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It is impossible to understand the significance of the prosecutions [of the witches] without some acquaintance with the course of opinion on the subject. Here we shall go back as far as the opening of the reign of James and follow up to the end of the Commonwealth the special discussions of witchcraft, as well as some of the more interesting incidental references. It will be recalled that James's Dæmonologie had come out several years before its author ascended the English throne. With the coming of the Scottish king to Westminster the work was republished at London. But, while James by virtue of his position was easily first among those who were writing on the subject, he by no means occupied the stage alone. Not less than four other men gained a hearing within the reign and for that reason deserve consideration. They were Perkins, Cotta, Roberts, and Cooper.
William Perkins's Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft came first in order, indeed it was written during the last years of Elizabeth's reign; but it was not published until 1608, six years after the author's death. William Perkins was a fellow of Christ's College at Cambridge and an eminent preacher in that university. He holds a high place among Puritan divines. His sermons may still be found in the libraries of older clergymen and citations from them are abundant in commentaries. It was in the course of one of his university sermons that he took up the matter of witchcraft. In what year this sermon was preached cannot definitely be said. That he seems to have read Scot, that however he does not mention King James's book, are data which lead us to guess that he may have uttered the discourse between 1584 and 1597. His point of view was strictly theological and his convictions grounded—as might be expected—upon scriptural texts. Yet it seems not unfair to suppose that he was an exponent of opinion at Cambridge, where we have already seen evidences of strong faith in the reality of witchcraft. It seems no less likely that a perusal of Reginald Scot's Discoverie prompted the sermon. Witches nowadays, he admitted, have their patrons. His argument for the existence of witches was so thoroughly biblical that we need not go over it. He did not, however, hold to all current conceptions of them. The power of the evil one to transform human beings into other shapes he utterly repudiated. The scratching of witches and the testing of them by water he thought of no value. In this respect it will be seen that he was in advance of his royal contemporary. About the bodily marks, the significance of which James so emphasized, Perkins seems to have been less decided. He believed in the death penalty, but he warned juries to be very careful as to evidence. Evidence based upon the accusations of "good witches," upon the statements of the dying, or upon the charges of those who had suffered ill after threats, he thought ought to be used with great caution. It is evident that Perkins—though he doubtless would not have admitted it himself—was affected by the reading of Scot. Yet it is disappointing to find him condoning the use of torture in extreme instances.
A Cambridge man who wrote about a score of years after Perkins put forth opinions a good deal farther advanced. John Cotta was a "Doctor in Physicke" at Northampton who had taken his B. A. at Cambridge in 1595, his M. A. the following year, and his M. D. in 1603. Nine years after leaving Cambridge he had published A Short Discoverie of the Unobserved Dangers, in which he had devoted a very thoughtful chapter to the relation between witchcraft and sickness. In 1616 he elaborated his notions in The Triall of Witchcraft, published at London. Like Perkins he disapproved of the trial by water. He discredited, too, the evidence of marks, but believed in contracts with the Devil, and cited as illustrious instances the cases of Merlin and "that infamous woman," Joan of Arc. But his point of view was of course mainly that of a medical man. A large number of accusations of witchcraft were due to the want of medical examination. Many so-called possessions could be perfectly diagnosed by a physician. He referred to a case where the supposed witches had been executed and their victim had nevertheless fallen ill again. Probably this was the case of Mistress Belcher, on whose account two women had been hanged at Northampton.
Yet Cotta believed that there were real witches and arraigned Scot for failing to distinguish the impostors from the true. It was indeed, he admitted, very hard to discover, except by confession; and even confession, as he had pointed out in his first work, might be a "meane, poore and uncertain proofe," because of the Devil's power to induce false confession. Here the theologian—it was hard for a seventeenth-century writer not to be a theologian—was cropping out. But the scientific spirit came to the front again when he made the point that imagination was too apt to color observations made upon bewitched and witch. The suggestion that coincidence explained many of the alleged fulfillments of witch predictions was equally in advance of his times.
