received opinions, and excited among learned men considerable attention. Three editions were published, in a few years, at Basle and Amsterdam, which were then the centres of independent thought. It was translated into French in 1569, It was supplemented by a treatise 'De Lamiis,' and by a very curious catalogue of the leaders, and description of the organization, of hell. [1:107] Shortly after the publication of these last works, a book appeared in reply, from the pen of Bodin, the famous author of the 'Republic,' and one of the most distinguished philosophers in Europe.
Bodin was esteemed, by many of his contemporaries, the ablest man who had then arisen in France; and the verdict has been but little qualified by later writers. [2:107] Amid all the distractions of a dissipated and an intriguing court, and all the labours of a judicial position, he had amassed an amount of learning so vast and so various, as to place him in the very first rank of the scholars of his nation. He has also the far higher merit of being one of the chief founders of political philosophy and political history, and of having anticipated on these subjects many of the conclusions of our own day. In his judicial capacity he had presided at some trials of witchcraft. He had brought all the resources of his scholarship to bear upon the subject; and he had written a great part of his 'Démonomanie des Sorciers' before the appearance of the last work of Wier.
The 'Démonomanie des Sorciers' is chiefly an appeal to authority, which the author deemed on this subject so unanimous and so conclusive, that it was scarcely possible for any sane man to resist it. He appealed to the popular belief in all countries, in all ages, and in all religions. He cited the opinions of an immense multitude of the greatest writers of pagan antiquity, and of the most illustrious of the Fathers. He showed how the laws of all nations recognised the existence of witchcraft; and he collected hundreds of cases which had been investigated before the tribunals of his own or of other countries. He relates with the most minute and circumstantial detail, and with the most unfaltering confidence, all the proceedings at the witches' Sabbath, the methods which the witches employed in transporting themselves through the air, their transformations, their carnal intercourse with the Devil, their various means of injuring their enemies, the signs that lead to their detection, their confessions when condemned, and their demeanour at the stake. As for the treatise of Wier, he could scarcely find words to express the astonishment and the indignation with which he had perused it. That a puny doctor should have dared to oppose himself to the authority of all ages; that he should have such a boundless confidence in his own opinions, and such a supreme contempt for the wisest of mankind, as to carp and cavil in a sceptical spirit at the evidence of one of the most notorious of existing facts; this was, in truth, the very climax of human arrogance, the very acme of human absurdity. But, extreme as was the audacity thus displayed, the impiety was still greater. Wier 'had armed himself against God.' His book was a tissue of 'horrible blasphemies.' No one who is ever so little touched with the honour of God, could read such blasphemies without a righteous anger.' Not only had he dared to impugn the sentences of so many upright judges; not only had he attempted to save those whom Scripture and the voice of the Church had branded as the worst of criminals; he had even ventured to publish to the world the spells and incantations he had learned from a notorious sorcerer. [1:109] Who could reflect without consternation on the future of Christendom after such fearful disclosures? Who could question that the knowledge thus disseminated would multiply to an incalculable extent the number of witches, would vastly increase the power of Satan, and would be productive of countless sufferings to the innocent? Under these circumstances, so far from relaxing the prosecutions for witchcraft and sorcery, it was necessary to continue them with a redoubled energy; and surely, no one could be the object of a more just suspicion than a man who had written so impious a book, and who had shown such acquaintance with the secrets of so impious a profession, To pardon those whom the law of God condemned to death, was indeed beyond the province of princes. Those who were guilty of such an act had outraged the majesty of Heaven. They had virtually repudiated the Divine law, and pestilence and famine would inevitably desolate their dominions. [1:110] One fatal example there had been of a king tampering with his duty in this respect. Charles IX. had spared the life of the famous sorcerer Trois Echelles, on the condition of his informing against his colleagues; and it is to this grievous sin that the early death of the king is most probably to be ascribed: 'For the word of God is very certain, that he who suffers a man worthy of death to escape, draws the punishment upon himself, as the prophet said to king Ahab, that he should die for having pardoned a man worthy of death. For no one had ever heard of pardon being accorded to sorcerers.' [2:110]
Such were the opinions which were promulgated, towards the close of the sixteenth century, by one of the most advanced intellects of one of the leading nations of Europe; promulgated, too, with a tone of confidence and of triumph, that shows how fully the writer could count upon the sympathies of his readers. The "Démonomanie des Sorciers' appeared in 1581. Only seven years afterwards, Montaigne published the first great sceptical work in the French language; and, among the many subjects on which his scepticism was turned, witchcraft occupied a prominent place. It would be scarcely possible to conceive a more striking contrast, than his treatment of it presents to the works of Bodin and of Wier. The vast mass of authority which those writers loved to array, and by which they shaped the whole course of their reasoning, is calmly and unhesitatingly discarded. The passion for the miraculous, the absorbing sense of diabolical capacities, have all vanished like a dream. The old theological measure of probability has completely disappeared, and is replaced by a shrewd secular common sense. The statements of the witches were pronounced intrinsically incredible. The dreams of a disordered imagination, or the terrors of the rack, would account for many of them; but even when it is impossible to explain away the evidence, it is quite unnecessary to believe it. 'There are,' he said, 'proofs and arguments that are founded on experience and facts. I do not pretend to unravel them. I often cut them, as Alexander did the knot. After all, it is setting a high value upon our opinions, to roast men alive on account of them.' We may not be able to discover an adequate solution of some statements on the subject, but we should consider -- and he here anticipated a mode of argument which was destined long afterwards to assume a most prominent place in theological controversy -- that it is far more probable that our senses should deceive us, than that an old woman should be carried up a chimney on a broom stick; and that it is far less astonishing that witnesses should lie, than that witches should perform the acts that were alleged. [1:112]
