Home eBooks Index eBooks by Author Glossary Search eBooks

The Superstitions of Witchcraft

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

Part III--Modern Faith

Chapter II

Three Sorts of Witches--Various Modes of Witchcraft--Manner of Witch-Travelling--The Sabbaths--Anathemas of the Popes against the Crime--Bull of Adrian VI--Cotemporary Testimony to the Severity of the Persecutions--Necessary Triumph of the Orthodox Party--Germany most subject to the Superstition--Acts of Parliament of Henry VIII against Witchcraft--Elizabeth Barton--The Act of 1562--Executions under Queen Elizabeth's Government--Case of Witchcraft narrated by Reginald Scot

The ceremonies of the compact by which a woman became a witch have been already referred to. It was almost an essential condition in the vulgar creed that she should be, as Gaule ('Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches,' &c., 1646) represents, an old woman with a wrinkled face, a furred brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, a scolding tongue, having a ragged coat on her back, a skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, a dog or cat by her side. There are three sorts of the devil's agents on earth--the black, the grey, and the white witches. The first are omnipotent for evil, but powerless for good. The white have the power to help, but not to hurt.1 As for the third species (a mixture of white and black), they are equally effective for good or evil.

Equally various and contradictory are the motives and acts assigned to witches. Nothing is too great or too mean for their practice: they engage with equal pleasure in the overthrow of a kingdom or a religion, and in inflicting the most ordinary evils and mischiefs in life. Their mode of bewitching is various: by fascination or casting an evil eye ('Nescio,' says the Virgilian shepherd, 'quis teneros oculus mihi fascinat agnos'); by making representations of the person to be acted upon in wax or clay, roasting them before a fire; by mixing magical ointments or other compositions and ingredients revealed to us in the witch-songs of Shakspeare, Jonson, Middleton, Shadwell, and others; sometimes merely by muttering an imprecation.

They ride in sieves on the sea, on brooms, spits magically prepared; and by these modes of conveyance are borne, without trouble or loss of time, to their destination. By these means they attend the periodical sabbaths, the great meetings of the witch-tribe, where they assemble at stated times to do homage, to recount their services, and to receive the commands of their lord. They are held on the night between Friday and Saturday; and every year a grand sabbath is ordered for celebration on the Blocksberg mountains, for the night before the first day of May. In those famous mountains the obedient vassals congregate from all parts of Christendom--from Italy, Spain, Germany, France, England, and Scotland. A place where four roads meet, a rugged mountain range, or perhaps the neighbourhood of a secluded lake or some dark forest, is usually the spot selected for the meeting.2

A mock sermon often concludes the night's proceedings, the ordinary salutation of the osculum in tergo being first given. But these circumstances are innocent compared with the obscene practices when the lights are put out; indiscriminate debauchery being then the order of the night. A new rite of baptism initiated the neophyte into his new service: the candidate being signed with the sign of the devil on that part of the body least observable, and submitting at the same time to the first act of criminal compliance, to be often repeated. On these occasions the demon presents himself in the form of either sex, according to that of his slaves. It was elicited from a witch examined at a trial that, from the period of her servitude, the devil had had intercourse with her ut viri cum fœminis solent, excepting only in one remarkable particular.

During the pontificate of Julius II--the first decade of the sixteenth century--a set of sorceresses was discovered in large numbers: a dispute between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities averted their otherwise certain destruction. The successors of Innocent VIII repeated his anathemas. Alexander VI, Leo X, and Adrian VI appointed special commissioners for hunting up sorcerers and heretics. In 1523, Adrian issued a bull against Hęresis Strigiatūs with power to excommunicate all who opposed those engaged in the inquisition. He characterises the obnoxious class as a sect deviating from the Catholic faith, denying their baptism, showing contempt for the sacraments, in particular for that of the Eucharist, treading crosses under foot, and taking the devil as their lord. [Francis Hutchison's Historical Essay concerning Witchcraft, chap. xiv; the author quotes Barthol. de Spina, de Strigibus] How many suffered for the crime during the thirty or forty years following upon the bull of 1484, it is difficult exactly to ascertain: that some thousands perished is certain, on the testimony of the judges themselves. The often-quoted words of Florimond, author of a work 'On Antichrist,' as given by Del Rio the Jesuit ('De Magiā'), are not hyperbolical. 'All those,' says he, 'who have afforded us some signs of the approach of antichrist agree that the increase of sorcery and witchcraft is to distinguish the melancholy period of his advent; and was ever age so afflicted with them as ours? The seats destined for criminals before our judicatories are blackened with persons accused of this guilt. There are not judges enough to try enough. Our dungeons are gorged with them. No day passes that we do not render our tribunals bloody by the dooms we pronounce, or in which we do not return to our homes discountenanced and terrified at the horrible contents of the confessions which it has been our duty to hear. And the devil is accounted so good a master that we cannot commit so great a number of his slaves to the flames but what there shall arise from their ashes a number sufficient to supply their place.'