How, then, were real cases of bewitchment to be recognized? The best assurance on such matters, Cotta answered, came "whensoever ... the Physicion shall truely discover a manifest transcending power." In other words, the Northampton physician believed that his own profession could best determine these vexed matters. One who has seen the sorry part played by the physicians up to this time can hardly believe that their judgment on this point was saner than that of men in other professions. It may even be questioned if they were more to be depended upon than the so superstitious clergy.
In the same year as Cotta's second book, Alexander Roberts, "minister of God's word at King's Lynn" in Norfolk, brought out A Treatise of Witchcraft as a sort of introduction to his account of the trial of Mary Smith of that town and as a justification of her punishment. The work is merely a restatement of the conventional theology of that time as applied to witches, exactly such a presentation of it as was to be expected from an up-country parson who had read Reginald Scot, and could wield the Scripture against him.
The following year saw the publication of a work equally theological, The Mystery of Witchcraft, by the Reverend Thomas Cooper, who felt that his part in discovering "the practise of Anti-Christ in that hellish Plot of the Gunpowder-treason" enabled him to bring to light other operations of the Devil. He had indeed some experience in this work, as well as some acquaintance with the writers on the subject. But he adds nothing to the discussion unless it be the coupling of the disbelief in witchcraft with the "Atheisme and Irreligion that overflows the land." Five years later the book was brought out again under another title, Sathan transformed into an Angell of Light, ... [ex]emplified specially in the Doctrine of Witchcraft.
In the account of the trials for witchcraft in the reign of James I the divorce case of the Countess of Essex was purposely omitted, because in it the question of witchcraft was after all a subordinate matter. In the history of opinion, however, the views about witchcraft expressed by the court that passed upon the divorce can by no means be ignored. It is not worth while to rehearse the malodorous details of that singular affair. The petitioner for divorce made the claim that her husband was unable to consummate the marriage with her and left it to be inferred that he was bewitched. It will be remembered that King James, anxious to further the plans of his favorite, Carr, was too willing to have the marriage annulled and brought great pressure to bear upon the members of the court. Archbishop Abbot from the beginning of the trial showed himself unfavorable to the petition of the countess, and James deemed it necessary to resolve his doubts on the general grounds of the divorce. On the matter of witchcraft in particular the king wrote: "for as sure as God is, there be Devils, and some Devils must have some power, and their power is in this world.... That the Devil's power is not so universal against us, that I freely confess; but that it is utterly restrained quoad nos, how was then a minister of Geneva bewitched to death, and were the witches daily punished by our law. If they can harm none but the papists, we are too charitable for avenging of them only." This was James's opinion in 1613, and it is worthy of note that he was much less certain of his ground and much more on the defensive about witchcraft than the author of the Dæmonologie had been. It can hardly be doubted that he had already been affected by the more liberal views of the ecclesiastics who surrounded him. Archbishop Bancroft, who had waged through his chaplain the war on the exorcists, was not long dead. That chaplain was now Bishop of Chichester and soon to become Archbishop of York. It would be strange if James had not been affected to some degree by their opinions. Moreover, by this time he had begun his career as a discoverer of impostors.
The change in the king's position must, however, not be overrated. He maintained his belief in witches and seemed somewhat apprehensive lest others should doubt it. Archbishop Abbot, whom he was trying to win over to the divorce, would not have denied James's theories, but he was exceedingly cautious in his own use of the term maleficium. Abbot was wholly familiar with the history of the Anglican attitude towards exorcism. There can be little doubt that he was in sympathy with the policy of his predecessor. It is therefore interesting to read his carefully worded statement as to the alleged bewitchment of the Earl of Essex. In his speech defending his refusal and that of three colleagues to assent to the divorce, he wrote: "One of my lords (my lord of Winchester) hath avowed it, that he dislikes that maleficium; that he hath read Del Rio, the Jesuit, writing upon that argument, and doth hold him an idle and fabulous fellow.... Another of my lords (my lord of Ely) hath assented thereunto, and maleficium must be gone. Now I for my part will not absolutely deny that witches by God's permission may have a power over men, to hurt all, or part in them, as by God they shall be limited; but how shall it appear that this is such a thing in the person of a man." This was not, of course, an expression of disbelief in the reality or culpability of witchcraft. It was an expression of great reluctance to lay much stress upon charges of witchcraft—an expression upon the part of the highest ecclesiastical authority in England.