It has been justly remarked by Malebranche, that Montaigne is an example of a writer who had no pretensions to be a great reasoner, but who nevertheless exercised a most profound and general influence upon the opinions of mankind. It is not, I think, difficult to discover the explanation of the fact. In an age which was still spell-bound by the fascinations of the past, he applied to every question a judgment entirely unclouded by the imaginations of theologians, and unshackled by the dictates of authority. His originality consists, not so much in his definite opinions or in his arguments, as in the general tone and character of his mind. He was the first French author who had entirely emancipated himself from the retrospective habits of thought that had so long been universal; who ventured to judge all questions by a secular standard, by the light of common sense, by the measure of probability which is furnished by daily experience. He was, no doubt, perfectly aware that 'the laws of Plato, of the twelve tables, of the consuls, of the emperors, and of all nations and legislators -- Persian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Spanish, English -- had decreed capital penalties against sorcerers'; he knew that 'prophets, theologians, doctors, judges, and magistrates, had elucidated the reality of the crime by many thousand violent presumptions, accusations, testimonies, convictions, repentances and voluntary confessions, persisted in to death'; [1:113] but he was also sensible of the extreme fallibility of the human judgment; of the facility with which the mind discovers, in the phenomena of history, a reflection of its preconceived notions; and of the rapidity with which systems of fiction are formed in a credulous and undiscriminating age. While Catholics, Protestants, and Deists were vying with each other in their adoration of the past; while the ambition of every scholar and of every theologian was to form around his mind an atmosphere of thought that bore no relation to the world that was about him; while knowledge was made the bond-slave of credulity, and those whose intellects were most shackled by prejudice were regarded as the wisest of mankind, it was the merit of Montaigne to rise, by the force of his masculine genius, into the clear world of reality; to judge the opinions of his age with an intellect that was invigorated but not enslaved by knowledge; and to contemplate the systems of the past, without being dazzled by the reverence that had surrounded them. He looked down upon the broad field of history, upon its clashing enthusiasms, its discordant systems, the ebb and flow of its ever-changing belief, and he drew from the contemplation a lesson widely different from his contemporaries. He did not, it is true, fully recognise those moral principles which shine with an unchanging splendour above the fluctuations of speculative opinions; he did not discover the great laws of eternal development which preside over and direct the progress of belief, infuse order into the seeming chaos, and reveal in every apparent aberration the traces of a superintending Providence; but he, at least, obtained an intense and realised perception of the fallibility of the human intellect; a keen sense of the absurdity of an absolute deference to the past, and of the danger of punishing men with death on account of opinions concerning which we can have so little assurance. These things led him to suspect that witchcraft might be a delusion. The bent and character of his mind led him to believe that witchcraft was grossly improbable. He was the first great representative of the modem secular and rationalistic spirit. By extricating his mind from the trammels of the past, he had learned to judge the narratives of diabolical intervention by a standard and with a spirit that had been long unknown. The predisposition of the old theologians had been to believe that the phenomena of witchcraft were all produced by the Devil; and, when some manifest signs of madness or of imposture were exhibited, they attempted to accommodate them to their supernatural theory. The strong predisposition of Montaigne was to regard witchcraft as the result of natural causes; and, therefore, though he did not attempt to explain all the statements which he had heard, he was convinced that no conceivable improbability could be as great as that which would be involved in their reception. This was not the happy guess of ignorance. It was the direct result of a mode of thought which he applied to all theological questions. Fifty years earlier, a book embodying such conceptions would have appeared entirely incomprehensible, and its author would perhaps have been burnt. At the close of the sixteenth century, the minds of men were prepared for its reception, and it flashed like a revelation upon France. From the publication of the essays of Montaigne, we may date the influence of that gifted and ever enlarging rationalistic school, who gradually effected the destruction of the belief in witchcraft, not by refuting or explaining its evidence, but simply by making men more and more sensible of its intrinsic absurdity.
Thirteen years after Montaigne, Charron wrote his famous treatise on 'Wisdom.' In this work he systematised many of the opinions of Montaigne; but exhibited far less genius and originality than his predecessor. Like Montaigne, he looked with aversion on the miraculous; but, like Montaigne, his scepticism arose, not from any formal examination of evidence, but from a deep sense of the antecedent improbability. That which Montaigne had thrown into the form of strong doubt, Charron almost threw into the form of a denial. All through the seventeenth century, the same modes of thought continued, slowly but steadily sapping the old belief; but, though the industry of modern antiquarians has exhumed two or three obscure works that were published on the subject, [1:115] those works never seem to have attracted any serious attention, or to have had any appreciable influence in accelerating the movement, It presents a spectacle, not of argument or of conflict, but of a silent evanescence and decay. The priests continued to exorcise the possessed, to prosecute witches, and to anathematise as infidels all who questioned the crime. Many of the lawyers, reverting to the innumerable enactments in the law books, and to the countless occasions on which the subject had been investigated by the tribunals, maintained the belief with equal pertinacity; but outside these retrospective classes, the sense of the improbability of witchcraft became continually stronger, till any anecdote which involved the intervention of the Devil was on that account generally ridiculed. This spirit was exhibited especially among those whose habits of thought were most secular, and whose minds were least governed by authority. [1:116] Some great scholars and writers, who were fully sensible of the improbability of the belief, yet regarded the evidence as irresistible, and looked upon the subject with a perplexed and timid suspension of judgment. La Bruyère said that the principles on which magic rests seem vague, uncertain, and visionary; but that many embarrassing facts had been attested by credible eye-witnesses; that it appeared equally difficult to admit or to deny them; and that it was better to take a central position between the credulous who admitted all, and the free-thinkers who rejected all. [2:116] Even Bayle seems to have looked upon it in a similar spirit. [3:116] Descartes, though he did not, as far as I am aware, ever refer directly to the subject, probably exercised a considerable influence upon it, for the tendency of his teaching was to emancipate the mind from the power of tradition, to secularise philosophy, and to destroy the material notions that had long been associated with spirits. Malebranche mentions that in his time some of the parliaments had ceased to burn witches, and that within their jurisdiction the number of witches had declined. He inferred from this that the contagious power of imagination had created many of the phenomena. He analysed, with much acuteness, the process of thought which produced lycanthropy; but, being a priest, he found it necessary to add, that real sorcerers should undoubtedly be put to death. [1:117] Voltaire treated the whole subject with a scornful ridicule; observed that, since there had been philosophers in France, witches had become proportionately rare; and summed up the ecclesiastical authorities for the belief as emphatically as Sprenger or Spina, but with a very different object. [2:117]
