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THE WITCH-BULL AND ITS EFFECTS
I HAVE elsewhere in this volume attempted to show that, even in our own days, there is nothing particularly incredible about a witch and that the disrespect into which she has fallen is due rather to our modern lack of any sense of proportion in our beliefs, than to any fault of her own. Certainly we have no cause to pride ourselves on any intellectual superiority to the great divines and scholars of past ages who devoted themselves to the dissection or condemnation of witchcraft rather we should deplore our lack of faith and of imagination. For them there existed no possibility of doubt, no relative standard of fact or theory. The premises were absolute. The spiritual world was based upon the word of God as expressed in the Bible and translated by the Church. To argue the absurdity or inadmissibility of any particular tenet of Christian doctrine was to suppose a paradox the fallibility of the infallible. Eminent jurists, as was Bodin, or learned physicians such as Wierus, both writing towards the close of the sixteenth century, arguing with great mental dexterity on opposite sides, alike accepted the initial axiom, cramp and confine them though it might. They had, indeed, no alternative as well might two modern astronomers in disputing over the whereabouts of an undiscovered planet deny the existence of the sun. The humane Wierus, a friend of Sir Philip Sidney, by the way, preaches from the same text as does the judicial Bodin though he delivers a different sermon. Bodin, supporter of the old conventions, makes a formidable onslaught on Wierus not for any scepticism as to the existence of witches no ground was given him for such an accusation but for maintaining against the view of the Church that witches were victims rather than disciples of the Devil. Nor, in the face of the very explicit injunction, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" and the suggestion was still to be mooted that "witch" in the original stood for "poisoner" can we accuse those who obeyed it of having acted from any other motives than those of earnest Christians. It is true that they carried zeal to the point of enthusiasm but zeal has always been accounted a mark of grace.
As we have seen the severest period of witch-persecution commences from their definite classification as heretics by the Bull of Innocent VIII. issued in 1484. The Bull itself was not lacking in directness: "It has come to our ears," it commences, "that great numbers of both sexes are not afraid to abuse their own bodies with devils that serve to both sexes. And with their Inchantments, charms and sorceries to vex and afflict Man and Beast with inward and outward pains and tortures . . .Therefore with the authority apostolic we have given power to the Inquisitor . . . to convict, imprison and punish."
The Inquisitor, Sprenger, lost little time in making use of this delegated authority and such was his zeal and so many his opportunities of acquiring knowledge that within two years after the issue of the Bull he gave to the world his famous "Witch's Hammer," for the direction and guidance of those upon whom should fall the duty of exterminating so vile a heresy. This Malleus Maleficarum" contains minute accounts of every description of witch, with suggestions for counteracting and exterminating their influence. Like most of his predecessors and successors Sprenger blames the whole existence of witchcraft upon the notorious frailty of women. The very word "fmina," he declares, in the accents of authority, is derived from "fe" and "minus" because women have less faith than have men. From this unhappy constitution of the sex countless ills have sprung among them innumerable varieties of witch. Of these, thirteen are exhaustively described, that all may recognise them. Worst are those who slay and devour children. Others raise hail, tempests, lightning and thunder, procure barrenness in man, woman and beast, make horses kick until they throw their riders, or pass from place to place through the air, invisible. Others can render themselves taciturn and insensible under torture, can find things hidden or lost, foretell the future and alter men's minds to inordinate love or hate. They can draw down the moon, destroy unborn children, raise spirits in a word, there is no department of devilry, major or minor, in which they are not adepts, if we may trust their enthusiastic historian, whose work at once became an authority almost a ready reckoner of witchcraft, by which anyone with a knowledge of Latin had at his fingers' ends the best possible method of recognising, convicting and destroying any variety or variant whatsoever.
It is pleasant to reflect that so careful and conscientious a work earned for its author the affection and admiration alike of his contemporaries and of posterity. Later writers based their theories and arguments upon his discoveries as upon a firm rock, while during his lifetime he directed public opinion upon the evil he had set himself to combat so successfully that not one old woman in fifty could be sure of dying in her bed for generations. It is a pregnant sign of the genuine horror in which witches were held that all the ordinary legal conventions were suspended at these trials. Contrary to the usual procedure, witness might be borne against them by excommunicated persons, convicts, infants, dishonest servants and runaways. Presumption and conjecture were accepted as evidence, an equivocal or doubtful answer was regarded as a confession and rumour or common report sufficient to ensure a conviction. It is true that such improvements in legal procedure cannot be altogether attributed to the exertions of the Inquisitor dating, as many of them do, from centuries before the publication of his magnum opus at least he devoted a splendid enthusiasm to the object he had set before him, and on his death-bed was able to look forward with confident humility to the reward merited by a well-spent life.
