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ABOUT the end of the fifteenth century the germs of a fearful epidemic got lodged within the subconscious mind of Western humanity. Demonophobia, the fear of demons, the fear of witchcraft, got possession of the mind of European nations. Whole populations seemed to have been driven crazy with the fear of the devil. For more than a century and a half did the epidemic of demonophobia rage with an overwhelming fury. No one was exempt from this malady of truly infernal origin. The old and the young, the ignorant and the learned, were stricken by it alike.
In all European countries the same absurd opinions and insane ideas prevailed as to the power of impious and malicious people, especially of old women, to effect supernatural mischief, to fly through space, to change themselves into dogs, cats, wolves, and goats, to kill, worry, or terrify men, women, and children for their pastime, and to feed on the flesh of the latter at horrid banquets presided over by devils.1
Europe seemed to have become a vast asylum of paranoics, of monomaniacs, possessed with the fear of persecution by infernal agencies. Weak-minded persons, old, helpless, demented men and women, hysterical subjects, and insane patients with a disposition to form delusions were accused, or accused themselves, of having entered into intimate relationship with imps, incubi, succubi, and even of having had direct intercourse with the archfiend himself. So strong were the suspicions of this peculiar acute form of social paranoia persecutoria that neither beauty nor tender age could serve as protection.
The pope, Innocent VIII, in his bull of 1488 made a strong appeal to his Catholic fold to rescue the Church of Christ from the power of Satan. He preached a crusade against the atrocious, unpardonable sin of witchcraft. The land must be purified of this great evil. Those servants of the devil, the sorcerers and witches, commit the horrible crime of having intercourse with impure spirits; moreover, they delight in mischief and evildoing; they blast the corn of the field, the herbs of the orchard, the grapes of the garden, and the fruits of the trees; they afflict with diseases man and beast. Sorcery must be wiped out from the face of the earth.
The appeal of the pope made a strong impression on the minds of the people, and the malady of demonophobia was fairly under way. On all sides men sprang up who made it their sole business to discover and burn sorcerers and witches. Sprenger, the author of Malleus Maleficarum, with true German thoroughness, even worked out a whole system of rules by which the inquisitors in other countries might best discover the guilty. The inquisitors, for instance, were required to ask the suspected whether they had midnight meetings with the devil; whether they attended the witches' sabbath; whether they could raise whirlwinds; whether they had had sexual intercourse with Satan. To elicit affirmative answers, tortures of the most excruciating kinds were employed.
Pious and zealous inquisitors set at once to their deadly work. Cumanus, in Italy, burned forty-one poor women in one province alone; and Sprenger, in Germany, burned numbers of them; his victims amounted to as many as nine hundred in a year. The German commissioners appointed by the pope, Innocent VIII, condemned to the stake upward of three thousand victims.
The new commissioners for the extermination of witchcraft appointed by each successive pope still further increased the virulence of the epidemic. One was appointed by Alexander VI in 1494, another by Leo X in 1521, and a third by Adrian VI in 1522. The epidemic of demonophobia increased from year to year, and the spirit of persecution grew in vigour and intensity. In Geneva alone five hundred persons were burned in the years 1515 and 1516. Bartholomew de Spina informs us that in the year 1524 no less than a thousand persons suffered death for witchcraft in the district of Como, and that for several years afterward the average number of victims exceeded one hundred annually. One inquisitor, Remigius, took great credit to himself for having during fifteen years convicted and burned nine hundred. The inquisitor of a rural township in Piedmont burned the victims so plentifully and so fast that there was not a family in the place which had not its dead to mourn.
The Reformation helped little to alleviate this witchcraft mania; on the contrary, it only served to intensify this truly demoniacal malady. The spirit of persecution was even stronger in Protestant than in Catholic countries. In Luther's Table Talk we find the following item:
"August 25, 1538. The conversation fell upon witches, who spoil milk, eggs, and butter in farmyards. Dr. Luther said: 'I should have no compassion on these witches; I would burn all of them.' "
In France, fires for the execution of witches blazed in almost every town. Children were torn away from their parents and wives taken from their husbands and cruelly sacrificed to the Moloch of demonophobia. The people became so strongly possessed with the fear of persecution by infernal agencies that in 1579 a great alarm was raised in the neighbourhood of Melun by the increase of witches, and a council was to devise some measures to stay the evil. A decree was passed that all witches and consultors with witches should be punished with death; and not only those, but also fortune-tellers and conjurers. In the following year the Parliament of Rouen took up the same question, and decreed that the possession of a grimoire, or book of spells, was sufficient evidence of witchcraft, and that all persons on whom such books were found should be burned alive. Three councils were held in different parts of France in the year 1583, all relating to demonophobia.
From the Continent the epidemic spread to England. In 1562 the statute of Elizabeth declared witchcraft as a crime of the highest magnitude. An epidemic terror of witchcraft seized on the English mind, and this epidemic spread and grew in virulence with the growth of Puritanism.