In the first half of the seventeenth century, the civil power uniformly exerted its energies for the destruction of witches. It was between the publication of the works of Montaigne and of Charron, that Boguet was presiding at the tribunal of St. Claude, where he is said to have burnt 600 persons, chiefly for lycanthropy. A few years later, the fifty executions at Douay, which I have already mentioned, took place; and, in 1642, Cardinal Mazarin wrote a letter to the bishop of Evreux, congratulating him warmly on the successful zeal he had manifested on the subject. [3:117] Towards the middle of the century, however, the growing incredulity had reached those in power; the prosecutions for witchcraft became more rare and languid; and, in 1672, Colbert directed the magistrates to receive no accusations of sorcery, and commuted in many cases the capital punishment for the crime into a sentence of banishment. It was when some of these commutations had been made, that the Parliament of Rouen drew up an extremely remarkable address to the king, protesting in a strain of high religious fervour, against the indulgence as directly contrary to the Word of God, to all the precedents of French law, and to all the traditions of the Christian religion. [1:118] After this time but few trials for sorcery took place -- that of the Marshal of Luxembourg, in 1681, was, perhaps, the most remarkable -- for the scepticism on the subject had already become very marked; and in the last twenty years of the seventeenth century, only seven sorcerers seem to have been burnt in France. Still later, in 1718, the Parliament of Bordeaux burnt a man upon this charge. After this period there were, indeed, one or two trials, but the prisoners were acquitted; the star of Voltaire had risen above the horizon, and the unsparing ridicule which his followers cast upon every anecdote of witches, intimidated those who did not share in the incredulity. The formularies for exorcism still continued, as they continue to the present day, in Roman Catholic rituals, and they were frequently employed all through the eighteenth century; but the more educated members of the clergy for the most part allowed the subject to fall into neglect, and discouraged the attempts of some of the order to revive it. Those who still clung to the traditions of the past must have found much difficulty in accounting for the progress of the movement. That Satan should occupy such an extremely small place in the minds of men was very lamentable, but that the miraculous signs of his presence should have so completely disappeared, was exceedingly perplexing. At the beginning of the present century, the Abbé Fiard published a work designed to explain the difficulty. He showed that the philosophers and revolutionists of the last century were the representatives of the old sorcerers, that they acted under the direct inspiration of Satan, and that their success was entirely due to Satanic power. Lest, however, it should be said that this represented rather the moral than the miraculous influence of the Evil One, he added that many great and startling miracles had accompanied the philosophic movement, and that these miracles had not even yet ceased. The cures of Mesmer and the prophecies of Cagliostro should both be ascribed to supernatural agency; but the most startling of all the signs of diabolical presence was the ever-increasing popularity of ventriloquism. On this last subject, we are happily not left to our own unassisted conjectures, for some learned divines of the fourteenth century had solemnly determined that man was designed to speak by his mouth; and that, whenever be spoke in any other way, he did so by the assistance of the Devil. [1:119]
The history of witchcraft in Protestant countries differs so little from its history in Catholic ones, that it is not necessary to dwell upon it at much length. In both cases, a tendency towards the miraculous was the cause of the belief; and the degree of religious terrorism regulated the intensity of the persecution. In both cases, too, the rise and progress of a rationalistic spirit were the origin and the measure of its decline. In England, there was no regular enactment against sorcery till 1541, when the nation was convulsed by the first paroxysms of the Reformation. The crime had indeed been known at an earlier period, and a few executions had taken place, but they were very rare; and, in producing them, other motives seem to have been generally mixed with superstition, Joan of Arc, the noblest of all the victims of the belief, perished by English hands, though on French soil, and under the sentence of a French bishop. Some years after, the Duchess of Gloucester, having been accused by the Cardinal of Beaufort of attempting the king's life by sorcery, was compelled to do penance, while two of her servants were executed. A few other cases have come down to us; but, although the extreme imperfection of the old criminal registers renders it very probable that there were others which are forgotten, there can be little doubt that the superstition was much less prominent in England than on the Continent. [1:120] Owing partly to its insular position, and partly to the intense political life that from the earliest period animated the people, there was formed in England a fearless and self-reliant type of character essentially distinct from that which was common in Europe, eminently free from morbid and superstitious terrors, and averse to the more depressing aspects of religion. It was natural, however, that amid the conflicts of the Reformation, some of the darker superstitions should arise; and we accordingly find Cranmer, in one of his articles of visitation, directing his clergy to seek for 'any that use charms, sorcery, enchantments, witchcraft, soothsaying, or any like craft invented by the Devil.' We find also a very few executions under Henry VIII.; but in the following reign the law on the subject was repealed, and was not renewed till the accession of Elizabeth. [1:121] New laws were then made, which were executed with severity; and Jewell, when preaching before the queen, adverting to the increase of witches, expressed a hope that the penalties might be still more rigidly enforced. 'May it please your grace,' he added, 'to understand that witches and sorcerers within these few years are marvellously increased within your grace's realm. Your grace's subjects pine away even unto the death; their colour fadeth, their flesh rotteth, their speech is benumbed, their senses are bereft.... I pray God they never practise further than upon the subject.' [2:121] On the whole, however, these laws were far milder than those on the Continent. For the first conviction, witches who were not shown to have destroyed others by their incantations were only punished by the pillory and by imprisonment, while those who were condemned to death perished by the gallows instead of the stake. Besides this, torture, which had done so much to multiply the evidence, had always been illegal in England, and the witch-finders were compelled to content themselves with pricking their victims all over in hopes of discovering the insensible spot, [1:122] with throwing them into the water to ascertain whether they would sink or swim, and with keeping them during several successive nights without sleep, in order to compel them to confess. These three methods were habitually employed with signal success; many women were in consequence condemned, and a considerable proportion of them were hung. But such scenes did not take place without one noble protest. A layman named Reginald Scott published, in 1584, his 'Discovery of Witchcraft, in which he unmasked the imposture and the delusion of the system with a boldness that no previous writer had approached, and with an ability which few subsequent writers have equalled. Keenly, eloquently, and unflinchingly, he exposed the atrocious torments by which confessions were extorted, the laxity and injustice of the manner in which evidence was collected, the egregious absurdities that filled. the writings of the inquisitors, the juggling tricks that were ascribed to the Devil, and the childish folly of the magical charms. He also availed himself in a very dexterous manner of the strong Protestant feeling, in order to discredit statements that emanated from the Inquisition. If the question was to be determined by argument, if it depended simply or mainly upon the ability or learning of the controversialists, the treatise of Scott would have had a powerful effect; for it was by far the ablest attack on the prevailing superstition that had ever appeared, and it was written in the most popular style. As a matter of fact it exercised no appreciable influence. Witchcraft depended upon general causes, and represented the prevailing modes of religious thought. It was therefore entirely unaffected by the attempted refutation, and when James I. mounted the throne, he found the nation perfectly prepared to second him in his zeal against the witches.
