Saturday, October 31, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents Women and Witchcraft in Historic England

There is one aspect of women’s relation to the Church in the period under review which cannot be passed over without some brief notice, although any detailed examination of the subject would be impossible in a book of this scope and purpose. The subject of witchcraft, which has filled so many hundreds of volumes, is, after all, only a branch of a still larger subject—superstition. The beliefs of one age are the superstitions of the next, but it is sometimes difficult to say where the dividing-line should be drawn, for while a belief is not necessarily a superstition, a superstition has frequently the force and reality of a belief. The belief in witchcraft was very slow in passing into the phase of a superstition. Both the Catholic and the Protestant Church for many centuries denounced witchcraft as one of the greatest forms of evil, to be withstood by every possible means. To doubt its reality was to doubt one of the articles of faith. At certain periods in history, the persecution of witches broke forth like one of the great physical plagues that from time to time scourged Europe. The belief in witchcraft was a moral pestilence, insidious, far-reaching, and deadly in its effects.

Magic and sorcery have been believed in from the earliest times of recorded history. But although, in the first centuries of the Christian Church and throughout the Middle Ages, there was a dread of the black art, and those who practised it were liable to numerous punishments, and to death itself, there was, curiously enough, far less persecution than prevailed in later and more enlightened periods. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were worse than the sixth, and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were far more persecuting periods than the twelfth and thirteenth. Michelet, writing generally of the fourteenth century, says the witch saw before her—
“a horrible career of torments lighted up for three or four hundred years by the stake. After 1300, her medical knowledge is condemned as baleful, her remedies are proscribed as if they were poisons.”
With the uprising of the Protestant Church in the sixteenth century came a great wave of superstition. In the reign of Elizabeth, Bishop Jewell, preaching before the queen (1568), said—
“It may please your Grace to understand that witches and sorcerers within these few last years are marvellously increased within your Grace’s realm. Your Grace’s subjects pine away even unto the death, their colour fadeth, their flesh rotteth, their speech is benumbed, their knees are bereft. I pray God they never practise further than upon the subjects.”
There was no doubt about the sincerity of the bishop’s belief. “These eyes,” he said, “have seen most evident and manifest marks of their wickedness.” The reformers were the strongest believers in and the bitterest persecutors of witchcraft. Not even Innocent VIII., who, in 1484, promulgated a Bull against witchcraft and heresy, and thereby gave a great impetus to the persecution on the Continent, was more virulent against witches than Luther. “I should have no compassion on these witches,” said Luther, in a discussion on witchcraft. “I would burn all of them.” And he adds, “Witchcraft is the devil’s own proper work.”

In Scotland, where the Reformed Church exercised great sway, the persecution was much keener than in England.
“When a woman had fallen under suspicion, the minister from the pulpit denounced her by name, exhorted his parishioners to give evidence against her, and prohibited any one from sheltering her.”
In the seventeenth century the belief in witchcraft was much fostered by the Puritan party, who were the bitterest of persecutors. The Puritans were diligent students of the Old Testament, and doubtless considered that they had full warrant for their action from certain much-quoted passages in Scripture. The Puritans, like the Fathers in the Early Christian Church, had a very real belief in and horror of the power of supernatural evil; and, like the Fathers, they too believed that women were more inherently wicked than men—that they were more liable to assaults of Satan, and more easily drawn into communion with evil spirits.

Numerous as were the punishments inflicted upon sorcerers and magicians, the persecution of witches was far greater. King James I., in his “Demonology,” asks, “What can be the cause that there are twentie women given to that craft where there is only one man?” And he gives as his reason that women are frailer than men, quoting the fall of Eve as the beginning of Satan’s sovereignty over womankind. There was, however, a more obvious reason for the fact that women were so much more frequently denounced than men for practising the black art. The chief doctors and surgeons in former times were women. There was no formulated science of medicine down to the seventeenth century, but certain persons, generally women, acquired a large amount of knowledge of the properties of plants useful for healing, and methods of distilling and mixing vegetable juices. The healing art, like nursing, fell into the hands of women, and herbal lore was transmitted from mother to daughter, just as skill in cookery and in special kinds of needlework was handed down. Deftness, appreciation of detail, quick observation, and patience supplied the place of written knowledge. The conditions of life during the Middle Ages, and even down to the last century, were such as to afford plenty of scope for the exercise of practical ability. The women who had the greatest knowledge of the properties of plants were, naturally, those most dependent on nature—women of the poorer class, but women endowed with a greater share of insight, and larger brain power than their companions. The “wise women,” who usually dwelt alone in some humble dwelling remote from their neighbours, and “lived on their wits,” were naturally regarded with a tinge of awe by the ignorant, and were credited with some supernatural power. Their appearance and their habits—the result of poverty and loneliness—caused them to be looked upon with suspicion. To a wrinkled, repulsive visage was frequently united a temper equally obnoxious, and which was embittered by the gibes and sneers which were freely cast at the “old hag,” whose weapon of defence was her tongue. The curses which she poured forth on her tormentors inspired dread, and if by chance some bodily affliction attacked the cursed ones, it was invariably attributed to malevolence. All sorts of ills were ascribed to the spite of these outcasts of society: the maiming of cattle, the withering of pasture, diseases bodily and mental, misfortunes of every kind. The witch was never a bringer of good; she was always thought to be working evil, with or without motive. Women have been credited, not only by the ignorant multitude, but by philosophers, with the power, at certain seasons, of turning milk sour, making dogs savage, and effecting other things, by their mere presence.

