The Elizabethan People/Chapter 12

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



IN spite of the space devoted to popular superstition in the preceding chapter, three important classes of supernatural beings have been scarcely more than mentioned. To the average Elizabethan the ghost of his ancestor was a very real thing. Any ghost, in fact, might be met at almost any place, the time, however, usually being night. Perhaps no quality is so helpful to the would-be intelligent critic of Shakespeare as a genuine and vivid realisation of how important this matter was to the folk of that day.

Ghosts possessed not only the supernatural powers and qualities acquired by death, but also retained certain human qualities that were peculiar to them in life. Thus, when a ghost appeared he looked as he had looked in life, save for his pale and bloodless face, and, often, the expression of pain, sorrow, or remorse, dependent upon whatever way the fates were compelling him to work out his salvation in ghost-land. He retained his earthly voice, and generally appeared dressed as he was last seen in life, or in some characteristic garb, such as the armour of a warrior, or the regal robes of a king.

The Elizabethans knew that they were all sinners of the first water, and believed that in most cases the "walking," that is, the appearance of a ghost, was in part penance for sins committed while in the flesh. This, however, was not always the case. Often the ghost returned to earth to make a revelation: sometimes of hidden treasure, sometimes to ease his conscience with a confession, sometimes to warn loved ones on earth against impending danger, perhaps more often, as in Hamlet, to demand revenge, to be enacted by those alive.

One need not go further than the accessible Elizabethan plays to learn almost the complete list of ghost traditions. Hamlet alone affords a score. From this play we learn that the appearance of a ghost implied something momentous; and that a ghost frequently spoke in Latin (though it is more than probable that this is not referred to in the line "Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio") Ghosts, in spite of their supernatural powers, were hampered by many limitations. Thus, the ghost of Hamlet could not speak till addressed by the right person, hence its silence in the presence of Horatio, the ghost's errand being to Hamlet. It was a current belief that a ghost could not speak till questioned about the subject on which he wished to talk, hence Horatio's attempt to unseal the ghost's mouth by guessing different purposes for its appearance. A similar belief was that the ghost could not speak till called by some particular name or form of address. Thus Hamlet, in the hope of hitting by accident upon the proper term, cries out: "I'll call thee Hamlet, King, father; Royal Dane, O, answer me!" In general appearance the ghost of the elder Hamlet was quite like himself as he had been in life. The play further tells us that people are safe from ghosts on Christmas eve; that ghosts are frightened home by the crowing of the cock, night being their only time to walk. The ghost appears, as usually, exactly at twelve o'clock. It recollects perfectly what happened upon earth; it can come and go at will, locks and walls are no impediment to it.

Some critics have attempted to make a discrimination between the actual ghost, if we can imagine such a thing, of the first act, and the imaginary vision conjured up by Hamlet's overwrought brain in the presence of his mother. However ingenious and psychological such a theory may be, I cannot believe that it can have anything to do with Hamlet. These two appearances, I think, are of one and the same ghost, and they presented to the Elizabethan audience no such difference as is hinted at in the above subtle distinction. In fact, the Elizabethan ghost possessed the power not only of making himself visible or invisible at will, but also the power of rendering himself visible to some and invisible to others in the same room at the same time. In Act I. the ghost preferred to be seen by all the persons on the platform. At the later appearance he desired to remind Hamlet of his neglected duty, but did not wish to frighten the queen—hence he was visible to one and not to the other. This would be perfectly understood by the Elizabethan audience.

One could multiply the instances of ghost lore from the old plays ad infinitum. Ghosts figure in numerous plays by the older dramatists. From Locrine we learn that ghosts are subject to vexation from malicious spirits quite after the fashion of human beings; also that they are frightened by the baying of dogs. In Richard III. ghosts have the power of prophecy.