James, although he hated the puritans, had caught in Scotland much of the tone of thought concerning Satanic power which the Puritans had always encouraged, and which was exhibited to the highest perfection in the Scottish mind. He was continually haunted by the subject. He had himself written a dialogue upon it; he had confidently ascribed his stormy passage on his return from Denmark to the machinations of the witches, [1:123] and he boasted that the Devil regarded him as the most formidable of opponents. Soon after his accession to the throne of England, a law was enacted which subjected witches to death on the first conviction, even though they should have inflicted no injury upon their neighbours. This law was passed when Coke was Attorney-General, and Bacon a member of Parliament; and twelve bishops sat upon the Commission to which it was referred. [1:124] The prosecutions were rapidly multiplied throughout the country, but especially in Lancashire; and at the same time the general tone of literature was strongly tinged with the superstition. Sir Thomas Browne declared that those who denied the existence of witchcraft were not only infidels, but also, by implication, atheists. [2:124] Shakspeare, like most of the other dramatists of his time, again and again referred to the belief; and we owe to it that melancholy picture of Joan of Arc, which is, perhaps, the darkest blot upon his genius. [3:124] Bacon continually inveighed against the follies shown by magicians in their researches into nature; yet in one of his most important works he pronounced the three 'declinations from religion' to be 'heresies, idolatry, and witchcraft.' [1:125] Selden took up a somewhat peculiar and characteristic position. He maintained that the law condemning women to death for witchcraft was perfectly just, but that it was quite unnecessary to ascertain whether witchcraft was a possibility. A woman might not be able to destroy the life of her neighbour by her incantations; but if she intended to do so, it was right that she should be hung. [2:125]
But, great as were the exertions made by James to extirpate witchcraft, they completely sink into insignificance before those which were made during the Commonwealth. As soon as Puritanism gained an ascendency in the country, as soon as its ministers succeeded in imparting their gloomy tenets to the governing classes, the superstition assumed a gigantic magnitude. During the few years of the Commonwealth, there is reason to believe that more alleged witches perished in England than in the whole period before and after. [3:125] Nor is this to be ascribed entirely to the judges or the legislators, for the judges in former reigns never shrank from condemning witches, and Cromwell was in most respects far superior to his predecessors. It was simply the natural result of Puritanical teaching acting on the mind, predisposing men to see Satanic influence in life, and consequently eliciting the phenomena of witchcraft. A panic on the subject spread through the country; and anecdotes of Satanic power soon crowded in from every side. The county of Suffolk was especially agitated, and the famous witch-finder, Matthew Hopkins, pronounced it to be infested with witches. A commission was accordingly issued, and two distinguished Presbyterian divines were selected by the Parliament to accompany it. It would have been impossible to take any measure more calculated to stimulate the prosecution, and we accordingly find that in Suffolk sixty persons were hung for witchcraft in a single year. [1:126] Among others, an Anglican clergyman, named Lowes, who was now verging on eighty, and who for fifty years had been an irreproachable minister of his church, fell under the suspicion. The unhappy old man was kept awake for several successive nights, and persecuted 'till he was weary of his life, and was scarcely sensible of what he said or did.' He was then thrown into the water, condemned, and hung. According to the story which circulated among the members of the Established Church, he maintained his innocence manfully to the end. If we believe the Puritanical account, it would appear that his brain gave way under the trial, and that his accusers extorted from him a wild romance, which was afterwards, with many others, reproduced by Baxter 'for the conversion of the Sadducee and the infidel.' [2:126]
We have seen that the conception of witchcraft, which had existed in England from the earliest period, assumed for the first time a certain prominence amid the religious terrorism of the Reformation; that its importance gradually increased as the trials and executions directed public attention to the subject; and that it, at last, reached its climax under the gloomy theology of the Puritans. It now only remains for me to trace the history of its decline.
In pursuing this task, I must repeat that it is impossible to follow the general intellectual tendencies of a nation with the degree of precision with which we may review the events or the arguments they produced. We have ample evidence that, at a certain period of English history, there was manifested in some classes a strong disposition to regard witch stories as absurd; but we cannot say precisely when the idea of grotesqueness was first attached to the belief, nor can we map out with exactness the stages of its progress. Speaking generally, however, there can be no doubt that it first became prominent in that great sceptical movement which followed the Restoration. The reaction against the austere rigidity of the last Government, had produced among the gayer classes a sudden outburst of the most derisive incredulity. From mocking the solemn gait, the nasal twang, and the affected phraseology of the Puritans, they naturally proceeded to ridicule their doctrines; and having soon discovered in witchcraft abundant materials for their satire, they made disbelief in it one of the tests of fashion. At the same time the higher intellectual influences were tending strongly to produce a similar movement among the learned. Hobbes, who was the most distinguished of living philosophers, had directed all the energies of his scepticism against incorporeal substances, had treated with unsparing ridicule the conceptions of demons and of apparitions and had created in his disciples a predisposition to regard them as below contempt. [1:128] A similar predisposition was formed by the philosophy of Bacon, which had then acquired an immense popularity. The Royal Society [2:128] had been just established; a passion for natural philosophy, very similar to that which preceded the French Revolution, had become general; and the whole force of the English intellect was directed to the study of natural phenomena, and to the discovery of natural laws. In this manner there was formed a general disposition to attribute to every event a natural cause, which was soon followed by a conviction of the absurdity of explaining phenomena by a supernatural hypothesis, and which rapidly discredited the anecdotes of witches. There does not appear to have been any very careful scrutiny of their details, yet there was a growing indisposition to believe them, as they were discordant with the modes of thought which the experimental philosophy had produced.
By the combination of these three influences, a profound change was soon effected in the manner in which witchcraft was regarded. The sense of its improbability became for the first time general among educated laymen, and the number of the trials speedily diminished. In 1664, however, two women were hung in Suffolk, under a sentence of Sir Matthew Hale, who took the opportunity of declaring that the reality of witchcraft was unquestionable; 'for first, the Scriptures had affirmed so much; and secondly, the wisdom of all nations had provided laws against such persons, which is an argument of their confidence of such a crime.' Sir Thomas Browne, who was a great physician, as well as a great writer, was called as a witness, and swore 'that he was clearly of opinion that the persons were bewitched,' [1:129]
Seventeen years later, the defence of the dying belief was taken up by Joseph Glanvil, a divine, who in his own day was very famous, and who, I venture to think, has been surpassed in genius by few of his successors. Among his contemporaries he was especially praised as an able scholar and dialectician, and as a writer whose style, though not untinctured by the pedantry of his age, often furnishes the noblest examples of that glorious eloquence, so rich in varied and majestic harmonies, of which Milton and the early Anglican divines were the greatest masters. To us, however, who look upon his career from the vantage ground of experience, it assumes a far higher interest, for it occupies a most important position in the history of that experimental philosophy which has become the great guiding influence of the English mind. As the works of Glanvil are far less known than they should be, and as his defence of witchcraft was intimately connected with his earlier literary enterprises, I shall make no apology for giving a general outline of his opinions.
To those who only know him as the defender of witchcraft, it may appear a somewhat startling paradox to say, that the predominating characteristic of the mind of Glanvil was an intense scepticism. He has even been termed by a modern critic 'the first English writer who had thrown scepticism into a definite form'; [2:129] and if we regard this expression as simply implying a profound distrust of human faculties, and not at all the rejection of any distinct dogmatic system, the judgment can hardly be disputed. And certainly, it would be difficult to find a work displaying less of the credulity and superstition that are commonly attributed to the believers in witchcraft than the treatise on 'The Vanity of Dogmatising, or Confidence of Opinions,' [1:130] in which Glanvil expounded his philosophical views. Developing a few scattered hints of Bacon, he undertook to make a comprehensive survey of the human faculties, to analyse the distorting influences that corrode or pervert our judgments, to reveal the weakness and fallibility of the most powerful intellect, and to estimate the infinity of darkness that encircles our scanty knowledge. Not only did he trace, with the most vivid and unfaltering pen, the proneness to error that accompanies the human intellect in the moments of its greatest confidence; not only did he paint in the darkest colours the tenacity and the inveteracy of prejudice; he even accepted to the fullest extent the consequence of his doctrine, and, with Descartes, enjoined a total abnegation of the opinions that have been received by education as the first condition of enquiry. He showed himself perfectly acquainted with the diversities of intellectual tone, or as he very happily termed them, the 'climates of opinion,' that belong to different ages; and he devoted an entire chapter [1:131] to the deceptions of the imagination, a faculty which he treated with as much severity as Butler.