In the reign of Charles I prior to the Civil Wars we have to analyze but a single contribution to the literature of our subject, that made by Richard Bernard. Bernard had preached in Nottinghamshire and had gone from there to Batcombe in Somerset. While yet in Nottinghamshire, in the early years of James's reign, he had seen something of the exorcizers. Later he had had to do with the Taunton cases of 1626; indeed, he seems to have had a prominent part in this affair. Presumably he had displayed some anxiety lest the witches should not receive fair treatment, for in his Guide to Grand-Jurymen ... in cases of Witchcraft, published in 1627, he explained the book as a "plaine countrey Minister's testimony." Owing to his "upright meaning" in his "painstaking" with one of the witches, a rumor had spread that he favored witches or "were of Master Scots erroneous opinion that Witches were silly Melancholikes." He had undertaken in consequence to familiarize himself with the whole subject and had read nearly all the discussions in English, as well as all the accounts of trials published up to that time. His work he dedicated to the two judges at Taunton, Sir John Walter and Sir John Denham, and to the archdeacon of Wells and the chancellor of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The book was, indeed, a truly remarkable patchwork. All shades of opinion from that of the earnestly disbelieving Scot to that of the earnestly believing Roberts were embodied. Nevertheless Bernard had a wholesome distrust of possessions and followed Cotta in thinking that catalepsy and other related diseases accounted for many of them. He thought, too, that the Devil very often acted as his own agent without any intermediary. Like Cotta, he was skeptical as to the water ordeal; but, strange to say, he accepted the use of a magical glass to discover "the suspected." He was inclined to believe that the "apparition of the party suspected, whom the afflicted in their fits seem to see," was a ground for suspicion. The main aim of his discourse was, indeed, to warn judges and jurors to be very careful by their questions and methods of inquiring to separate the innocent from the guilty. In this contention, indeed in his whole attitude, he was very nearly the mouthpiece of an age which, while clinging to a belief, was becoming increasingly cautious of carrying that belief too far into judicial trial and punishment.
It is a jump of seventeen years from Bernard of Batcombe to John Gaule. It cannot be said that Gaule marks a distinct step in the progress of opinion beyond Bernard. His general position was much the same as that of his predecessor. His warnings were perhaps more earnest, his skepticism a little more apparent. In an earlier chapter we have observed the bold way in which the indignant clergyman of Huntingdonshire took up Hopkins's challenge in 1646. It was the Hopkins crusade that called forth his treatise. His little book was in large part a plea for more caution in the use of evidence. Suspicion was too lightly entertained against "every poore and peevish olde Creature." Whenever there was an extraordinary accident, whenever there was a disease that could not be explained, it was imputed to witchcraft. Such "Tokens of Tryall" he deemed "altogether unwarrantable, as proceeding from ignorance, humor, superstition." There were other more reliable indications by which witches could sometimes be detected, but those indications were to be used with exceeding caution. Neither the evidence of the fact—that is, of a league with the Devil—without confession nor "confession without fact" was to be accounted as certain proof. On the matter of confession Gaule was extraordinarily skeptical for his time. It was to be considered whether the party confessing were not diabolically deluded, whether the confession were not forced, or whether it were not the result of melancholy. Gaule went even a little further. Not only was he inclined to suspect confession, but he had serious doubts about a great part of witch lore. There were stories of metamorphoses, there were narratives of "tedious journeys upon broomes," and a hundred other tales from old authors, which the wise Christian would, he believed, leave with the writers. To believe nothing of them, however, would be to belittle the Divine attributes. As a matter of fact there was a very considerable part of the witch theory that Gaule accepted. His creed came to this: it was unsafe to pronounce such and such to be witches. While not one in ten was guilty, the tenth was still to be accounted for. The physician Cotta would have turned the matter over to the physicians; the clergyman Gaule believed that it belonged to the province of the "Magistracy and Ministery."
