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The Superstitions of Witchcraft

The following is from The Superstitions of Witchcraft by Howard Williams:

Part II--MediŠval Faith

Chapter III

Witchcraft and Heresy purposely confounded by the Church--MediŠval Science closely connected with Magic and Sorcery--Ignorance of Physiology the Cause of many of the Popular Prejudices--Jeanne d'Arc--Duchess of Gloucester--Jane Shore--Persecution at Arras

What can hardly fail to be discerned in these prosecutions is the confusion of heresy and sorcery industriously created by the orthodox Church to secure the punishment of her offending dissentients. There are few proceedings against the pretended criminals in which it is not discoverable; the one crime being, as a matter of course, the necessary consequence of the other. In the interest of the Church as much as in the credulity of the people must be sought the main cause of so violent an epidemic, of so fearful a phenomenon in its continuance and atrocities, a fact demonstrated by the whole course of the superstition in the old times of Catholicism. Materials for exciting animosity and indignation against suspected heretics were near at hand. In the assurance of the pre-scientific world everything remote from ordinary knowledge or experience was inseparable from supernaturalism. What surpassed the limits of a very feeble understanding, what was beyond the commonest experience of every-day life, was with one accord relegated to the domain of the supernatural, or rather to that of the devil. For what was not done or taught by Holy Church must be of 'that wicked One'--the cunning imitator.

In the twelfth century the Church was alarmed by the simultaneous springing up of various sects, which, if too hastily claimed by Protestantism as Protestants, in the modern sense, against Catholic theology, were yet sufficiently hostile or dangerous to engage the attention and to provoke the enmity of the pontiffs. The fate of the Stedingers and others in Germany, of the Paulicians in Northern France; of the Albigenses and Waldenses in Southern Europe, is in accordance with this successful sort of theological tactics. Many of the articles of indictment against those outlaws of the Church and of society are extracted from the primitive heresies, in particular from the doctrines of the anti-Judaic and spiritualising Gnostics, and their more than fifty subdivided sects--Marcionites, Manicheans, &c. Gregory IV issued a bull in 1232 against the Stedingers, revolted from the rule of the Archbishop of Bremen, where they are declared to be accustomed to scorn the sacraments, hold communion with devils, make representative images of wax, and consult with witches.1

Alchymy, astrology, and kindred arts were closely allied to the practice of witchcraft: the profession of medicine was little better than the mixing of magical ointments, love-potions, elixirs, not always of an innocent sort; and Sangrados were not wanting in those days to trade upon the ignorance of their patients.2 Nor, unfortunately, are the genuine seekers after truth who honestly applied to the study of nature exempt from the charge of often an unconscious fraud. Monstrous notions mingled with the more real results of their meritorious labours. Science was in its infancy, or rather was still struggling to be freed from the oppressive weight of speculative and theological nonsense before emerging into existence. Many of the fancied phenomena of witch-cases, like other physical or mental eccentricities, have been explained by the progress of reason and knowledge. Lycanthropy (the transformation of human beings into wolves by sorcery), with the no less irrational belief in demoniacal possession, the product of a diseased imagination and brain, was one of the many results of mere ignorance of physiology. In the seventeenth century lycanthropy was gravely defended by doctors of medicine as well as of divinity, on the authority of the story of Nebuchadnezzar, which proved undeniably the possibility of such metamorphoses.

Cotemporary annalists record the extraordinary frenzy aggravated, as it was, by the proceedings against the Templars, the signal of witch persecutions throughout France. The historian of France draws a frightful picture of the insecure condition of an ignorantly prejudiced society. Accusations poured in; poisonings, adulteries, forgeries, and, above all, charges of witchcraft, which, indeed, entered as an ingredient into all causes, forming their attraction and their horror. The judge shuddered on the judgment seat when the proofs were brought before him in the shape of philtres, amulets, frogs, black cats, and waxen images stuck full of needles. Violent curiosity was blended at these trials with the fierce joy of vengeance and a cast of fear. The public mind could not be satiated with them: the more there were burnt, the more there were brought to be burnt.3 In 1398 the Sorbonne, at the chancellor's suggestion, published 27 articles against all sorts of sorcery, pictures of demons, and waxen figures. Six years later a synod was specially convened at Langres, and the pressing evil was anxiously deliberated at the Council of Constance.