On the publication of this treatise Glanvil had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and became one of the most distinguished of the small but able minority of the clergy who cordially embraced the inductive philosophy. To combat the strong antipathy with which this philosophy was regarded in the Church, and to bring theology into harmony with its principles, was the task to which he devoted the remainder of his life. Spratt, and in a less degree one or two other divines, were employed in the same noble cause; but the manner in which Glanvil conducted his enterprise separates him, I think, clearly from his fellow-labourers. For, while his contemporaries seem to have expected as the extreme consequences of the philosophy, on the one hand a period of passing disturbance, arising from the discovery of apparent discrepancies between science and the Bible, and on the other hand increased evidence of the faith, arising from the solution of those difficulties and from the increased perception of superintending wisdom exhibited in 'the wheel-work of creation,' Glanvil perceived very clearly that a far deeper and more general modification was at hand. He saw that the theological system existing in a nation, is intimately connected with the prevailing modes of thought or intellectual condition; that the new philosophy was about to change that condition; and that the Church must either adapt herself to the altered tone, or lose her influence over the English mind. He saw that a theology which rested ultimately on authority, which branded doubt as criminal, and which discouraged in the strongest manner every impartial investigation, could not long co-exist with a philosophy that encouraged the opposite habits of thought as the very beginning of wisdom. He saw that while men maintained every strange phenomenon to be miraculous as long as it was unexplained, each advance of physical science must necessarily be hostile to theology; and that the passionate adoration of Aristotle; the blind pedantic reverence, which accounted the simplest assertions of dead men decisive authorities; the retrospective habits of thought the universities steadily laboured to encourage, were all incompatible with the new tendencies which Bacon represented. [1:132] In an essay on 'Anti-fanatical Religion and Free Philosophy,' which was designed to be a continuation of the New Atlantis of Bacon, he drew a noble sketch of an ideal church constructed to meet the wants of an intellectual and a critical age. Its creed was to be framed on the most latitudinarian principles, because the doctrines that could be defended with legitimate assurance were but few and simple. Its ministers were to be much less anxious to accumulate the traditions of the past than to acquire 'the felicity of clear and distinct thinking,' and 'a large compass in their thoughts.' They were to regard faith, not as the opposite of reason, but as one of its manifestations. Penetrated by the sense of human weakness, they were to rebuke the spirit of dogmatic confidence and assertion, and were to teach men that, so far from doubt being criminal, it was the duty of every man 'to suspend his full and resolved assent to the doctrines he had been taught, till he had impartially considered and examined them for himself.'
A religious system which is thus divested of the support of authority, may be upheld upon two grounds. It may be defended on the rationalistic ground, as according with conscience representing and reflecting the light that is in mankind, and being thus its own justification; or it may be defended as a distinct dogmatic system by a train of evidential reasoning. The character of his own mind, and the very low ebb to which moral feeling had sunk in his age, induced Glanvil to prefer the logical to the moral proof, and he believed that the field on which the battle must first be fought was witchcraft. [1:133]
The 'Sadducismus Triumphatus,' which is probably the ablest book ever published in defence of the superstition, opens with a striking picture of the rapid progress of the scepticism in England. [2:133] Everywhere, a disbelief in witchcraft was becoming fashionable in the upper classes; but it was a disbelief that arose entirely from a strong sense of its antecedent improbability. All who were opposed to the orthodox faith united in discrediting witchcraft. They laughed at it, as palpably absurd, as involving the most grotesque and ludicrous conceptions, as so essentially incredible that it would be a waste of time to examine it. This spirit had arisen since the Restoration, although the laws were still in force, and although little or no direct reasoning had been brought to bear upon the subject. In order to combat it, Glanvil proceeded to examine the general question of the credibility of the miraculous, He saw that the reason why witchcraft was ridiculed was, because it was a phase of the miraculous and the work of the devil; that the scepticism was chiefly due to those who disbelieved in miracles and the devil; and that the instances of witchcraft or possession in the Bible, were invariably placed on a level with those that were tried in the law courts of England. That the evidence of the belief was overwhelming, he firmly believed; [1:134] and this, indeed, was scarcely disputed; but, until the sense of à priori improbability was removed, no possible accumulation of facts would cause men to believe it. To that task he accordingly addressed himself. Anticipating the idea and almost the words of modern controversialists, he urged that there was such a thing as a credulity of unbelief; and that those who believed so strange a concurrence of delusions as was necessary on the supposition of the unreality of witchcraft, were far more credulous than those who accepted the belief. [1:135] He made his very scepticism his principal weapon; and, analysing with much acuteness the à priori objections, he showed that they rested upon an unwarrantable confidence in our knowledge of the laws of the spirit world; that they implied the existence of some strict analogy between the faculties of men and of spirits; and that, as such analogy most probably did not exist, no reasoning based on the supposition could dispense men from examining the evidence. He concluded with a large collection of cases, the evidence of which was, as he thought, incontestable.
The 'Sadducismus Triumphatus' had an extraordinary success. Numerous editions were issued, and several very able men came forward to support its views. Henry More, the famous philosopher, wrote a warm eulogium to Glanvil, and drew up a long argument in the same spirit, in which he related several additional witch cases, and pronounced the opponents of the belief to be mere 'buffoons, puffed up with nothing but ignorance, vanity, and stupid infidelity.' [1:136] Casaubon, the learned dean of Canterbury, wrote to the same effect, but in more moderate language. [2:136] Cudworth, perhaps the most profound of all the great scholars who have adorned the English church, pronounced the scepticism on the subject of witches to be chiefly a consequence of the influence of Hobbes; and he added, that those who partook of that scepticism might be justly suspected of Atheism. [3:136] Several other divines pressed forward in the same spirit; and they made witchcraft, for a time, one of the chief subjects of controversy in England. On the other side, the discussion was extremely languid. No writer, comparable in ability or influence to Glanvil, More, Cudworth, or even Casaubon, appeared to challenge the belief; nor did any of the writings on that side obtain any success at all equal to that of the Sadducismus. The principal writer was a surgeon named Webster, whose work is remarkable as one of the earliest instances of the systematic application of a rationalistic interpretation to the magical miracles in the Bible. According to him, the magicians in Egypt were ordinary jugglers, the witch of Endor had dressed up an accomplice to personate Samuel, the word witch in Leviticus only signified poisoner, the demoniacs were chiefly lunatics, and the Magdalene had been freed from seven vices. [1:137] An unknown scholar named Wagstaafe, at Oxford, also wrote two short works on the subject; [2:137] and one or two others appeared anonymously. The scepticism steadily increased.
