Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/July 1893/Evil Spirits
OF all the dark chapters in the history of the world none is more terrible than that which deals with sorcery and demoniacal possession. To-day this belief has almost entirely disappeared in civilized lands: it lingers only in some remote hamlet in "lucky and unlucky days," good and bad signs, and similar harmless idiosyncrasies; although most grown persons can remember that in their childhood certain uncanny individuals were regarded as "witches," just as certain houses were said to be "haunted." But, after all, the belief was only vague and nebulous; while now among even the children ghosts and fairies and witches are regarded with profound skepticism. It is extremely difficult, then, for us to grasp the idea that "for fifteen hundred years it was universally believed that the Bible established in the clearest manner the reality of witchcraft, and that an amount or evidence so varied and so ample as to preclude every possibility of doubt attested its continuance and prevalence. The clergy denounced it with all the emphasis of authority. The legislators of almost every land enacted laws for its punishment. Acute judges, whose lives were spent in sifting evidence, investigated the question on countless occasions, and (as a result) condemned the accused. Nations that were completely separated by position, by interest, by character, were united on this question." More than this. In the city of Trèves alone seven thousand witches were burned. At Toulouse, the seat of the Inquisition, four hundred persons perished in one single execution. Rémy, the judge of Nancy, in France, boasted that he had put to death eight hundred witches. In the little Italian district of Como one thousand perished in one year. The Judge Voss of Fulda burned seven hundred, and said that he hoped to make it one thousand. Benedict Karpzow boasted that he had signed twenty thousand death-warrants for witchcraft. In Sweden in 1690 seventy persons were condemned, and most of them burned. In Great Britain, chiefly in Scotland, in twenty years alone between three and four thousand were put to death. The executions in Paris in a few months were, a contemporary writer says, "almost infinite." Indeed, not to mention imprisonment and torture—torture beyond the wildest flight of modern fancy—the number of persons who perished, chiefly by fire, in Christian Europe and America has been calculated as from one million to nine million. Probably four million is a correct estimate. The annals of the world may be I searched through and through, and nothing can be found, I believe, to compare in tragic interest with the chapter on craft and sorcery. It seems a dreadful thing to say, but I believe it is true: all the heathen persecutions of Christians put together are nothing in comparison with the horrors of the crusade against witches set on foot by members of the Christian Church and by civil rulers in sympathy therewith.
Nor is any single church entirely exempt from this charge. "The Roman Church proclaimed in every way in her power the reality and the continued existence of the crime. She taught, by all her organs, that to spare a witch was a direct insult to the Almighty; and to her ceaseless exertions is to be attributed by far the greatest part of the blood that was shed." Bulls were issued by Pope Innocent VIII, who commissioned the inquisitor Sprenger, whose book was long the standard authority on witchcraft, and who (Sprenger) condemned to death hundreds every year. Bulls were issued also by Pope John II, by Adrian VI, and by many another occupant of the chair of St. Peter. "The universal practice was at service to declare magicians and sorcerers to be excommunicated, and a form of exorcism was inserted in the ritual of the church. . . . Ecclesiastical tribunals condemned thousands to death; and countless bishops exerted all their influence to multiply the victims." The same was the case—although not to so great an extent—with the non-Roman churches. Luther said: "I would have no compassion on these witches: I would burn them all." In England the Reformation was marked by a large increase in the number of persecutions; the prominent theologians, both within and without the established Church, holding firmly to the belief in witchcraft. In Scotland persecution was carried on with peculiar atrocity, while the executions in Puritan Massachusetts form one of the darkest pages in the history of America.