The generality of the belief of ghostly revelation introduced a quality, or rather, a condition, into Elizabethan crime which has sometimes been overlooked in criticising the relations between Hamlet and Claudius. To-day one who would

Interior of a house in Crutched Friars, London.
(From a print in Smith's collection. The cornice and ceiling are plaster; the rest oak.)

commit a murder considers his chance of safety from detection to be proportioned to the secrecy with which the crime is committed. But in the time of Shakespeare, every criminal had to reckon with the possibility of a supernatural revelation. However carefully he laid his plans he had to accept the likelihood of defeat through the walking of the ghost of his victim. Claudius must have thought of this before ever he poured poison into his brother's ears. When he is called upon to fathom the almost unaccountable extremity of Hamlet's sullenness, one of the first facts that would have been likely to occur to the king was the possibility of Hamlet's having learned the truth through a ghostly revelation. The play read with this idea in mind makes clear some things that have been otherwise interpreted.

One need but to recall A Midsummer Night's Dream to realise how important and how delicate and pleasing was the charm pertaining to fairy lore. Beauty was the most characteristic attribute of the fairies. Not only were they beautiful in face and form, but also beautiful in all their surroundings. When they rode abroad they were mounted on the best of horses, slenderly shaped and delicately prancing. None of such quality were ever possessed by mortals. In the fields the fairies flew hawks superior in breed and training to the best that belonged to human beings. The furnishing of their abodes was of crystal, the precious metals, and brilliantly coloured gems. Their natural surroundings were chosen with care to procure a beautiful effect. The interior of gracefully shaped conical hills frequently contained their habitations. Only the loveliest and most romantic dells were inhabited by them. They emerged to the surface of the earth only on clear nights when the soft bright moon was shining. Whatever their amusements, whether they danced or hunted, their revelry was accompanied by the tinkling of silver bells and the harmonious strains of the sweetest music.

One of their favourite amusements was to come forth on a starry night to dance in the wavering moonlight. The places where they held these magic festivities were recognised in the daytime by the rings of grass of a brighter hue than the surrounding meadow, the marks left by their hallowed footsteps. Many interesting superstitions cling about these fairy rings; some of good, others of bad import. If one inadvertently stepped within the ring he immediately became liable to the fairy power. Maidens who gathered dew in the month of May, to be used as a face wash, scrupulously avoided that upon the fairy rings. They feared that, out of revenge, the fairies would play tricks with the complexion.

Fairies, of course, possessed many supernatural powers. They could change their form at will. They could make themselves invisible. They could move from place to place with marvellous velocity, far beyond the utmost speed of human mankind. Neither bolts nor bars nor solid walls hindered their passage. They were very diminutive in size. They were supposed to dress generally in green.

Fairies, as a rule, were good spirits. That is, they loved the human race and liked to do people kindnesses. A clean room and a bowl of water were likely to attract the well-wishing fairies. In fact, this class of beings was particularly fond of cleanliness and, as a rule, rewarded thrifty housemaids by dropping money in their shoes at night. Often a good fairy performed an energetic housemaid's tasks during the night. But sluggish maids were pinched as "blue as bilberry," by the same taskmasters.

Yet there were distinctly bad fairies as well as good: and many others, such as Puck, were harmlessly though tantalisingly mischievous. One attribute of even the good fairies was their fickle nature. The least failure to perform the rites due to them, or the least encroachment upon their traditional privileges and liberties, was sufficient to change their love to malicious hatred—as when one stepped within their sacred rings. They were especially jealous of prying curiosity. Often one who came too suddenly upon them without heeding the tinkling of their warning bells, would be stricken blind. Sometimes even a worse fate attended him. "He that speaks to them shall die. No man their works must eye." (Merry Wives of Windsor.) They also coveted the possession of beautiful earth-born children. So certainly did this trait overpower their humane characteristics, that every fond mother regarded an ugly infant or a dull child as a fairy changeling. So, too, was a child uncannily precocious accounted for.