A few years afterwards, a new and strenuous attempt was made to arrest it by accounts of fresh cases of witchcraft in America. The pilgrim fathers had brought to that country the seeds of the superstition; and, at the same time when it was rapidly fading in England, it flourished with fearful vigour in Massachusetts. Two Puritan ministers, named Cotton Mather and Parris, proclaimed the frequency of the crime; and, being warmly supported by their brother divines, they succeeded in creating a panic through the whole country. A commission was issued. A judge named Stoughton, who appears to have been a perfect creature of the clergy, conducted the trials. Scourgings and tortures were added to the terrorism of the pulpit, and many confessions were obtained. The few who ventured to oppose the prosecutions were denounced as Sadducees and infidels. Multitudes were thrown into prison, others fled from the country abandoning their property, and twenty-seven persons were executed. An old man of eighty was pressed to death; a horrible sentence, which was never afterwards executed in America. The ministers of Boston and Charlestown drew up an address, warmly thanking the commissioners for their zeal, and expressing their hope that it would never be relaxed. [1:138]
In the first year of this persecution, Cotton Mather wrote a history of the earliest of the trials. This history was introduced to the English public by Richard Baxter, who declared in his preface that 'that man must be a very obdurate Sadducee who would not believe it.' Not content with haying thus given the weight of his great name to the superstition, Baxter in the following year published his treatise on 'The Certainty of the World of Spirits;' in which he collected, with great industry, an immense number of witch cases; reverted in extremely laudatory terms to Cotton Mather and his crusade; and denounced, in unmeasured language, all who were sceptical upon the subject. This work appeared in 1691, when the panic in America had not yet reached its height; and being widely circulated beyond the Atlantic, is said to have contributed much to stimulate the prosecutions. [2:138] In England it produced little effect. The scepticism that was already pervading all classes was steadily and silently increasing, under the influence of an intellectual movement that was too general and too powerful for any individual genius to arrest. At the time of the Restoration the belief had been common among the most educated. In 1718, when Hutchinson wrote, it scarcely existed, except among the ignorant and in a small section of the clergy. [3:138] Yet, in the interval, the vast preponderance of controversial literature had unquestionably been on the conservative side. During that period no less than twenty-five works [1:139] are known to have appeared in England in defence of the belief; and among their authors we have seen some of the ablest men in England. The work of Baxter, notwithstanding the weight of his great name, and the very definite character of his statements, appears to have remained entirely unanswered till it was reviewed by Hutchinson twenty-six years after its publication. Yet it could do no more to arrest, than the work of Scott had done to produce, the scepticism. Three witches had been executed in 1682; and others, it is said, endured the same fate in 1712; but these were the last who perished judicially in England. [2:139] The last trial, at least of any notoriety, was that of Jane Wenham, who was prosecuted in 1712, by some Hertfordshire clergymen. The judge entirely disbelieved in witches, and accordingly charged the jury strongly in favour of the accused, and even treated with great disrespect the rector of the parish, who declared 'on his faith as a clergyman' that he believed the woman to be a witch. The jury, being ignorant and obstinate, convicted the prisoner; but the judge had no difficulty in obtaining a remission of her sentence. A long war of pamphlets ensued, and the clergy who had been engaged in the prosecution, drew up a document strongly asserting their belief in the guilt of the accused animadverting severely upon the conduct of the judge, and concluding with the solemn words, 'Liberavimus animas magmas.' [1:140]
It is probable that this was an instance of somewhat exceptional fanaticism; and that Hutchinson, who was himself a clergyman, represented the opinions of most of the more educated of his profession, when a few years later he described witchcraft as a delusion. In 1736, the laws on the subject were repealed, without difficulty or agitation; and there are very few instances of educated men regretting them. In 1768, however, John Wesley prefaced an account of an apparition that had been related by a girl named Elizabeth Hobson, by some extremely remarkable sentences on the subject. 'It is true, likewise,' he wrote, 'that the English in general, and indeed most of the men of learning in Europe, have given up all accounts of witches and apparitions as mere old wives' fables. I am sorry for it, and I willingly take this opportunity of entering my solemn protest against this violent compliment which so many that believe the Bible pay to those who do not believe it. I owe them no such service. I take knowledge that these are at the bottom of the outcry which has been raised, and with such insolence spread through the land, in direct opposition, not only to the Bible, but to the suffrage of the wisest and best of men in all ages and nations. They well know (whether Christians know it or not) that the giving up witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible.' [2:140]
In reviewing the history of witchcraft in England, it is impossible to avoid observing the singularly favourable contrast which the Anglican Church presents, both to continental Catholicism and to Puritanism. It is indeed true that her bishops contributed much to the enactment of the laws against witchcraft, that the immense majority of the clergy firmly believed in the reality of the crime, and that they continued to assert and to defend it when the great bulk of educated laymen had abandoned it. It is also true that the scepticism on the subject of witches arose among those who were least governed by the Church, advanced with the decline of the influence of the clergy, and was commonly branded as a phase and manifestation of infidelity. Yet, on the other hand, it is impossible to deny that the general moderation of the higher clergy was beyond all praise, and that even those who were most credulous were singularly free from that thirst of blood which was elsewhere so common. On the Continent, every attempt to substitute a lighter punishment for death was fiercely denounced as a direct violation of the Divine law. Indeed, some persons went so far as to question the lawfulness of strangling the witch before she was burnt. Her crime, they said, was treason against the Almighty, and therefore to punish it by any but the most agonizing deaths was an act of disrespect to Him. Besides, the penalty in the Levitical code was stoning, and stoning had been pronounced by the Jewish theologians to be a still more painful death than the stake. [1:141] Nothing of this kind was found in England. There is, as far as I am aware, not a single instance of the English clergy complaining of the leniency of the laws upon the subject, or attempting to introduce torture into the trials, Their zeal in stimulating the persecution by exorcisms and fanatical preaching, was also comparatively languid. As early as the reign of James I., the Convocation made a canon prohibiting any clergyman from exorcising a possessed person, without a license from his bishop, and such licenses were scarcely ever granted. [1:142] Dr. Morton, a bishop of Lichfield, in 1620, employed himself with great, and at last successful, zeal in detecting a case of imposture in a witch story which was believed by a Catholic priest, [2:142] and he succeeded in saving the life of the accused. At a still earlier period, Dr. Harsnet, who was afterwards Archbishop of York, in an attack upon 'Popish impostures,' boldly enumerated among them most of the forms of witchcraft, [3:142] and appears to have been entirely incredulous on the subject. He was undoubtedly wrong in ascribing witchcraft to Catholicism, for it flourished at least as vigorously under the shadow of Puritanism; yet the expression of so bold an opinion is well worthy of notice, and was, I believe, at the time it was written, a unique phenomenon among the English clergy. [4:142] Hutchinson himself wrote his history before the belief was entirely extinct.