Conspicuous about this period, by their importance and iniquity, are the cases of the Pucelle d'OrlÚans and the catastrophe of Arras. Incited (it is a modern conviction) by a noble enthusiasm, by her own ardent imagination, the Pucelle divested herself of the natural modesty of her sex for the dress and arms of a warrior; and 'her inexperienced mind, working day and night on the favourite object, mistook the impulses of passion for heavenly inspiration.' Reviewing the last scenes in the life of that patriotic shepherdess, we hesitate whether to stigmatise more the unscrupulous policy of the English authorities or the base subservience of the Parliament of Paris. The English Regent and the Cardinal of Winchester, unable to allege against their prisoner (the saviour of her country, taken prisoner in a sally from a besieged town, had been handed over by her countrymen to the foreigner) any civil crime, were forced to disguise a violation of justice and humanity in the pretence of religion; and the Bishop of Beauvais presented a petition against her, as an ecclesiastical subject, demanding to have her tried by an ecclesiastical court for sorcery, impiety, idolatry, and magic. The University of Paris acquiesced. Before this tribunal the accused was brought, loaded with chains, and clothed in her military dress. It was alleged that she had carried about a standard consecrated by magical enchantments; that she had been in the habit of attending at the witches' sabbath at a fountain near the oak of Boulaincourt; that the demons had discovered to her a magical sword consecrated in the Church of St. Catherine, to which she owed her victories; that by means of sorcery she had gained the confidence of Charles VIII. Jeanne d'Arc was convicted of all these crimes, aggravated by heresy: her revelations were declared to be inventions of the devil to delude the people.4

Her ecclesiastical judges then consigned their prisoner to the civil power; and, finally, in the words of Hume, 'this admirable heroine--to whom the more generous superstition of the ancients would have erected altars--was, on pretence of heresy and magic, delivered over alive to the flames; and expiated by that dreadful punishment the signal services she had rendered to her prince and to her native country.'5

Without detracting from the real merit of the patriotic martyr, it might be suspected that, besides her inflamed imagination, a pious and pardonable collusion was resorted to as a last desperate effort to rouse the energy of the troops or the hopes of the people--a collusion similar to that of the celebrated Constantinian Cross, or of the Holy Lance of Antioch. Every reader is acquainted with the fate of the great personages who in England were accused, politically or popularly, of the crime; and the histories of the Duchess of Gloucester and of Jane Shore are immortalised by Shakspeare. In 1417, Joan, second wife of Henry IV, had been sentenced to prison, suspected of seeking the king's death by sorcery; a certain Friar Randolf being her accomplice and agent. The Duchess of Gloucester, wife of Humphry and daughter of Lord Cobham, was an accomplice in the witchcraft of a priest and an old woman. Her associates were Sir Roger Bolingbroke, priest; Margery Jordan or Guidemar, of Eye, in Suffolk; Thomas Southwell, and Roger Only. It was asserted 'there was found in their possession a waxen image of the king, which they melted in a magical manner before a slow fire, with the intention of making Henry's force and vigour waste away by like insensible degrees.' The duchess was sentenced to do penance and to perpetual imprisonment; Margery was burnt for a witch in Smithfield; the priest was hanged, declaring his employers had only desired to know of him how long the king would live; Thomas Southwell died the night before his execution; Roger Only was hanged, having first written a book to prove his own innocence, and against the opinion of the vulgar.6 Jane Shore (whose story is familiar to all), the mistress of Edward IV, was sacrificed to the policy of Richard Duke of Gloucester, more than to any general suspicion of her guilt. Both the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Ely were involved with the citizen's wife in demoniacal dealings, and imprisoned in the Tower. As for the 'harlot, strumpet Shore,' not being convicted, or at least condemned, for the worse crime, she was found guilty of adultery, and sentenced (a milder fate) to do penance in a white sheet before the assembled populace at St. Paul's.7