To the beautiful, pleasing conception of the fairies was opposed the grotesque and malignant surroundings of the witches. A scarce tract by John Stearne, published at London in 1648, asserts on its title page "That there are witches called bad witches, and witches untruly called good or white witches." The word "untruly" suggests the difficulty of drawing a line or defining a limitation between the two classes. If there was at the time a definite line of demarkation between black and white, it seems to have been at

Grotesque Carving of a House in Crutched Friars, London.
(From a print in Smith's collection.)

that point where the petty and harmless witcheries of a novice developed in magnitude and malignity

sufficient to give her a claim for entrance into the true sisterhood of her order. Such harmless, or white, witches lived among their neighbours often upon terms of familiarity and good will. They told fortunes, exercised the arts and practices of palmistry and elementary astrology, dealt out simples for a substantial consideration, cast waters and furnished love potions to distressed and disappointed youths and maidens. We learn from The Wise Woman of Hogsden a list of the notable white witches then in fashion. Mothers Nottingham and Bombie were especially famous for casting of waters; Mother Hatfield in Pepper Alley was useful in finding lost things, a task in the performance of which she was especially famous. Those who suffered from weakness of back went to Mother Phillips in the Bankside. The good acts of several of these people cuts them off from the class of bad witches whose influence was always malignant. The Wise Woman of Hogsden thus enumerates her own accomplishments: "Let me see how many trades I have to live by: First, I am a wise woman, and a fortune teller, and under that I deal in physic and forespeaking, in palmistry, and in recovering of things lost; next, I undertake to cure mad-folks; then I keep gentle-women lodgers to furnish such chambers as I let out by the night; then I am provided for bringing young wenches to bed; and for a need, you see, I play the matchmaker." The witch's shop was packed with the grotesque ingredients and materials used in her trade. Thus: "One would suspect it for a shop of witchcraft, to find in it the fat of serpents, spawn of snakes, Jew's spittle, and their young children's ordure." (Duchess of Malfi.) It is interesting to record one of the contemporary sure tests of the identity of a witch; namely, if her house was burned and she came running forth clamouring and crying, she was a witch. "This thatch is as good as a jury to prove she is a witch." (The Witch of Edmonton.)

Far more important and oftentimes far more dignified were the black witches who so often suffered the death penalty during the reign of King James. Scott in his Discoveries of Witchcraft tells us that there are three sorts of witches: "One sort can hurt and not help, the second can help and not hurt, and the third can both help and hurt. Among the hurtful witches there is one sort more beastly than any kind of beasts, saving wolves; for these usually devour and eat young children and infants of their own kind. These be they that raise hail, tempests, and hurtful weather, as lightning, thunder, etc. These be they that procure barrenness in man, woman, and beast. These can throw children in waters, as they walk with their mothers, and not be seen. These can make horses kick, till they cast their riders. These can pass from place to place in the air invisible. These can so alter the minds of judges, that they can have no power to hurt them. These can procure to themselves and to others, taciturnity and insensibility in their torments. These can bring trembling to the hands, and strike terror into the minds of them that apprehend them. These can manifest unto others, things hidden and lost, and foreshew things to come, and see them as though they were present. These can alter men's minds to inordinate love or hate. These can take away man's courage. These can make a woman miscarry in childbirth, and destroy the child in the mother's womb, without any sensible means either inwardly or outwardly applied. These can with their looks kill either man or beast.

"Others do write that they can pull down the moon and the stars. Some write that with wishing they can send needles into the livers of their enemies. Some that they can transfer corn in the blade from one place to another. Some that they can cure deseases supernaturally, fly in the air, and dance with devils. Some write that they can play the part of Succubus, and contract themselves to Incubus. Some say they can transsubstantiate themselves and others, and take the forms and shapes of asses, wolves, ferrets, cows, horses, hogs, etc. Some say they can keep devils and spirits in the likeness of toads and cats.

"They can raise spirits (as others affirm), dry up springs, turn the course of running waters, inhabit the sun and stay both day and night, changing the one into the other. They can go in and out of auger holes, and sail in an eggshell, a cockle or mussel shell, through and under the tempestuous seas. They can bring souls out of the graves. They can tear snakes in pieces. They can also bring to pass that, churn as long as you list, your butter will not come; especially if either the maids have eaten up the cream, or the good wife have sold the butter before in the market."

