A short history of witchcraft sceptics
This article first appeared in Fortean Times FT367; June 2018.
It takes courage to challenge the accepted orthodoxy of the day, to take on whatever madness has gone mainstream. In the Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth century it was witchcraft and the persecution of alleged witches.
Just as important as "How did it happen?" was how to end it. After belief in witches had become so entrenched, how did society manage to talk its way out of it? There survives a rich vein of writings by those who stuck their necks out and expressed scepticism regarding the philosophical, theological and legal justifications for the witch trials. Some were themselves men of the church; many were lawyers or judges who’d found themselves sitting in on witch trials. One was a physician, later seen as a pioneer of psychology.
Most witchcraft sceptic literature was targeted at the men at the top of the social order, the "learned" gentlemen and scholars whose influence and opinion was so important in keeping belief in witches mainstream. For witchcraft trials you needed not just fearful local accusers but also judges and "expert" witnesses - scholars, lawyers, theologians and physicians - to testify that witches existed and did the Devil's work. These "learned men" could be found in surprising abundance.
Witchcraft sceptics generally trod carefully, going to great pains to agree that witches did actually exist. Long sections of their books were devoted to describing in detail the workings of phenomena such as sabbaths and compacts with the Devil, laced with Biblical citations. Works sceptical of witchcraft usually emphasised, though, that witches were likely to be few in number, younger, male and politically influential, rather than destitute, eccentric old women with a warts and pet cats.
Sceptics did not initially try to persuade audiences that there was no such thing as witchcraft, more that almost none of the suspects paraded before the courts were likely to be the real thing, that the judicial process of witchfinding was flawed. Some witchcraft sceptics, though, went further, questioning whether even the Devil existed. As we shall see, sticking out your neck and saying that there were no witches and no witchcraft was dangerous even after the witch craze had supposedly abated.
Scepticism on the existence of witchcraft was official policy in the Catholic Church for centuries. The Canon Episcopi, an influential treatise on Canon law dated to around 1020, condemned belief in witchcraft as part of pagan superstition. The Canon Episcopi’s position was that while the Devil existed, beliefs in witches were “delusions in the mind”, created by the Devil himself. The Canon gave as an example the belief held by certain “wicked” women devotees of the goddess Diana that they rode through the night on “beasts”, except that they didn’t actually do so, they were just gripped by a mass delusion sent by Satan.
This created problems for the late fifteenth century witch persecutors. The most influential witchfinders’ manual, Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches, 1487,) dealt with this by re-interpreting the Canon to insist that the “rides of Diana” were real. The early witchfinding career of Malleus Maleficarum’s author, Dominican monk and inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, ended with him expelled from the city of Innsbruck in 1484, denounced by bishops as “senile and crazy”. Kircher appealed to Pope Innocent VIII, who responded with the Papal Bull Summis desiderantes affectibus. This officially confirmed witches existed, warning that many “of both sexes” had “abandoned themselves to devils.” It empowered Kircher and his associates to prosecute witches, calling on the clergy to support him. This was important in kicking off the European witch craze, which took hold relatively quickly.
The influential witchfinder's manual Malleus Maleficarum, title page from the fifth Cologne edition of 1520
Protestantism inherited Catholicism’s then prevailing witch panic. The upheaval of the Reformation and Counter-reformation, and the wars of religion that accompanied it, fuelled a tense atmosphere in which the denominations viewed each other as vast Satanic conspiracies. Lutheran pastor and witchcraft sceptic Balthasar Bekker, writing at the end of the seventeenth century, noted the ease with which even Protestants of the “True Faith” succumbed to the “error” of thinking that the Catholic Church was the empire of the Devil, while Johannes Weyer (see below) denounced an unnamed Catholic bishop who preached that Martin Luther was literally the son of Satan.
Johannes Weyer, born in what’s now the Netherlands, was a student of the occultist and theologian Cornelius Agrippa before training as a doctor. He became town physician to the Dutch city of Arnhem. He asserted that “uneducated physicians and surgeons attribute what is really their own ignorance and error to witchcraft.”