Now, the remarkable thing about witchcraft is that it was believed in not only by the ignorant, but also by the learned; not only by the clergy, but also by the laity. "The defenders of the belief maintained that no historical fact was more clearly attested. . . . The subject was examined in every European land by tribunals which included the acutest lawyers and ecclesiastics of the age, on the scene and at the time of the alleged acts, and with the assistance of innumerable sworn witnesses. The judges had no motive whatever to desire the condemnation of the accused; indeed, they generally had the strongest motive to proceed with caution and deliberation," in view of the awful penalties attached to conviction. Cudworth, one of the most learned theologians the Anglican Church has ever produced; Bacon, one of the acutest lawyers and philosophers of the age; Sir Matthew Hale, chief justice toward the end of the seventeenth century—these are only three from a host of names that might be cited of those who believed in witchcraft. Sir Matthew Hale lays it down in one of his rulings that it is an undoubted fact that there is such a thing as witchcraft, and that witches ought to be punished. Even Shakespeare shared in the general belief; the witches in Macbeth were to him, not poetic creations, stern realities.
The question is, then: How did this marvelous delusion arise? Three causes, I believe, produced it. 1. To quote Lecky, the historian: "A religion that rests largely on terrorism will engender the belief in witches or magic; for the panic which its teachings create overbalances the faculties of the multitude." This is true: a cruel religion, as Christianity became when it began to rest more and more on the basis of eternal punishment and the wrath of God, will inevitably be haunted by the fear of evil spirits. Therefore it is that the religion of Zoroaster and that of Brahma have been free from the reproach of the persecution of witches and sorcerers. 2. The support from the Bible. Now, there is no doubt at all that the Bible does support the doctrine of evil spirits and witchcraft. And this fact alone is sufficient to destroy the orthodox theory of what Dr. Briggs calls "biblical inerrancy," or freedom from error, for not one person out of one hundred now believes in the reality of possession by evil spirits. There is, I say, no doubt that the Bible does teach this doctrine. "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," was the repeated command in the Levitical law; this command was the foundation stone upon which the putting to death of witches rested. We all know the story of the witch of Endor, as told in the twenty-eighth chapter of the First Book of Samuel. Again, the devil afflicted Job in various ways, one way being the sending of a tempest which destroyed Job's sons. Great atmospheric disturbances were always ascribed to Satanic agency, although a nice distinction prevailed: when the destruction was great, it was ascribed directly to Satan; when small, to angels, the word angels being used in a double sense, as messengers of evil and messengers of good. To come to the New Testament. Philip baptizes Simon the sorcerer; and Saul of Tarsus finds in Paphos a certain sorcerer, a false phophet, a Jew named Bar-Jesus.
Whatever view we may take of the Bible, one thing is certain, it abounds with references to evil spirits, the Bible characters believed implicitly in the existence of such spirits, and there is no intimation given that the reign of such evil spirits should cease to exist until the end of all things. We are expressly told, indeed, that "when Christ had called unto him his disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits to cast them out"; and again: "And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name shall they cast out devils." important of all, was the belief that natural phenomena of a hurtful type are the result of the action of evil spirits. As a writer has said: "The phenomena which impress themselves most firmly on the mind of the savage are not those which are manifestly the operation of natural laws and which are productive of beneficial effects. They are, on the contrary, those results which are disastrous and apparently abnormal. Gratitude is less vivid than fear, and the smallest apparent infraction of a natural law produces a deeper impression than the most sublime of its ordinary operations. When, therefore, the more startling and terrible aspects of Nature are presented to his mind, when the more deadly forms of disease or natural convulsion desolate his land, the savage derives from these things an intensely realized perception of diabolical presence. In the darkness of the night, amid the yawning chasms and the wild echoes of the mountain gorge, under the blaze of the comet or the solemn gloom of the eclipse, when famine has blasted his land, when the earthquake and the pestilence have slaughtered their thousands, in every form of disease which refracts and' distorts the reason, in all that is strange, portentous, and deadly, he feels and cowers before the supernatural. Completely exposed to all the influences of Nature, and completely ignorant of the chain of sequence that unites its various parts, he lives in continual dread of what he deems the direct and isolated acts of evil spirits."
These three causes, then, combined to produce a belief in witchcraft and Satanic possession.
