II. BEGINNINGS OF A HEALTHFUL SCEPTICISM.

We have now seen the culmination of the old procedure regarding insanity, as it was developed under theology and enforced by ecclesiasticism; and we have noted how, under the influence of Luther and Calvin, the Reformation rather deepened than weakened the faith in the malice and power of a personal devil. Nor was this, in the Reformed churches any more than in the old, mere matter of theory. As in the early ages of Christianity, its priests especially appealed, in proof of the divine mission, to their power over the enemy of mankind in the bodies of men, so now the clergy of the rival creeds eagerly sought opportunities to establish the truth of their own and the falsehood of their opponents' doctrines by the visible casting out of devils. True, their methods differed somewhat: where the Catholic used holy water and consecrated wax, the Protestant was content with texts of Scripture and importunate prayer; but the supplementary physical annoyance of the indwelling demon did not greatly vary. Sharp was the competition for the unhappy objects of treatment. Each side, of course, stoutly denied all efficacy to its adversaries' efforts, urging that any seeming victory over Satan was due not to the defeat but to the collusion of the fiend. As, according to the Master himself, "no man can by Beelzebub cast out devils," the patient was now in greater need of relief than before; and more than one poor victim had to bear alternately Lutheran, Roman, and perhaps Calvinistic exorcism.[[117]]

But far more serious in its consequences was another rivalry to which in the sixteenth century the clergy of all creeds found themselves subject. The revival of the science of medicine, under the impulse of the new study of antiquity, suddenly bade fair to take out of the hands of the Church the profession of which she had enjoyed so long and so profitable a monopoly. Only one class of diseases remained unquestionably hers--those which were still admitted to be due to the direct personal interference of Satan--and foremost among these was insanity.[[117b]] It was surely no wonder that an age of religious controversy and excitement should be exceptionally prolific in ailments of the mind; and, to men who mutually taught the utter futility of that baptismal exorcism by which the babes of their misguided neighbours were made to renounce the devil and his works, it ought not to have seemed strange that his victims now became more numerous.[[117c]] But so simple an explanation did not satisfy these physicians of souls; they therefore devised a simpler one: their patients, they alleged, were bewitched, and their increase was due to the growing numbers of those human allies of Satan known as witches.

Already, before the close of the fifteenth century, Pope innocent VIII had issued the startling bull by which he called on the archbishops, bishops, and other clergy of Germany to join hands with his inquisitors in rooting out these willing bond-servants of Satan, who were said to swarm throughout all that country and to revel in the blackest crimes. Other popes had since reiterated the appeal; and, though none of these documents touched on the blame of witchcraft for diabolic possession, the inquisitors charged with their execution pointed it out most clearly in their fearful handbook, the _Witch-Hammer_, and prescribed the special means by which possession thus caused should be met. These teachings took firm root in religious minds everywhere; and during the great age of witch-burning that followed the Reformation it may well be doubted whether any single cause so often gave rise to an outbreak of the persecution as the alleged bewitchment of some poor mad or foolish or hysterical creature. The persecution, thus once under way, fed itself; for, under the terrible doctrine of "excepted cases," by which in the religious crimes of heresy and witchcraft there was no limit to the use of torture, the witch was forced to confess to accomplices, who in turn accused others, and so on to the end of the chapter.[[118]]

The horrors of such a persecution, with the consciousness of an ever-present devil it breathed and the panic terror of him it inspired, could not but aggravate the insanity it claimed to cure. Well-authenticated, though rarer than is often believed, were the cases where crazed women voluntarily accused themselves of this impossible crime. One of the most eminent authorities on diseases of the mind declares that among the unfortunate beings who were put to death for witchcraft he recognises well-marked victims of cerebral disorders; while an equally eminent authority in Germany tells us that, in a most careful study of the original records of their trials by torture, he has often found their answers and recorded conversations exactly like those familiar to him in our modern lunatic asylums, and names some forms of insanity which constantly and un mistakably appear among those who suffered for criminal dealings with the devil.[[119]]

