Accusations of Witchcraft in History, article in The Irish Monthly Magazine 1874
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WE are quite conscious of the ridicule to which a profession of belief in witchcraft must expose us in an age of such enlightenment as the present. The scalpel and the microscope have failed as yet to show traces of a spirit-world, and the warmest advocates of the theory of development shrink from proposing a "disembodied state," as the goal to which our race is tending—so that the belief in a spiritual existence, and consequently in witchcraft, to which our fathers clung so fondly, finds neither foundation nor support in the whole range of modern science.
But like many another outcast it stood high in favour once. It was cherished and defended by the representatives of learning and of power; and exercised a great and often fatal influence upon the fortunes and even lives of our ancestors. The history of its progress and gradual decay has been ably treated of by Mr. Lecky; and those who feel a sufficient interest in it will find very pleasant reading in that chapter of his "Rationalism in Europe," to which he has given the title "Magic and Witchcraft." Now and then, indeed, Mr. Lecky allows himself to be carried away by prejudice; but on the whole, his work shows a spirit of fairness and impartiality rarely to be met with in rationalistic writings; and the occasional phrases, that grate so harshly on a Catholic ear, may be set down to the cause which he himself has pointed to in his "Introduction:" "No one can be truly said to understand any great system of belief if he has not in some degree realized the point of view from which its arguments assume an appearance of plausibility and cogency, the habit of thought which makes its various doctrines appear probable, harmonious, and consistent" (p. xix.) Without wishing to deny the great value of Mr. Lecky's labours, it may, we think, be fairly said that he too has failed to realize the Catholic "point of view," as must all those who have no practical acquaintance with the Church. The "habit of thought" which makes our "various doctrines appear harmonious and consistent," is not of rationalistic growth; and the best intentioned critic is likely to misinterpret facts and judge harshly of persons in our history, when himself uninfluenced by the spirit which dictated the one, and guided the other.
If the number of convictions for an offence be admitted as evidence for the existence of the offence itself, or, at least, for a belief in its existence, then the belief in Witchcraft must have been widespread and enduring. When we reflect that from the reign of Henry VI. to that of George II., ,when the statute against Witchcraft was repealed, about thirty thousand persons were put to death, for this crime, in England alone, we can form a fair idea of the hold it had upon the people. Nor was it in England only that a suspicion of sorcery sent men and women to perish in the flames or on the scaffold. The Duke of Wurtemberg gave orders for a grand Witch-burning on the Tuesday of every week, at which from twenty to twenty-five, but never less than fifteen victims were to be consumed. And the order seems to have been only too faithfully carried out—for a catalogue still exists in the library of Hauber, containing the names of 157 persons burned in the Bishopric of Wurzbourg between 1627 and 1629. During the nineteen years' rule of John VI., Elector of Treves, numberless executions took place—suspicion fell upon all classes alike; citizens, senators, priests, even the rector of the University, himself one of the judges, were accused and condemned. Such was the state of popular excitement, that of two whole villages two women alone were left: and within seven years, the victims from twenty villages, in the immediate neighbourhood of Treves, amounted to 368.
About this period, a fear of Witchcraft seems to have gained complete possession of England, France, and Germany. In 1556, 400 persons are said to have been burned at Toulouse. And "towards the end of the civil wars, the crime of magic was become so common, that the prisons of the parliament were too small for the multitudes of the accused, and the judges could not find time to try them." From 1581 to 1585, Remi passed judgment on 900 persons in Lorraine—and a few years later de Lancre was sent to make inquiries in Labourd, in Gascony, where over 1000 persons were convicted of magic. The contagion spread even to the infant States of America, as is proved by the record of the judicial murders perpetrated in Salem Village in the year 1692. In that one village of Massachusetts from the 10th of June, when the first execution took place, until the 22nd of September, when as Noyes, the Minister of Salem, said, there were hung "eight firebrands of hell," "twenty persons had been put to death for Witchcraft; fifty-five had been tortured or terrified into penitent confessions." Of the means by which these penitent confessions were obtained we shall have occasion to speak later. Crespet in his book "De odio Satanae," tells us that in France, under Francis I., the number of persons accused of magic amounted to 100,000.
Italy too, at least in some parts, was more than tainted with the evil. The account given by Retegno, whom Julius II. sent as inquisitor to Brescia, Bergamo, and Como, in 1505, shows that close upon 1000 persons were tried every year by the inquisitor and his vicars; and that several hundreds had been burned in the course of a few years. And we read that St. Charles Borromeo received upon one occasion the abjuration of 150 persons, inhabitants of the Canton of the Grisons, who had been addicted to Witchcraft.* The evil spread farnorthwards too, for wefind theGovernment of Sweden sending a commission to inquire into alleged magical phenomena in the village of Mohra, in 1559. This commission declared the suspicion well founded, and reported that there were in Mohra seventy witches who had seduced 300 children. Of the witches twenty-three, of the children fifteen were condemned to death. The documents relating to this strange trial are still to be seen in the Royal Archives of Stockholm.
The cases which we have cited, without entering upon the question of the justice of the sentences or the motives of many of the principal actors, will suffice, we think, to show that the belief in Witchcraft was not limited by country, race, or creed; and that during a certain period, notably the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it had a terrible hold upon all classes of society. Of our own country we have made no mention; for, strange as it may seem to those who assert us to be a superstitious, priest-ridden people, scarcely a trace of the Witch-hunting mania, so prevalent in other lands, appears in our history. In 1327 Bishop Ledred, an Englishman, accused the Lady Alice Kettel and her son William of practising black magic in Kilkenny. Her stepson, Sir Roger Outlaw, Prior of Kilmainham, took upon him her defence, but he too was included in the accusation, and put upon his trial. The result, however, we are glad to find, was the acquittal of the accused, and the forced retirement of Bishop Ledred to his native England. This, and the case of the Presbyterian Witches of Carrickfergus, towards the beginning of the eighteenth century, stand alone in our annals; and it is worthy of remark that in neither case were the accusers or accused of Irish origin.