Let us now trace its growth as far as Christianity is concerned. But to understand this we must go back for a moment to the classic nations among whom Christianity was planted. Magic or sorcery prevailed among the Greeks and Romans, all sects accepting its existence except one sect, that of the Epicureans. It is true, occasional laws were enacted against its practice; in some instances magicians were condemned to death; but the persecution in general was only occasional and was not severe, as magic was regarded as an offense not against God or the gods, but as against the state or the individual. The magician was punished because he injured man, not God. And punishments for injuries to men have always been less severe than punishments for supposed injuries to God. This is the rule of history: punishments for religious offenses have been much greater than those for civil or criminal offenses, the greatness of the crime being measured by the greatness of the being injured. At times it was found that the prognostications of the soothsayers from the flight of birds, the positions of the stars, and other data, tended to produce conspiracies against the emperor; and so punishments were inflicted and repressive laws passed. But, in general, magic and soothsaying were not regarded with disfavor, the augur, the haruspex, and the keeper of the sibyl's books being considered as part of the regular state life of Greece and Rome.
With the advent of Christianity, however, there came a great change. In the matter which we are considering, as in many another, old things had passed away and all things had become new. Before very long after the death of Jesus the Christians were filled with a sense of the awful presence—in fact, the omnipresence—of Satan, which colored their every thought and act. This, added to the idea of eternal punishment—a fate reserved for all those about them who were not of the new faith—gave to the early Christians an intensely realistic sense of evil and an eager readiness to believe in agents of evil of a supernatural order. To their minds the world about them, with its imperial government and especially its non-Christian church ritual, was simply a great object-lesson of Satan's unbridled sway. Everywhere they saw the finger of Beelzebub, the prince of devils. These facts, or rather supposed facts, together with various philosophical systems, such as the system of Plato and that of the Gnostics, made the early Christians believe the earth, the sea, the very air, to be full of evil spirits, the emissaries and agents of Satan. Some of these were the spirits which had rebelled against God and had been hurled "sheer o'er the crystal battlements of heaven." Others were spirits which had gone hither and thither, deluding man in the antediluvian world. Others were heathen deities—Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and so on—all of whom, whether they were of good or of evil report among the Greeks or Romans, were equally evil spirits to the Christians. The spirits who, by these Greeks or Romans, were worshiped under the names of departed heroes—heroes who had achieved so many acts of splendid and philanthropic heroism—these were to the Christians not the real spirits of the dead, but merely devils who had answered the name and assumed the honors of the dead. No relation of life was free from this scourge of evil spirits; they even became the husbands or wives of the Christians themselves. Like the locusts of Pharaoh of old, they were over all the land. It is very hard for us now to imagine what all this means—it seems so laughable, these transformations and artifices and disguises to which the spirits resorted to do their master's bidding! But to these Christians of the second and succeeding centuries it was all stern reality—a matter of eternal life and death.
Now, what followed from all this? Simply that no truce was to be kept with, no mercy shown to, the sorcerer or magician; he it was who could send forth and summon back these spirits; he it was whom they must obey. He was worse, far worse, then, than the evil spirits, for the latter only followed the instincts of their nature, the former went outside the realm of his human nature to blight by supernatural means the happiness of others and to destroy the peace of the Church. He was therefore held in execration—the enemy of God and man. And after a time—i. e., in the fourth century—the Church obtained secular power, Christianity became the state religion. Then began those awful persecutions that have left an indelible stain upon the Christian name. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, had been reared a pagan. He was inclined, therefore, to be lenient. But Constantius and his successors enacted the severest laws. "All who attempted to foretell the future were emphatically condemned. Magicians who were captured in Rome were to be thrown to the wild beasts, and those who were seized in the provinces to be put to excruciating torments and at last crucified. If they persisted in denying their crime, their flesh was to be torn from their bones with hooks of iron. These fearful penalties were directed against rites which had long been universal; and which, if they were not regarded as among the obligations, were at least among the highest privileges of paganism." Of course, the sufferings produced by these laws may have been exaggerated—the laws are plain, they are still preserved in the official Latin—and of course a large part of the barbarity is to be laid not to the Christian priests or to the better classes of the Christians, but to fanatical mobs and cruel officers. But still two things are plain: the Christians believed in magic and witchcraft as the results of Satanic agency; and, again, they indulged in very severe persecution against suspected persons. These laws, however, proved ineffective; they but showed two things which the world has not quite learned even yet: First, that the mere passing of a law does not change human nature; and, second, that a law that is not sustained very strongly by public opinion is worse than useless. It was thus found impossible by law to suppress the old pagan magic handed down from generation to generation among those who had not become Christians. And so, by a very natural process, there grew up in the Church a counter-system, a sort of rival, the talismans of which were holy water, crucifixes, and other signs and symbols, which became in the succeeding centuries the visible means wherewith the designs of the evil spirits were thwarted.