It is within neither the design nor the limits of these pages to repeat all the witch-cases, which might fill several volumes; it is sufficient for the purpose to sketch a few of the most notorious and prominent, and to notice the most remarkable characteristics of the creed.

Maximilian I, Emperor of Germany, protected the inquisitorial executioners from the indignant vengeance of the inhabitants of the districts of Southern Germany, which would have been soon almost depopulated by an unsparing massacre and a ferocious zeal: while Sigismund, Prince of the Tyrol, is said to have been inclined to soften the severity of a persecution he was totally unable, if he had been disposed, to prevent. Ulric Molitor, under the auspices of this prince, however, published a treatise in Switzerland ('De Pythonicis Mulieribus') in the form of a dialogue, in which Sigismund, Molitor, and a citizen of Constance are the interlocutors. They argue as to the practice of witchcraft; and the argument is to establish that, although the practicers of the crime are worthy of death, much of the vulgar opinion on the subject is false. Even in the middle of the fifteenth century, and in Spain, could be found an assertor, in some degree, of common sense, whose sentiments might scandalise some Protestant divines. Alphonse de Spina was a native of Castile, of the order of St. Francis: his book was written against heretics and unbelievers, but there is a chapter in which some acts attributed to sorcerers, as transportation through the air, transformations, &c., are rejected as unreal.

From that time two parties were in existence, one of which advocated the entire reality of all the acts commonly imputed to witches; while the other maintained that many of their supposed crimes were mere delusions suggested by the Great Enemy. The former, as the orthodox party, were, from the nature of the case, most successful in the argument--a seeming paradox explained by the nature and course of the controversy. Only the received method of demoniacal possession was questioned by the adverse side, accepting without doubt the possibility--and, indeed, the actual existence--of the phenomenon. Thus the liberals, or pseudo-liberals, in that important controversy were placed in an illogical position. For (as their opponents might triumphantly argue) if the devil's power and possession could be manifested in one way, why not by any other method. Nor was it for them to determine the appointed methods of his schemes, as permitted by Providence, for the injury and ruin of mankind. The diabolic economy, as evidently set forth in the work of man's destruction, might require certain modes of acting quite above our reason and understanding. To the sceptics (or to the atheists, as they were termed) the orthodox could allege, 'Will you not believe in witches? The Scriptures aver their existence: to the jurisconsults will you dispute the existence of a crime against which our statute-book and the code of almost all civilised countries have attested by laws upon which hundreds and thousands have been convicted; many, or even most, of whom have, by their judicial confessions, acknowledged their guilt and the justice of their punishment? It is a strange scepticism, they might add, that rejects the evidence of Scripture, of human legislature, and of the accused persons themselves.' [Sir W. Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, chap. vi] Reason was hopelessly oppressed by faith. In the presence of universal superstition, in the absence of the modern philosophy, escape seemed all but impossible.

If preeminence in this particular prejudice can be assigned to any single region or people, perhaps Germany more than any other land was subject to the demonological fever. A fact to be explained as well by its being the great theatre for more than a hundred years of the grand religious struggle between the opposing Catholics and Protestants, as by its natural fitness. The gloomy mountain ranges--the Hartz mountains are especially famous in the national legend--and forests with which it abounds rendered the imaginative minds of its peoples peculiarly susceptible to impressions of supernaturalism.3 France takes the next place in the fury of the persecution. Danęus ('Dialogue') speaks of an innumerable number of witches. England, Scotland, Spain, Italy perhaps come next in order.

