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The Superstitions of Witchcraft

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

Part III--Modern Faith

Chapter VIII

The Literature of Europe in the Seventeenth Century proves the Universality and Horror of Witchcraft--The most acute and most liberal Men of Learning convinced of its Reality--Erasmus and Francis Bacon--Lawyers prejudiced by Legislation--Matthew Hale's judicial Assertion--Sir Thomas Browne's Testimony--John Selden--The English Church least Ferocious of the Protestant Sects--Jewell and Hooker--Independent Tolerance--Witchcraft under the Presbyterian Government--Matthew Hopkins--Gaule's 'Select Cases of Conscience'--Judicial and Popular Methods of Witch-discovery--Preventive Charms--Witchfinders a Legal and Numerous Class in England and Scotland--Remission in the Severity of the Persecution under the Protectorship

Had we not the practical proof of the prevalence of the credit of the black art in accomplished facts, the literature of the first half of the seventeenth century would be sufficient testimony to its horrid dominion. The works of the great dramatists, the writings of men of every class, continually suppose the universal power and horror of witchcraft. Internal evidence is abundant. The witches of Macbeth are no fanciful creation, and Shakspeare's representation of La Pucelle's fate is nothing more than a copy from life. What the vulgar superstition must have been may be easily conceived when men of the greatest genius or learning credited the possibility, and not only a theoretical but actual occurrence, of these infernal phenomena. Gibbon is at a loss to account for the fact that the acute understanding of the learned Erasmus, who could see through much more plausible fables, believed firmly in witchcraft. [See Miscellaneous Works: Abstract of my Readings] Francis Bacon, the advocate and second founder of the inductive method and first apostle of the Utilitarian philosophy, opposed though he might have been to the vulgar persecution, was not able to get rid of the principles upon which the creed was based.1 Sir Edward Coke, his contemporary, the most acute lawyer of the age, or (as it is said) of any time, ventured even to define the devil's agents in witchcraft. Sir Thomas Browne (author of 'Pseudodoxia Epidemica' or 'Vulgar Errors!'), a physician and writer of considerable merit, and Sir Matthew Hale, in 1664, proved their faith, the one by his solemn testimony in open court, the other by his still more solemn sentence.

If theologians were armed by the authority or their interpretation of Scripture, lawyers were no less so by that of the Statute Book. Judge Hale, in an address to the jury at Bury St. Edmund's, carefully weighing evidence, and, summing up, assures them he did 'not in the least doubt there are witches: first, because the Scriptures affirmed it; secondly, because the wisdom of all nations, particularly of our own, had provided laws against witchcraft which implied their belief of such a crime.'2 Sir Thomas Browne, who gave his professional experience at this trial, to the effect that the devil often acts upon human bodies by natural means, afflicting them in a more surprising manner through the diseases to which they are usually subject; and that in the particular case, the fits (of vomiting nails, needles, deposed by other witnesses) might be natural, only raised to a great degree by the subtlety of the devil cooperating with the malice of the witches, employs a well-known argument when he declares ('Religio Medici'), 'Those that to confute their incredulity desire to see apparitions shall questionless never behold any. The devil hath these already in a heresy as capital as witchcraft; and to appear to them were but to convert them.'

John Selden, a learned lawyer, but of a liberal mind, was gifted with a large amount of common sense, and it might be juster to attribute the dictum which has been supposed to betray 'a lurking belief' to an excess of legal, rather than to a defect of intellectual, perception. Selden, inferring that 'the law against witches does not prove there be any, but it punishes the malice of those people that use such means to take away men's lives,' proceeds to assert that 'if one should profess that by turning his hat thrice and crying "Buz," he could take away a man's life (though in truth he could do no such thing), yet this were a just law made by the state, that whosoever shall turn his hat ... with an intention to take away a man's life, should be put to death.'3

If men of more liberal sentiments were thus enslaved to old prejudices, it is not surprising that the Church, not leading but following, should firmly maintain them. Fortunately for the witches, without the motives actuating in different ways Catholics and Calvinists, and placed midway between both parties, the reformed English Church was not so much interested in identifying her crimes with sorcerers as in maintaining the less tremendous formulæ of Divine right, Apostolical succession, and similar pretensions. Yet if they did not so furiously engage themselves in actual witch-prosecutions, Anglican divines have not been slow in expressly or impliedly affirming the reality of diabolical interposition. Nor can the most favourable criticism exonerate them from the reproach at least of having witnessed without protestation the barbarous cruelties practised in the name of heaven; and the eminent names of Bishop Jewell, the great apologist of the English Church, and of the author of the 'Ecclesiastical Polity,' among others less eminent, may be claimed by the advocates of witchcraft as respectable authorities in the Established Church. The 'judicious' Hooker affirms that the evil spirits are dispersed, some in the air, some on the earth, some in the waters, some among the minerals, in dens and caves that are under the earth, labouring to obstruct and, if possible, to destroy the works of God. They were the dii inferi [the old persuasion] of the heathen worshipped in oracles, in idols, &c.4 The privilege of 'casting out devils' was much cherished and long retained in the Established Church.

