Perhaps in no direction has the human mind ever shown greater weakness than in the opinions entertained of witchcraft.
If Hecate, the oldest patroness of witches, wandered about at night with a gruesome following, and frightened lovers at their stealthy meeting, or lonely wanderers on open heaths and in dark forests, her appearance was at least in keeping with the whole system of Greek mythology.
Tacitus does not frighten us by telling us that witches used to meet at salt springs, nor the Edda when speaking of the “bearers of witches’ kettles,” against whom even the Salic Law warns all good Christians.
But when the Council of Ancyra, in the fifth century, fulminates its edicts against women riding at night upon weird animals in company with Diana and Herodias, the strange combination of names and the dread penalties threatened, make us almost think of witches as of real and most marvellous beings. When wise councillors of French Parliaments and grey dignitaries of the Holy German Empire sit in judgment over a handful of poor old women, when great English bishops and zealous New England divines condemn little children to death, because they have made pacts with the Devil, attended his sabbaths, and bewitched their peaceful neighbours–then we stand amazed at the delusions, to which the wisest and best among us are liable.
Christianity, it is true, shed for a time such a bright light over the earth, that the works of darkness were abhorred and the power of the Evil One seemed to be broken.
According to the sacred promises that the seed of woman should bruise the serpent’s head. Thus Charlemagne, in his fierce edict issued after the defeat of the Saxons, ordered that death should be inflicted on all who after pagan manner gave way to devilish delusions, and believed that men or women could be witches, persecuted and killed them; or, even went so far as to consume their flesh and give it to others for like purposes! But almost at the same time the belief in the Devil, distinctly maintained in Holy Writ, spread far and wide, and as early as the fourth century diseases were ascribed not to organic causes, but to demoniac influences, and the Devil was once more seen bodily walking to and fro on the earth, accompanied by a host of smaller demons.
It was but rarely that a truly enlightened man dared to combat the universal superstition.
Agobard, archbishop of Lyons, shines like a bright star on the dark sky of the ninth century by his open denunciation of all belief in possession, in the control of the weather or the decision of difficulties by ordeal. For like reasons, we ought to revere the memory of John of Salisbury, who in the twelfth century declared the stories of nightly assemblies of witches, with all their attending circumstances, to be mere delusions of poor women and simple men, who fancied they saw bodily what existed only in their imagination.
The Church hesitated, now requiring her children to believe in a Devil and demons, and now denouncing all faith in supernatural beings. The thirteenth century, by Leibnitz called the darkest of all, developed the worship of the Evil One to its fullest perfection; the writings of St. Augustine were quoted as confirming the fact that demons and men could and did intermarry, and the Djinns of the East were mentioned as spirits who “sought the daughters of men for wives.” The witches’ dance is found in the records of a fearful Auto-da-fè held in Toulouse in the year 1353, and about a century later the Dominican monk, Jaquier, published the first complete work on witches and witchcraft. He represented them as organised–after the prevailing fashion of the day–in a regular guild, with apprentices, companions, and masters, who practised a special art for a definite purpose. It is certainly most remarkable that the same opinion, in all its details, has been entertained in this century even, and by one of the most famous German philosophers, Eschenmayer.
While the zeal and madness of devil-worshippers were growing on one side, persecution became more violent and cruel on the other side, till the trials of witches assumed gigantic proportions and the proceedings were carried on according to a regular method. These trials originated, invariably, with theologians, and although the system was not begun by the Papal government it obtained soon the Pope’s legal sanction by the famous bull of Innocent VIII., _Summis desiderantes_, dated December 4, 1484, and decreeing the relentless persecution of all heretical witches. The far-famed _Malleus maleficatum_ (Cologne, 1489), written by the two celebrated judges of witches, Sprenger and Gremper, and full of the most extraordinary views and statements, reduced the whole to a regular method, and obtained a vast influence over the minds of that age. The rules and forms it prescribed were not only observed in almost all parts of Christendom, but actually retained their force and legality till the end of the seventeenth century.
These views and practices confined to Catholic countries; a hundred and fifty years after the Reformation, a great German jurist and a Protestant, Carpzon, published his _Praxis Criminalis_, in which precisely the same opinions were taught and the same measures were prescribed. The Puritans, it is well-known, pursued a similar plan, and the New World has not been more fortunate in avoiding these errors than the Old World. A curious feature in the above-mentioned works is the fact that both abound in expressions of hatred against the female sex, and still more curious, though disgraceful in the extreme, that the special animosity shown by judges of witchcraft against women is solely based upon the weight which they attached to the purport of the Mosaic inhibition: “Thou shalt not suffer a _witch_ to live” (Exodus xii. 18).
These are dark pages in the history of Christendom, blackened by the smoke of funeral piles and stained with the blood of countless victims of cruel superstition.
For here the peculiarity was that in the majority of cases not the humble sufferers whose lives were sacrificed, but the haughty judges were the true criminals. The madness seems to have been contagious, for Protestant authorities were as bloodthirsty as Catholics; the Inquisition waged for generations unceasing war against this new class of heretics among the nations of the Romanic race.
Germany saw great numbers sacrificed in a short space of time, and in sober England, even, three thousand lost their lives during the Long Parliament alone, while, according to Barrington, the whole number who perished amounted to not less than thirty thousand! If only few were sacrificed in New England, the exception was due more to the sparse population than to moderation; in South America, on the contrary, the persecution was carried on with relentless cruelty. And all this happened while fierce war was raging almost everywhere, so that, while the sword destroyed the men, the fire consumed the women!
Occasionally most startling contrasts would be exhibited by different governments. In the North, James I., claiming to be as wise as Solomon, and more learned than any man in Christendom, imagined that he was persecuted by the Evil One on account of his great religious zeal, and saw in every Catholic an instrument of his adversary. His wild fancy was cunningly encouraged by those who profited by his tyranny, and Catholics were represented as being, one and all, given up to the Devil, the mass and witchcraft, the three unholy allies opposed to the Trinity! In the South, the Republic of Venice, with all its petty tyranny and proverbial political cruelty, stood almost alone in all Christendom as opposed to persecutions of wizards and witches, and fought the battle manfully on the side of enlightenment and Christian charity. The horrors of witch-trials soon reached a height which makes us blush for humanity.
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