More tremendous than any of the cases above narrated is that of Arras, where numbers of all classes suffered. So transparent were the secret but real motives of the chief agitators, that even the unbounded credulity of the public could penetrate the thin disguise. The affair commenced with the accusation of a woman of Douai, called Demiselle (une femme de folle vie). Put to the torture repeatedly, this wretched woman was forced to confess she had frequented a meeting of sorcerers where several persons were seen and recognised; amongst others Jehan Levite, a painter at Arras. The chronicler of the fifteenth century relates the diabolical catastrophe thus: 'A terrible and melancholy transaction took place this year (1459) in the town of Arras, the capital of the county of Artois, which said transaction was called, I know not why, Vaudoisie: but it was said that certain men and women transported themselves whither they pleased from the places where they were seen, by virtue of a compact with the devil. Suddenly they were carried to forests and deserts, where they found assembled great numbers of both sexes, and with them a devil in the form of a man, whose face they never saw. This devil read to them, or repeated his laws and commandments in what way they were to worship and serve him: then each person kissed his back, and he gave to them after this ceremony some little money. He then regaled them with great plenty of meats and wines, when the lights were extinguished, and each man selected a female for amorous dalliance; and suddenly they were transported back to the places they had come from. For such criminal and mad acts many of the principal persons of the town were imprisoned; and others of the lower ranks, with women, and such as were known to be of this sect, were so terribly tormented, that some confessed matters to have happened as has been related. They likewise confessed to have seen and known many persons of rank, prelates, nobles, and governors of districts, as having been present at these meetings; such, indeed, as, upon the rumour of common fame, their judges and examiners named, and, as it were, put into their mouths: so that through the pains of the torments they accused many, and declared they had seen them at these meetings. Such as had been thus accused were instantly arrested, and so long and grievously tormented that they were forced to confess just whatever their judges pleased, when those of the lower rank were inhumanly burnt. Some of the richer and more powerful ransomed themselves from this disgrace by dint of money; while others of the highest orders were remonstrated with, and seduced by their examiners into confession under a promise that if they would confess, they should not suffer either in person or property. Others, again, suffered the severest torments with the utmost patience and fortitude. The judges received very large sums of money from such as were able to pay them: others fled the country, or completely proved their innocence of the charges made against them, and remained unmolested. It must not be concealed (proceeds Monstrelet) that many persons of worth knew that these charges had been raked up by a set of wicked persons to harass and disgrace some of the principal inhabitants of Arras, whom they hated with the bitterest rancour, and from avarice were eager to possess themselves of their fortunes. They at first maliciously arrested some persons deserving of punishment for their crimes, whom they had so severely tormented, holding out promises of pardon, that they forced them to accuse whomsoever they were pleased to name. This matter was considered [it must have been an exceedingly ill-devised plot to provoke suspicion and even indignation in such a matter] by all men of sense and virtue as most abominable: and it was thought that those who had thus destroyed and disgraced so many persons of worth would put their souls in imminent danger at the last day.'8

Meanwhile the inquisitor, Jacques Dubois, doctor in theology, dean of N˘tre Dame at Arras, ordered the arrest of Levite the artist, and made him confess he had attended the 'Vauldine;' that he had seen there many people, men and women, burghers, ecclesiastics, whose names were specified. The bishops' vicars, overwhelmed by the number and quality of the involved, began to dread the consequence, and wished to stop the proceedings. But this did not satisfy the projects of two of the most active promoters, Jacques Dubois and the Bishop of Bayrut, who urged the Comte d'Estampes to use his authority with the vicars to proceed energetically against the prisoners. Soon afterwards the matter was brought to a crisis; the fate of the tortured convicts was decided, and amidst thousands of spectators from all parts, they were brought out, each with a mitre on his head, on which was painted the devil in the form in which he appeared at the general assemblies, and burned.

They admitted (under the severest torture, promises, and threats) the truth of their meetings at the sabbaths. They used a sort of ointment well known in witch-pharmacy for rubbing a small wooden rod and the palms of their hands, and by a very common mode of conveyance were borne away suddenly to the appointed rendezvous. Here their lord and master was expecting them in the shape of a goat with the face of a man and the tail of an ape. Homage was first done by his new vassals offering up their soul or some part of the body; afterwards in adoration kissing him on the back--the accustomed salutation.9 Next followed the different signs and ceremonies of the infernal vassalage, in particular treading and spitting upon the cross. Then to eating and drinking; after which the guests joined in acts of indescribable debauchery, when the devil took the form alternately of either sex. Dismissal was given by a mock sermon, forbidding to go to church, hear mass, or touch holy water. All these acts indicate schismatic offences which yet for the most part are the characteristics of the sabbaths in later Protestant witchcraft, excepting that the wicked apostates are there usually papistical instead of protestant. During nearly two years Arras was subjected to the arbitrary examinations and tortures of the inquisitors; and an appeal to the Parliament of Paris could alone stop the proceedings, 1461. The chance of acquittal by the verdict of the public was little: it was still less by the sentence of judicial tribunals.