Portrait of Johannes Weyer, author of De Prasestigiis Demonum, believed to be the first author to use the term "mentally ill". Out of copyright
Weyer’s De Praestigiis Daemonum (On the Illusions of Demons), a rebuttal of Malleus, appeared in 1563 and became a Latin language bestseller. In De Prasetigiis, Weyer argues that there are “magicians of ill repute” and “exorcists” - male heretics who employ the Devil’s power to create powerful illusions through magic. He was careful to make a “distinction of meaning,” to differentiate “magicians” from “witches”. He argued that the Devil’s power was not as great as claimed. Through natural laws, “God has established the limits in which He is willing to tolerate the Devil’s activities.” Most of the deeds attributed to witches were impossible – most witchcraft was psychological in origin. Those confessing to such crimes suffered from the “credulity” of the female sex, “the distorted imagination of melancholics” or were “mentally ill” - Weyer is believed to be the first writer to use the latter phrase.
The Devil, argued Weyer, was an expert at obfuscating the truth, so witch hunters by persecuting the “mentally ill” were playing into the hands of the Devil, with his thirst for “innocent blood.”
One of the odder aspects of De Prasetigiis is its detail on the demons that can be summoned by “magicians” and “exorcists” (but not, he argued, by the poor old women accused of witchcraft). He went into chapter and verse on how readers could summon these spirits to do their will. In a later appendix to De Prasetigiis, titled Pseudomonarchia Daemonum (False Monarchy of Demons), he lists the complex hierarchy of Hell, with statistics on 69 demon kings, dukes, presidents and princes, their powers, how many legions of demons they commanded and the best time of day to summon them.
While influential in the Netherlands, Weyer’s appeals for clemency in De Praestigiis for “poor innocent women punished” went largely ignored elsewhere. The physicians, lawyers and authors of the late sixteenth century waded in to oppose Weyer, among them King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), who in his Daemonologie (1597) insisted that witches existed and were “most severely to be punished.”
King James also branded as “damnable” Reginald Scot, author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), which was strongly influenced by Weyer. An urban legend persists that King James ordered the destruction of all copies of the book.
The Discoverie opens by lamenting how “The fables of witchcraft have taken so fast hold and deepe root” in England, to the point where English people “if any adversitie, greefe, sicknesse, Losse of children, corne, cattell, or libertie happen unto them by & by they exclaimme upon witches.”
Scot asks whether those accused of witchcraft are “worthy to die”. Echoing Weyer, Scot also notes “how easily they (witches) may be brought to confesse to that which they never did; nor lieth in the power of man to doo.”
He also introduces the term “witchmongers” – witch hunters and witchfinders, whom he lumps together with “papists.” Many column inches are devoted to “Popish exorcists and other conjurers”. Discoverie, like De Praestigiis before it, also covers thoroughly the appearance of the word “witch” in the Old Testament, going back to the various original Hebrew words later translated as “witch” and what they actually mean.
There are long descriptions of how witchcraft works (allegedly), the Devil’s compacts, how witches are brought to trial, tortured, tried and convicted. There are lengthy critiques of contemporary writers who were defending the existence of witchcraft – of whom there were already plenty. The Discoverie was written at a time when belief in fairies was going out of fashion in educated society in much of England, so Scot compares witches to the fairy Robin Goodfellow (also known as Puck), who “ceaseth now to be much feared”, yet “witches’ charms” are still widely believed.
John Gaule was vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire at the height of the reign of terror of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, during the turmoil of the English Civil War. Hopkins secured himself a commission to investigate witchcraft in the East of England. (He made up the title “Witchfinder General” for himself, it was never official). The total number of his victims, including those hanged, has been estimated conservatively at perhaps 230 or more.
In this atmosphere, where in the Reverend Gaule’s own words, “The country people talk already… of the infallible and wonderfull power of the Witchfinders; then they doe of God, or Christe, or the Gospell preached,” it took courage for him to preach against Hopkins from his pulpit and then publish in 1646 Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts. This opens with what Gaule claims is a copy of a chilling letter he received from Hopkins, in which the Witchfinder General tells him he is coming to his area, and sounds him out on whether he will be well received, whether there are any “sticklers” locally who can be relied upon to pursue witches with zeal.
Select Cases eloquently denounced Hopkins, and how “every old woman with… a dog or cat by her side… (is) pronounced for a witch”. Some of Gaule’s sources include his interview with a “committed witch” who confessed, and one of the witchfinders, “as they call themselves”, adding that “the office of Witchfinding is exceeding doubtful”. Gaule asked whether witchfinders “aim not more at a privat Advantage, then at the publicke Good… Whether he may not give occasion to Defame Ten that are Innocent; before he discover one that is Guilty?”