Gradually paganism grew weaker, but it did not entirely disappear. It merged itself into Christianity, a fact never to lose sight of, for it explains so many apparent mysteries. Just as the Roman Catholic Church to-day in various lands—e. g., in Spanish America—has accepted old heathen customs and festivals, and has changed them into Christian customs and festivals; just as, to take another group of examples, the Druidical May day and Harvest Home, and the Oriental Christmas were adopted by the Christian Church; so at the time of which I am now speaking—i. e., the sixth century after Christ—the Church adopted, under somewhat changed aspects, many of the beliefs and customs of paganism. The mantle of the ancient faith fell upon the shoulders of the new Church.
In the sixth century the dark ages began, and lasted, roughly speaking, until the beginning of the twelfth century. And dark indeed they were. The old light of classic learning and letters had died away; the new light had not yet dawned. The world was sunk in ignorance and superstition. Evil spirits and sorcery held unquestioned sway. As a writer says: "There had never been a time when the minds of men were more completely molded by supernatural conceptions, or when the sense of Satanic power and presence was more profound and universal. Many thousands of cases of possession, exorcism, miracles, and apparitions of the evil one were recorded which were accepted without the faintest doubt. There was scarcely a great saint who had not on some occasion encountered a visible manifestation of an evil spirit. Sometimes the devil appeared as a grotesque and hideous animal; sometimes as a black man; sometimes as a beautiful woman; sometimes as a priest haranguing in the pulpit; sometimes as an angel of light; sometimes actually in the form of Christ. But the sign of the cross or a few drops of holy water, or the name of Mary, could put him to an ignominious flight. The Gospel of St. John around the neck, a rosary, a relic of Christ or of a saint, any one of the thousand talismans distributed to the faithful, sufficed to baffle the utmost efforts of diabolical malice."