In Scotland the germs of the epidemic were diligently cultivated by the preachers of the Reformation. In 1563 the ninth parliament of Queen Mary passed an act that decreed the punishment of death against witches and consulters of witches. The Scotch nation was smitten with an epidemic fear of the devil and his infernal agents. Sorcerers and witches were hunted out and tortured with a truly demoniacal cruelty. As a fair example of the cruelties and tortures practised on the poor unfortunates convicted of witchcraft may be taken the case of Dr. Fian, a petty schoolmaster of Tranent.
Dr. Fian was accused of sorcery. He was arrested and put on the rack, but he would confess nothing, and held out so long unmoved that the severe tortures of the boots was resolved upon. He fainted away from great pain, but still no confession escaped his lips. Restoratives were then administered to him, and during the first faint gleam of returning consciousness he was prevailed upon to sign a full confession of his crime. He was then remanded to his prison, from which he managed to escape. He was soon recaptured and brought before the Court of Judiciary, James I, the demonologist, being present. Fian denied all the circumstances of the written confession which he had signed; whereupon the king, enraged at his stubborn wilfulness, ordered him once more to the torture. Dr. Fian's finger nails were riven out with pincers, and long needles thrust, their entire length, into the quick. He was then consigned again to the boots, in which he continued "so long, and abode so many blows in them that his legs were crushed and beaten together as small as might be, and the bones and flesh so bruised that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance."
The social malady of demonophobia kept on growing among the Scotch, and the spirit of persecution grew in violence from year. From the passing of the act of Queen Mary till the accession of James to the throne of England, a period of thirty-nine years, the average number of persecutions for witchcraft in Scotland was two hundred annually, or upward of seventeen thousand victims.
Witch-finding in Scotland became a regular trade, and hundreds of ruffians carried on this profession with great profit. It was believed that the devil put his mark on his servants in the shape of an anæsthetic, or rather analgesic, spot―a spot free from pain. Such anæsthetic spots, as we know, exist in hysterical subjects, and can be easily induced by suggestion. The witch-finders, armed with long pins, roamed about the country, pricking the flesh of supposed criminals. Once the anæsthetic spot was found the person was doomed to death. So acute was the social mental malady of demonophobia that no one once accused of relations with the devil was acquitted. To be accused of witchcraft meant to be guilty of it, and to be guilty of witchcraft was certain death.
In the year 1597 King James I published his famous―or infamous―treatise on demonology. "Witches," says the king, "ought to be put to death, according to the law of God, the civil and imperial law, and the municipal law of all Christian nations: yea, to spare the life, and not strike whom God bids strike, and so severely punish in so odious a treason against God, is not only unlawful, but doubtless as great a sin in the magistrate as was Saul's sparing Agag." He says also that the crime is so abominable that it may be proved by evidence which would not be received against any other offenders―young children who knew not the nature of an oath and persons of an infamous character being sufficient witnesses against them. To be, however, more sure, James gives us well-tried tests for the discovery of witches and sorcerers. "Two good helps," says James, "may be used: the one is the finding of their mark and the trying of the insensibleness thereof; the other is their floating on the water; for, as in a secret murther, if the dead carcass be at any time thereafter handled by the murtherer, it will gush out of the blood, as if the blood were crying to Heaven for revenge of the murtherer (God having appointed that secret supernatural sign for trial of that secret unnatural crime); so that it appears that God hath appointed (for a supernatural sign of the monstrous impiety of witches) that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosom that have shaken off them the sacred water of baptism and wilfully refused the benefit thereof; no, not so much as their eyes are able to shed tears (threaten and torture them as you please) while first they repent (God not permitting them to dissemble their obstinacy in so horrible a crime); albeit the womankind especially be able otherwise to shed tears at every light occasion when they will, yea, although it were dissembling like the crocodiles."
With the accession of James, the demonologist, to the throne of England, the epidemic of demonophobia burst forth among the English with renewed vigour and with more intense fury than ever. In 1604 the first parliament of King James passed a bill to the effect "that if any person shall use, practise, or exercise any conjuration of any wicked or evil spirit, or shall consult, covenant with, or feed any spirit, the first offence to be imprisonment for a year and standing in the pillory once a quarter; the second offence to be death."
This act of James I against witchcraft was passed when Lord Bacon was a member of the House of Commons and Lord Coke was attorney-general. That act was referred to a committee which had the spiritual guidance of twelve bishops of the Church of England.
As a rule, however, the minor punishment was but rarely inflicted. Nearly all of the records report cases of accused hanged and burned alive and quick. During the long period of social cataclysms from the reign of James I to that of Charles II, the epidemic of demonophobia continued to rage with unabated fury. Dr. Zachary Grey, in a note to "Hudibras," informs us that he himself perused a list of three thousand witches executed in the time of the Long Parliament alone. During the first eighty years of the seventeenth century the number executed has been estimated at five hundred annually, making a total of forty thousand.