Spain, the dominion of the Arabs for seven centuries, was naturally the land of magic. During the government of Ferdinand I, or of Isabella, the inquisition was firmly established. That numbers were sent from the dungeons and torture-chambers to the stake, with the added stigma of dealing in the 'black art,' is certain; but in that priest-dominated, servilely orthodox southern land, the Church was not perhaps so much interested in confounding the crimes of heresy and sorcery. The first was simply sufficient for provoking horror and hatred of the condemned. The South of France is famous for being the very nest of sorcery: the witch-sabbaths were frequently held there. It was the country of the Albigenses, which had been devastated by De Montfort, the executioner of Catholic vengeance, in the twelfth century, and was, with something of the same sort of savageness, ravaged by De Lanere in the seventeenth century. Scotland, before the religious revolution, exhibits a few remarkable cases of witch-persecution, as that of the Earl of Mar, brother of James III. He had been suspected of calling in the aid of sorcery to ascertain the term of the king's life: the earl was bled to death without trial, and his death was followed by the burning of twelve witches, and four wizards, at Edinburgh. Lady Glammis, sister of the Earl of Angus, of the family of Douglas, accused of conspiring the king's death in a similar way, was put to death in 1537. As in England, in the cases of the Duchess of Gloucester and others, the crime appears to be rather an adjunct than the principal charge itself; more political than popular. Protestant Scotland it is that has earned the reputation of being one of the most superstitious countries in Europe.

In 1541 two Acts of Parliament were passed in England--the first interference of Parliament in this kingdom--against false prophecies, conjurations, witchcraft, sorcery, pulling down crosses; crimes made felony without benefit of clergy. Both the last article in the list and the period (a few years after the separation from the Catholic world) appear to indicate the causes in operation. Lord Hungerford had recently been beheaded by the suspicious tyranny of Henry VIII, for consulting his death by conjuration. The preamble to the statute has these words: 'The persons that had done these things, had dug up and pulled down an infinite number of crosses.'4 The new head of the English Church, if he found his interest in assuming himself the spiritual supremacy, was, like a true despot, averse to any further revolution than was necessary to his purposes. Some superstitious regrets too for the old establishment which, by a fortunate caprice, he abandoned and afterwards plundered, may have urged the tyrant, who persecuted the Catholics for questioning his supremacy, to burn the enemies of transubstantiation. Shortly before this enactment, eight persons had been hanged at Tyburn, not so much for sorcery as for a disagreeable prophecy. Elizabeth Barton, the principal, had been instigated to pronounce as revelation, that if the king went on in the divorce and married another wife, he should not be king a month longer, and in the estimation of Almighty God not one hour longer, but should die a villain's death. The Maid of Kent, with her accomplices--Richard Martin, parson of the parish of Aldington; Dr. Bocking, canon of Christ Church, Canterbury; Deering; Henry Gold, a parson in London; Hugh Rich, a friar, and others--was brought before the Star Chamber, and adjudged to stand in St. Paul's during sermon-time; the majority being afterwards executed. In Cranmer's 'Articles of Visitation,' 1549, an injunction is addressed to his clergy, that 'you shall inquire whether you know of any that use charms, sorcery, enchantments, witchcrafts, soothsaying, or any like craft, invented by the devil.'

During the brief reigns of Edward VI and Mary I in England, no conspicuous trials occur. As for the latter monarch, the queen and her bishops were too absorbed in the pressing business of burning for the real offence of heresy to be much concerned in discovering the concomitant crimes of devil-worship.5 An impartial judgment may decide that superstition, whether engaged in vindicating the dogmas of Catholicism or those of witchcraft, is alike contemptible and pernicious.

In the year of Elizabeth's accession, 1558, Strype ('Annals of the Reformation,' i 8, and ii 545) tells that Bishop Jewell, preaching before the queen, animadverted upon the dangerous and direful results of witchcraft. 'It may please your Grace,' proclaims publicly the courtly Anglican prelate, '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 to 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.' For himself, the bishop declares, 'these eyes have seen most evident and manifest marks of their wickedness.' The annalist adds that this, no doubt, was the occasion of bringing in a bill the next Parliament, for making enchantments and witchcraft felony; and, under year 1578, we are informed that, whether it were the effect of magic, or proceeded from some natural cause, the queen was in some part of this year under excessive anguish by pains of her teeth, insomuch that she took no rest for divers nights, and endured very great torment night and day. The statute of 1562 includes 'fond and fantastic prophecies' (a very common sort of political offences in that age) in the category of forbidden arts. With unaccustomed lenity it punished a first conviction with the pillory only.

Witch-persecutions (which needed not any legal enactment) sprung up in different parts of the country; but they were not carried out with either the frequency or the ferocity of the next age, or as in Scotland, under the superintendence of James VI. A number of pamphlets unnecessarily enforced the obligatory duty of unwearied zeal in the work of discovery and extermination.6 Among the executions under Elizabeth's Government are specially noticed that of a woman hanged at Barking in 1575; of four at Abingdon; three at Chelmsford; two at Cambridge, 1579; of a number condemned at St. Osythes; of several in Derbyshire and Staffordshire. One of the best known is the case at Warboys, in Huntingdonshire, 1593.