In the twelfth century, however, a new idea appeared, that of the witch proper. Up to this time the idea of a formal compact with the evil one had not taken definite form; but in the twelfth century the conception of a witch, as we now conceive it—that is to say, of a woman who had entered into a deliberate compact with Satan, and who was endowed with the power of working miracles whenever she pleased, and who was transported through the air to pay her homage to the evil one—this idea first appeared. The panic created by this belief advanced at first slowly, but after a time with fearfully accelerated rapidity. Thousands of victims were sometimes burned alive in a few years, and every country of Europe was stricken with the wildest panic. But this very twelfth century has been called the turning point of the European intellect. It began to awaken from its sleep of centuries; foreign lands were visited by travelers; Arabian learning began to permeate Europe; and gradually the people became just a little skeptical. Men learned to doubt, but there was as yet no science, as we understand that word; there was no independent inquiry; men began to doubt—but to doubt was still a crime. The Church saw the change; and, as was her custom, proceeded to crush the new movement, for rebellion against authority was, in her eyes, the one unpardonable sin. The church teaching began to assume, therefore, a more somber cast; the people became more gloomy and fanatical. This is clearly seen in art, which, before the invention of printing, served as an index to the spirit of the age. For example, up to the end of the tenth century Christ was always represented in painting as having a peaceful, gentle face, and as being engaged in works of mercy. The parable of the Good Shepherd was the favorite subject for the artist. But in the eleventh century this began to change: the painters deal with the death of Christ and with the last judgment. Moreover, Christ's face becomes sterner and mournful. In the twelfth century the change is complete: Christ appears stern and unyielding, like the God of old, whom it repented that he had made man. In this age and the succeeding ages occurred also a succession of physical, social, and political events, all tending to heighten and deepen the gloom which seemed to have settled upon men's minds. Chief among these was that awful scourge, "the Black Death," in all probability the greatest calamity that has ever visited the world, by which in six years twenty-five millions of persons, or one quarter the population of Europe, were swept away. Then began a veritable reign of terrorism: men's minds were paralyzed with dread, uncertain fear. They knew not whither to look; they abandoned themselves to the anguish of despair. Then it was that reappeared the Flagellants, scourging themselves and crying aloud like the prophets of old. Then it was that there wandered from land to land those bands of monks whose bodies were ever bleeding with self-inflicted torture; and then there loomed upon the horizon of a startled world the dread figure of the Inquisition, to whose autos da fé had been given the task of crushing out heresy and witchcraft. The trials for witchcraft increased tenfold, and in the fifteenth and the sixteenth century the persecution reached its climax. And truly the aspect which Europe presented at that time was in many ways full of discouragement for those who believed in the ultimate progress of humanity. As a great writer has said: "The Church, which had been all in all to Christendom, was heaving in what seemed the last throes of dissolution. The boundaries of religious thought were all obscured. Conflicting tendencies and passions were raging with a tempestuous violence, . . . and each of the opposing sects proclaimed its distinctive doctrines essential to salvation. Yet over all this chaos there were two great conceptions dominating unchanged. They were the sense of sin and of Satan, and the absolute necessity of a correct dogmatic system to save men from the agonies of hell." This was the state of Europe at the time of the Protestant Reformation, a seething mass of conflicting theological parties and opinions: the old Church, acknowledged even by its defenders to be corrupt, making what seemed to many its death-stand against Protestantism; and Protestantism divided into numberless hostile camps, each only with difficulty united against the common foe.
In these matters of history our minds ought to be especially free from prejudice. For example, the Reformation in the end undoubtedly accomplished a vast amount of good. It fostered among the Protestant churches a spirit of liberty and of free inquiry. It rejected multitudes of superstitions and of worn out theologic dogmas, it simplified the ritual, it encouraged the reading of the Scriptures, it curtailed the power of the clergy. The good effects of the Reformation were felt also after a time by the Roman Church itself—in greater definiteness of statement, in purified morals, in increased zeal. The Protestant Reformation, in fact, produced the reaction in favor of Roman Catholicism, and ushered in that brilliant era of Roman Catholic missionary effort which still, like an aureole of glory, crowns that ancient Church. But, although this is undoubtedly true, yet it can not be denied that the immediate effects of the Reformation were not entirely beneficial. It unsettled men's minds, it increased the doubt and uncertainty that weighed down upon men, and it in no wise lightened the gloom in which they groped their way. Moreover, "it was for a time only an exchange of masters. . . . The Protestant believed in his own infallibility quite as firmly as his opponent believed in the infallibility of the Pope. 'Faith' still meant an unreserved acceptance of the opinions of others. As long as such a conception existed a period of religious convulsion was necessarily a period of extreme suffering and terror."
