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The History of Witchcraft and Demonology
By Montague Summers
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE WITCH: HERETIC AND ANARCHIST
"SORCIER est celuy qui par moyens Diaboliques sciemment s'efforce de paruenir à quel que chose." ("A sorcerer is one who by commerce with the Devil has a full intention of attaining his own ends.") With these words the profoundly erudite jurisconsult Jean Bodin, one of the acutest and most strictly impartial minds of his age, opens his famous De la Demonomanie des Sorciers, and it would be, I imagine, hardly possible to discover a more concise, exact, comprehensive, and intelligent definition of a Witch. The whole tremendous subject of Witchcraft, especially as revealed in its multifold and remarkable manifestations throughout every district of Southern and Western Europe from the middle of the thirteenth until the dawn of the eighteenth century, has it would seem in recent times seldom, if ever, been candidly and fairly examined. The only sound sources of information are the contemporary records; the meticulously detailed legal reports of the actual trials; the vast mass of pamphlets which give eye-witnessed accounts of individual witches and reproduce evidence uerbatim as told in court; and, above all, the voluminous and highly technical works of the Inquisitors and demonologists, holy and reverend divines, doctors utriusque iuris, hard-headed, slow, and sober lawyers,—learned men, scholars of philosophic mind, the most honourable names in the universities of Europe, in the forefront of literature, science, politics, and culture; monks who kept the conscience of kings, pontiffs; whose word would set Europe aflame and bring an emperor to his knees at their gate.
It is true that Witchcraft has formed the subject of a not inconsiderable literature, but it will be found that inquirers have for the most part approached this eternal and terrible chapter in the history of humanity from biassed, although wholly divergent, points of view, and in consequence it is often necessary to sift more or less thoroughly their partial presentation of their theme, to discount their unwarranted commentaries and illogical conclusions, and to get down in time to the hard bed-rock of fact.
In the first place we have those writings and that interest which may be termed merely antiquarian. Witchcraft is treated as a curious by-lane of history, a superstition long since dead, having no existence among, nor bearing upon, the affairs of the present day. It is a field for folk-lore, where one may gather strange flowers and noxious weeds. Again, we often recognize the romantic treatment of Witchcraft. 'Tis the Eve of S. George, a dark wild night, the pale moon can but struggle thinly through the thick massing clouds. The witches are abroad, and hurtle swiftly aloft, a hideous covey, borne headlong on the skirling blast. In delirious tones they are yelling foul mysterious words as they go: "Har! Har! Har! Altri! Altri!" To some peak of the Brocken or lonely Cevennes they haste, to the orgies of the Sabbat, the infernal Sacraments, the dance of Acheron, the sweet and fearful fantasy of evil, "Vers les stupres impurs et les baisers immondes." Hell seems to vomit its foulest dregs upon the shrinking earth; a loathsome shape of obscene horror squats huge and monstrous upon the ebon throne; the stifling air reeks with filth and blasphemy; faster and faster whirls the witches' lewd lavolta; shriller and shriller the cornemuse screams; and then a wan grey light flickers in the Eastern sky; a moment more and there sounds the loud clarion of some village chanticleer; swift as thought the vile phantasmagoria vanishes and is sped, all is quiet and still in the peaceful dawn.
But both the antiquarian and the romanticist reviews of Witchcraft may be deemed negligible and impertinent so far as the present research is concerned, however entertaining and picturesque such treatment proves to many readers, affording not a few pleasant hours, whence they are able to draw highly dramatic and brilliantly coloured pictures of old time sorceries, not to be taken too seriously, for these things never were and never could have been.
The rationalist historian and the sceptic, when inevitably confronted with the subject of Witchcraft, chose a charmingly easy way to deal with these intensely complex and intricate problems, a flat denial of all statements which did not fit, or could not by some means be squared with, their own narrow prejudice. What matter the most irrefragable evidence, which in the instance of any other accusation would unhesitatingly have been regarded as final. What matter the logical and reasoned belief of centuries, of the most cultured peoples, the highest intelligences of Europe? Any appeal to authority is, of course, useless, as the sceptic repudiates all authority—save his own. Such things could not be. We must argue from that axiom, and therefore anything which it is impossible to explain away by hallucination, or hysteria, or auto-suggestion, or any other vague catch-word which may chance to be fashionable at the moment, must be uncompromisingly rejected, and a note of superior pity, to candy the so suave yet crushingly decisive judgement, has proved of great service upon more occasions than one. Why examine the evidence? It is really useless and a waste of time, because we know that the allegations are all idle and ridiculous; the "facts" sworn to by innumerable witnesses, which are repeated in changeless detail century after century in every country, in every town, simply did not take place. How so absolute and entire falsity of these facts can be demonstrated the sceptic omits to inform us, but we must unquestioningly accept his infallible authority in the face of reason, evidence, and truth.