Among the English inquisitors, Matthew Hopkins, the witch-finder, greatly distinguished himself for his insane passion of witch persecution. He claimed to have a thorough knowledge of "such cattle," as he called the witches, and soon assumed the title of "Witch-finder Generall." He travelled through the counties of Norfolk, Essex, Huntington, and Sussex for the sole purpose of finding out the servants of tile devil.2 The most favourable test, however, with him was that of swimming. The hands and feet of the suspected persons were tied together crosswise, the thumb of the right hand to the toe of the left foot, and the thumb of the left hand to the toe of the right foot. The unfortunates were then wrapped up in a large blanket and laid upon their backs in a pond or river. If they sank and were drowned, they were innocent; but if they floated, they were guilty of witchcraft and were burned "alive and quick."
Another favourite method of Hopkins, "the Witch-finder Generall," was to tie the suspected witch in the middle of a room to a chair or table in some uneasy posture. He then placed persons to watch her for four-and-twenty hours, during which time she was kept without food and drink. In this state one of her imps will surely come and visit her and suck her blood. As the imp might come in the shape of a moth or a fly, a hole was made in the door or window to admit it. If any fly escaped from the room, and the watchers could not catch it and kill it, the woman was guilty, and she was sentenced to death. Thus a poor old woman was found guilty, because four flies appeared in the room, and she was made to confess that she had in her employ four imps named "Hemazar," "Pye-wackett," "Peck-in-the Crown," and "Grizel-Greedigut."
In the seventeenth
social malady of demonophohia reached its acme of development. The epidemic was in full
swing. "The world seemed to be like a large madhouse for witches and devils to play
their antics in." The terror of mysterious evil agencies fell on the spirits of
men. The demon of fear seemed to have obsessed the mind of European humanity.
Continental Europe, especially France, Germany, and Switzerland, suffered
greatly from the epidemic. High and low were attacked by this malady without any
discrimination. In fact, the more learned one was the stronger was the malady, the more acute
was the fear of inimical mysterious agencies. Social paranoia persecutoria seemed
to have become chronic.
Thousands upon thousands of victims were cruelly sacrificed to that insane fear of evil spirits. Nuremberg, Geneva, Paris, Toulouse, Lyons, and many other cities, brought on the average an annual sacrifice of two hundred; Cologne burned three hundred and the district of Bamberg four hundred witches and sorcerers annually.
The list of trials of the city of Würzburg for only two years, from 1627 to 1629, may serve as an illustration of the diabolical work done by that insane spirit of demonophobia. Hauber, who has preserved the list in his Acta et Scripta Magica, says, in a note at the end, that it is far from being complete, and that there were a great many other burnings too numerous to specify. This list of executions contains the names of one hundred and fifty-seven persons who were burned in the course of two years in twenty-nine burnillgs, averaging from five to six at a time. It comprises three play actors, four innkeepers, three common Counicilmen of Würzburg, fourteen vicars of the cathedral, the burgomaster's lady, an apothecary's wife and daughter, two choristers of the cathedral, Göbel Babelin, the prettiest girl in the town, and the wife, the two little sons, and the daughter of the councillor Stalzenberg. At the seventh of these recorded burnings the victims are described as a wandering boy twelve years of age, and four strange men and women. Thirty of the whole number appear to have been vagrants of both sexes. None escaped. All fell victims to the insane suspicions of religious paranoia persecutoria.
The spirit of persecution did not spare even the little ones. The number of children on the list is great. The thirteenth and the fourteenth burnings comprise a little girl of nine, another child (a younger sister), their mother, and their aunt, a pretty young woman of twenty-four. At the eighteenth burning the victims were two boys of twelve and a girl of fifteen. At the nineteenth, the young heir of Rutenhahn, aged nine, and two other boys, one aged ten and the other twelve. Whoever had the misfortune of falling under the suspicion of practising witchcraft, of dealing with spirits, was lost. Nothing could save him from the homicidal fury of religious demonophobia.
So acute was the malady of demonophobia that nonsensical jargon uttered by poor crazed creatures scared people out of their wits. Thus at Amsterdam a crazy girl confessed that she could cause sterility and bewitch pig and poultry by merely repeating the magic words Turius und Surius Inturius. She was hanged and burned. One insane person was condemned to the stake by the magistrate of Wüzburg for uttering the followillg formula:
People were condemned to the flames for pronouncing meaningless words, such as
It was considered an unpardonable sin, a heinous crime that could only be expiated by the auto-da-fé, to repeat the following gibberish:
The wave of the epidemic ran so high that even little children who in their play happened to repeat those awful incantations were seized by the authorities, tried for witchcraft, found guilty, and condemned the flames.
On American ground we find the same malady of demonophobia blazing up in the celebrated trials of Salem witchcraft. On the accusation of a few hysterical girls,4 twenty innocent people were condemned to death. Some were hanged, and others suffered a horrible end under the crushing pressure of heavy weights.
One can hardly find on the records of human crimes anything more disgusting, more infamous, than this insane systematic persecution of feeble women and tender children.
1. Phantasmata, vol. i. R. R. Madden.