But that which shows most strikingly the moderation of the Anglican clergy, is the comparatively small amount of delusion which the history of English witchcraft presents. On the Continent, there was undoubtedly much imposition; but, for the most part, the subject presents rather the aspect of an epidemic or a mania. The religious terrorism acted on diseased imaginations, coloured every form of madness, and predisposed the minds of men to solve every difficulty by a supernatural hypothesis. In England, on the other hand, imposture appears the general characteristic. The books on the subject are full of cases of jugglers' tricks; [1:143] and, with the exception of the period when the Puritans were in the ascendant, it never seems to have assumed the appearance of a great and general panic. Indeed, in most of its worst manifestations, the fanaticism of Puritanism was manifested. [2:143]
In England, that fanaticism was bridled and repressed. There was one country, however. in which it obtained an absolute ascendancy. There was one country in which the Puritan ministers succeeded in moulding alike the character and the habits of the nation, and in disseminating their harsh and gloomy tenets through every section of society. While England was breaking loose from her most ancient superstitions, and advancing with gigantic strides along the paths of knowledge, Scotland still cowered in helpless subjection before her clergy. Never was a mental servitude more complete, and never was a tyranny maintained with more inexorable barbarity. Supported by public opinion, the Scottish ministers succeeded in overawing all opposition, in prohibiting the faintest expression of adverse opinions, in prying into and controlling the most private concerns of domestic life; in compelling every one to conform absolutely to all the ecclesiastical regulations they enjoined; and in, at last, directing the whole scope and current of legislation. They maintained their ascendancy over the popular mind by a system of religious terrorism, which we can now barely conceive. The misery of man, the anger of the Almighty, the fearful power and continual presence of Satan, the agonies of hell, were the constant subjects of their preaching. All the most ghastly forms of human suffering were accumulated as faint images of the eternal doom of the immense majority of mankind. Countless miracles were represented as taking place within the land, but they were almost all of them miracles of terror. Disease, storm, famine, every awful calamity that fell upon mankind, or blasted the produce of the soil, was attributed to the direct intervention of spirits; and Satan himself was represented as constantly appearing in a visible form upon the earth. [1:144] Such teaching produced its natural effects. In a land where credulity was universal, in a land where the intellect was numbed and palsied by these awful contemplations, where almost every form of amusement was suppressed, and where the thoughts of men were concentrated with an undivided energy on theological conceptions, such teaching necessarily created the superstition of witchcraft. Witchcraft was but one form of the panic it produced; it was but the reflection by a diseased imagination of the popular theology. We accordingly find that it assumed the most frightful proportions and the darkest character. In other lands, the superstition was at least mixed with much of imposture; in Scotland it appears to have been entirely undiluted. [2:144] It was produced by the teaching of the clergy, and it was everywhere fostered by their persecution. Eagerly, passionately, with a thirst for blood that knew no mercy, with a zeal that never tired, did they accomplish their task. Assembled in solemn synod, the college of Aberdeen, in 1603, enjoined every minister to take two of the elders of his parish to make 'a subtle and privy inquisition,' and to question all the parishioners upon oath as to their knowledge of witches. [1:145] Boxes were placed in the churches for the express purpose of receiving the accusations. [2:145] When a woman had fallen under suspicion, the minister from the pulpit denounced her by name, exhorted his parishioners to give evidence against her, and prohibited any one from sheltering her. [3:145] In the same spirit, he exerted the power which was given him by a parochial organisation, elaborated perhaps more skilfully than any other in Europe. Under these circumstances, the witch-cases seem to have fallen almost entirely into the hands of the clergy. They were the leading commissioners. Before them the confessions were taken. They were the acquiescing witnesses or the directors of the tortures by which those confessions were elicited. [4:145]
And when we read the nature of these tortures, which were worthy of an oriental imagination when we remember that they were inflicted, for the most part, on old and feeble and half-doting women, it is difficult to repress a feeling of the deepest abhorrence for those men who caused and who encouraged them. If the witch was obdurate, the first, and it was said the most effectual, method of obtaining confession was by what was termed 'waking her.' An iron bridle or hoop was bound across her face with four prongs, which were thrust into her mouth. It was fastened behind to the wall by a chain, in such a manner that the victim was unable to lie down; and in this position she was sometimes kept for several days, while men were constantly with her to prevent her from closing her eyes for a moment in sleep. [1:146] Partly in order to effect this object, and partly to discover the insensible mark which was the sure sign of a witch, long pins were thrust into her body. [2:146] At the same time, as it was a saying in Scotland that a witch would never confess while she could drink, excessive thirst was often added to her tortures. [3:146] Some prisoners have been waked for five nights; one, it is said, even for nine. [4:146]
The physical and mental suffering of such a process was sufficient to overcome the resolution of many, and to distract the understanding of not a few. But other and perhaps worse tortures were in reserve. The three principal that were habitually applied, were the pennywinkis, the boots, and the caschielawis. The first was a kind of thumb-screw; the second was a frame in which the leg was inserted, and in which it was broken by wedges, driven in by a hammer; the third was also an iron frame for the leg, which was from time to time heated over a brazier. [1:147] Fire-matches were sometimes applied to the body of the victim. [2:147] We read, in a contemporary legal register, of one man who was kept for forty-eight hours in 'vehement tortour' in the caschielawis; and of another who remained in the same frightful machine for eleven days and eleven nights, whose legs were broken daily for fourteen days in the boots, and who was so scourged that the whole skin was torn from his body. [3:147] This was, it is true, censured as an extreme case, but it was only an excessive application of the common torture.