During the period of the Commonwealth one would have supposed that intellectual men would be entirely preoccupied with more weighty matters than the guilt of witches. But the many executions that followed in the wake of Hopkins and Stearne had invested the subject with a new interest and brought new warriors into the fray. Half a dozen writers took up the controversy. On the conservative side three names deserve mention, two of them not unknown in other connections, Henry More and Meric Casaubon. For the defence of the accused witches appeared two men hardly so well known in their time, Robert Filmer and Thomas Ady.
More was a young Cambridge scholar and divine who was to take rank among the English philosophers of the seventeenth century. Grounded in Plato and impregnated with Descartes, he became a little later thoroughly infected with the Cabalistic philosophy that had entered Europe from the East. It was the point of view that he acquired in the study of this mystic Oriental system that gave the peculiar turn to his witchcraft notions, a turn which through his own writings and those of Glanvill found wide acceptance. It was in 1653 that More issued An Antidote to Atheisme. The phenomena of witchcraft he reckoned as part of the evidence for the reality of the spirit world and used them to support religion, quite in the same manner as Sir Oliver Lodge or Professor Hyslop would today use psychical research to establish immortality. More had made investigations for himself, probably at Maidstone. In his own town of Cambridge there was a story—doubtless a college joke, but he referred to it in all seriousness—of "Old Strangridge," who "was carried over Shelford Steeple upon a black Hogge and tore his breeches upon the weather-cock." He believed that he had absolute proof of the "nocturnal conventicles" of witches. He had, however, none of that instinct for scientific observation that had distinguished Scot, and his researches did not prevent his being easily duped. His observations are not by any means so entertaining as are his theories. His effort to account for the instantaneous transportation of witches is one of the bright spots in the prosy reasonings of the demonologists. More was a thoroughgoing dualist. Mind and matter were the two separate entities. Now, the problem that arose at once was this: How can the souls of witches leave their bodies? "I conceive," he says, "the Divell gets into their body and by his subtile substance more operative and searching than any fire or putrifying liquor, melts the yielding Campages of the body to such a consistency ... and makes it plyable to his imagination: and then it is as easy for him to work it into what shape he pleaseth." If he could do that, much more could he enable men to leave their bodies. Then arose the problem: How does this process differ from death? The writer was puzzled apparently at his own question, but reasoned that death was the result of the unfitness of the body to contain the soul. But no such condition existed when the Devil was operating; and no doubt the body could be anointed in such fashion that the soul could leave and return.
Meric Casaubon, son of the eminent classical scholar and himself a well known student, was skeptical as to the stories told about the aerial journeys of witches which More had been at such pains to explain. It was a matter, he wrote in his Treatise concerning Enthusiasme, of much dispute among learned men. The confessions made were hard to account for, but he would feel it very wrong to condemn the accused upon that evidence. We shall meet with Casaubon again.
Nathaniel Homes, who wrote from his pastoral study at Mary Stayning's in London, and dedicated his work to Francis Rous, member of Parliament, was no halfway man. He was a thoroughgoing disciple of Perkins. His utmost admission—the time had come when one had to make some concessions—was that evil spirits performed many of their wonders by tricks of juggling. But he swallowed without effort all the nonsense about covenants, and was inclined to see in the activities of the Devil a presage of the last days.
The reader can readily see that More, Casaubon, and Homes were all on the defensive. They were compelled to offer explanations of the mysteries of witchcraft, they were ready enough to make admissions; but they were nevertheless sticking closely to the main doctrines. It is a pleasure to turn to the writings of two men of somewhat bolder stamp, Robert Filmer and Thomas Ady. Sir Robert Filmer was a Kentish knight of strong royalist views who had written against the limitations of monarchy and was not afraid to cross swords with Milton and Hobbes on the origin of government. In 1652 he had attended the Maidstone trials, where, it will be remembered, six women had been convicted. As Scot had been stirred by the St. Oses trials, so Filmer was wrought up by what he had seen at Maidstone, and in the following year he published his Advertisement to the Jurymen of England. He set out to overturn the treatise of Perkins. As a consequence he dealt with Scripture and the interpretation of the well known passages in the Old Testament. The Hebrew witch, Filmer declared, was guilty of nothing more than "lying prophecies." The Witch of Endor probably used "hollow speaking." In this suggestion Filmer was following his famous Kentish predecessor. But Filmer's main interest, like Bernard's and Gaule's before him, was to warn those who had to try cases to be exceedingly careful. He felt that a great part of the evidence used was worth little or nothing.