The author of the 'Discoverie' relates a fact that came under his personal observation: it is a fair example of the trivial origin and of the facility of this sort of charges. 'At the assizes holden at Rochester, anno 1581, one Margaret Simons, wife of John Simons, of Brenchly in Kent, was arraigned for witchcraft, at the instigation and complaint of divers fond and malicious persons, and especially by the means of one John Farral, vicar of that parish, with whom I talked about the matter, and found him both fondly assotted in the cause and enviously bent towards her: and, which is worse, as unable to make a good account of his faith as she whom he accused. That which he laid to the poor woman's charge was this. His son, being an ungracious boy, and 'prentice to one Robert Scotchford, clothier, dwelling in that parish of Brenchly, passed on a day by her house; at whom, by chance, her little dog barked, which thing the boy taking in evil part, drew his knife and pursued him therewith even to her door, whom she rebuked with such words as the boy disdained, and yet nevertheless would not be persuaded to depart in a long time. At the last he returned to his master's house, and within five or six days fell sick. Then was called to mind the fray betwixt the dog and the boy: insomuch as the vicar (who thought himself so privileged as he little mistrusted that God would visit his children with sickness) did so calculate as he found, partly through his own judgment and partly (as he himself told me) by the relation of other witches, that his said son was by her bewitched. Yea, he told me that his son being, as it were, past all cure, received perfect health at the hands of another witch.' Not satisfied with this accusation, the vicar 'proceeded yet further against her, affirming that always in his parish church, when he desired to read most plainly his voice so failed him that he could scant be heard at all: which he could impute, he said, to nothing else but to her enchantment. When I advertised the poor woman thereof, as being desirous to hear what she could say for herself, she told me that in very deed his voice did fail him, specially when he strained himself to speak loudest. Howbeit, she said, that at all times his voice was hoarse and low; which thing I perceived to be true. But sir, said she, you shall understand that this our vicar is diseased with such a kind of hoarseness as divers of our neighbours in this parish not long ago doubted ... and in that respect utterly refused to communicate with him until such time as (being thereunto enjoined by the ordinary) he had brought from London a certificate under the hands of two physicians that his hoarseness proceeded from a disease of the lungs; which certificate he published in the church, in the presence of the whole congregation: and by this means he was cured, or rather excused of the shame of the disease. And this,' certifies the narrator, 'I know to be true, by the relation of divers honest men of that parish. And truly if one of the jury had not been wiser than the others, she had been condemned thereupon, and upon other as ridiculous matters as this. For the name of witch is so odious, and her power so feared among the common people, that if the honestest body living chanced to be arraigned thereupon, she shall hardly escape condemnation.'

1 A writer at the beginning of the seventeenth century (Cotta, Tryall of Witchcraft) says, 'This kind is not obscure at this day, swarming in this kingdom, whereof no man can be ignorant who lusteth to observe the uncontrouled liberty and licence of open and ordinary resort in all places unto wise men and wise women, so vulgarly termed for their reputed knowledge concerning such diseased persons as are supposed to be bewitched.' And (Short Discoverie of Unobserved Dangers, 1612) 'the mention of witchecraft doth now occasion the remembrance in the next place of a sort of practitioners whom our custom and country doth call wise men and wise women, reputed a kind of good and honest harmless witches or wizards, who, by good words, by hallowed herbs and salves, and other superstitious ceremonies, promise to allay and calm devils, practices of other witches, and the forces of many diseases.' Another writer of the same date considers 'it were a thousand times better for the land if all witches, but specially the blessing witch, might suffer death. Men do commonly hate and spit at the damnifying sorcerer as unworthy to live among them, whereas they fly unto the other in necessity; they depend upon him as their God, and by this means thousands are carried away, to their final confusion. Death, therefore, is the just and deserved portion of the good witch.'--Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, by Brand, ed. by Sir H. Ellis.