How many confessions were extorted, and how many victims perished by these means, it is now impossible to say. A vast number of depositions and confessions are preserved, but they were only taken before a single court, and many others took cognisance of the crime. We know that in 1662, more than 150 persons were accused of witchcraft; [4:147] and that in the preceding year no less than fourteen commissions had been issued for the trials. [5:147] After these facts, it is scarcely necessary to notice how one traveller casually mentions having seen nine women burning together at Leith in 1664, or how, in 1678, nine others were condemned in a single day. [1:148] The charges were, indeed, of the most comprehensive order, and the wildest fancies of Sprenger and Nider were defended by the Presbyterian divines. [2:148] In most Catholic countries, it was a grievance of the clergy that the civil power refused to execute those who only employed their power in curing disease. In Scotland such persons were unscrupulously put to death. [3:148] The witches were commonly strangled before they were burnt, but this merciful provision was very frequently omitted. An Earl of Mar (who appears to have been the only person sensible of the inhumanity of the proceedings) tells how, with a piercing yell, some women once broke half-burnt from the slow fire that consumed them, struggled for a few moments with despairing energy among the spectators, but soon with shrieks of blasphemy and wild protestations of innocence sank writhing in agony amid the flames. [4:148]
The contemplation of such scenes as these is one of the most painful duties that can devolve upon the historian; but it is one from which he must not shrink, if he would form a just estimate of the past. There are opinions that may be traced from age to age by footsteps of blood; and the intensity of the suffering they caused is a measure of the intensity with which they were realised. Scotch witchcraft was but the result of Scotch Puritanism, and it faithfully reflected the character of its parent. It is true that, before the Reformation, the people had been grossly ignorant and superstitious; but it is also true, that witchcraft in its darker forms was so rare that no law was made on the subject till 1563; that the law was not carried to its full severity till 1590; that the delusion invariably accompanied the religious terrorism which the Scotch clergy so zealously maintained; and that those clergy, all over Scotland, applauded and stimulated the persecution. [1:149] The ascendancy they had obtained was boundless, and in this respect their power was entirely undisputed. One word from them might have arrested the tortures, but that word was never spoken. Their conduct implies, not merely a mental aberration, but also a callousness of feeling which has rarely been attained in a long career of vice. Yet these were men who had often shown, in the most trying circumstances, the highest and the most heroic virtues. They were men whose courage had never flinched when persecution was raging around; men who had never paltered with their consciences to attain the favours of a king; men whose self-devotion and zeal in their sacred calling had seldom been surpassed; men who in all the private relations of life were doubtless amiable and affectionate. It is not on them that our blame should fall; it is on the system that made them what they were. They were but illustrations of the great truth, that when men have come to regard a certain class of their fellow-creatures as doomed by the Almighty to eternal and excruciating agonies, and when their theology directs their minds with intense and realising earnestness to the contemplation of such agonies, the result will be an indifference to the suffering of those whom they deem the enemies of their God, as absolute as it is perhaps possible for human nature to attain.
In Scotland the character of theology was even more hard and unpitying than in other countries where Puritanism existed, on account of a special circumstance which in some respects reflects great credit on its teachers. The Scotch kirk was the result of a democratic movement, and for some time, almost alone in Europe, it was the unflinching champion of political liberty. It was a Scotchman, Buchanan, who first brought liberal principles into clear relief. It was the Scotch clergy who upheld them with a courage that can hardly be overrated. Their circumstances made them liberals, and they naturally sought to clothe their liberalism in a theological garb. They soon discovered precedents for their rebellions in the history of the judges and captains of the Jews; and accordingly the union of an intense theological, and an intense liberal feeling, made them revert to the scenes of the Old Testament, to the sufferings and also the conquests of the Jews, with an affection that seems now almost inconceivable. Their whole theology took an Old Testament cast. Their modes of thought, their very phraseology, were devised from that source; and the constant contemplation of the massacres of Canaan, and of the provisions of the Levitical code, produced its natural effect upon their minds. [1:151]
It is scarcely possible to write a history of the decline of witchcraft in Scotland, for the change of opinions was almost entirely unmarked by incidents on which we can dwell. At one period we find every one predisposed to believe in witches. At a later period we find that this predisposition has silently passed away. [2:151] Two things only can, I think, be asserted on the subject with confidence -- that the sceptical movement advanced much more slowly in Scotland than in England, and that the ministers were among the latest to yield to it. Until the close of the seventeenth century, the trials were sufficiently common, but after this time they became rare. It is generally said that the last execution was in 1722; but Captain Burt, who visited the country in 1730, speaks of a woman who was burnt as late as 1727. [3:151] The same very keen observer was greatly struck by the extent to which the belief still continued in Scotland, at a time when it was quite abandoned by the educated classes in England; and he found its most ardent supporters among the Presbyterian ministers. As late as 1773, 'the divines of the Associated Presbytery' passed a resolution declaring their belief in witchcraft, and deploring the scepticism that was general. [4:151]
I have now completed my review of the history of witchcraft, in its relation to the theologies of Rome, of England, and of Geneva. I have shown that its causes are to be sought, not within the narrow circle of doctrines and phenomena that are comprised under the name, but in the general intellectual and religious condition of the ages in which it flourished. I have shown, in other words, that witchcraft resulted, not from isolated circumstances, but from modes of thought; that it grew out of a certain intellectual temperature acting on certain theological tenets, and reflected with almost startling vividness each great intellectual change. Arising amid the ignorance of an early civilisation, it was quickened into an intenser life by a theological struggle which allied terrorism with credulity, and it declined under the influence of that great rationalistic movement which, since the seventeenth century, has been on all sides encroaching on theology. I have dwelt upon the decadence of the superstition at considerable length; for it was at once one of the earliest and one of the most important conquests of the spirit of rationalism. There are very few examples of a change of belief that was so strictly normal, so little accelerated by sectarian passions or individual genius, and therefore so well suited to illustrate the laws of intellectual development. Besides this, the fact that the belief when realised was always followed by persecution, enables us to trace its successive stages with more than common accuracy, while the period that has elapsed since its destruction has, in a great measure, removed the subject from the turbid atmosphere of controversy.
It is impossible to leave the history of witchcraft without reflecting how vast an amount of suffering has, in at least this respect, been removed by the progress of a rationalistic civilisation. I know that when we remember the frightful calamities that have from time to time flowed from theological divisions; when we consider the countless martyrs who have perished in the dungeon or at the stake, the millions who have fallen in the religious wars, the elements of almost undying dissension that have been planted in so many noble nations, and have paralysed so many glorious enterprises, the fate of a few thousand innocent persons who were burnt alive seems to sink into comparative insignificance. Yet it is probable that no class of victims endured sufferings so unalloyed and so intense. Not for them the wild fanaticism that nerves the soul against danger, and almost steels the body against torments. Not for them the assurance of a glorious eternity, that has made the martyr look with exultation on the rising flame as on the Elijah's chariot that is to bear his soul to heaven. Not for them the solace of lamenting friends, or the consciousness that their memories would be cherished and honoured by posterity. They died alone, hated and unpitied, They were deemed by all mankind the worst of criminals. Their very kinsmen shrank from them as tainted and accursed. The superstitions they had imbibed in childhood, blending with the illusions of age, sand with the horrors of their position, persuaded them in many cases that they were indeed the bond-slaves of Satan, and were about to exchange their torments upon earth for an agony that was as excruciating, and was eternal. And, besides all this, we have to consider the terrors which the belief must have spread through the people at large; we have to picture the anguish of the mother, as she imagined that it was in the power of one whom she had offended to blast in a moment every object of her affection, we have to conceive, above all, the awful shadow that the dread of accusation must have thrown on the enfeebled faculties of age, and the bitterness it must have added to desertion and to solitude. All these sufferings were the result of a single superstition, which the spirit of rationalism has destroyed.
[End of First Chapter]