The effects of the Witch-Bull were immediate and in every way satisfactory to its authors a perfect frenzy of witch-finding resulting. Forty-one women were burned in one year commencing in 1485 by the Inquisitor Cumanus. A colleague, not to be outdone, executed a hundred in Piedmont and was perfectly willing to continue the good work, had not public enthusiasm waned in view of the inevitable monotony in this form of amusement. A little later a tempest devastated the country around Constance. The inhabitants recognising that in face of the recent Bull it were blasphemous to attribute such a storm to natural causes, seized two old women, obtained confessions in the usual way, and burned them. About 1515, some five hundred persons were executed in Geneva as "Protestant witches" an instance of the alliance between heresy and witchcraft. In Lorraine the learned and enthusiastic Inquisitor Remigius put to death nine hundred persons in 15 years. Hutchinson, indeed, writing in 1718, puts the number at eighteen hundred, but even the smaller and more correct total shows that Remigius did his duty nobly. Italy, naturally enough, was determined not to be outdone by foreign holocausts, and accordingly we find that more than a thousand executions took place in Como in 1524, and an average of more than a hundred was maintained for several years.
Mere lists of figures such as these are apt to pall, especially when, as in such a case, it is almost impossible for a modern reader to realise their actual meaning, as that every day throughout a whole year, three unhappy women, old, poor, and defenceless, should be inhumanly tortured, and afterwards publicly murdered in the most painful way imaginable in one district, not only without a word of protest being raised, but with the approval of all Europe. That it should have actually taken place vouches for the earnestness with which our forefathers regarded their religion, if for nothing else.
Nor is it to be supposed that Protestants were in any way less attentive to this branch of their religious duties than were their Catholic neighbours. They might differ upon every other point on this at least there was no room for disagreement. Martin Luther, with his usual decision, makes his attitude perfectly clear, "I have no compassion on these witches. I would burn them all." Perhaps one reason for this uncompromising attitude may have been his contempt for Satan's snares, of which he had considerable experience. So accustomed did he grow to the assaults of the Devil that, having been once, as it is related, awakened at dead of night by an alarming clatter, "he perceived that it was only the Devil and so went to sleep again." Calvin, again, says of Psalm v., 6, "If there were no charms of sorcery, this were but a childish and absurd thing which is here written." It is true that Protestant and Catholic regarded the witchcraft question from diametrically opposite standpoints. Whereas the Roman Church regarded heretics as a variety of witch, the Reformers were inclined to regard Catholic rites and forms as among the most virulent of the black arts. At a somewhat later date, during the New England persecutions, a girl was deposed to have been allowed, by the Devil, to read "Popish Books" such as "Cambridge and Oxford Tracts" while good Protestant works, as "The Bible Assemblies' Catechism" or Colton's "Milk for Babes" sent her, being in the power of the Devil, into violent convulsions!
However enduring might be the enthusiasm of the judges, the commonalty in time grew sated with the spectacle of their own and their friends' aunts and grandmothers being burned to ashes for the glory of God. Witch-trials and witch-burnings, however dramatically exciting, were lacking in variety and were expensive as well as entertaining. While the energy of the Inquisitors was stimulated by the forfeiture in their favour of the witch's worldly goods the community had to lose them, such as they were, besides suffering complete disorganisation of daily business routine. There were even those difficult of belief as it may seem who so far risked their chance of Paradise as to sicken at the continuance of such useless bloodshed and to grow sceptical as to the singlemindedness of its promoters. Such a one was the humane and learned Dr. Wierus, who, in 1563, published at Basel his famous volume, "De Prζstigiis." At the time, indeed, this plea for the witch as the victim rather than the ally of Satan, served only to fan the flame of persecution, by the bitter controversy to which it gave rise, though subsequently quenching it in no small degree. Although, needless to say, a firm believer in the reality of the black art, Wierus branded it as the direct rather than the indirect work of the Devil. As helpless victims, therefore, his agents should not be punished for crimes in which their human frailty was alone guilty. He adopted, in a word, towards the witch, the modern attitude towards the dangerous lunatic that she should be restrained rather than punished. He even displays a certain contempt for her powers understanding, in the light of his own medical knowledge, that many so-called cases of bewitchment or demoniacal possession, were the result of purely natural causes. Like his contemporaries, Wierus concludes that the Devil chooses women rather than men to do his will as being easier to influence. Naturally malicious and impatient, they are unable to control their affections and are all too credulous qualities of which Satan takes every advantage. Particularly does he appreciate stupid, weak old women, the shakiness of whose wits places them the more surely in his power. Wierus parts company from his contemporaries in urging that this very frailty should arouse compassion that they should be pitied rather than treated as stubborn heretics and that if punished they should be treated less severely than were men, because of this infirmity of their sex.