As far, then, as the belief in evil spirits and other agents of Satan is concerned, the Protestant churches stood upon the same ground as that upon which stood the Roman Church. By both sections of the Christian world Satan and his angels were believed to be almost omnipresent. For example, Luther, courageous, full of common sense as he was, tells us that in the cloisters at Wittenberg he used to hear the devil talking to him; in fact, he was so accustomed to this that he naïvely relates that once, upon being awakened by the noise, he looked, and seeing that it was only the devil, he went to sleep again. The black stain on the wall of the cell at Wartburg still remains: Luther had thrown an inkbottle at Satan. He ascribed all his ailments except earache—I do not know why he made an exception of that—to the agency of evil spirits. He tells us that the devil frequently caught travelers and strangled them, and transported persons through the air. He had known Satan to appear in court as an innocent barrister; and, although Luther was extremely fond of children, yet he advised with great earnestness the family of a boy to throw him into the river because he was possessed with a devil.
And thus, by Protestants as well as by Romanists, witches were tortured and put to death in numbers so vast as to seem to us now utterly incredible, the total number of persons who suffered death in Europe and America being at least four millions. In most cases there was a regular judicial trial; in many cases, however, there were various processes for testing the reality of the witchcraft. These methods resembled the ordeals of the olden time. A favorite method was to throw the accused into water. Then, if she did not drown, that was a sign of possession. For how could she be saved except by Satan's aid? if she did drown, that was not conclusive proof of innocence, because God might have taken the punishment into His own hands. However, at that stage of the case, the trial did not possess any further interest to the accused: it was simply a question of clearing her memory.
I have used the feminine pronouns she and her. This brings up the question why it was that women were supposed to be almost always the ones who entered into this compact with Satan. The answer is, not so much because of the sensibility of their nervous constitution and their consequent liability to religious monomania, as because, from various causes (for example, that Eve tempted Adam, and that women in olden times held an inferior position as to legal rights), women were considered as inherently more wicked than men. In Roman times Cato had said, "If the world were only free from women, men would not be without the converse of the gods." And Chrysostom, the great father, the golden-mouthed orator, had declared woman to be "a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril, a deadly fascination." When celibacy was introduced into the Church, it was regarded as the highest form of virtue, and theologians exhausted all the resources of their eloquence in describing the iniquity of that sex whose charms had rendered celibacy so rare. So it came to pass that women were believed to be especially prone to enter into compacts with the Evil One. These and hundreds of other matters connected with witchcraft are to be found in the literature of the subject which has come down to us from those far-off days. Endless discussions upon all phases and aspects of the question, the volumes stand now in the great libraries of Europe a monument to human credulity and superstition. All phases and aspects of the question, I have said. For example, there was the point whether a witch felt torture or not. The general belief was that she did feel it, but not so acutely as do others, and that therefore the torture ought to be more severe. Then there was another point, that of self-confession. As all know, a confession of a crime now is not looked upon as conclusive in law, and the accused is not obliged to confess. But in these trials for witchcraft the whole aim of the court seemed to be to extort a confession. For this object torture was resorted to, with the results that multitudes confessed that they were witches and persisted in their confessions until death relieved them. For the confession meant death, its object not being to spare the accused, but to justify the accuser. As a writer has said, "Madness is always particularly prevalent during great religious and political revolutions"—many therefore confessed through madness. Others, of a timid, doubting mind, made themselves believe that, unknown to themselves, they were witches. While "very often the terrors of the trial, the prospect of the most agonizing of deaths, and the frightful tortures that were applied to the weak frame of an old and feeble woman, overpowered her understanding; her brain reeled beneath the accumulated suffering, the consciousness of innocence disappeared, and the wretched victim went raging to the flames, convinced that she was about to sink forever into perdition."