The appearance of these mysterious and usually bearded women is thus described by the same author: "The sort of such as are said to be witches are women which be commonly old, lame, blear-eyed, pale, foul, and full of wrinkles; poor, sullen, superstitious, and papists; or such as know no religion; in whose drowsy minds the devil hath gotten a fine seat; so as, mischief, mischance, calamity or slaughter is brought to pass,

Fireplace in Oldbourne Hall, London.
(From a print in Wilkinson's collection.)

they are easily persuaded the same is done by themselves; imprinting in their minds an earnest and constant imagination thereof. They are lean and deformed, showing melancholy in their faces, to the horror of all that see them. They are doting, scolds, mad, devilish, and much differing from them that are thought to be possessed with spirits; so firm and steadfast in their opinions, as whosoever shall only have respect to the constancy of their words uttered, would easily believe they were true indeed.

"These miserable witches are so odious unto all their neighbours, and so feared, as few dare offend them, or deny them anything they ask; whereby they take upon them, yea, and sometimes think, that they can do such things as are beyond the ability of human nature. They go from house to house, and from door to door for a pot full of milk, yeast, drink, pottage, or some such relief; without the which they could hardly live; neither obtaining for their service or pains, nor by their art, nor yet at the devil's hands (with whom they are said to make a perfect and visible bargain) either beauty, money, promotion, worship, pleasure, honour, knowledge, learning, or any benefit whatsoever."

To this description let us add the following vivid passage from Archbishop Harsnet's declaration: "Out of these is shaped us the true Idæa of a witch, an old, weatherbeaten crone, having her chin and knees meeting for age, walking like a bow leaning on a shaft, hollow-eyed, untoothed, furrowed on her face, having her lips trembling with the palsy, going mumbling in the streets, one that hath forgot her pater noster, and hath yet a shrewd tongue in her head, to call a drab a drab. If she have learned of an old wife in a chimney's end: Pax, max, fax, for a spell, or can say Sir John of Grantham's curse for the miller's eels that were stolen: All you that have stolen the miller's eels, Laudate dommum de cælis; And all they that have consented thereto, benedicamus domini: Why then ho, beware, look about you, my neighbours; if any of you have sheep sick of the giddies, or an hog of the mumps, or a horse of the staggers, or a knavish boy of the school, or an idle girl of the wheel, or a young drab of the sullens, and hath not fat enough for her porridge, nor her father and mother butter enough for their bread; and she have a little help of the Mother, Epelepsie, or Cramp, to teach her [to] roll her eyes, wry her mouth, gnash her teeth, startle with her body, hold her arms and hands stiff, make antic faces, grin, mow, and mop like an ape, tumble like a hedge-hog, and can mutter out two or three words of gibberish as obus, bobus; and then withal old Mother Nobs hath called her by chance idle young housewife, or bid the devil scratch her, then no doubt but that Mother Nobs is the witch, the young girl is owl-blasted and possessed; and it goes hard but ye shall have some addle, giddy, lymphatical, illuminate dotrel, who being out of credit, learning, sobriety, honesty, and wit, will take this holy advantage to raise the ruins of his desperate decayed name, and for his better glory will bepray the juggling drab, and cast out Mopp, the devil."

According to the popular superstition, witches were provided with beards; thus, in the words of Macbeth, "you should be women. And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so." "The women that Come to us for disguises must wear beards; And that's to say, a token of a witch." (Middleton's The Honest Man's Fortune.)

It was generally believed that witches met in a disturbance of the elements. This is the case at the opening of Macbeth. Terrible thunder and lightning accompany the raising of the spirits in Henry the Sixth (2d part, i. 4). So, midnight hours and desolate places were associated with witches. They were exorcised by charms often composed of a nonsensical succession of syllables, sentences (especially the Lord's prayer), repeated backward, foul images, most of their charms introducing the magic numbers three, and three times three. With witches were associated all sorts of loathsome objects: for instance, the articles that compose the magic broth in Macbeth.