Not content with stirring up doubt as to the spiritual nature of witchcraft, Wierus has the audacity to question the motives of some of its judges. He quotes an example of the profitable side of the witch-mania as having happened in Wurtemburg. The skins of animals that died by mischance there became the property of the executioner. This functionary evidently possessed a spirit far in advance of his age, for coincidently with the rise of a local witch-mania, a fatal epidemic attributed, of course, to witchcraft broke out among the sheep, pigs, and oxen of the neighbourhood. The executioner grew rich and had not the wisdom to conceal it. The jealous suspicions of his neighbours were aroused, he was put to the torture, confessed to having poisoned the animals, and was condemned to be torn to pieces with pincers.
Wierus had studied the natural history of the witch no less closely than his predecessor, the Inquisitor Sprenger. Indeed, judging from some of the charges brought against them at contemporary trials, we may agree with him that they were more suited to the attentions of a physician than of a judge. Thus, among the commonest of their crimes as frequently proved by their own confession, it is to be remembered were the dishonouring of the crucifix and the denial of salvation, the absconding, despite bolts and bars, to attend the Devil's Sabbath and the partaking in choral dances around the witch-tree of rendezvous. Remigius tells us that many confessed to having changed themselves into cats, to having belaboured running water with rods in order to bring about bad weather more particularly hail-storms and other doings of the kind customary to witches of all the ages. Wierus, who was held to be a disciple of that prince of sorcerers, Cornelius Agrippa, was naturally as expert in all things relating to the Devil and his kingdom as to his earthly slaves. No modern revivalist could exceed the minuteness of his knowledge, nor, indeed, the thoroughness expressed in his detailing of it. He even seems to have taken a census of the more official population in the under-world, enumerating seventy-two princes of evil, who rule over seven million four hundred and five thousand nine hundred and twenty-six devils of inferior rank.
Fifteen years after the publication of "De Prζstigiis," appeared Jean Bodin's counterblast. The eminent jurist was well qualified to speak, having done some persecuting on his own account and thus gained first-hand experience of the ways and customs of the witch. To him the theories of Wierus appeared as those either of a very ignorant or of a very wicked man. The suggestion that witches and sorcerers should be pitied rather than punished appeared to him to aim a blow at the very framework of society, human and divine, and he felt it his duty to refute Wierus and all his works, "not through hatred, but primarily for the honour of God." He also gives detailed accounts of the various kinds of witches, but unlike Wierus discreetly refrains from setting down the spells and invocations to the Devil with which he is acquainted, lest, falling into the hands of the evilly disposed, improper use be made of them. For such crimes as those habitually committed by witches he can find no penalty severe enough, while as to Wierus' plea that allowance be made for the weakness of women he quotes approvingly the law, that "the punishment for witchcraft shall not be diminished for women as is the case in all other crimes."
England was in no way singular from the rest of Europe in her method of approaching the question, though her persecutions were on a smaller scale. The Act of 1541 whereby various kinds of sorcery, such as the destruction of a neighbour's goods or person, the making of images or pictures of men, women, children, angels, devils, beasts and fowls for magical purposes, were declared felony without benefit of clergy, was repealed in the reign of Edward VI. Another, distinguishing the various grades of witchcraft, was passed in 1562. By it, conjurations, invocations of evil spirits, the practice of sorceries, enchantments, charms and witchcrafts whereby deaths resulted were declared felony, without benefit of clergy, and punishable with death. If only bodily harm ensued, the penalty for the first offence was a year's imprisonment and exposure in the pillory, and for the second, death. Notwithstanding such laws, the highest in the land were not averse to personal dealings with followers of the black art. Queen Elizabeth herself so far exercised her royal prerogative as to have been unless rumour lie on excellent terms with Dr. John Dee, the eminent crystal-gazer, whose "black stone" is now in the British Museum. In Scotland the principal Act was passed in 1563. By it the practice of witchcraft, sorcery and necromancy, the pretence of possessing magical knowledge, and the seeking of help from witches were declared capital offences.
It says much for the common sense of the English nation that it should, at such a period, have produced so enlightened a writer on the subject as was Reginald Scot. As against his contemporary, Holland, who, writing in 1590, urges that since witches were in the Bible, "shall Satan be less cruel now?", Scot, in "The Discoverie of Witchcraft," scoffs at "Sprenger's fables and Bodin's babies" a conceit that must have afforded him infinite satisfaction. "I denie not," he argues, "that there are witches or images, but I detest the idolatrous opinions conceived of them." And again: "I am well assured that if all the old women in the world were witches, and all the priests conjurers, we should not have a drop of rain the more or the less for them.4 The suggestion of priests as conjurers is, of course, a hit at "Papish practices," and another description of witches as "Papists" betrays his religious attitude. It must be said that the Anglican Church was inclined towards tolerance the severe witch-persecutions in these islands, which I detail elsewhere, being chiefly due to that Puritan spirit which dwelt with more satisfaction on the sins than the virtues of mankind. For just as it has been said that the only antagonist more redoubtable on the battle-field than a swearing Irishman is a praying Scotsman, so the Puritan was a deadlier persecutor of witches than the most zealous Inquisitor. This with good reason, if we remember that the Catholic offered the chance of Heaven to anyone who was not an obstinate heretic; while the Puritan was of much the same opinion as the old Scotswoman, who, having with her brother seceded from the local kirk, and being asked by the minister whether she seriously believed that no one but her brother and herself would be saved, replied that she had grave doubts about her brother.