Like most witchcraft-sceptic works, Select Cases didn’t deny the existence of any witches; “It is safe to believe that there are witches… But very unsafe to pronounce on such and such for witches, and that upon false grounds, as vulgar report, bare superstition, suspected Ancestors, decrepit age... ” Furthermore, “No kind of Witchcraft may be named, which is not found on superstition”, while incubuses in particular were “the height of all fantastical delusions.”
Select Cases was influential in exposing the abuses of the witchfinders. When the regular Norfolk assizes, briefly interrupted by the Civil War, started up again, Hopkins found himself questioned before it. He retired shortly afterwards. Select Cases was also a book whose time had come. In the upheaval of the Civil War, Parliament’s authority over the courts system had briefly slipped; allowing freelance chancers like Hopkins free reign, and now it was looking to re-assert its power.
Sir John Keeling was Sergeant at Law - a junior judge brought in to assist the regular circuit judge in complex cases. It was apparently in this capacity that he sat in on the trial of the “Lowestoft witches” Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, at Bury St Edmunds in 1664. The difficulties he encountered demonstrate the power of expert testimony from those who firmly believed in witchcraft.
Duny was indicted for causing the death of a child, with testimony on “a great Toad” which hopped out of the child’s blanket. Witness evidence, much of it from children, stated that Duny and Cullender had sent imps and “Lice of an extraordinary bigness” to torment them.
Keeling was “most unsatisfied” with the evidence, which he identified as based “upon the imagination only of the parties afflicted.” He arranged a test in which the children, expecting to be touched by a suspected witch, were tricked into throwing fits on cue.
However, counter-arguments from the “most knowledgeable” expert witness - physician, author, philosopher, naturalist and antiquarian Dr Thomas Browne of Norwich – won the day. Dr Browne said that while fits thrown by children were the result of hysteria, their hysteria could be heightened by the “the subtlety of the Devil” that was here at work. The judge didn’t even refer to Keeling’s arguments in his summing up; Duny and Cullender were convicted and hanged.
John Webster’s The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (1677) returned to the theme of witchcraft as “a passive delusion of melancholy or fancy” and “utterly denied” all the usual testimony about a “corporeal league made betwixt the Devil and the witch.”
Balthasar Bekker, the son of pastor from what’s now the Dutch-German border, became a Lutheran pastor in Amsterdam and travelled to London, Cambridge, Oxford and Paris. An enthusiastic fan of the philosophy of Rene Descartes, he drew on this in his three-volume Dutch-language work De Betoverde Wereld (The Bewitched World, 1691).
Portrait of Balthasar Bekker by Johannes Hilarides, from 1691. Out of copyright
This questioned “Upon which foundation the Christians in general, and the Protestants in particular, say such extraordinary things of the Devil.” It included an exhaustive study of comparative religion - “The opinions of the Heathens concerning God and spirits”, comparing their doctrines and whether they agree or differ. He concluded of these “Heathen” superstitions about the Devil that “the witchcraft practised among the people proceeds from the same source.” As well as “The witchcraft practised among the Jews” and in India, China, Africa and the Classical world, “very near the same opinions are to be found in America” among Native Americans. His survey of “Heathen” beliefs about the Devil found that “The Opinions and doctrines already mentioned have been most of all introduced in Popery... new inventions of men.”
Of belief in witches, Bekker concluded, “Those Opinions already deeply rooted in the mind as deeply as they can be; before the Holy Bible be ever read”. Over the centuries, witchcraft “consists almost nothing else but the Tricks of Priests.” Furthermore, “Some of the Heathen opinions upon this subject have in the process of time, kept in amongst the Christians”.
De Betoverde Wereld also took on the army of writers whose intellectual contributions have kept “witchmongering” alive and well - “James the First” and Jean Bodin who “imploy all their skills and capacity to confirm” belief in witches, and to anticipate witchcraft-sceptic opinions with elaborate counter-arguments. (Influential French jurist and demonologist Jean Bodin believed that evil spirits instilled doubt into judges, bewitching them so they showed leniency to real witches in court.)