The result of this widespread terror was naturally, therefore, a steady increase in mental disorders. A great modern authority tells us that, although modern civilization tends to increase insanity, the number of lunatics at present is far less than in the ages of faith and in the Reformation period. The treatment of the "possessed," as we find it laid down in standard treatises, sanctioned by orthodox churchmen and jurists, accounts for this abundantly. One sort of treatment used for those accused of witchcraft will also serve to show this--the "_tortura insomniae_." Of all things in brain-disease, calm and regular sleep is most certainly beneficial; yet, under this practice, these half-crazed creatures were prevented, night after night and day after day, from sleeping or even resting. In this way temporary delusion became chronic insanity, mild cases became violent, torture and death ensued, and the "ways of God to man" were justified.[[119b]]

But the most contemptible creatures in all those centuries were the physicians who took sides with religious orthodoxy. While we have, on the side of truth, Flade sacrificing his life, Cornelius Agrippa his liberty, Wier and Loos their hopes of preferment, Bekker his position, and Thomasius his ease, reputation, and friends, we find, as allies of the other side, a troop of eminently respectable doctors mixing Scripture, metaphysics, and pretended observations to support the "safe side" and to deprecate interference with the existing superstition, which seemed to them "a very safe belief to be held by the common people."[[119c]]

Against one form of insanity both Catholics and Protestants were especially cruel. Nothing is more common in all times of religious excitement than strange personal hallucinations, involving the belief, by the insane patient, that he is a divine person. In the most striking representation of insanity that has ever been made, Kaulbach shows, at the centre of his wonderful group, a patient drawing attention to himself as the Saviour of the world.

Sometimes, when this form of disease took a milder hysterical character, the subject of it was treated with reverence, and even elevated to sainthood: such examples as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena in Italy, St. Bridget in Sweden, St. Theresa in Spain, St. Mary Alacoque in France, and Louise Lateau in Belgium, are typical. But more frequently such cases shocked public feeling, and were treated with especial rigour: typical of this is the case of Simon Marin, who in his insanity believed himself to be the Son of God, and was on that account burned alive at Paris and his ashes scattered to the winds.[[120]]

The profundity of theologians and jurists constantly developed new theories as to the modes of diabolic entrance into the "possessed." One such theory was that Satan could be taken into the mouth with one's food--perhaps in the form of an insect swallowed on a leaf of salad, and this was sanctioned, as we have seen, by no less infallible an authority than Gregory the Great, Pope and Saint--Another theory was that Satan entered the body when the mouth was opened to breathe, and there are well-authenticated cases of doctors and divines who, when casting out evil spirits, took especial care lest the imp might jump into their own mouths from the mouth of the patient. Another theory was that the devil entered human beings during sleep; and at a comparatively recent period a King of Spain was wont to sleep between two monks, to keep off the devil.[[121]]

The monasteries were frequent sources of that form of mental disease which was supposed to be caused by bewitchment. From the earliest period it is evident that monastic life tended to develop insanity. Such cases as that of St. Anthony are typical of its effects upon the strongest minds; but it was especially the convents for women that became the great breeding-beds of this disease. Among the large numbers of women and girls thus assembled--many of them forced into monastic seclusion against their will, for the reason that their families could give them no dower--subjected to the unsatisfied longings, suspicions, bickerings, petty jealousies, envies, and hatreds, so inevitable in convent life--mental disease was not unlikely to be developed at any moment. Hysterical excitement in nunneries took shapes sometimes comical, but more generally tragical. Noteworthy is it that the last places where executions for witchcraft took place were mainly in the neighbourhood of great nunneries; and the last famous victim, of the myriads executed in Germany for this imaginary crime, was Sister Anna Renata Singer, sub-prioress of a nunnery near Wurzburg.[[121b]]

The same thing was seen among young women exposed to sundry fanatical Protestant preachers. Insanity, both temporary and permanent, was thus frequently developed among the Huguenots of France, and has been thus produced in America, from the days of the Salem persecution down to the "camp meetings" of the present time.[[121c]]