James I., although upon his succession to the English throne he found the Episcopacy well suited to his theories of kingship, yet preserved the Puritanical sense of other people's sinfulness in his heart. To this no less than to his desire for literary laurels, is to be ascribed his painstaking not to say pedantic "Dζmonologia," published in 1597, which the loyal Hutchinson excuses in his "Historical Essay on Witchcraft" excuses on the ground of his youth and inexperience. James, needless to say, saw no need of apology for the benefit he was conferring on mankind in general and his subjects in particular. In his love for police-court details, indeed, he showed himself altogether at one with his subjects, if we may judge from the taste of their present-day descendants. He had, again, every right to consider himself an authority on his subject, as one who had himself suffered from magical machinations. A Protestant King seeking a Protestant bride, he suffered all the terrors and discomforts of a temptuous crossing from Denmark, brought about through his earthly agents by Satan, filled with wrath and consternation at the alliance of two such powerful enemies of his kingdom. As he might have expected, his plans were brought to nought, and his servants, Agnes Simpson and Dr. Fian, suffered the appropriate penalty, the last-named especially being subjected to perhaps the most sickening torture on record. King James showed so close an interest in the minutia of the black art that had he moved in a less exalted sphere he might well have come under suspicion himself. Thus on one occasion he sent for Grellis Duncan, a performer on the Jews' harp, and caused her to play before him the identical tune to which Satan and his companions led the brawl at a Sabbath in North Berwick churchyard. It is true, as against this, that many witches executed in his reign quoted infernal pronouncements that the King was "un homme de Dieu" and Satan's greatest enemy a form of homage which so whetted the Royal ardour that few juries ventured, with the fear of his displeasure before them, to acquit any of their unhappy victims.
In the "Dζmonologia" James shows every sign of keen enjoyment. He writes after the manner of the most eminent and tedious divines, dividing his matter into firstlies, secondlies, and thirdlies divisions and sub-divisions, headings and sub-headings, with royal prodigality. He is fearfully and wonderfully theological and occasionally indulges in touches of elephantine lightness such as might well have given pause to the most obstinate sorcerer. His preface, eminently characteristic of the whole, opens thus: "The feareful abounding at this time in this countrie of these detestable slaves of the Divil, the witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post this following Treatise of mine, not in any wise (as I protest) to serve for a shewe of my learning and ingine, but only (moved of conscience) to preasse thereby, so farre as I can, to resolve the doubting heart of manie; both that such assaults of Sathan are most certainly practised, and that the instruments thereof merit most severely to be punished. . . . And for to make this Treatise the more pleasant and facill, I have put it in forme of a Dialogue" an unwonted concession to the public taste, this last, on the part of one who believed so firmly in the Divine Right of Kings.
In common with most dogmatists on the subject, James declares that the great majority of witches are women, woman being the frailer vessel, and therefore, like Eve, more easily entrapped by the Devil than those of his own sex. He recapitulates many of their commonly-quoted misdeeds, and relates how Satan teaches them "to make pictures by wax or clay," which, being roasted, utterly destroy the person they represent. To some he gives powders such as cure certain diseases, to others poisons, and so on and so forth. For the practice of such infernal arts the English Solon declares that witches and magicians should be put to death without distinction of sex, age, or rank.
Such august patronage of their efforts served the ever-increasing tribe of professional witch-finders in good stead, and the Act of 1563 was enforced more stringently than ever. The trials were sometimes held in the ordinary courts, more often before special tribunals, set up, as a rule, on the petition of a presbytery or of the Grand Assembly. For the greater convenience and protection of the public, boxes were placed in many churches to receive anonymous accusations, giving magnificent opportunity to slanderers and backbiters. To such a pitch had matters come by 1661 that Parliament directed the judges to visit Dalkeith and Musselburgh, two notorious centres of the art magical, twice a week to try those accused. In these trials any evidence was relevant, especially if put forward by professional witch-finders or witch-pinchers, while the ordinary methods of torture were aggravated when confessions were sought for, in view of the Devil's penchant for protecting his own.
The close of the sixteenth century saw the commencement of a series of persecutions fiercer and more general than perhaps any which had preceded them, which did not finally die out before the rising sun of common-sense until almost our grandfathers' time, and which were carried to almost greater extremes in the New World than in the Old.