Thomas Ady's Candle in the Dark was published three years later. Even more than Filmer, Ady was a disciple of Scot. But he was, indeed, a student of all English writers on the subject and set about to answer them one by one. King James, whose book he persistently refused to believe the king's own handiwork, Cooper, who was a "bloudy persecutor," Gifford, who "had more of the spirit of truth in him than many," Perkins, the arch-enemy, Gaule, whose "intentions were godly," but who was too far "swayed by the common tradition of men," all of them were one after another disposed of. Ady stood eminently for good sense. It was from that point of view that he ridiculed the water ordeal and the evidence of marks, and that he attacked the cause and effect relation between threats and illness. "They that make this Objection must dwell very remote from Neighbours."
Yet not even Ady was a downright disbeliever. He defended Scot from the report "that he held an opinion that Witches are not, for it was neither his Tenent nor is it mine." Alas, Ady does not enlighten us as to just what was his opinion. Certainly his witches were creatures without power. What, then, were they? Were they harmless beings with malevolent minds? Mr. Ady does not answer.
A hundred years of witchcraft history had not brought to light a man who was willing to deny in a printed work the existence of witches. Doubtless such denial might often have been heard in the closet, but it was never proclaimed on the housetop. Scot had not been so bold—though one imagines that if he had been quietly questioned in a corner he might have denied the thing in toto—and those who had followed in his steps never ventured beyond him.
The controversy, indeed, was waged in most of its aspects along the lines laid down by the first aggressor. Gifford, Cotta, and Ady had brought in a few new arguments to be used in attacking superstition, but in general the assailants looked to Scot. On the other side, only Perkins and More had contributed anything worth while to the defence that had been built up. Yet, the reader will notice that there had been progress. The centre of struggle had shifted to a point within the outer walls. The water ordeal and the evidence of marks were given up by most, if not all. The struggle now was over the transportation of witches through the air and the battle was going badly for the defenders.
We turn now to the incidental indications of the shifting of opinion. In one sense this sort of evidence means more than the formal literature. Yet its fragmentary character at best precludes putting any great stress upon it.
If one were to include all the references to witchcraft in the drama of the period, this discussion might widen out into a long chapter. Over the passages in the playwrights we must pass with haste; but certain points must be noted. Shakespeare, in Macbeth, which scholars have usually placed at about 1606, used a great body of witch lore. He used it, too, with apparent good faith, though to conclude therefrom that he believed in it himself would be a most dangerous step Thomas Middleton, whose Witch probably was written somewhat later, and who is thought to have drawn on Shakespeare for some of his witch material, gives absolutely no indication in that play that he did not credit those tales of witch performances of which he availed himself. The same may be said of Dekker and of those who collaborated with him in writing The Witch of Edmonton.
We may go further and say that in none of these three plays is there any hint that there were disbelievers. But when we come to Ben Jonson we have a different story. His various plays we cannot here take up. Suffice it to say, on the authority of careful commentators, that he openly or covertly ridiculed all the supposedly supernatural phenomena of his time. Perhaps a search through the obscurer dramatists of the period might reveal other evidences of skepticism. Such a search we cannot make. It must, however, be pointed out that Thomas Heywood, in The late Lancashire Witches a play which is described at some length in an earlier chapter, makes a character say: "It seemes then you are of opinion that there are witches. For mine own part I can hardly be induc'd to think there is any such kinde of people." The speech is the more notable because Heywood's own belief in witchcraft, as has been observed in another connection, seems beyond doubt.
