When witches were brought to trial, one of the first measures was to search for special marks which were believed to betray their true character.
These were especially the so-called witches‘ moles, spots of the size of a pea, on which for some reason or other the nerves had lost their sensibility, and where, in consequence, no pain was felt.
These were supposed to have been formed by being punctured, the Evil One performing the operation with a pin of false gold, with his claws or his horns.
Other evidences were found in the peculiar colouring of the eyes, which was said to represent the feet of toads; in the absence of tears when the little gland had been injured, and, above all, in the specific lightness of the body. In order to ascertain the latter, the accused were bound hand and foot crosswise, tied loosely to a rope, and then, three times, dropped into the water. If they remained floating their guilt was established; for either they had been endowed by their Master with safety from drowning, or the water refused to receive them because they had abjured their baptism! It need not be added that the executioners soon found out ways to let their prisoners float or sink as they chose–for a consideration.
Witches’ trials began in the earliest days of Christianity, for the Emperor Valens ordered, as we learn from Ammianus Marcellinus, all the wizards and enchanters to be held to account who had endeavoured by magic art to ascertain his successor.
Several thousands were accused of witchcraft, but the charge was then, as in almost every later age, in most cases nothing more than a pretext for proceedings against obnoxious persons. The next monster process, as it began to be called already in those early days, was the persecution of witches in France under the Merovingians. The child of Chilperic’s wife had died suddenly and under suspicious circumstances, which led to the imprisonment of a prefect, Mummolus, whom the queen had long pursued with her hatred. He was accused of having caused her son’s death by his charms, and was subjected to fearful tortures in company with a number of old women.
Still, he confessed nothing but that the latter had furnished him with certain drugs and ointments which were to secure to him the favour of the king and the queen.
A later trial of this kind, in which for a time calm reason made a firm stand against superstition, but finally succumbed ingloriously, is known as the _Vaudoisie_, and took place in Arras in 1459. It was begun by a Count d’Estampes, but was mainly conducted by a bishop and some eminent divines of his acquaintance, whose inordinate zeal and merciless cruelty have secured to the proceedings a peculiarly painful memory in the annals of the church.
A large number of perfectly innocent men and women were tortured and disgracefully executed, but fortunately the death of the main persecutor, DuBlois, made a sudden end to the existence of witchcraft in that province. One of the most remarkable trials of this kind was caused by a number of little children, and led to most bloody proceedings. It seems that in the year 1669 several boys and girls in the parish of Mora, one of the most beautiful parts of the Swedish province of Dalarne, and famous through the memory of Gustavus Vasa and Gustavus III., were affected by a nervous fever which left them, after their partial recovery, in a state of extreme irritability and sensitiveness. They fell into fainting fits and had convulsions–symptoms which the simple but superstitious mountaineers gradually began to think inexplicable, and hence to ascribe to magic influences. The report spread that the poor children were bewitched, and soon all the usual details of satanic possession were current.
The mountain called Blakulla, in bad repute from of old, was pointed out as the meeting-place of the witches, where the annual sabbath was celebrated, and these children were devoted to Satan.
Church and State combined to bring their great power to bear upon the poor little ones, an enormous number of women, mostly the mothers of the young people, were involved in the charges, and finally fifty-two of the latter with fifteen children were publicly executed as witches, while fifty of the younger were condemned to severe punishment! More than three hundred unfortunate children under fourteen had made detailed confessions of the witches’ sabbath and the ceremonies attending their initiation into its mysteries.
A similar fearful delusion took hold of German children in Würtemberg, when towards the end of the seventeenth century a large number of little boys and girls, none of whom were older than ten years, began to state that they were every night fetched away and carried to the witches’ sabbath. Many were all the time fast asleep and could easily be roused, but a few among them fell regularly into a trance, during which their little bodies became cold and rigid. A commission of great judges and experienced divines was sent to the village to investigate the matter, and found at last that there was no imposture attempted, but that the poor children firmly believed what they stated. It became, however, evident that a few among them had listened to old women’s tales about witches, with eager ears, and, with inflamed imaginations, retailed the account to others, till a deep and painful nervous excitement took hold of their minds and rapidly spread through the community. Many of the children were, as was natural at their age, led by vanity to say that they also had been at the sabbath, while others were afraid to deny what was so positively stated by their companions. Fortunately, the commission consisted, for once, of sensible men who took the right view of the matter, ordered a good whipping here and there, and thus saved the land from the crime of another witches’trial.
Our own experiences in New England, at the time when Sir William Phipps was governor of the colonies, have been forcibly reported by the great Cotton Mather.
Nearly every community had its young men and women who were addicted to the practices of magic; they loved to perform enchantments, to consult sieves and turning keys, and thus were gradually led to attempt more serious and more dangerous practices. In Salem, men and women of high standing and unimpeached integrity, even pious members of the church, were suddenly plagued and tortured by unknown agencies, and at last a little black and yellow demon appeared to them, accompanied by a number of companions with human faces. These apparitions presented to them a book which they were summoned to sign or at least to touch, and if they refused they were fearfully twisted and turned about, pricked with pins, burnt as if with hot irons, bound hand and foot with invisible fetters, and carried away to great distances. Some were left unable to touch food or drink for many days; others, attempting to defend themselves against the demons, snatched a distaff or tore a piece of cloth from them, and immediately these proofs of the real existence of the evil spirits became visible to the eyes of the bystanders.
The magic phenomena attending the disease were of the most extraordinary character. Several men stated that they had received poison because they declined to worship Satan, and immediately all the usual sequences of such treatment appeared, from simple vomiting to most fearful suffering, till counteracting remedies were employed and began to take effect. In other cases, the sufferers complained of burning rags being stuffed into their mouths, and although nothing was seen, burnt places and blisters appeared, and the odour and smoke of smouldering rags began to fill the room. When they reported that they were branded with hot irons, the marks showed themselves, suppuration took place, and scars were formed which never again disappeared during life–and all these phenomena were watched by the eager eyes of hundreds. The authorities, of course, took hold of the matter, and many persons of both sexes and all ages were brought to trial. While they were tortured they continued to have visions of demoniac beings and possessed men and women; when they were standing, blindfolded, in court, felt the approach of those by whom they pretended to be bewitched and plagued, and urgently prayed to be delivered of their presence.
Finally, many were executed, not a few undoubtedly against all justice, but the better sense of the authorities soon saw the futility, if not the wickedness of such proceedings, and an end was made promptly, witchcraft disappearing as soon as persecution relaxed and the sensation subsided.
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