III. THE AGENCY OF WITCHES.

But, while this comparatively harmless doctrine of thwarting the powers of the air by fetiches and bell-ringing was developed, there were evolved another theory, and a series of practices sanctioned by the Church, which must forever be considered as among the most fearful calamities in human history. Indeed, few errors have ever cost so much shedding of innocent blood over such wide territory and during so many generations. Out of the old doctrine--pagan and Christian--of evil agency in atmospheric phenomena was evolved the belief that certain men, women, and children may secure infernal aid to produce whirlwinds, hail, frosts, floods, and the like.

As early as the ninth century one great churchman, Agobard, Archbishop of Lyons, struck a heavy blow at this superstition. His work, _Against the Absurd Opinion of the Vulgar touching Hail and Thunder_, shows him to have been one of the most devoted apostles of right reason whom human history has known. By argument and ridicule, and at times by a lofty eloquence, he attempted to breast this tide. One passage is of historical significance. He declares: "The wretched world lies now under the tyranny of foolishness; things are believed by Christians of such absurdity as no one ever could aforetime induce the heathen to believe."[351]

All in vain; the tide of superstition continued to roll on; great theologians developed it and ecclesiastics favoured it; until as we near the end of the medieval period the infallible voice of Rome is heard accepting it, and clinching this belief into the mind of Christianity. For, in 1437, Pope Eugene IV, by virtue of the teaching power conferred on him by the Almighty, and under the divine guarantee against any possible error in the exercise of it, issued a bull exhorting the inquisitors of heresy and witchcraft to use greater diligence against the human agents of the Prince of Darkness, and especially against those who have the power to produce bad weather. In 1445 Pope Eugene returned again to the charge, and again issued instructions and commands infallibly committing the Church to the doctrine. But a greater than Eugene followed, and stamped the idea yet more deeply into the mind of the Church. On the 7th of December, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII sent forth his bull _Summis Desiderantes_. Of all documents ever issued from Rome, imperial or papal, this has doubtless, first and last, cost the greatest shedding of innocent blood. Yet no document was ever more clearly dictated by conscience. Inspired by the scriptural command, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," Pope Innocent exhorted the clergy of Germany to leave no means untried to detect sorcerers, and especially those who by evil weather destroy vineyards, gardens, meadows, and growing crops. These precepts were based upon various texts of Scripture, especially upon the famous statement in the book of Job; and, to carry them out, witch-finding inquisitors were authorized by the Pope to scour Europe, especially Germany, and a manual was prepared for their use--the Witch-Hammer, _Malleus Maleficarum_. In this manual, which was revered for centuries, both in Catholic and Protestant countries, as almost divinely inspired, the doctrine of Satanic agency in atmospheric phenomena was further developed, and various means of detecting and punishing it were dwelt upon.[352]

With the application of torture to thousands of women, in accordance with the precepts laid down in the _Malleus_, it was not difficult to extract masses of proof for this sacred theory of meteorology. The poor creatures, writhing on the rack, held in horror by those who had been nearest and dearest to them, anxious only for death to relieve their sufferings, confessed to anything and everything that would satisfy the inquisitors and judges. All that was needed was that the inquisitors should ask leading questions[352b] and suggest satisfactory answers: the prisoners, to shorten the torture, were sure sooner or later to give the answer required, even though they knew that this would send them to the stake or scaffold. Under the doctrine of "excepted cases," there was no limit to torture for persons accused of heresy or witchcraft; even the safeguards which the old pagan world had imposed upon torture were thus thrown down, and the prisoner _must_ confess.