At various times, from the days of St. Agobard of Lyons in the ninth century to Pomponatius in the sixteenth, protests or suggestions, more or less timid, had been made by thoughtful men against this system. Medicine had made some advance toward a better view, but the theological torrent had generally overwhelmed all who supported a scientific treatment. At last, toward the end of the sixteenth century, two men made a beginning of a much more serious attack upon this venerable superstition. The revival of learning, and the impulse to thought on material matters given during the "age of discovery," undoubtedly produced an atmosphere which made the work of these men possible. In the year 1563, in the midst of demonstrations of demoniacal possession by the most eminent theologians and judges, who sat in their robes and looked wise, while women, shrieking, praying, and blaspheming, were put to the torture, a man arose who dared to protest effectively that some of the persons thus charged might be simply insane; and this man was John Wier, of Cleves.

His protest does not at this day strike us as particularly bold. In his books, _De Praestigiis Daemonum_ and _De Lamiis_, he did his best not to offend religious or theological susceptibilities; but he felt obliged to call attention to the mingled fraud and delusion of those who claimed to be bewitched, and to point out that it was often not their accusers, but the alleged witches themselves, who were really ailing, and to urge that these be brought first of all to a physician.

His book was at once attacked by the most eminent theologians. One of the greatest laymen of his time, Jean Bodin, also wrote with especial power against it, and by a plentiful use of scriptural texts gained to all appearance a complete victory: this superstition seemed thus fastened upon Europe for a thousand years more. But doubt was in the air, and, about a quarter of a century after the publication of Wier's book there were published in France the essays of a man by no means so noble, but of far greater genius--Michel de Montaigne. The general scepticism which his work promoted among the French people did much to produce an atmosphere in which the belief in witchcraft and demoniacal possession must inevitably wither. But this process, though real, was hidden, and the victory still seemed on the theological side.

The development of the new truth and its struggle against the old error still went on. In Holland, Balthazar Bekker wrote his book against the worst forms of the superstition, and attempted to help the scientific side by a text from the Second Epistle of St. Peter, showing that the devils had been confined by the Almighty, and therefore could not be doing on earth the work which was imputed to them. But Bekker's Protestant brethren drove him from his pulpit, and he narrowly escaped with his life.

The last struggles of a great superstition are very frequently the worst. So it proved in this case. In the first half of the seventeenth century the cruelties arising from the old doctrine were more numerous and severe than ever before. In Spain, Sweden, Italy, and, above all, in Germany, we see constant efforts to suppress the evolution of the new truth.

But in the midst of all this reactionary rage glimpses of right reason began to appear. It is significant that at this very time, when the old superstition was apparently everywhere triumphant, the declaration by Poulet that he and his brother and his cousin had, by smearing themselves with ointment, changed themselves into wolves and devoured children, brought no severe punishment upon them. The judges sent him to a mad-house. More and more, in spite of frantic efforts from the pulpit to save the superstition, great writers and jurists, especially in France, began to have glimpses of the truth and courage to uphold it. Malebranche spoke against the delusion; Seguier led the French courts to annul several decrees condemning sorcerers; the great chancellor, D'Aguesseau, declared to the Parliament of Paris that, if they wished to stop sorcery, they must stop talking about it--that sorcerers are more to be pitied than blamed.[[123]]

But just at this time, as the eighteenth century was approaching, the theological current was strengthened by a great ecclesiastic--the greatest theologian that France has produced, whose influence upon religion and upon the mind of Louis XIV was enormous--Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux. There had been reason to expect that Bossuet would at least do something to mitigate the superstition; for his writings show that, in much which before his day had been ascribed to diabolic possession, he saw simple lunacy. Unfortunately, the same adherence to the literal interpretation of Scripture which led him to oppose every other scientific truth developed in his time, led him also to attack this: he delivered and published two great sermons, which, while showing some progress in the form of his belief, showed none the less that the fundamental idea of diabolic possession was still to be tenaciously held. What this idea was may be seen in one typical statement: he declared that "a single devil could turn the earth round as easily as we turn a marble."[[124]]


| HOME | CONTENTS | NEXT |

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

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.