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  Demonology in the Middle Ages George Gifford’s Dialogues of Witches  


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.

§ 2. Belief in witchcraft.

It will hence be readily understood that, at the opening of our period, the belief in witchcraft had grown to be more than an antiquated superstition. It represented the Gothic obscenity, grotesqueness, profanity, madness, cruelty and paganism, which progress had branded as accursed but could not eradicate from the imaginations of men. Had an age of moral reflectiveness succeeded to the creative energy of Elizabeth’s reign, the Jacobean and Caroline generations would have turned the light of the new learning on their own minds and formed a higher conception of divine power and human dignity. But the heat of controversy rendered introspection impossible, and humanists were too busy refuting each other’s political and religious errors to cultivate high seriousness of thought. Thus, those who felt that all was not well with the world, and who were not inspired by any movement towards a more cultured and spiritual interpretation of life, returned to examine the old allegory of human imperfection and defencelessness, finding in the books of the past and the disorder of the present only too much to justify a belief in witchcraft.   4
  To begin with, as progress had not been universal, those who could not move with the times tended to cling to old beliefs from instinctive distrust of what was new; while others, dismayed at the collapse of faith and tradition, were ready to believe anything which represented humanity as corrupt and afflicted. The Faust legend was still a parable of the age. Many who viewed with horror the careers of John Dee, Edward Kelly, Simon Forman, Dr. Lambe, William Lilly and Elias Ashmole, were not prepared to deny that witches and magicians bartered their souls in the insane desire to pass the limits divinely placed to knowledge and power. Again, the renascence had accustomed men to intenser and more versatile habits of thought; inventions were more ingenious, thinkers were more subtle. Consequently, those who were still convinced of original sin, would attribute to the devil the heightened intelligence and duplicity of man, rather than deny his existence.   5
  Now that the thoughts of men were turned in this direction, they continued, like their predecessors from St. Augustine downwards, to discover authority for superstitions in their most revered sources of knowledge. Neoplatonism was used to corroborate the doctrine of spirits and angels, and, besides, to deny that the world was full of demons was to be a Sadducee. Moreover, positive proofs of devilry and magic could be deduced from holy writ. The serpent in the garden of Eden, Pharaoh’s conjurors, the afflictions of Job, Balaam and his ass, the witch of Endor, the “voice of the charmer,” the transmutation of Nebuchadnezzar, the Gadarene swine, “the lunatic boy,” and Simon Magus were understood in the light of seventeenth-century demonology. Classical lore, which carried hardly less weight than Scripture, could be as easily interpreted. The incubus and succubus were discerned in the union of gods and goddesses with mortals. The belief in witch-begotton monsters was confirmed by tales of the Minotaur, lamiae, empusae, lemures and satyrs. 9  If Circe could turn men into swine, Neptune and Aeolus raise storms, Juno travel through the air, Apollo strike down with disease, Venus become invisible, why should not more modern magicians? They learnt from Apuleius that men could be changed into animals; from Horace and Lucan that witches practised abominable rites in secret, and from Tacitus, Suetonius and Ovid that spells, incantations and sympathetic magic could be used to destroy the life of a fellow creature.   6
  For many, and, in some cases, subconscious, motives, men wished to believe in witchcraft; and, since the intellect generally follows the emotions, the age found more reasons for believing the propositions formulated by Molitoris,  10  and for literally discharging the mistranslated mandate, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch (Mekasshepha) to live,” than for believing the arguments of Agrippa, Erasmus, Wier, Reuchlin, the authors of Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum, and Scot. 11  Puritanism, with its gloom, its intolerance and its sense of spiritual conflict, has been held largely responsible for the persecution that now arose. But the causes lay deeper than any sectarian movement and actuated men of different creeds, who might otherwise have advanced the culture of their age. Holland, in a tedious dialogue, 12  proved the existence of witches from the Bible, and established the likelihood of their lust for blood by quoting the sacrifice of Iphigenia and the cruelties of Nero and Maxentius. He claimed that they should be put to death, even if unconvicted of magic, as being renegades and perverters. With soulless resignation, he recognised in them God’s chosen sign of the world’s sins, especially papistry, and His scourge wherewith to plague apostates.   7

Note 9. Cf. Walter Mapes, De nugis curialium, c. 1180, in which Satan admits that Ceres, Priapus, naiads, fauns, dryads, satyrs, Bacchus and Pan have been changed into devils. [ back ]
Note 10. See Dialogus de Pythonicis Mulieribus, 1489. [ back ]
Note 11. For the recrudescence of the witch panic in Tudor times, see ante, Vol. III, Chap. V, pp. 126 ff.; for the part played by Erasmus see, especially, Colloquia Familiaria; for Reuchlin, De verbo mirifico, 1494; for Wier, De Praestigiis demonum, 1564. [ back ]
Note 12A Treatise against Witchcraft, 1590. [ back ]

  Demonology in the Middle Ages George Gifford’s Dialogues of Witches  

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