"First Witch. Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw;
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.
All. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Sec. Witch. Fillet of a fenny snake.
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog.
Wool of bat and tongue of dog.
Adder's fork and blinded-worm's sting.
Lizard's leg and howlet's wing
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
All. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Third Witch. Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark."

Later in this chapter something is said about the famous trial of witches in Lancashire in 1612. The following description of the compact with the evil one is taken from the confession of one of those so-called witches:

"Whereupon the said wicked spirit moved this

Moll Frith, "The Roaring Girl."
(From an old print.)

examinate that she would become his subject, and give her soul unto him; the which she at first refused to assent unto; but after by the great persuasions made by the said Demdike, she yielded to be at his commandment and appointment; whereupon the said wicked spirit then said unto her, that he must have some part of her body to suck upon; the which she denied then to grant unto him; and withal asked him, what part of her body he would have for that use: who said he would have a place of her right side near to her ribs, for him to suck upon; whereunto she assented."

This form of sucking the blood was the act by which the witch swore fealty, so to speak, to the evil one. The instrument that thus partook of the spirit through the blood was thenceforth the witch's evil spirit, or familiar. It was this being, known by numerous names, in the likeness usually of an animal, that performed for the witch many of the tasks that are beyond mortal powers. It was currently believed, however, that the animal form of a familiar was always incomplete in one respect: it lacked a tail. This fact is referred to in Macbeth in the phrase, "Like a rat without a tail," which means in the form or likeness of a rat without a tail. Contemporary writings give many lists of familiars by name, some of which have acquired considerably more than a local or contemporary fame. Lucifer, Little Robin, Lightfoot, Makeshift, Hardname, Tiff, Ball, Puss, and Jake are among others mentioned by a writer, Bernard, in his Guide to Jurymen. The following interesting set of names is taken from Pitcairne's Trials: Robert the Jakis; Sanderis, the Red Rover; Thomas the Fairy; Swain, the Roaring Lion; Thief of Hell; Wait upon Herself; Mak Hectour; Robert the Rule; Hendrie Laing; and Rorie. Some of the names supplied by Harsnet's Declaration have almost become household words. Among them are Philpot, Smolkin, Lustie Huff-cap, Hob, Fraterette, Flibberdigibbett, Hoberdidance, etc. Even this long list could be lengthened to a considerable extent by drawing upon the pages of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the drama. In Ford's play, The Witch of Edmonton, occurs the following allusion to familiars:—

"I have heard old beldames
Talk of familiars in the shape of mice.
Rats, ferrets, weasels, and I wot not what,
That have appeared and sucked, some say, their blood
But by what means they came acquainted with them I
I am now ignorant."

The bond with the evil one alluded to above is thus more circumstantially described by Reginald Scot "The order of their bargain or profession is double: the one solemn and public, the other secret and private. That which is called solemn or public is where the witches come together at certain assemblies [i.e. the well known witches' Sabbath], at the times prefixed, and do not only see the devil in visible form, but confer and talk familiarly with him. In which conference the devil exhorteth them to observe their fidelity unto him, promising them long life and prosperity. Then the witches assembled commend a new desciple (whom they call a novice) unto him; and if the devil find that young witch apt and forward in renunciation of Christian faith, in despising any of the seven sacriments, in treading upon crosses, in spetting at the time of the elevation, in breaking their fast upon fasting days, and fasting on Sundays; then the devil giveth forth his hand, and the novice joining hand and hand with him, promiseth to observe and keep all the devil's commandments.

"This done the devil beginneth to be more bold with her, telling her plainly that all this will not serve his turn; and therefore requireth homage at her hands; yea, he also telleth her that she must grant him both her body and soul to be tormented in everlasting fire; which she yieldeth unto. Then he chargeth her to procure as many men, women, and children also, as she can, to enter into this society. Then he teacheth them to make ointments of the bowels and members of children, whereby they ride in the air, and accomplish their desires. So as, if there be any children unbaptised, or not guarded with the sign of the cross, or orisons; then the witches may and do catch them from their mothers' sides in the night, or out of their cradles, or otherwise kiil them with their ceremonies; and after burial steal them out of their graves and seethe them in a caldron, until their flesh be made potable. Of the thickest whereof they made ointment, whereby they ride in the air; but the thinner portion they put into flagons, whereof whosoever drinketh, observing certain ceremonies, immediately becometh a master or, rather, a mistress in that practice and faculty.