During the ascendency of the Presbyterian party from 1640 to the assumption of the Protectorship by Cromwell, witches and witch-trials increased more than ever; and they sensibly decreased only when the Independents obtained a superiority. The adherents of Cromwell, whatever may have been their own fanatical excesses, were at least exempt from the intolerant spirit which characterised alike their Anglican enemies and their old Presbyterian allies. The astute and vigorous intellect of the great revolutionary leader, the champion of the people in its struggles for civil and religious liberty, however much he might affect the forms of the prevailing religious sentiment, was too sagacious not to be able to penetrate, with the aid of the counsels of the author of the 'Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes,' who so triumphantly upheld the fundamental principle of Protestantism,5 somewhat beneath the surface. In what manner the Presbyterian Parliament issued commissions for inquiring into the crimes of sorcery, how zealously they were supported by the clergy and people, how Matthew Hopkins--immortal in the annals of English witchcraft--exercised his talents as witchfinder-general, are facts well known.6

That the strenuous antagonists of despotic dogmas, by whom the principles of English liberty were first inaugurated, that they should so fanatically abandon their reason to a monstrous idea, is additional proof of the universality of superstitious prejudice. But the conviction, the result of a continual political religious persecution of their tenets, that if heaven was on their side Satan and the powers of darkness were still more inimical, cannot be fully understood unless by referring to those scenes of murder and torture. Hunted with relentless ferocity like wild beasts, holding conventicles and prayer meetings with the sword suspended over their heads, it is not surprising that at that period these English and Scotch Calvinists came to believe that they were the peculiar objects of diabolical as well as human malice. Their whole history during the first eighty years of the seventeenth century can alone explain this faith. Besides this genuine feeling, the clergy of the Presbyterian sect might be interested in maintaining a creed which must magnify their credit as miracle-workers.7

The years 1644 and 1645 are distinguished as especially abounding in witches and witchfinders. In the former year, at Manningtree, a village in Essex, during an outbreak in which several women were tried and hanged, Matthew Hopkins first displayed his peculiar talent. Associated with him in his recognised legal profession was one John Sterne. They proceeded regularly on their circuit, making a fixed charge for their services upon each town or village. Swimming and searching for secret marks were the infallible methods of discovery. Hopkins, encouraged by an unexpected success, arrogantly assumed the title of 'Witchfinder-General.' His modest charges (as he has told us) were twenty shillings a town, which paid the expenses of travelling and living, and an additional twenty shillings a head for every criminal brought to trial, or at least to execution.

The eastern counties of Huntingdon, Cambridge, Suffolk, Northampton, Bedford, were chiefly traversed; and some two or three hundred persons appear to have been sent to the gibbet or the stake by his active exertions. One of these specially remembered was the aged parson of a village near Framlingham, Mr. Lowes, who was hanged at Bury St. Edmund's. The pious Baxter, an eyewitness, thus commemorates the event: 'The hanging of a great number of witches in 1645 and 1646 is famously known. Mr. Calamy went along with the judges on the circuit to hear their confessions and see that there was no fraud or wrong done them. I spoke with many understanding, pious, learned, and credible persons that lived in the counties, and some that went to them in the prison and heard their sad confessions. Among the rest, an old reading parson named Lowes, not far from Framlingham, was one that was hanged, who confessed that he had two imps, and that one of them was always putting him upon doing mischief; and he being near the sea as he saw a ship under sail, it moved him to send it to sink the ship, and he consented and saw the ship sink before them.' Sterne, Hopkins's coadjutor, in an Apology published not long afterwards, asserts that Lowes had been indicted thirty years before for witchcraft; that he had made a covenant with the devil, sealing it with his blood, and had those familiars or spirits which sucked on the marks found on his body; that he had confessed that, besides the notable mischief of sinking the aforesaid vessel and making fourteen widows in one quarter of an hour, he had effected many other calamities; that far from repenting of his wickedness, he rejoiced in the power of his imps.

