THE doctrine of human intercourse with invisible beings or spirits is as old as superstition, and has its fashions, or, rather, it takes on different phases according to the degrees of ignorance and stupidity that characterize society. It was one thing in Greece and Rome, and a very different thing in the middle ages. In the former there was a mythologic machinery of gods and goddesses, who meddled actively with terrestrial affairs, both in peace and war. This was the dignified sort of spiritualism that is embalmed in classical literature, and which continues to form the corner-stone of a "college education."
The spiritualism of the middle ages took a very different shape. It was more intense, realistic, practical, and vulgar—more earnest, and, we are bound to say, more honest. The spirits were brought to bear, so to speak, more intimately upon common life. The line between good and bad spirits was more sharply drawn; they were angels or demons, ever working mischief or benefit to mankind. The art of evoking spirits became a kind of craft under the names of divination, magic, sorcery, enchantment, necromancy, and witchcraft. In the modern survival of these old practices of evoking spirits we get very different results. The ghosts believed to be called up by manipulation are of a more harmless character; and the object seems to be rather to get the spirits out, than to get anything out of them. They are summoned more as a matter of curiosity, and for the solemn amusement of credulous and vacant minds.
Science has worked a great change in relation to this subject. It has drawn the teeth of mediæval ghostology. Though it has not extirpated the belief in spirits, it has greatly transformed and subdued it, so that it is no longer the scourge and curse of society that it was in the pre-scientific ages. We are apt to forget what we owe to science in this respect, and the horrors that modern society has escaped by getting rid of the grosser and more malignant forms of belief in ghostly supersensuous and diabolic agency. But fully to appreciate our advantages it is necessary, once in a while, to turn back and contemplate the condition of things in the ages of ignorance, when men were given over to the terrors of vicious and cruel superstitions. An admirable book has been lately published, which presents a vivid picture of the general state of mind and society a few centuries ago in Western Europe, resulting from the current belief in supernatural agencies, and we propose to cull a few statements from its pages in illustration of the subject.
- The Magic of the Middle Ages. By Viktor Rydberg. Translated from the Swedish by August Hjalmar Edgren. New York: Henry Holt & Co.