Yet supposing that with clear and candid minds we proceed carefully to investigate this accumulated evidence, to inquire into the circumstances of a number of typical cases, to compare the trials of the fifteenth century in France with the trials of the seventeenth century in England, shall we not find that amid obvious accretions of fantastic and superfluous detail a certain very solid substratum of a permanent and in varied character is unmistakably to be traced throughout the whole? This cannot in reason be denied, and here we have the core and the enduring reality of Witchcraft and the witch-cult throughout the ages.
There were some gross superstitions; there were some unbridled imaginations; there was deception, there was legerdemain; there was phantasy; there was fraud; Henri Boguet seems, perhaps, a trifle credulous, a little eager to explain obscure practices by an instant appeal to the supernormal; Brother Jetzer, the Jacobin of Berne, can only have been either the tool of his superiors or a cunning impostor; Matthew Hopkins was an unmitigated scoundrel who preyed upon the fears of the Essex franklins whilst he emptied their pockets; Lord Torphichen's son was an idle mischievous boy whose pranks not merely deluded both his father and the Rev. Mr. John Wilkins, but caused considerable mystification and amaze throughout the whole of Calder; Anne Robinson, Mrs. Golding's maid, and the two servant lasses of Baldarroch were prestidigitators of no common sleight and skill; and all these examples of ignorance, gullibility, malice, trickery, and imposture might easily be multiplied twenty times over and twenty times again, yet when every allowance has been made, every possible explanation exhausted, there persists a congeries of solid proven fact which cannot be ignored, save indeed by the purblind prejudice of the rationalist, and cannot be accounted for, save that we recognize there were and are individuals and organizations deliberately, nay, even enthusiastically, devoted to the service of evil, greedy of such emotions and experiences, rewards the thraldom of wickedness may bring.
The sceptic notoriously refuses to believe in Witchcraft, but a sanely critical examination of the evidence at the witch-trials will show that a vast amount of the modern vulgar incredulity is founded upon a complete misconception of the facts, and it may be well worth while quite briefly to review and correct some of the more common objections that are so loosely and so repeatedly maintained. There are many points which are urged as proving the fatuous absurdity and demonstrable impossibility of the whole system, and yet there is not one of these phenomena which is not capable of a satisfactory, and often a simple, elucidation. Perhaps the first thought of a witch that will occur to the man in the street is that of a hag on a broomstick flying up the chimney through the air. This has often been pictorially impressed on his imagination, not merely by woodcuts and illustrations traditionally presented in books, but by the brush of great painters such as Queverdo's Le Départ au Sabbat, Le Départ pour le Sabbat of David Teniers, and Goya's midnight fantasies. The famous Australian artist, Norman Lindsay, has a picture To The Sabbat where witches are depicted wildly rushing through the air on the backs of grotesque pigs and hideous goats. Shakespeare, too, elaborated the idea, and "Hover through the fog and filthy air" has impressed itself upon the English imagination. But to descend from the airy realms of painting and poetry to the hard ground of actuality. Throughout the whole of the records there are very few instances when a witness definitely asserted that he had seen a witch carried through the air mounted upon a broom or stick of any kind, and on every occasion there is patent and obvious exaggeration to secure an effect. Sometimes the witches themselves boasted of this means of transport to impress their hearers. Boguet records that Claudine Boban, a young girl whose head was turned with pathological vanity, obviously a monomaniac who must at all costs occupy the centre of the stage and be the cynosure of public attention, confessed that she had been to the Sabbat, and this was undoubtedly the case; but to walk or ride on horseback to the Sabbat were far too ordinary methods of locomotion, melodrama and the marvellous must find their place in her account and so she alleged: "that both she and her mother used to mount on a broom, and so making their exit by the chimney in this fashion they flew through the air to the Sabbat." Julian Cox (1664) said that one evening when she was in the fields about a mile away from the house "there came riding towards her three persons upon three Broom-staves, born up about a yard and a half from the ground." There is obvious exaggeration here; she saw two men and one woman bestriding brooms and leaping high in the air. They were, in fact, performing a magic rite, a figure of a dance. So it is recorded of the Arab crones that "In the time of the Munkidh the witches rode about naked on a stick between the graves of the cemetery of Shaizar." Nobody can refuse to believe that the witches bestrode sticks and poles and in their ritual capered to and fro in this manner, a sufficiently grotesque, but by no means an impossible, action. And this bizarre ceremony, evidence of which—with no reference to flying through the air—is frequent, has been exaggerated and transformed into the popular superstition that sorcerers are carried aloft and so transported from place to place, a wonder they were all ready to exploit in proof of their magic powers. And yet it is not impossible that there should have been actual instances of levitation. For, outside the lives of the Saints, spiritistic seances afford us examples of this supernormal phenomenon, which, if human evidence is worth anything at all, are beyond all question proven.