The excessive destruction and cruelty perpetrated by the indiscriminate procedure of the Witchfinder-General incited a Mr. Gaule, vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire, to urge some objections to the inhuman character of his method. Gaule, like John Cotta before him and others of that class, was provoked to challenge the propriety of the ordinary prosecutions, not so much from incredulity as from humanity, which revolted at the extravagance of the judges' cruelty. In 'Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcraft,' the minister of Great Staughton describes from personal knowledge one of the ordinary ways of detecting the guilt of the accused. 'Having taken the suspected witch, she is placed in the middle of a room upon a stool or table, cross-legged, or in some other uneasy position, to which, if she submits not, she is then bound with cords: there is she watched and kept without meat or sleep for the space of four-and-twenty hours (for they say within that time they shall see her imps come and suck); a little hole is likewise made in the door for the imps to come in at, and, lest they should come in some less discernible shape, they that watch are taught to be ever and anon sweeping the room, and if they see any spiders or flies to kill them; and if they cannot kill them, then they may be sure they are her imps.'

'Swimming' and 'pricking' were the approved modes of discovery. By the former method the witch was stripped naked, securely bound (hands and feet being crossed), rolled up in a blanket or cloth, and carried to the nearest water, upon which she was laid on her back, with the alternative of floating or sinking. In case of the former event (the water not seldom refusing to receive the wretch, because--declares James I--they had impiously thrown off the holy water of baptism) she was rescued for the fire or the gallows; while, in case of sinking to the bottom, she would be properly and clearly acquitted of the suspected guilt. Hopkins prided himself most on his ability for detecting special marks. Causing the suspected woman to be stripped naked, or as far as the waist (as the case might be), sometimes in public, this stigmatic professor began to search for the hidden signs with unsparing scrutiny. Upon finding a mole or wart or any similar mark, they tried the 'insensibleness thereof' by inserting needles, pins, awls, or any sharp-pointed instrument; and in an old and withered crone it might not be difficult to find somewhere a more insensitive spot.

Such examinations were conducted with disregard equally for humanity and decency. All the disgusting circumstances must be sought for in the works of the writers upon the subject. Reginald Scot has collected many of the commonest. These marks were considered to be teats at which the demons or imps were used to be suckled. Many were the judicial and vulgar methods of detecting the guilty--by repeating the 'Lord's Prayer;' weighing against the church Bible; making them shed tears--for a witch can shed tears only with the left eye, and that only with difficulty and in limited quantity. The counteracting or preventive charms are as numerous as curious, not a few being in repute in some parts at this day. 'Drawing blood' was most effective. Nailing up a horse-shoe is one of the best-known preventives. That efficacious counter-charm used to be suspended over the entrance of churches and houses, and no wizard or witch could brave it.8 'Scoring above the breath' is omnipotent in Scotland, where the witch was cut or 'scotched' on the face and forehead. Cutting off secretly a lock of the hair of the accused, burning the thatch of her roof and the thing bewitched; these are a few of the least offensive or obscene practices in counter-charming.9 In what degree or kind the Fetish-charms of the African savages are more ridiculous or disgusting than those popular in England 200 years ago, it would not be easy to determine.

Matthew Hopkins pursued a lucrative trade in witch-hunting for some years with much applause and success. His indiscriminating accusations at last excited either the alarm or the indignation of his townspeople, if we may believe the tradition suggested in the well-known verses of Butler, who has no authority, apparently, for his insinuation ('Hudibras,' ii 3), that this eminent Malleus did not die 'the common death of all men.' However it happened, his death is placed in the year 1647. An Apology shortly before had been published by him in refutation of an injurious report gaining ground that he was himself intimately allied with the devil, from whom he had obtained a memorandum book in which were entered the names of all the witches in England. It is entitled 'The Discovery of Witches; in Answer to several Queries lately delivered to the Judge of Assize for the County of Norfolk; and now published by Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder, for the Benefit of the whole Kingdom. Printed for R. Royston, at the Angel in Inn Lane, 1647.' [Quoted by Sir W. Scott from a copy of this 'very rare tract' in his possession] It is, indeed, sufficiently probable that, confident of the increasing coolness, and perhaps of the wishes, of the magistrates, the mob, ever ready to wreak vengeance upon a disgraced favourite who has long abused the public patience, retaliated upon Hopkins a method of torture he had frequently inflicted upon others.10