The theological literature of the Middle Ages was thus enriched with numberless statements regarding modes of Satanic influence on the weather. Pathetic, indeed, are the records; and none more so than the confessions of these poor creatures, chiefly women and children, during hundreds of years, as to their manner of raising hailstorms and tempests. Such confessions, by tens of thousands, are still to be found in the judicial records of Germany, and indeed of all Europe. Typical among these is one on which great stress was laid during ages, and for which the world was first indebted to one of these poor women. Crazed by the agony of torture, she declared that, returning with a demon through the air from the witches' sabbath, she was dropped upon the earth in the confusion which resulted among the hellish legions when they heard the bells sounding the _Ave Maria_. It is sad to note that, after a contribution so valuable to sacred science, the poor woman was condemned to the flames. This revelation speedily ripened the belief that, whatever might be going on at the witches' sabbath--no matter how triumphant Satan might be--at the moment of sounding the consecrated bells the Satanic power was paralyzed. This theory once started, proofs came in to support it, during a hundred years, from the torture chambers in all parts of Europe.

Throughout the later Middle Ages the Dominicans had been the main agents in extorting and promulgating these revelations, but in the centuries following the Reformation the Jesuits devoted themselves with even more keenness and vigour to the same task. Some curious questions incidentally arose. It was mooted among the orthodox authorities whether the damage done by storms should or should not be assessed upon the property of convicted witches. The theologians inclined decidedly to the affirmative; the jurists, on the whole, to the negative.[354]

In spite of these tortures, lightning and tempests continued, and great men arose in the Church throughout Europe in every generation to point out new cruelties for the discovery of "weather-makers," and new methods for bringing their machinations to naught.

But here and there, as early as the sixteenth century, we begin to see thinkers endeavouring to modify or oppose these methods. At that time Paracelsus called attention to the reverberation of cannon as explaining the rolling of thunder, but he was confronted by one of his greatest contemporaries. Jean Bodin, as superstitious in natural as he was rational in political science, made sport of the scientific theory, and declared thunder to be "a flaming exhalation set in motion by evil spirits, and hurled downward with a great crash and a horrible smell of sulphur." In support of this view, he dwelt upon the confessions of tortured witches, upon the acknowledged agency of demons in the Will-o'-the-wisp, and specially upon the passage in the one hundred and fourth Psalm, "Who maketh his angels spirits, his ministers a flaming fire."

To resist such powerful arguments by such powerful men was dangerous indeed. In 1513, Pomponatius, professor at Padua, published a volume of _Doubts as to the Fourth Book of Aristotle's Meteorologica_, and also dared to question this power of devils; but he soon found it advisable to explain that, while as a _philosopher_ he might doubt, yet as a _Christian_ he of course believed everything taught by Mother Church--devils and all--and so escaped the fate of several others who dared to question the agency of witches in atmospheric and other disturbances.

A few years later Agrippa of Nettesheim made a somewhat similar effort to breast this theological tide in northern Europe. He had won a great reputation in various fields, but especially in natural science, as science was then understood. Seeing the folly and cruelty of the prevailing theory, he attempted to modify it, and in 1518, as Syndic of Metz, endeavoured to save a poor woman on trial for witchcraft. But the chief inquisitor, backed by the sacred Scriptures, the papal bulls, the theological faculties, and the monks, was too strong for him; he was not only forced to give up his office, but for this and other offences of a similar sort was imprisoned, driven from city to city and from country to country, and after his death his clerical enemies, especially the Dominicans, pursued his memory with calumny, and placed over his grave probably the most malignant epitaph ever written.

As to argument, these efforts were met especially by Jean Bodin in his famous book, the _Demonomanie des Sorciers_, published in 1580. It was a work of great power by a man justly considered the leading thinker in France, and perhaps in Europe. All the learning of the time, divine and human, he marshalled in support of the prevailing theory. With inexorable logic he showed that both the veracity of sacred Scripture and the infallibility of a long line of popes and councils of the Church were pledged to it, and in an eloquent passage this great publicist warned rulers and judges against any mercy to witches--citing the example of King Ahab condemned by the prophet to die for having pardoned a man worthy of death, and pointing significantly to King Charles IX of France, who, having pardoned a sorcerer, died soon afterward.[355]

In the last years of the sixteenth century the persecutions for witchcraft and magic were therefore especially cruel; and in the western districts of Germany the main instrument in them was Binsfeld, Suffragan Bishop of Treves.

