Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > The Advent of Modern Thought in Popular Literature > Demonology in the Middle Ages
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XVI. The Advent of Modern Thought in Popular Literature.

§ 1. Demonology in the Middle Ages.

THE enlightenment of the renascence had never penetrated the deeper recesses of the popular mind. The social, religious and economic revolutions of Tudor times; the fermentation of city life under Elizabeth and James; the growth of national consciousness; the discoveries of travellers and men of science; above all; the popularisation of biblical and classical literature, had added enormously to the interests and imagination of the ordinary man, without transforming his sentiments, convictions and ideals. His mental vision was crowded with new and engrossing objects, but his outlook remained medieval. It was the task of the Jacobean and Caroline generations to effect a mental reformation. Had the age been a time of political peace and social calm, the first half of the seventeenth century would have proved to be one of the most interesting epochs in English literature. In an atmosphere of learning and discussion, humanists of the period would have adjusted their heritage of old-time beliefs and aspirations to the maturer, more tolerant wisdom of Erasmus, More, Wier, Bullein, Montaigne, Scot, Ralegh, Shakespeare, Earle and Bacon. All that was best in the Middle Ages would have expanded into modern thought, and a second, more spiritual renascence would have inspired a series of masterpieces, such as the work of Vergil and Molière, in which the past and present join hands. As it was, though knowledge continued to increase, the thoughts and emotions of the people were diverted by class hatred, religious controversy and the political crisis. The consciousness of fellowship, essential to intellectual progress, had died out. Thus, humanists, instead of broadening and redirecting the tendencies of popular thought, either relapsed into scepticism, as in the instances of Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Browne, or let loose their augmented volume of learning and sentiment into the old, narrow channels. Whenever an age fails to find new interests, intellectual intemperance results. And, just as, at an earlier date, social writers lost touch with ideas and squandered their originality on experiments in style, 1  so, now, the more learned divines and physicians devoted their scholarship and research to the barren mysteries of demonology.   1
  In order to understand the witch controversy of the seventeenth century, it is necessary to remember that primitive people had always cherished a veneration for the “wise woman,” 2  probably a relic of the mother-worship of the premigratory period, and that her broom, ladle and goat may, possibly, be regarded as symbols of her domestic power. She was supplanted by the new polytheism of warrior spirits; and, when they gave way, in their turn, to Christianity, some of the dispossessed deities became saints, while others went to join this earlier deity in the traditions and folk-lore of the people. As western Christendom became familiar with the teaching of the Greek church and with eastern religions—at first by the researches of theologians and then through the Saracenic wars in Spain and the crusades—these rites and superstitions were gradually coloured with rabbinical conceptions of the devil’s hierarchy and with the Neoplatonic doctrine of demons and intermediary powers. Despite the rationalism of Jean de Meung and Roger Bacon, 3  patristic conceptions of demonology were codified and systematised in the Middle Ages. Such superstitions as the incubus and succubus, the transmutation of men into beasts, the power to fly by night were then, definitely, incorporated in medieval theological conceptions. From the twelfth or thirteenth century onwards, new feelings of horror and loathing began to be associated with this entanglement of traditions. Not only was the underworld of disinherited deities regarded as a rival by the Church, and, therefore, credited with the infamies which are usually attributed to heretics, 4  but as men struggled towards a higher level of civilisation, they instinctively accused these pariahs of all that they were endeavouring to eliminate from their own daily lives. The calamities and controversies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries only added to men’s sense of danger and misery and inspired a yet more pessimistic school of demonologists, led by Jacquier, Institoris and Sprenger. By the time we reach the seventeenth century, the imaginary realm of spirits, ghosts, gnomes, fairies, demons, prophets and conjurors—now stigmatised as the implacable enemies of mankind—became allegorical or symbolic of all that was degraded, perverted, revolting or terrible. The devil, from being a denizen of lonely or impassable places, had now grown to be the monarch of innumerable hosts. As the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had been disgraced in the eyes of the priesthood by blasphemous parodies, so, now, the diabolical empire was believed to be a monstrous imitation of the kingdom of heaven, with disgusting travesties of church ritual. The fiend’s one object was to seduce mortals from the worship of God, and as, from early Christian times, both monkish doctrinaires and secular humourists had depicted women as loose, malevolent or ridiculous, so, now, it was with this sex rather than with men that he found his easiest victims and most willing allies. This predilection stimulated the dreams of diseased imagination. The witch or “wise woman” was looked upon as the devil’s chosen handmaiden. The most elaborate pornography grew up around this supposed union, and the witches’ sabbath or Walpurgis night—a relic of motherworship, at which licence abounded—was conceived to be a kind of devil’s mass, at which debauchery ran riot. 5  Other obsessions came to be connected with the witch horror. From prehistoric times certain animals had been regarded as spirits of evil. Recollections of these legends blended with the fear of noisome and poisonous animals, and led men to believe that such creatures were auxiliaries of Black Magic. Human deformity abounded in medieval slums, and people still believed in monsters half man and half beast. And, as witches were hideous hags, men attributed to these old women the birth of abortions such as Hedelin, 6  Stengesius 7  and Paré 8  described and the people themselves read of in broadsides.   2
  From prehistoric times, men had been, and were still, accustomed to regard the trivial enterprises and interests of bucolic life as under the influence of witches. Such things as the growth of crops, the fall of rain, the churning of milk, the disappearance of household utensils and the birth of children, came within their province, but, now that all the mystery of evil and suffering had gathered round these beings, strange and appalling diseases were believed to come from their power. Epilepsy, somnambulism, St. Vitus’s dance, hysteria and hypnotism were attributed to venefical agency. They could slowly murder human beings by sympathetic magic or change them into animals. Nay, more, with the help of the devil, they could call back the dead, or some semblance of the dead, to aid them to win ascendency over human beings.   3

Note 1. See ante, Vol. IV., Chap. XVI. [ back ]
Note 2. Karl Pearson: see essays on “Woman as Witch,” “Ashiepattle,” “Kindred Group-marriage” in vol. II of Chances of Death, 1897. [ back ]
Note 3Roman de la Rose, pt. II, c. 1280. Epistola fratris Rogerii Baconis de secretis operibus artis et natura et de nullitate magiae, c. 1250 (ptd.Theatrum Chimicum, Nürnberg, 1732). [ back ]
Note 4. See, especially, the bull of Gregory IX, 13 June, 1233. [ back ]
Note 5. See Jules Baissac, Les Grands Jours de la Sorcellerie, 1890, chap. VI. See, also, chap. VII in Illustrierte Sittengeschichte, by Fuchs, E., 1909. [ back ]
Note 6Des Satyres, Brutes, Monstres et Demons. De leur Nature et Adoration, par Francois Hedelin, 1627. (Hedelin is better known as the Abbé d’Aubignac.) [ back ]
Note 7De Monstris et Monstrosis, 1647 (?). [ back ]
Note 8Deux livres de chirurgie, 1573. Eng. trans. by Johnson, T., 1649. [ back ]

   Belief in witchcraft  

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