Hopkins is the most famous of his class on account of his superior talent; but both in England and Scotland witchfinders, or prickers, as they were sometimes called, before and since his time abounded--of course most where the superstition raged fiercest. In Scotland they infested all parts of the country, practising their detestable but legal trade with entire impunity. The Scottish prickers enjoyed a great reputation for skill and success; and on a special occasion, about the time when Hopkins was practising in the South, the magistrates of Newcastle-upon-Tyne summoned from Scotland one of great professional experience to visit that town, then overrun with witches. The magistrates agreed to pay him all travelling expenses, and twenty shillings for every convicted criminal. A bellman was sent round the town to invite all complainants to prefer their charges. Some thirty women, having been brought to the town-hall, were publicly subjected to an examination. By the ordinary process, twenty-seven on this single occasion were ascertained to be guilty, of whom, at the ensuing assizes, fourteen women and one man were convicted by the jury and executed.

Three thousand are said to have suffered for the crime in England under the supremacy of the Long Parliament. A respite followed on this bloody persecution when the Independents came into power, but it was renewed with almost as much violence upon the return of the Stuarts. The Protectorship had been fitly inaugurated by the rational protest of a gentleman, witness to the proceedings at one of the trials, Sir Robert Filmore, in a tract, 'An Advertizement to the Jurymen of England touching Witches.' This was followed two years later by a similar protest by one Thomas Ady, called, 'A Candle in the Dark; or, a Treatise concerning the Nature of Witches and Witchcraft: being Advice to Judges, Sheriffs, Justices of the Peace and Grand Jurymen, what to do before they pass Sentence on such as are arraigned for their Lives as Witches.' Notwithstanding the general toleration of the Commonwealth, in 1652, the year before Cromwell assumed the Dictatorship (1653-1658), there appeared to be a tendency to return to the old system, and several were executed in different parts of the country. Six were hanged at Maidstone. 'Some there were that wished rather they might be burned to ashes, alleging that it was a received opinion amongst many that the body of a witch being burned, her blood is thereby prevented from becoming hereafter hereditary to her progeny in the same evil, while by hanging it is not; but whether this opinion be erroneous or not,' the reporter adds, 'I am not to dispute.'

1 'Consorting with them [the unclean spirits who have fallen from their first estate] and all use of their assistance is unlawful; much more any worship or veneration whatsoever. But a contemplation and knowledge of their nature, power, illusions, not only from passages of sacred scripture but from reason or experience, is not the least part of spiritual wisdom. So truly the Apostle, "We are not ignorant of his wiles." And it is not less permissible in theology to investigate the nature of demons, than in physics to investigate the nature of drugs, or in ethics the nature of vice.'--De Augmentis Scientiarum, lib. iii 2.

2 Unfortunately for the cause of truth and right, Sir Matthew Hale's reasons are not an exceptional illustration of the mischief according to Roger Bacon's experience of 'three very bad arguments we are always using--This has been shown to be so; This is customary; This is universal: Therefore it must be kept to.' Sir Thomas Browne, unable, as a man of science, to accept in every particular alleged the actual bonâ fide reality of the devil's power, makes a compromise, and has 'recourse to a fraud of Satan,' explaining that he is in reality but a clever juggler, a transcendent physician who knows how to accomplish what is in relation to us a prodigy, in knowing how to use natural forces which our knowledge has not yet discovered. Such an unworthy compromise was certainly not fitted to arouse men from their 'cauchemar démonologique.'--See Révue des Deux Mondes, Aug. 1, 1858.

3 Table Talk or Discourses of John Selden. Although it must be excepted to the lawyer's summary mode of dealing with an imaginary offence, we prefer to give that eminent patriot at least the benefit of the doubt, as to his belief in witchcraft.

4 Quoted in Howitt's History of the Supernatural. The author has collected a mass of evidence 'demonstrating an universal faith,' a curious collection of various superstition. He is indignant at the colder faith of the Anglican Church of later times.