"Their homage, together with their oath and bargain, is received for a certain term of years, sometimes forever. Sometimes it consisteth of a denial of the whole faith, sometimes in part. And this is done either by oath, protestation of words, or by obligation in writing, sometimes sealed with wax, sometimes signed with blood, sometimes by kissing the devil's bare buttocks."

Though the witches and their familiars possessed many supernatural qualities, their powers in this direction were limited. When the dog in

Robe of civic dignitary.
(From the portrait of Edward Alleyn at Dulwich Gallery.)

The Witch of Edmonton is asked, "Why wilt not kill him?" he replies, "Fool, because I cannot. Though we have power, know it is circumscribed And tied in limits." Yet the supernatural acts that witches could perform were numerous. They could render themselves invisible, they could come and go at will, traversing long distances instantly. They could control the weather, and, as a result, they often drove a thrifty trade in selling winds to mariners. They could foretell and they could bewitch. Under the latter head one would group the thousand and one acts of malignant evil that were currently attributed to witches. Sudden illness, violent accident, misfortune in business, monstrous birth, etc., etc., were due, oftentimes, to witchcraft, and honestly believed to be so by all sorts and conditions of men. "Finally she said she would be even with me; and soon after my child, my cow, my sow, or my pullet died, or was strangely taken." (Scot.) " She came on a time to the house of one Robert Lathburie … who, disliking her dealing, sent her home empty; but presently after her departure, his hogs fell sick and died, to the number of twenty." (A Detection of Damnable Drifts Practised by Three Witches, 1769.)

One of the commonest means and withal one of the most feared instruments of witchcraft was the clay or wax image, or picture, as it was called. Concerning the practice. Old Demdike, one of the famous Lancashire witches brought to trial in 1612, has the following to say in her Voluntarie Confession: "And further, this examinate confesseth and sayeth, that the speediest way to make a man's life away by witchcraft is to make a picture of clay, like unto the shape of the person whom they mean to kill, and dry it thoroughly; and when they would have them to be ill in any one place more than another, then take a thorn or pin and prick it in that part of the picture you would fain so have to be ill; and when you would have any part of the body to consume away, then take that part of the picture and burn it. And when they would have the whole body to consume away, then take the remnant of the said picture, and burn it. And so thereupon by that means the body shall die."

In 1612 a famous trial, followed by a wholesale execution of witches, took place at Lancaster. The above quotation is taken from a very minute and circumstantial account of the trial written by one Potts, clerk of the court. Many interesting details concerning contemporary belief in witchcraft have been preserved in this Potts's Discovery. Also of great value is the introductory essay prefixed by Mr. Crossley, who edited a reprint for the Cheltham Society in 1844. He has gathered together in his introduction a number of interesting quotations, all illustrative of this practice of picture or image witchcraft. Two are of especial interest as showing how seriously even the people in the highest rank of life looked upon this matter. The first is from Strype's Annals of the Reformation, where we are told that Bishop Jewel, preaching before the Queen in 1558, said: "It may please your grace to understand that witches and sorcerers within these last few years are marvellously increased within your grace's realm. Your grace's subjects pine away, even unto the death; their colour fadeth, their flesh rotteth, their speech is benumbed, their senses are bereft. I pray God they never practise further than upon the subject."

The second quotation is also from Strype, relative to the year 1589: "One Mrs. Dier had practised conjuration against the Queen, to work some mischief to her majesty; for which she was brought into question; and accordingly her words and doings were sent to Popham, the Queen's attorney, and Egerton, her solicitor, by Walsingham, the secretary, and Sir Thomas Heneage, her vice-chamberlain, for their judgment, whose opinion was that Mrs. Dier was not within the compas of the statute touching witchcraft, for that she did no act, and spake certain lewd speeches tending to that purpose, but neither set figures nor made pictures."