The interest in witchcraft among literary men was not confined to the dramatists. Three prose writers eminent in their time dealt with the question. Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy admits that "many deny witches at all, or, if there be any, they can do no harm." But he says that on the other side are grouped most "Lawyers, Divines, Physitians, Philosophers." James Howell, famous letter-writer of the mid-century, had a similar reverence for authority: "I say ... that he who denies there are such busy Spirits and such poor passive Creatures upon whom they work, which commonly are call'd Witches ... shews that he himself hath a Spirit of Contradiction in him." There are, he says, laws against witches, laws by Parliament and laws in the Holy Codex.
Francis Osborne, a literary man whose reputation hardly survived his century, but an essayist of great fame in his own time, was a man who made his fortune by sailing against rather than with the wind. It was conventional to believe in witches and Osborne would not for any consideration be conventional. He assumed the skeptical attitude, and perhaps was as influential as any one man in making that attitude fashionable.
From these lesser lights of the literary world we may pass to notice the attitude assumed by three men of influence in their own day, whose reputations have hardly been dimmed by time, Bacon, Selden, and Hobbes. Not that their views would be representative of their times, for each of the three men thought in his own way, and all three were in many respects in advance of their day. At some time in the reign of James I Francis Bacon wrote his Sylva Sylvarum and rather incidentally touched upon witchcraft. He warned judges to be wary about believing the confessions of witches and the evidence against them. "For the witches themselves are imaginative and believe oft-times they do that which they do not; and people are credulous in that point, and ready to impute accidents and natural operations to witchcraft. It is worthy the observing, that ... the great wonders which they tell, of carrying in the air, transporting themselves into other bodies, &c., are still reported to be wrought, not by incantations, or ceremonies, but by ointments, and anointing themselves all over. This may justly move a man to think that these fables are the effects of imagination."
Surely all this has a skeptical sound. Yet largely on the strength of another passage, which has been carelessly read, the great Bacon has been tearfully numbered among the blindest leaders of the blind. A careful comparison of his various allusions to witchcraft will convince one that, while he assumed a belief in the practice, partly perhaps in deference to James's views, he inclined to explain many reported phenomena from the effects of the imagination and from the operation of "natural causes" as yet unknown.
Bacon, though a lawyer and man of affairs, had the point of view of a philosopher. With John Selden we get more directly the standpoint of a legal man. In his Table Talk that eminent jurist wrote a paragraph on witches. "The Law against Witches," he declared, "does not prove there be any; but it punishes the Malice of those people that use such means to take away mens Lives. 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 should turn his Hat thrice and cry Buz, with an intention to take away a man's life, shall be put to death." As to the merits of this legal quip the less said the better; but it is exceedingly hard to see in the passage anything but downright skepticism as to the witch's power.
It is not without interest that Selden's point of view was exactly that of the philosopher Hobbes. There is no man of the seventeenth century, unless it be Oliver Cromwell or John Milton, whose opinion on this subject we would rather know than that of Hobbes. In 1651 Hobbes had issued his great Leviathan. It is unnecessary here to insist upon the widespread influence of that work. Let it be said, however, that Hobbes was not only to set in motion new philosophies, but that he had been tutor to Prince Charles and was to become a figure in the reign of that prince. Hobbes's work was directed against superstition in many forms, but we need only notice his statement about witchcraft, a statement that did not by any means escape his contemporaries. "As for Witches," he wrote, "I think not that their witchcraft is any reall power; but yet that they are justly punished for the false beliefe they have that they can do such mischief, joined with their purpose to do it if they can." Perhaps the great philosopher had in mind those pretenders to diabolic arts who had suffered punishment, and was so defending the community that had rid itself of a preying class. In any case, while he defended the law, he put himself among the disbelievers in witchcraft.