As for the unguents wherewith the sorcerers anointed themselves we have the actual formulæ for this composition, and Professor A. J. Clark, who has examined these, considers that it is possible a strong application of such liniments might produce unwonted excitement and even delirium. But long ago the great demonologists recognized and laid down that of themselves the unguents possessed no such properties as the witches supposed. "The ointment and lotion are just of no use at all to witches to aid their journey to the Sabbat," is the well-considered opinion of Boguet who, speaking with confident precision and finality, on this point is in entire agreement with the most sceptical of later rationalists.
The transformation of witches into animals and the extraordinary appearance at their orgies of "the Devil" under many a hideously unnatural shape, two points which have been repeatedly held up to scorn as self-evident impossibilities and proof conclusive of the untrustworthiness of the evidence and the incredibility of the whole system, can both be easily and fairly interpreted in a way which offers a complete and convincing explanation of these prodigies. The first metamorphosis, indeed, is mentioned and fully explained in the Liber Pnitentialis of S. Theodore, seventh Archbishop of Canterbury (668—690), capitulum xxvii, which code includes under the rubric De Idolatria et Sacrilegio "qui in Kalendas Ianuarii in ceruulo et in uitula uadit," and prescribes: "If anyone at the Kalends of January goes about as a stag or a bull; that is, making himself into a wild animal and dressing in the skin of a herd animal, and putting on the heads of beasts; those who in such wise transform themselves into the appearance of a wild animal, penance for three years because this is devilish." These ritual masks, furs, and hides, were, of course, exactly those the witches at certain ceremonies were wont to don for their Sabbats. There is ample proof that "the Devil" of the Sabbat was very frequently a human being, the Grand Master of the district, and since his officers and immediate attendants were also termed "Devils" by the witches some confusion has on occasion ensued. In a few cases where sufficient details are given it is possible actually to identify "the Devil" by name. Thus, among a list of suspected persons in the reign of Elizabeth we have "Ould Birtles, the great devil, Roger Birtles and his wife, and Anne Birtles." The evil William, Lord Soulis, of Hermitage Castle, often known as "Red Cap," was "the Devil" of a coven of sorcerers. Very seldom "the Devil" was a woman. In May, 1569, the Regent of Scotland was present at S. Andrews "quhair a notabill sorceres callit Nicniven was condemnit to the death and burnt." Now Nicniven is the Queen of Elphin, the Mistress of the Sabbat, and this office had evidently been filled by this witch whose real name is not recorded. On 8 November, 1576, Elizabeth or Bessy Dunlop, of Lyne, in the Barony of Dairy, Ayrshire, was tried for sorcery, and she confessed that a certain mysterious Thom Reid had met her and demanded that she should renounce Christianity and her baptism, and apparently worship him. There can be little doubt that he was "the Devil" of a coven, for the original details, which are very full, all point to this. He seems to have played his part with some forethought and skill, since when the accused stated that she often saw him in the churchyard of Dalry, as also in the streets of Edinburgh, where he walked to and fro among other people and handled goods that were exposed on bulks for sale without attracting any special notice, and was thereupon asked why she did not address him, she replied that he had forbidden her to recognize him on any such occasion unless he made a sign or first actually accosted her. She was "convict and burnt." In the case of Alison Peirson, tried 28 May, 1588, "the Devil" was actually her kinsman, William Sympson, and she "wes conuict of the vsing of Sorcerie and Witchcraft, with the Inuocatioun of the spreitis of the Deuill; speciallie in the visioune and forme of ane Mr. William Sympsoune, hir cousing and moder-brotheris-sone, quha sche affermit wes ane grit scoller and doctor of medicin." Conuicta et combusta is the terse record of the margin of the court-book.
One of the most interesting identifications of "the Devil" occurs in the course of the notorious trials of Dr. Fian and his associates in 1590-1. As is well known, the whole crew was in league with Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, and even at the time well-founded gossip, and something more than gossip, freely connected his name with the spells, Sabbats, and orgies of the witches. He was vehemently suspected of the black art; he was an undoubted client of warlocks and poisoners; his restless ambition almost overtly aimed at the throne, and the witch covens were one and all frantically attempting the life of King James. There can be no sort of doubt that Bothwell was the moving force who energized and directed the very elaborate and numerous organization of demonolaters, which was almost accidentally brought to light, to be fiercely crushed by the draconian vengeance of a monarch justly frightened for his crown and his life.
In the nineteenth century both Albert Pike of Charleston and his successor Adriano Lemmi have been identified upon abundant authority as being Grand Masters of societies practising Satanism, and as performing the hierarchical functions of "the Devil" at the modern Sabbat.
Excerpted from The History of Witchcraft and Demonology by Montague Summers. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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