1 A second bull enters into details. On the reception of a convert, a toad made its appearance, which was adored by the assembled crowd. On sitting down to the banquet a black cat comes upon the stage, double the size of an ordinary dog, advancing backwards with up-turned tail. The neophytes, one after another, kissed this feline demon, with due solemnity, on the back. Walter Mapes has given an account of the similar ceremonies of the Publicans (Paulicians). Heretical worship was of a most licentious as well as disgusting kind. The religious meetings terminate always in indiscriminate debauchery.

2 Pliny (Hist. Natur. xxx) 'observes,' as Gibbon quotes him, 'that magic held mankind by the triple chain of religion, of physic, and of astronomy.'

3 Michelet, whose poetic-prose may appear hardly suitable to the philosophic dignity of history, relating the fate of two knights accused with a monk of having 'sinned' with the king's daughter-in-law 'even on the holiest days,' and who were castrated and flayed alive, truly enough infers that 'the pious confidence of the middle age which did not mistrust the immuring of a great lady along with her knights in the precincts of a castle, of a narrow tower; the vassalage which imposed on young men as a feudal duty the sweetest cares, was a dangerous trial to human nature.'

4 Shakspeare brings the fiends upon the stage: their work is done, and they now abandon the enchantress. In vain La Pucelle invokes in her extremity--

      'Ye familiar spirits, that are cull'd
Out of the powerful regions under earth,
Help me this once, that France may get the field.
Oh, hold me not with silence over-long!

'Where I was wont to feed you with my blood,
I'll lop a member off, and give it you,
In earnest of a further benefit;
So you do condescend to help me now.

*       *       *       *       *

Cannot my body, nor blood-sacrifice,
Entreat you to your wonted furtherance?
Then take my soul; my body, soul, and all,
Before that England give the French the foil.
See! they forsake me.

*       *       *       *       *

My ancient incantations are too weak
And hell too strong for me to buckle with.'

But a worthier, if contradictory, origin is assigned for her enthusiasm when she replies to the foul aspersion of her taunting captors--

'Virtuous, and holy; chosen from above,
By inspiration of celestial grace,
To work exceeding miracles on earth,
I never had to do with wicked spirits.
But you--that are polluted with your lusts,
Stain'd with the guiltless blood of innocents,
Corrupt and tainted with a thousand vices--
Because you want the grace that others have,
You judge it straight a thing impossible
To compass wonders, but by help of devils.'

5 History of England, XX Shakspeare (Henry VI part ii act i) has furnished us with the charms and incantations employed about the same time in the case of the Duchess of Gloucester. Mother Jourdain is the representative witch-hag.

6 The historian of England justly reflects on this case that the nature of the crime, so opposite to all common sense, seems always to exempt the accusers from using the rules of common sense in their evidence.

7 This unfortunate woman was celebrated for her beauty and, with one important exception, for her virtues; and, if her vanity could not resist the fascination of a royal lover, her power had been often, it is said, exerted in the cause of humanity. Notwithstanding the neglect and ill-treatment experienced from the ingratitude of former fawning courtiers and people, she reached an advanced age, for she was living in the time of Sir Thomas More, who relates that 'when the Protector had awhile laid unto her, for the manner sake, that she went about to bewitch him, and that she was of counsel with the lord chamberlain to destroy him; in conclusion, when no colour could fasten upon this matter, then he laid heinously to her charge the thing that herself could not deny, that all the world wist was true, and that natheless every man laughed at to hear it then so suddenly so highly taken--that she was naught of her body.'--Reign of Richard III, quoted by Bishop Percy in Reliques of Old English Romance Poetry. The deformed prince fiercely attributes his proverbial misfortune to hostile witchcraft. He addresses his trembling council:

'Look how I am bewitch'd; behold mine arm
Is, like a blasted sapling, wither'd up:
And this is Edward's wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot, strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.'

Richard III act iii sc. 4

8 Enguerrand de Monstrelet's Chronicles, lib. iii cap. 93, Johnes' Translation. Vaudoisie, which puzzles the annalist, seems to disclose the pretence, if not the motive, of the proceedings. Yet it is not easy to conceive so large a number of all classes involved in the proscribed heresy of the Vaudois in a single city in the north of France.

9 The 'Osculum in tergo' seems to be an indispensable part of the Homagium or Diabolagium.

Part III--Modern Faith--Chapter I


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