At that time Cornelius Loos was a professor at the university of that city. He was a devoted churchman, and one of the most brilliant opponents of Protestantism, but he finally saw through the prevailing belief regarding occult powers, and in an evil hour for himself embodied his idea in a book entitled _True and False Magic_. The book, though earnest, was temperate, but this helped him and his cause not at all. The texts of Scripture clearly sanctioning belief in sorcery and magic stood against him, and these had been confirmed by the infallible teachings of the Church and the popes from time immemorial; the book was stopped in the press, the manuscript confiscated, and Loos thrown into a dungeon.

The inquisitors having wrought their will upon him, in the spring of 1593 he was brought out of prison, forced to recant on his knees before the assembled dignitaries of the Church, and thenceforward kept constantly under surveillance and at times in prison. Even this was considered too light a punishment, and his arch-enemy, the Jesuit Delrio, declared that, but for his death by the plague, he would have been finally sent to the stake.[356]

That this threat was not unmeaning had been seen a few years earlier in a case even more noted, and in the same city. During the last decades of the sixteenth century, Dietrich Flade, an eminent jurist, was rector of the University of Treves, and chief judge of the Electoral Court, and in the latter capacity he had to pass judgment upon persons tried on the capital charge of magic and witchcraft. For a time he yielded to the long line of authorities, ecclesiastical and judicial, supporting the reality of this crime; but he at last seems to have realized that it was unreal, and that the confessions in his torture chamber, of compacts with Satan, riding on broomsticks to the witch-sabbath, raising tempests, producing diseases, and the like, were either the results of madness or of willingness to confess anything and everything, and even to die, in order to shorten the fearful tortures to which the accused were in all cases subjected until a satisfactory confession was obtained.

On this conviction of the unreality of many at least of the charges Flade seems to have acted, and he at once received his reward. He was arrested by the authority of the archbishop and charged with having sold himself to Satan--the fact of his hesitation in the persecution being perhaps what suggested his guilt. He was now, in his turn, brought into the torture chamber over which he had once presided, was racked until he confessed everything which his torturers suggested, and finally, in 1589, was strangled and burnt.

Of that trial a record exists in the library of Cornell University in the shape of the original minutes of the case, and among them the depositions of Flade when under torture, taken down from his own lips in the torture chamber. In these depositions this revered and venerable scholar and jurist acknowledged the truth of every absurd charge brought against him--anything, everything, which would end the fearful torture: compared with that, death was nothing.[357]

Nor was even a priest secure who ventured to reveal the unreality of magic. When Friedrich Spee, the Jesuit poet of western Germany, found, in taking the confessions of those about to be executed for magic, that without exception, just when about to enter eternity and utterly beyond hope of pardon, they all retracted their confessions made under torture, his sympathies as a man rose above his loyalty to his order, and he published his _Cautio Criminalis_ as a warning, stating with entire moderation the facts he had observed and the necessity of care. But he did not dare publish it under his own name, nor did he even dare publish it in a Catholic town; he gave it to the world anonymously, and, in order to prevent any tracing of the work to him through the confessional, he secretly caused it to be published in the Protestant town of Rinteln.

Nor was this all. Nothing shows so thoroughly the hold that this belief in magic had obtained as the conduct of Spee's powerful friend and contemporary, John Philip von Schonborn, later the Elector and Prince Archbishop of Mayence.

As a youth, Schonborn had loved and admired Spee, and had especially noted his persistent melancholy and his hair whitened even in his young manhood. On Schonborn's pressing him for the cause, Spee at last confessed that his sadness, whitened hair, and premature old age were due to his recollections of the scores of men and women and children whom he had been obliged to see tortured and sent to the scaffold and stake for magic and witchcraft, when he as their father confessor positively knew them to be innocent. The result was that, when Schonborn became Elector and Archbishop of Mayence, he stopped the witch persecutions in that province, and prevented them as long as he lived. But here was shown the strength of theological and ecclesiastical traditions and precedents. Even a man so strong by family connections, and enjoying such great temporal and spiritual power as Schonhorn, dared not openly give his reasons for this change of policy. So far as is known, he never uttered a word publicly against the reality of magic, and under his successor in the electorate witch trials were resumed.