As yet we have not entered upon the question of how far the charges brought against the accused were capable of proof, and upon what kind of evidence they were pronounced guilty. In glancing at any record of the trials, the reader, no matter what his faith in Witchcraft may be, must be painfully impressed by the injustice which almost everywhere prevailed. The most notorious criminal of our own day would not be adjudged a week's detention on such evidence as sent hundreds of our forefathers to a shameful death. In many instances the charge was brought forward because political or other grounds rendered the murder or banishment of the accused desirable, while public opinion demanded a show of justice. This was the case with Joan of Arc; the Duchess of Gloucester, wife of Duke Humphrey; Jane Shore, and many others. Personal ill-feeling, a desire of notoriety, or greed of gain prompted the prosecution in many others; as in the Salem cases, the trials which took place under the guidance of James I., and the infamous mockeries of justice presided over by Matthew Hopkins. It is impossible to read the narratives which Mr. Lecky, Scott, and Gorres have collected without a growing feeling of indignation at the shameful cruelties perpetrated in the name of religion and morality.
After a declaration such as this it may appear strange that we should profess our entire belief in the possibility of Witchcraft; and still worse that we should admit as convincing the evidence brought forward in certain individual cases. Yet so it is. Evil-minded men may pursue their own designs under cover of honest principles, which may be discredited and disowned by the multitude, owing to the wrongful deeds of those whose boast it is to follow them. But the principles will still be true; and there will be always some who can read them in another light than that shed on them by those who disgrace them. The belief in Witchcraft has been fruitful of many and great evils; but the possibility of Witchcraft, the fact of its existence, are independent of them. It must be confessed that a vast amount of imposture and superstition grew up, and in the popular mind became identical with magic; and that with the critical aids which modern research has placed at our disposal we can throw light on many things which our ancestors found dark indeed. But it should be remembered that to discredit isolated examples of magic leaves the general question still untouched, and least of all warrants the rejection of a theory which only aims at proving these supposed facts possible; just as the kindred subject of spiritism is wholly unaffected by the light in which we may regard the performances of the Davenport Brothers and Dr. Redmondi. It may be that the handcuffs are taken off, and escape from a locked and corded box made possible, by the intervention of some kind spirit, as say the former; or it may be the result of mere physical strength and dexterity, as is asserted by the latter. But even though we grant that Dr. Redmondi has convincingly proved his case, we are not therefore warranted in denying the general possibility of spiritism, nor yet its reality in certain cases. In many modern theories, too, we meet with hotly disputed questions, which, if they could be satisfactorily disposed of, would tell enormously in favour of the more received opinions, but which even if disproved, only deprive them of a proof the more. Newton's theory of gravitation is not rejected because some of his proofs are, nor is Galileo's solar theory because he erred in some of his demonstrations.
We may fairly take for granted that the majority of those to whom this question has any beyond a mere historical interest, will concede to themselves the possibility of the existence of demons; and this once admitted, the received tradition as to their fall and present state cannot be rejected as impossible. There may then exist a class of spiritual beings, gifted with wondrous power, and animated with an intense and ever-enduring hatred of all that is good and holy. Unutterably miserable themselves, they may view all happiness as an increase of their own misery, and be anxious to drag down all others to their own level. For beings such as these man is a fitting prey. His passionate desires, and his own imperfect powers of satisfying them, must often make him willing to receive aid from some one stronger than himself; he will be disposed to sell, for what he looks on as a present good, all his hopes of the future. If, then, spirits, such as we have pictured, can enter into communication with man, and place at his disposal, even to a limited degree, some of the powers we have supposed them to possess, may we not fairly expect many of the results which the history of magic records? In virtue of a compact, effects due to the power of the demon are produced at the will of man, and the soul of man is the wages of the demon. All objections to the possibility of such intercourse must arise either from our knowledge of the nature and powers of the parties to the contract, or from our judgment of what God's Providence demands. Now, our knowledge of our own and the demon's nature is most limited; and nothing in either can justify an adverse conclusion. At first, indeed, it would seem that a wise and powerful Ruler dare not allow man to injure himself so fearfully as we suppose, still less that he could permit man's wicked passions to bring evil on his fellow man, through Satan's intervention. But these are only varied forms of the one great problem, which each succeeding age has thought itself best qualified to solve—the permission of evil; and whosoever can reconcile all the sin and misery, and crime that lie festering around us with a supreme and watchful providence, will find little difficulty in explaining the seeming power for evil which the demons are said to have exercised on man.
Still, while merely proposing here the theory which makes Witchcraft possible, because evil spirits may exist, I may not myself lay claim to the philosophic spirit which would rest in such neutral ground. I cannot look upon life as a rationalist would have me do. I love to recall the memories of my childhood, which pictured to itself nature animate with spiritual life, which saw the interposition of good or evil angels in most if not all the many joys and ills of existence, and could almost, as Dr. Newman so beautifully says, detect the glories of bright angels' robes in the green grass, and fruits, and flowers with which our earth is clad in spring and summer. I admit that all this is eminently unscientific,—out of place in "the advance of rationalistic civilization." But I am content to be laughed at by my more scientific fellows, so that I may not be ever weighed down by what I taste and grasp and see, so that I may be allowed to picture to myself something beyond the cares and miseries of life, and breathe ever and anon an atmosphere untainted by the gin-shops and prisons, the crowded lanes and factories of our nineteenth century.
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