That Christianity was just another religion among many, possibly sharing much of its “origin” with “Heathen” belief systems, was discomforting. De Betoverde Wereld suggestion that the Devil might not even exist raised questions about even the existence of God. The book caused a Europe-wide sensation. It was a bestseller in several languages, although it never took off in England due to poor business decisions by the publisher of the English edition, The World Bewitch’d (1695) – Part One of the original only, from a French version but approved by Bekker himself.
While witchcraft trials had ceased in the Republic of the Netherlands by the time Bekker was writing, persecution of alleged “witches” still persisted in much of Europe. As a result of De Betoverde Wereld, Bekker was denounced as an atheist, stripped of his ministry and banned from many towns. But the City of Amsterdam continued to pay Bekker his salary and formally kept him in post. He was later inducted into the Royal Society.
Contemporary with De Betoverde Wereld was Lord Chief Justice Sir John Holt, a judge who is known to have presided over at least 11 witchcraft trials as far apart as Suffolk and Cornwall, with every suspect before him being acquitted.
In the case of “Mother Munnings”, up before Holt in Bury St Edmunds on charges of causing her landlord’s death by magic and for keeping imps, it was established that her imps were probably just misidentified balls of wool. Several “witches” accused of having witch’s marks on their bodies, causing lice infestations or making victims contort, throw fits or vomit pins walked free after an appearance before Holt. So strict was Holt in establishing the facts of alleged deeds of witchcraft that the trial of Sarah Murdoch on a “causing to vomit pins” rap - over which Holt presided at Southwark – ended with Murdoch’s accuser tried for “imposture” and her employers charged with assaulting her.
Holt was a man of great influence – he became Lord Chief Justice of the Court of the King’s Bench, and a Privy Councillor – so his rigorous cross-examination of the so-called evidence for witchcraft helped turn the tide of legal opinion against the existence of the phenomenon. But he wasn’t just up against the superstitions of the common people. Many of his recent predecessors on the bench – such as Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale, judge at the Lowestoft witch trial – were firm believers in the need to prosecute alleged witches, letting through much obviously false testimony.
Christian Thomasisus, a German judge and philosopher, spoke out against witch trails (and trials of atheists) and the use of torture in his 1704 legal textbook Kurze Lehrsätze van dem Laster der Zauberei mit dem Hexenprozess (Kurt’s Theorems about the Vice of Sorcery in the Witch Trial).
Witchcraft sceptical works had become rarer by the beginning of the eighteenth century.Witchcraft had fallen out of the judicial mainstream by then. There was less of a perceived need to engage a shrinking witchfinding industry in philosophical argument. The rise of the educated classes speeded the decline of witchcraft, with the errors of the witch trials eventually influencing the development of law.
But over a century after Lord Chief Justice Holt, being a witchcraft sceptic in the East of England in the early nineteenth century could still be a thankless task. One such local witchcraft sceptic, Richard Grey of Aldeburgh, practiced as a lawyer in London before inheriting money and returning to his native Suffolk, making it his mission to travel around (often sleeping rough) for the next 20 years trying to convince whoever would listen that neither witches nor their imps existed.
This was not a popular idea. When he came to the Suffolk fishing port of Orford in the early years of the nineteenth century, they so didn’t like his ideas about the non-existence of witches that they tied him to a stake and piled up wood around him, ready to set fire to him. He only escaped when he promised never to show his face in Orford again.
See also: The Heksenwaag (the Witch Weigher), Oudwater, the Netherlands - Fortean Times, FT 255, 2009.
On Witchcraft: An Abridged Translation of Johann Weyer’s De Praestigiis Daemonum, edited by Benjamin G. Kohl and H. C. Erik Midelfort, translated by John Shea, Pegasus Press, Asheville,1998
Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, Johanes Weyer, English translation, edited by by Joseph H. Peterson
Sir John Holt (1642-1710) a Biographical Sketch – with especial reference to his witchcraft trials, Tim Holt-Wilson, 2001
The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, John Webster, 1677
Lowestoft witches trial report
The World Bewitch’d (abridged 1695 English translation of De Betoverde Wereld by Balthasar Bekker)
The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot, 1886 facsimile
Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft, John Gaule, London 1646
Account of Richard Gray of Aldeburgh from The Folklore of East Anglia, Enid Porter, BT Batsford, London 1974
Thinking With Demons, The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, James Sharpe, 1999.
Demon Lovers - witchcraft, sex and the crisis of belief, Walter Stephens, University of Chicago Press, 2002
© Matt Salusbury 2018