It is not until the twelfth century that there is any definite mention of witchcraft in England. This seems strange when it is remembered that in the time of the early Britons what was known as magic or sorcery was practised by the wives of the Druid doctors. These women were noted for their skill in herbal medicine, and even credited with the power of causing evil as well as healing wounds. But the term “witch” does not seem to have come into use until the period mentioned. The twelfth century has been described by Mr. Lecky as the turning-point of European intellect. The first glimmerings of incredulity were showing forth. The Church became aware of some opposing force, and assumed the offensive. Circumstances that had hitherto passed unnoticed were regarded as danger-signals. Any evidences of unusual capacity for controlling physical forces, such as the “medicine women” showed, were regarded with hostility. Their power implied converse with Satan, for by no other means was it supposed that such knowledge and skill could be obtained. There was at that time a widespread belief in the supernatural, in the presence of evil spirits who infested the earth in all sorts of shapes to torment and deceive men. The theory that the wise woman was an emissary from the Prince of Darkness accorded with the popular delusions. The witch gradually became a distinct personality, a figure which troubled every society. Diseased imagination united to ignorance of physical science caused the belief in witchcraft to become a terror for centuries.

Witchcraft offered a solution of the problem of evil. How otherwise to account for the ills which beset humanity? It is difficult for us to realize the panic which took possession of people’s minds at the appearance of misfortunes such as plague, famine, drought, floods, and the like. The terrible pestilence, for which we can now to some extent account, appeared like a visitation of Providence or the direct work of Satan to an age which knew nothing of the laws of health, of the courses of disease, and very little of the structure and functions of the bodily organs. As time advanced, the belief in the power and malevolence of the women called witches increased. The Church, following in the steps of those Fathers who had credited women with being endowed with special capacity for evil, commenced a virulent persecution of witches. In the reign of John a woman was tried for witchcraft, but there was little detailed mention of such trials until the fourteenth century. In the year 1324 there was a celebrated case in Ireland, and this, the first trial of which we have any full account, was not that of some mis-shapen, miserable old woman living in a hovel, but a woman of good social rank and possessed of wealth, Lady Alice Kyteler, of Kilkenny. The lady’s troubles arose partly out of her excessive liking for matrimony. She had four husbands, and the principal count against her was that she had made away with these husbands by magic. There was at this period in the Papal chair a pope who held strong views on the subject of sorcery, Pope John XVII., and who issued the first Bull promulgated against it. Through the instrumentality of one of his Irish bishops, Lady Alice Kyteler and others were denounced as sorcerers, the Lady Alice being accused of causing the death of her various husbands, and having converse with evil spirits. The arbitrary action of the ecclesiastical authorities excited so much dissatisfaction that even the Lord Chancellor expostulated with the bishop, but received as reply that the Church was above all law. The Lady Alice, after being excommunicated, finally escaped from the priestly meshes, and retired to England, where she died. During the trial a woman, who declared she had received instruction in magic arts from Lady Alice, was flogged six times by order of the bishops.

There were, however, no regular enactments against witchcraft until the reign of Henry VIII. Up to that time, unless the supposed sorceress was also accused of the crime of poisoning, she was not condemned to death. But in 1541, conjuring, sorcery, and witchcraft were all put together as crimes for which capital punishment could be inflicted. Statutes against witchcraft were also enacted in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I.