Another yery interesting point discussed at great length in these old books was whether the same body could be in two places at once. That the body might be in one place and the mind in another—this was agreed upon; but whether the body might be in two places—that was a harder question. However, it was decided eventually that this was quite possible, and thereafter the fact that wives were at home with their husbands was not accepted as proof that they were not elsewhere in the same form as witches. Indeed, several early saints had this same gift. St. Ambrose celebrated mass in France and Italy at the same time, and St. Clement is well known to have consecrated a church at Pisa while performing mass at Rome. There is no doubt as to this latter point, for there is blood as a proof upon the altar at Pisa; and if this is not his blood, whose is it? Closely allied to this was what is called "lycanthropy"—i. e., the taking of the form of an animal by Satan or one of his angels. There are some most wonderful stories of transformation to be found in the old records, all of which are very ludicrous to us in this nineteenth century, but when, three hundred years ago, it was a question of the stake here and everlasting fire hereafter, they did not appear so full of humor. A French judge named Boguet devoted himself especially to this branch of witchcraft, wrote a book upon it, and burned multitudes of these lycanthropes, his rule being to strangle other witches first, but to burn these without strangling.
So it came to pass that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the skies of continental Europe were lurid with the flames of burning women, and every market place had its fagot and its stake.
But after a time men's hearts and minds revolted from this hideous slaughter. The first book on the Continent that made an effective attack upon the system was by John Wier, a learned doctor of Cleves. In this book Wier took the ground that, although devils are everywhere about us, and although many persons are possessed with devils, yet there are no such beings as witches, and therefore no one ought to be punished as a witch. He said further that, in his humble opinion, a good many persons supposed to be possessed with devils simply had some disease or other which doctors ought to try to cure. This Dr. Wier was a strange sort of man. He published another book, giving various particulars about the lower regions. He was very exact in his figures; and he ascertained that at that time these regions were ruled by seventy-two princes, and the number of devils was 7,405,926. This book of Wier's brought out the ablest defense ever made of witchcraft—a volume by Bodin, esteemed the most learned of all Frenchmen. This book was not answered; and as far as authorities and figures and biblical texts and judicial rulings go, it can not be answered. Still, it did not stem the rising tide against the belief in witchcraft. Humanity and common sense were asserting their sway, and persecution was doomed. In 1588, the very year of the Armada, Montaigne, the great Frenchman, published the first really skeptical work in the French language. This work ushered in the new treatment, the modern treatment of all such questions. He calmly ignored the mass of authority. "I do not attempt," he said, "to untie the knot: I simply cut it. It is more probable that we are deceived, or that men should tell falsehoods, than that witches should exist. And further, it is setting too high a value on our opinions to roast people if they will not accept these opinions." Montaigne had calmly risen above the mists of superstition into the clear realm of common sense and reason. The last witch in France was burned in 1718. After that there were one or two trials, but the prisoners were acquitted; for "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 credulity."
In Great Britain the first regular enactment against sorcery was in 1541—i. e., at the beginning of the Reformation—although it had been known before that time. In fact, Joan of Arc had been put to death by the command of the English, although on the soil of France and under the sentence of a French judge. Great Britain, indeed, was not so violently affected by this delusion as was the Continent. This for various reasons, her insular position and greater freedom being the chief. So, although Cranmer, the great churchman, he to whom is so largely owing the Book of Common Prayer, directed his clergy to seek out witches and sorcerers; and although in the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth there were a few executions, it was not until the time of James I that really severe measures were taken; for James I had been reared in Scotland under Puritan influences, and the Puritans were always especially severe upon witchcraft. The king, in fact, had written a pamphlet on the subject; had presided at the excessively cruel torture of a person who had, it was alleged, caused a storm at sea; and was particularly fond of boasting that Satan considered him, the king, as by far the ablest opponent he (Satan) had as yet encountered in this world. And thus in this reign—the era of Bacon and Coke and Shakespeare—England became, like the Continent, the theater of persecution. But all this was as nothing compared to that carried on in the time of the Commonwealth, when the Puritans held sway. Cromwell himself was not inclined to be cruel; but the whole teaching of Puritanism tended toward the belief in witchcraft and the persecution of witches. It forbade amusements, and had thus a tendency to make the people somber and gloomy. It was intensely earnest: the finger of God and the finger of Satan were seen everywhere. Moreover, it developed especially a taste for the reading of the Old Testament, which abounds with references to supernatural events, and the characteristic of which is severity toward those who are not the Lord's people. And the Puritans were the Lord's people, to whom had gone forth the command "to bind the kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron," So, notwithstanding all their many good qualities, the Puritans did not err on the side of leniency toward the unfortunate witches. Indeed, in the county of Suffolk alone sixty persons were hanged in a single year. But the Puritan régime came to an end, the Cavaliers returned; and these, being of a more lighthearted although less earnest mind, and also being full of dislike for everything that savored of Puritanism, allowed the laws against witchcraft in great part to remain unenforced. Further, the people were becoming more intelligent and humane, and the Royal Society for the study of science had just been established, and French philosophy became the fashion; and gradually England forgot her witchcraft and her persecution. The last executions were in 1712, in which same year the judge on the bench at another trial charged the jury against the belief in witchcraft.