2 'When orders had once been issued for the meeting of the sabbath, all the wizards and witches who failed to attend it were lashed by demons with a rod made of serpents or scorpions. In France and England the witches were supposed to ride uniformly upon broom-sticks; but in Italy and Spain, the devil himself, in the shape of a goat, used to transport them on his back, which lengthened or shortened according to the number of witches he was desirous of accommodating. No witch, when proceeding to the sabbath, could get out by a door or window were she to try ever so much. Their general mode of ingress was by the key-hole, and of egress by the chimney, up which they flew, broom and all, with the greatest ease. To prevent the absence of the witches being noticed by their neighbours, some inferior demon was commanded to assume their shapes, and lie in their beds, feigning illness, until the sabbath was over. When all the wizards and witches had arrived at the place of rendezvous, the infernal ceremonies began. Satan having assumed his favourite shape of a large he-goat, with a face in front and another in his haunches, took his seat upon a throne; and all present in succession paid their respects to him and kissed him in his face behind. This done, he appointed a master of the ceremonies, in company with whom he made a personal examination of all the witches, to see whether they had the secret mark about them by which they were stamped as the devil's own. This mark was always insensible to pain. Those who had not yet been marked received the mark from the master of the ceremonies, the devil at the same time bestowing nick-names upon them. This done, they all began to sing and dance in the most furious manner until some one arrived who was anxious to be admitted into their society. They were then silent for a while until the new comer had denied his salvation, kissed the devil, spat upon the Bible, and sworn obedience to him in all things. They then began dancing again with all their might and singing.... In the course of an hour or two they generally became wearied of this violent exercise, and then they all sat down and recounted their evil deeds since last meeting. Those who had not been malicious and mischievous enough towards their fellow-creatures received personal chastisement from Satan himself, who flogged them with thorns or scorpions until they were covered with blood and unable to sit or stand. When this ceremony was concluded, they were all amused by a dance of toads. Thousands of these creatures sprang out of the earth, and standing on their hind-legs, danced while the devil played the bagpipes or the trumpet. These toads were all endowed with the faculty of speech, and entreated the witches there to reward them with the flesh of unbaptized infants for their exertions to give them pleasure. The witches promised compliance. The devil bade them remember to keep their word; and then stamping his foot, caused all the toads to sink into the earth in an instant. The place being thus cleared, preparations were made for the banquet, where all manner of disgusting things were served up and greedily devoured by the demons and witches, although the latter were sometimes regaled with choice meats and expensive wines, from golden plates and crystal goblets; but they were never thus favoured unless they had done an extraordinary number of evil deeds since the last period of meeting. After the feast, they began dancing again; but such as had no relish for any more exercise in that way, amused themselves by mocking the holy sacrament of baptism. For this purpose the toads were again called up, and sprinkled with filthy water, the devil making the sign of the cross, and all the witches calling out--[some gibberish]. When the devil wished to be particularly amused, he made the witches strip off their clothes and dance before him, each with a cat tied round her neck, and another dangling from her body in form of a tail. When the cock crew they all disappeared, and the sabbath was ended. This is a summary of the belief that prevailed for many centuries nearly all over Europe, and which is far from eradicated even at this day.'--Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, by C. Mackay.

3 How greatly the imagination of the Germans was attracted by the supernatural and the marvellous is plainly seen both in the old national poems and in the great work of the national mythologist, Jacob Grimm (Deutsche Mythologie).

4 Hutchison's Historical Essay concerning Witchcraft. The author, chaplain in ordinary to George I, published his book in 1718. It is worth while to note the colder scepticism of the Hanoverian chaplain as compared with the undoubting faith of his predecessor, Dr. Glanvil.

5 Agreeably to that common prejudice which selects certain historical personages for popular and peculiar esteem or execration, and attributes to them, as if they were eccentricities rather than examples of the age, every exceptional virtue or vice, the 'Bloody Queen' has been stigmatised, and is still regarded, as an extraordinary monster, capable of every inhuman crime--a prejudice more popular than philosophical, since experience has taught that despots, unchecked by fear, by reason, or conscience, are but examples, in an eminent degree, of the character, and personifications of the worst vices (if not of the best virtues) of their time. Considered in this view, Mary I will but appear the example and personification of the religious intolerance of Catholicism and of the age, just as Cromwell was of the patriotic and Puritanic sentiment of the first half, or Charles II of the unblushing licentiousness of the last half, of the seventeenth century.

6 One of these productions, printed in London, bore the sensational title, 'A very Wonderful and Strange Miracle of God, shewed upon a Dutchman, of the age of 23 years, who was possessed of ten devils, and was, by God's Mighty Providence, dispossessed of them again the 27 January last past, 1572.' Another, dedicated to Lord Darcy, by W. W., 1582, sets forth that all those tortures in common use 'are far too light, and their rigour too mild; and in this respect he (the pamphleteer) impudently exclaimeth against our magistrates who suffer them to be but hanged, when murtherers and such malefactors be so used, which deserve not the hundredth part of their punishment.'

Part III--Modern Faith--Chapter III


Copyright © Scotland from the Roadside 2019