From these opinions of the great we may turn to mark the more trivial indications of the shifting of opinion to be found in the pamphlet literature. It goes without saying that the pamphlet-writers believed in that whereof they spoke. It is not in their outspoken faith that we are interested, but rather in their mention of those opponents at whose numbers they marvelled, and whose incredulity they undertook to shake. Nowhere better than in the prefaces of the pamphleteers can evidence be found of the growing skepticism. The narrator of the Northampton cases in 1612 avowed it his purpose in writing to convince the "many that remaine yet in doubt whether there be any Witches or no." That ardent busybody, Mr. Potts, who reported the Lancaster cases of 1612, very incidentally lets us know that the kinsfolk and friends of Jennet Preston, who, it will be remembered, suffered at York, declared the whole prosecution to be an act of malice. The Yorkshire poet and gentleman, Edward Fairfax, who made such an ado about the sickness of his two daughters in 1622 and would have sent six creatures to the gallows for it, was very frank in describing the opposition he met. The accused women found supporters among the "best able and most understanding." There were, he thought, three kinds of people who were doubters in these matters: those who attributed too much to natural causes and who were content to call clear cases of bewitchment convulsions, those who when witchcraft was broached talked about fairies and "walking ghosts," and lastly those who believed there were no witches. "Of this opinion I hear and see there be many, some of them men of worth, religious and honest."
The pamphlet-writers of James's reign had adjusted themselves to meet opposition. Those of the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth were prepared to meet ridicule. "There are some," says the narrator of a Yorkshire story, "who are of opinion that there are no Divells nor any witches.... Men in this Age are grown so wicked, that they are apt to believe there are no greater Divells than themselves." Another writer, to bolster up his story before a skeptical public, declares that he is "very chary and hard enough to believe passages of this nature."
We have said that the narrators of witch stories fortified themselves against ridicule. That ridicule obviously must have found frequent expression in conversation, but sometimes it even crept into the newspapers and tracts of the day. The Civil Wars had developed a regular London press. We have already met with expressions of serious opinion from it. But not all were of that sort. In 1654 the Mercurius Democritus, the Punch of its time, took occasion to make fun of the stories of the supernatural then in circulation. There was, it declared, a strange story of a trance and apparition, a ghost was said to be abroad, a woman had hanged herself in a tobacco pipe. With very broad humor the journal took off the strange reports of the time and concluded with the warning that in "these distempered times" it was not safe for an "idle-pated woman" to look up at the skies.
The same mocking incredulity had manifested itself in 1648 in a little brochure entitled, The Devil seen at St. Albans, Being a true Relation how the Devill was seen there in a Cellar, in the likeness of a Ram; and how a Butcher came and cut his throat, and sold some of it, and dressed the rest for himselfe, inviting many to supper, who did eat of it. The story was a clever parody of the demon tracts that had come out so frequently in the exciting times of the wars. The writer made his point clear when he declared that his story was of equal value with anything that "Britannicus" ever wrote. The importance of these indications may be overestimated. But they do mean that there were those bold enough to make fun. A decade or two later ridicule became a two-edged knife, cutting superstition right and left. But even under the terribly serious Puritans skepticism began to avail itself of that weapon, a weapon of which it could hardly be disarmed.
In following the history of opinion we must needs mention again some of the incidents of certain cases dealt with in earlier chapters, incidents that indicate the growing force of doubt. The reader has hardly forgotten the outcome of the Lancashire cases in 1633. There Bishop Bridgeman and the king, if they did not discredit witchcraft, discredited its manifestation in the particular instance. As for William Harvey, he had probably given up his faith in the whole business after the little incident at Newmarket. When we come to the time of the Civil Wars we cannot forget that Stearne and Hopkins met opposition, not alone from the Huntingdon minister, but from a large party in Norfolk, who finally forced the witchfinder to defend himself in court. Nor can we forget the witch-pricker of Berwick who was sent a-flying back to his native northern soil, nor the persistent Mrs. Muschamp who tramped over Northumberland seeking a warrant and finding none.
The course of opinion is a circuitous one. We have followed its windings in and out through more than half a century. We have listened as respectfully as possible to the vagaries of country parsons and university preachers, we have heard from scholars, from gentlemen, from jurists and men of affairs, from physicians and philosophers. It matters little now what they thought or said, but it did matter then. We have seen how easy a thing it was to fall into the error that a middle course was nearest truth. Broad was the way and many there were that walked therein. Yet even those who travelled that highway found their direction shifting. For there was progress in opinion. With every decade the travellers, as well those who strayed aside as those who followed the crowd, were getting a little nearer to truth.