5 'Seeing therefore,' infers Milton, the greatest of England's patriots as well as poets, 'that no man, no synod, no session of men, though called the Church, can judge definitively the sense of Scripture to another man's conscience, which is well known to be a maxim of the Protestant religion; it follows plainly, that he who holds in religion that belief or those opinions which to his conscience and utmost understanding appear with most evidence or probability in the Scripture, though to others he seem erroneous, can no more be justly censured for a heretic than his censurers, who do but the same thing themselves, while they censure him for so doing.... To Protestants therefore, whose common rule and touchstone is the Scripture, nothing can with more conscience, more equity, nothing more Protestantly can be permitted than a free and lawful debate at all times by writing, conference, or disputation of what opinion soever disputable by Scripture.... How many persecutions, then, imprisonments, banishments, penalties, and stripes; how much bloodshed, have the forcers of conscience to answer for--and Protestants rather than Papists!' (A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes) The reasons which induced Milton to exclude the Catholics of his day from the general toleration are more intelligible and more plausible, than those of fifty or sixty years since, when the Rev. Sidney Smith published the Letters of Peter Plymley.

6 Displayed in the satire of Hudibras, particularly in Part II canto 3, Part III 1, and the notes of Zachary Grey. The author of this amusing political satire has exposed the foibles of the great Puritan party with all the rancour of a partisan.

7 The author of Hudibras, in the interview of the Knight and Sidrophel (William Lilly), enumerates the various practices and uses of astrology and witchcraft in vogue at this time, and employed by Court and Parliament with equal eagerness and emulation. Dr. Zachary Grey, the sympathetic editor of Hudibras, supplies much curious information on the subject in extracts from various old writers. 'The Parliament,' as he states, 'took a sure way to secure all prophecies, prodigies, and almanac-news from stars, &c., in favour of their own side, by appointing a licenser thereof, and strictly forbidding and punishing all such as were not licensed. Their man for this purpose was the famous Booker, an astrologer, fortune-teller, almanac-maker, &c. The words of his license in Rushorth are very remarkable--for mathematics, almanacs, and prognostications. If we may believe Lilly, both he and Booker did conjure and prognosticate well for their friends the Parliament. He tells us, "When he applied for a license for his Merlinus Anglicus Junior (in Ap. 1644), Booker wondered at the book, made many impertinent obliterations, framed many objections, and swore it was not possible to distinguish between a king and a parliament; and at last licensed it according to his own fancy. Lilly delivered it to the printer, who, being an arch-Presbyterian, had five of the ministers to inspect it, who could make nothing of it, but said it might be printed; for in that he meddled not with their Dagon." (Lilly's Life) Which opposition to Lilly's book arose from a jealousy that he was not then thoroughly in the Parliament's interest--which was true; for he frankly confesses, "that till the year 1645 he was more Cavalier than Roundhead, and so taken notice of; but after that he engaged body and soul in the cause of the Parliament."' (Life) Lilly was succeeded successively by his assistant Henry Coley, and John Partridge, the well-known object of Swift's satire.

8 Gay's witch complains:

'Straws, laid across, my pace retard.
The horse-shoe's nailed, each threshold's guard.
The stunted broom the wenches hide
For fear that I should up and ride.
They stick with pins my bleeding seat,
And bid me show my secret teat.'

9 The various love-charms, amulets, and spells in the pharmacy of witchcraft are (like the waxen image known, both to the ancient and modern art) equally monstrous and absurd. Of a more natural and pleasing sort was the [Greek: himas poikilos], the irresistible charm of Aphrodite. Here--

[Greek:               Thelktêria panta tetykto;
Enth' eni men philotês, en d' himeros, en d' oaristys,
Parphasis, hê t' eklepse noon pyka per phroneontôn.]

10 Dr. Francis Hutchinson (Historical Essay), referring to the verses of Samuel Butler, says that he had often heard that some persons, 'out of indignation at the barbarity [of the witchfinder], took him and tied his own thumbs and toes, as he used to tie others; and when he was put into the water, he himself swam as they did.' But whether the usual fate upon that event awaited him does not appear. The verses in question are the following:--

'has not he, within a year,
Hang'd threescore of 'em in one shire,

*       *       *       *       *

Who after prov'd himself a witch,
And made a rod for his own breech?'

The Knight's Squire on the same occasion reminds his master of the more notorious of the devil's tricks of that and the last age:--

'Did not the devil appear to Martin
Luther in Germany for certain,
And would have gull'd him with a trick
But Mart was too, too politic?
Did he not help the Dutch to purge
At Antwerp their cathedral church?
Sing catches to the saints at Mascon,
And tell them all they came to ask him?
Appear in divers shapes to Kelly,
And speak i' th' nun of Loudun's belly?
Meet with the Parliament's committee
At Woodstock on a pers'nal treaty?
... &c. &c.'

Hudibras, II 3

Part III--Modern Faith--Chapter IX


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