John Wier, a physician of Cleves, wrote a treatise in 1563, in which he described witches as lunatics labouring under Satanic influence. All women he considered to be peculiarly subject to delusions created by malignant agency, and witches he regarded, in fact, as exaggerated examples of the inherent moral weakness of the female sex.

With the rise of Puritanism in the seventeenth century came a second great wave of superstition. The stern theology of the men of the Commonwealth was embittered by the darkest of beliefs. They were always looking for direct manifestations of the power of evil. It was their conviction that Satan was embodied in the persons of the unhappy women who were called witches, and that to hound them to death was a religious duty. The Puritans held with great firmness that a curse rested on womanhood. They found it quite easy to believe that certain women were specially chosen instruments of evil, for the whole sex they regarded as created for the trial and temptation of men. Undoubtedly the Puritans did much to enforce respect for women at a period when licentiousness was rife. They had an honest desire to raise the standard of public morals, and preserve order and decency. But they were actuated more by a desire to guard men from evil than by a reverence for womanhood. Though individually they made good husbands and fathers, their theology was a relentless creed, which permeated their lives with hard, unsympathetic views, and condemned sinners without mercy. The intense vitality of their belief in the omnipresence of evil clouded their perceptions and blurred their judgment. Hence their readiness to believe in witchcraft, and the savagery of their persecution.

Scripture, they said, was on their side. They pointed to the Witch of Endor, and to the declaration, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” All sorts of gruesome ideas had grown up and been handed down as to the power of witches, and became more widespread and intensified by the fanatical zeal of the Puritans. It was not until the second half of the seventeenth century that the full fury of the persecution blazed forth, though previously there had been frequent trials and executions. Thus in the early part of the reign of James I., who was responsible for much of the persecution, a woman was tried and hanged at King’s Lynn. A sailor had thrown a stone at her boy, whereupon she cursed the sailor roundly, and hoped his fingers would rot off, which happened two years later. Then she got into a quarrel with a neighbour, who was seized with violent pains, and felt the bed rocking up and down. The woman was denounced as a witch and condemned to death. Like other innocent persons accused of crime, she at last got to believe what her enemies said of her, and actually brought herself to confess that she had practised unholy arts.

In 1645 there was a great outbreak of persecution in Essex. In 1664 occurred the celebrated trial of witches at Bury St. Edmunds. There were living at Lowestoft two lone women whose temper and demeanour caused them to be disliked by the inhabitants of that little fishing hamlet. From the children they endured much petty persecution, and were treated as outcasts by the adult population. Nobody would even sell them fish. The two victims, who were inappropriately named Amy and Rose, cursed and prophesied evil things. Some children were seized with fits, during which they declared they saw the two women coming to torment them. After eight years of accusations, the women were brought to trial. Sir Matthew Hale presided, expressing his belief that the Scriptures proved the reality of witchcraft. The women were hung, which was the common mode of dealing with them. In Scotland they were usually burnt.

There is no need to multiply instances. During the sittings of the Long Parliament, as many as three thousand persons are said to have been executed, exclusive of those who were “done to death” by enraged mobs. In 1640 a witch is described in a contemporary publication as—
“the devil’s otter-hound living both on land and sea, and doing mischief in either; she kills more beasts than a licensed butcher in Lent, yet is nere the fatter; she’s but a dry nurse in the flesh, yet gives such to the spirit. A witch rides many times poast on hellish business, yet if a ladder do but stop her, she will be hanged ere she goes any further.”
The last judicial execution took place in England in 1716, when a woman and her daughter, aged nine, were put to death at Huntingdon, accused of selling their souls to the devil. But years after this date the persecution continued, and women were assailed by the rabble as witches, frequently dying of the injuries they received. The penal statutes against witchcraft were repealed in 1751. This, however, did not do away with the belief which was held by people in various classes of life. John Wesley was perhaps the last noted person who clung to what eventually became a mere superstition, which only survived in obscure places.

After the Restoration came in a different temper and view of life. On the one side were the gay and274 frivolous, who mocked at the grim Puritan with his terrific beliefs; on the other were the philosophers and the intellectual world, who explained by natural causes the so-called supernatural appearances. The Anglican Church held a middle course between the sceptics and the fanatics. There were some, like Joseph Glanvil, who, in 1681, took up the defence of witchcraft; and there were bishops who promulgated persecution. The clergy had a strong leaning to superstition, and inclined to the side of the fanatics; but they were restrained from the greatest excesses of the Puritans by the influence of the educational portion, whose learning and enlightenment reflected credit on the Church at a period when it greatly needed strengthening.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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