The great upholders of the orthodox view retained full possession of the field. The victorious Bishop Binsfeld, of Treves, wrote a book to prove that everything confessed by the witches under torture, especially the raising of storms and the general controlling of the weather, was worthy of belief; and this book became throughout Europe a standard authority, both among Catholics and Protestants. Even more inflexible was Remigius, criminal judge in Lorraine. On the title-page of his manual he boasts that within fifteen years he had sent nine hundred persons to death for this imaginary crime.[358]

Protestantism fell into the superstition as fully as Catholicism. In the same century John Wier, a disciple of Agrippa, tried to frame a pious theory which, while satisfying orthodoxy, should do something to check the frightful cruelties around him. In his book _De Praestigiis Daemnonum_, published in 1563, he proclaimed his belief in witchcraft, but suggested that the compacts with Satan, journeys through the air on broomsticks, bearing children to Satan, raising storms and producing diseases--to which so many women and children confessed under torture--were delusions suggested and propagated by Satan himself, and that the persons charged with witchcraft were therefore to be considered "as possessed"--that is, rather as sinned against than sinning.[359]

But neither Catholics nor Protestants would listen for a moment to any such suggestion. Wier was bitterly denounced and persecuted. Nor did Bekker, a Protestant divine in Holland, fare any better in the following century. For his _World Bewitched_, in which he ventured not only to question the devil's power over the weather, but to deny his bodily existence altogether, he was solemnly tried by the synod of his Church and expelled from his pulpit, while his views were condemned as heresy, and overwhelmed with a flood of refutations whose mere catalogue would fill pages; and these cases were typical of many.

The Reformation had, indeed, at first deepened the superstition; the new Church being anxious to show itself equally orthodox and zealous with the old. During the century following the first great movement, the eminent Lutheran jurist and theologian Benedict Carpzov, whose boast was that he had read the Bible fifty-three times, especially distinguished himself by his skill in demonstrating the reality of witchcraft, and by his cruelty in detecting and punishing it. The torture chambers were set at work more vigorously than ever, and a long line of theological jurists followed to maintain the system and to extend it.

To argue against it, or even doubt it, was exceedingly dangerous. Even as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Christian Thomasius, the greatest and bravest German between Luther and Lessing, began the efforts which put an end to it in Protestant Germany, he did not dare at first, bold as he was, to attack it in his own name, but presented his views as the university thesis of an irresponsible student.[360]

The same stubborn resistance to the gradual encroachment of the scientific spirit upon the orthodox doctrine of witchcraft was seen in Great Britain. Typical as to the attitude both of Scotch and English Protestants were the theory and practice of King James I, himself the author of a book on _Demonology_, and nothing if not a theologian. As to theory, his treatise on _Demonology_ supported the worst features of the superstition; as to practice, he ordered the learned and acute work of Reginald Scot, _The Discoverie of Witchcraft_, one of the best treatises ever written on the subject, to be burned by the hangman, and he applied his own knowledge to investigating the causes of the tempests which beset his bride on her voyage from Denmark. Skilful use of unlimited torture soon brought these causes to light. A Dr. Fian, while his legs were crushed in the "boots" and wedges were driven under his finger nails, confessed that several hundred witches had gone to sea in a sieve from the port of Leith, and had raised storms and tempests to drive back the princess.

With the coming in of the Puritans the persecution was even more largely, systematically, and cruelly developed. The great witch-finder, Matthew Hopkins, having gone through the county of Suffolk and tested multitudes of poor old women by piercing them with pins and needles, declared that county to be infested with witches. Thereupon Parliament issued a commission, and sent two eminent Presbyterian divines to accompany it, with the result that in that county alone sixty persons were hanged for witchcraft in a single year. In Scotland matters were even worse. The _auto da fe_ of Spain was celebrated in Scotland under another name, and with Presbyterian ministers instead of Roman Catholic priests as the main attendants. At Leith, in 1664, nine women were burned together. Condemnations and punishments of women in batches were not uncommon. Torture was used far more freely than in England, both in detecting witches and in punishing them. The natural argument developed in hundreds of pulpits was this: If the Allwise God punishes his creatures with tortures infinite in cruelty and duration, why should not his ministers, as far as they can, imitate him?