Allusions to this practice of image sorcery could be quoted by the score. It is enough to say that the current belief held that whatever the witch did to the image would happen to the person represented by it. Thus, a quill stuck into the wax image would eventually drain the blood of the victim as "dry as hay." From The Duchess of Malfi we learn that "It wastes me more Than were't my picture fashioned out of wax, Stuck with a magical needle, and then buried In some foul dunghill."

It was popular belief that the rowan tree was able to keep away witches; and the planting of it at the four corners of the house for this purpose is not yet wholly out of vogue in some of the wilder parts of Scotland. Drawing blood upon a witch also rendered her enchantments ineffectual, a belief illustrated by the following: "I'll have a bout with thee; devil or devil's dam. I'll conjure thee. Blood will I draw upon thee, thou art a witch." (First Part of Henry the Sixth.) Firm faith was also depended upon as a protection against witches. "If my breast had not been made of faith and my heart of steel, She had transformed me into a curtail dog, and made me

Two Portraits of Queen Elizabeth, Illustrating Wide Ruff and Headress

turn i' the wheel." (The Comedy of Errors.) When Dromio says:

"Some devils ask but the parings of one's nails,
A rush, a hair, a drop of blood, a pin,
A nut, a cherry stone;"

he alludes to the frequent propitiation of witches by gifts. From Potts's account we learn that witches levied blackmail and that a constant annual tribute was not infrequently paid as a sure means of avoiding the baneful results of magic spells.

Ghosts and fairies are wholly supernatural. They are, so to speak, creatures of the imagination. The belief in ghosts and spirits is not yet wholly dead; but the tiny fairy folk are no longer with us. However the Elizabethans may have felt, we can say with confidence that none of them ever saw Queen Mab, or actually heard the tinkly music of the moonlight revels. On the other hand, witches were creatures of flesh and blood. They lived on earth among friends and neighbours. A witch could be remembered in her own reputable days before she had sold herself to the devil. An examination of the numerous acts attributed to witches shows how prone the Elizabethan mind was to jump at conclusions as a result of circumstantial evidence. One died suddenly and, perhaps, mysteriously. What was the cause of death? None could say. Then he must have been bewitched. By whom? Yesterday he refused a penny to so and so, a chattering old hag. What more likely, etc., etc. Long before so many questions had been asked and answered, a case, perhaps of heart disease, had been fastened upon some local witch who did not deny the charge.

All this is but illustrative of that temper of credulity so superlatively characteristic of the Elizabethan character. Not only were the people ready to believe these tales of the supernatural acts performed by witches, but the witches themselves came to believe in them as ardently as did any of their disciples. It is a mistake to think that they were all fakirs through and through as were many of the professional swindlers described in a former chapter. Who has not at one time or another been startled by the merely accidental fulfilment of a wish? It is but a step further to him who opens the Bible at hazard and believes in the supernatural guidance to a selection of a text for the day, or to her who, having cursed her neighbour successfully, believes that the devil has supernaturally vested some of his power in her weak hands. Just as there were voices, like Reginald Scot's, occasionally crying in the wilderness against the folly of belief in witchcraft, so there were occasionally witches that were imposters. Yet the fact to be remembered is that in general good faith was practised on both sides. The people in the playhouse shuddered with Macbeth, who upon so lonely a heath came face to face with three weird sisters of the forbidden clan. Doubtless the witches in Macbeth are such as might have been met with in flesh and blood. Doubtless, also, they believed in themselves. What did Shakespeare think?—not of his creations, but of his examples of the popular creation? Note how carefully he strips them of the power of prophecy in nearly every case, how all of what they say is just such as might have been uttered by Old Demdike of Lancaster fame; and withal, how emphatically he sets forth Macbeth's willingness to consider his own interpretations of ambiguous words as so many prophecies emanating from the supernaturally inspired witches. Whatever Shakespeare thought, he is here carefully following the workings of the contemporary credulity of his fellow men.