Scotland, however, was not so fortunate. As a writer has said: "The misery of man, the anger of the Almighty, the fearful power and the continual presence of Satan, the agonies of hell—these were the constant subjects of the 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 always 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 is represented as constantly appearing in a visible form upon the earth. . . . Such teachings necessarily created the superstition of witchcraft; it was the reflection by a diseased imagination of the popular theology. Moreover, it was produced by the teaching of the clergy, and was everywhere fostered by their persecution." Thus it is that the annals of Puritanism and Calvinism in Scotland are red with tales of the thumbscrew and the boot and the witches' bridle and the axe and the stake. While the clergy of the Established Church in England were comparatively free from any desire to persecute, while torture was only very rarely resorted to; while, in a word, persecution was carried on by the people in a very half-hearted way, in Scotland there were being enacted, at the express command of the clergy, scenes which rivaled those in Roman Catholic Europe. "And yet these Presbyterian clergymen of Scotland were men who had often shown, in the most trying circumstances, the highest and most heroic virtues. They were men whose courage had never flinched when persecution was raging; men who had never paltered with their conscience to attain the favors 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. 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 realizing 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."
But Scotland also became sick of blood and fire. The last execution for witchcraft was held in 1722, although in 1773 the divines of the associated Presbytery passed a resolution declaring their belief in witchcraft and deploring the general skepticism.
It is not necessary to enter upon the history of witchcraft in America. Its details are known to all. Nothing so clearly brings to one's mind the reality of this delusion and the persecution it entailed as the court papers, preserved as they are in the archives of Essex County, Massachusetts. As one looks upon those faded records and reads of question and cross-question, of plea for mercy and stern refusal, he can again see those awful trials; he can once more behold the dread procession wending its way amid jeers and scoffs and pitiless execration to what is still "The Gallows-hill of Salem."
It is, in fact, impossible to exaggerate the sufferings produced throughout Christendom by this superstition. "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 upon the rising flame as on 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 honored by posterity. They died alone, hated and unpitied; their very kinsmen shrank from them as tainted and accursed. The superstitions they had imbibed in childhood, blending with the illusions of age and 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 on earth for an agony that was as excruciating, but was eternal." And it is wonderful how long this delusion lasted after judicial punishment in most countries had ceased. In Spain a witch was burned in 1780; in 1807 a beggar was tortured and burned in France; in 1850, in France, a man and wife tortured and killed a woman suspected of witchcraft, and it was with some difficulty that they were punished at all, on account of the lingering belief in sorcery; in 1860 a woman was burned in Mexico, as was the case with several persons in 1874; in 1879 and 1880 witches were burned in Russia; while up to that date, and possibly later, regular judicial trials were held in Austria and Prussia. It is needless to say that almost up to the present, even in England and the United States, persons have been attacked by mobs and private individuals, because it was believed that they were in league with Satan.
But, roughly speaking, this superstition has entirely disappeared; and it has disappeared, not so much through religion as through enlightenment and rationalism. The crushing of this hydra-headed monster of superstition is one small part of the debt the world owes to science.