The strongest minds in both branches of the Protestant Church in Great Britain devoted themselves to maintaining the superstition. The newer scientific modes of thought, and especially the new ideas regarding the heavens, revealed first by Copernicus and Galileo and later by Newton, Huygens, and Halley, were gradually dissipating the whole domain of the Prince of the Power of the Air; but from first to last a long line of eminent divines, Anglican and Calvinistic, strove to resist the new thought. On the Anglican side, in the seventeenth century, Meric Casaubon, Doctor of Divinity and a high dignitary of Canterbury,--Henry More, in many respects the most eminent scholar in the Church,--Cudworth, by far the most eminent philosopher, and Dr. Joseph Glanvil, the most cogent of all writers in favour of witchcraft, supported the orthodox superstition in treatises of great power; and Sir Matthew Hale, the greatest jurist of the period, condemning two women to be burned for witchcraft, declared that he based his judgment on the direct testimony of Holy Scripture. On the Calvinistic side were the great names of Richard Baxter, who applauded some of the worst cruelties in England, and of Increase and Cotton Mather, who stimulated the worst in America; and these marshalled in behalf of this cruel superstition a long line of eminent divines, the most earnest of all, perhaps, being John Wesley.

Nor was the Lutheran Church in Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries behind its sister churches, either in persecuting witchcraft or in repressing doubts regarding the doctrine which supported it.

But in spite of all these great authorities in every land, in spite of such summary punishments as those of Flade, Loos, and Bekker, and in spite of the virtual exclusion from church preferment of all who doubted the old doctrine, the new scientific view of the heavens was developed more and more; the physical sciences were more and more cultivated; the new scientific atmosphere in general more and more prevailed; and at the end of the seventeenth century this vast growth of superstition began to wither and droop. Montaigne, Bayle, and Voltaire in France, Thomasius in Germany, Calef in New England, and Beccaria in Italy, did much also to create an intellectual and moral atmosphere fatal to it.

And here it should be stated, to the honour of the Church of England, that several of her divines showed great courage in opposing the dominant doctrine. Such men as Harsnet, Archbishop of York, and Morton, Bishop of Lichfield, who threw all their influence against witch-finding cruelties even early in the seventeenth century, deserve lasting gratitude. But especially should honour be paid to the younger men in the Church, who wrote at length against the whole system: such men as Wagstaffe and Webster and Hutchinson, who in the humbler ranks of the clergy stood manfully for truth, with the certainty that by so doing they were making their own promotion impossible.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century the doctrine was evidently dying out. Where torture had been abolished, or even made milder, "weather-makers" no longer confessed, and the fundamental proofs in which the system was rooted were evidently slipping away. Even the great theologian Fromundus, at the University of Louvain, the oracle of his age, who had demonstrated the futility of the Copernican theory, had foreseen this and made the inevitable attempt at compromise, declaring that devils, though _often_, are not _always_ or even for the most part the causes of thunder. The learned Jesuit Caspar Schott, whose _Physica Curiosa_ was one of the most popular books of the seventeenth century, also ventured to make the same mild statement. But even such concessions by such great champions of orthodoxy did not prevent frantic efforts in various quarters to bring the world back under the old dogma: as late as 1743 there was published in Catholic Germany a manual by Father Vincent of Berg, in which the superstition was taught to its fullest extent, with the declaration that it was issued for the use of priests under the express sanction of the theological professors of the University of Cologne; and twenty-five years later, in 1768, we find in Protestant England John Wesley standing firmly for witchcraft, and uttering his famous declaration, "The giving up of witchcraft is in effect the giving up of the Bible." The latest notable demonstration in Scotland was made as late as 1773, when "the divines of the Associated Presbytery" passed a resolution declaring their belief in witchcraft, and deploring the general scepticism regarding it.[363]


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The content and opinions expressed on this Web page do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by the University of Georgia or the University System of Georgia.