Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > The Advent of Modern Thought in Popular Literature > Witch-hunting
  William Perkin’s Art of Witch craft Astrological treatises  


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.

§ 6. Witch-hunting.

Perkin’s protest marks the beginning of a new phase in this discussion. So far back as 1576, seventeen or eighteen persons had been condemned for witchcraft at St. Osyth, and three more at Malden in 1579. 21  After parliament had followed their monarch’s Daemonologie with a law condemning all witches to death, a series of official inquisitions, held especially in Lancashire, Essex and Yorkshire, brought to light innumerable cases of women, and sometimes of men, who confessed to a secret union with the devil. The seducer had access to them in all conceivable shapes, from a loathsome animal to a handsome man, leaving some point of contact on their bodies insensible to pain, and assigning to each a posse of attendant imps, who sucked their blood through teat-like orifices in the skin. Thanks to this intercourse, witches gained power to plague the persons and properties of their enemies. Modern psychology has recognised in these hallucinations the symptoms of different kinds of insanity and perversion, 22  and, of course, many confessions were wrung by torture from accused women in the hope of pardon or at least of respite from their anguish. But, in the seventeenth century, with its ignorance of nervous diseases, tracts 23  disseminating these accounts appealed to the people’s half suppressed sense of horror and love of impurity and created a profound impression. Writers now began to discuss the judicial aspects of witchcraft; but, however critical might be their attitude to methods of conviction, they never questioned the reality of the crime. Thus, John Cotta, a physician, who had insight enough to expose the frauds of quack doctors, 24  displays all the enlightenment of his age in The Triall of Witchcraft, showing the true and righte method of discovery (1616), but cannot dissuade himself from believing in magic and sorcery. He begins by declaring the subject to be beyond human knowledge and approachable only through conjecture and inference. By this devious method, he deduces that evil spirits exist, quoting the usual testimony from sacred and classical history; but his common sense prompts him to warn his readers that those suspected of witchcraft are often mere impostors or unconsenting agents in working the devil’s miracles. He even employs his erudition to expose the fallacy of the water test. 25  But the many current reports of witchery lead him to agree with Reginald Scot that magic must have been at work when diseases produce unaccountable symptoms or defy accredited remedies. 26  And he maintains that the testimony of reliable witnesses or the detection of occult practices are enough to bring a witch to the bar. Edward Fairfax, translator of Tasso, and author of Godfrey of Bulloigne, succumbed to the prevailing panic. In an admirable piece of narrative prose, 27  he ascribes the mental disorders of his children to witchcraft, though the hallucinations and seizures are mainly due, in the case of younger children, to infantile hysteria and, of the elder girl, to suppressed eroticism. Nor could Richard Bernard, though a lucid and scholarly thinker, resist the conclusion of many confessions and condemnations. In his Guide to Grand Jury Men (1627), he restates the arguments of the demonologists, from Sprenger to Cotta, and elaborates them with all the thoroughness of conviction. And yet Bernard is fully conscious of a vast error due to incredulity and inexperience. In the First Booke, he quotes the Bible to prove how much of supposed witchcraft is either mental disease or mere self-deception; and, towards the end of his work, he declares that the rumours of magic are often “the vain conceits of the addle-headed, or of silly fooles or of prattling gossips or of superstitiously fearful; or of fansieful melancholicks or of discomposed and crased wits.”   12
  Thus, though Bernard had all the knowledge and penetration necessary to refute these superstitions, he was too closely in touch with his age to see differently from his fellows. The evil had, indeed, reached its climax. Just as the anarchy of the reformation 28  had made men feel that all the army of Satan was let loose among them, so, now, in the time of civil war and hatred, each faction imputed such diabolic criminality to its opponents that the devil’s presence was expected everywhere. The vampires and jackals of society began to trade on this obsession. Not only were such lying pamphlets published as A Most certain true and strange discovery of a witch being overtaken as she was standing on a small plank board and as sailing it over the river of Newbury, 1643, but “gulgropers,” “falconers,” “ranck-riders” and “ring-fallers” found that witch-hunting was more profitable than coneycatching, with the added luxury of abiding by the law. Children, who had always figured largely in the felony of the age, made a profession of feigning the symptoms of the bewitched. Such juvenile perjurers as the “Boy of Bilson” and the “Boy of Battlesdon” foamed at the mouth and fell into trances in the presence of certain old women. 29  Matthew Hopkins, a monster of impudence and iniquity, actually styled himself the “Witch-finder General” and manipulated the panic of his age so successfully that parliament commissioned him to perform a circuit for the detection of witches, paying twenty shillings for each conviction. Again, literature, for want of wider scope, came under this contagion. Hopkins produced in 1647 The Discovery of Witches; in answer to severall Queries; a catechism in which he explains the symptoms of witchery and his methods of investigation. Yet this manifesto is less fantastic than some books thick with academic learning. Among the rest, John Stearne’s A Confirmation and Discovery of Witch-Craft (1648) is unique. Though written in a spirit of impartial enquiry, the treatise contains perhaps the most bizarre collection of witch confessions in the world.   13

Note 21. See the pamphlet of that year with a title eminently illustrative of this movement, Detection of Damnable Drifts, practised by 3 Witches, arraigned at Chelmsforde in Essex … Set Forth to discover the Ambushementes of Sathan, Whereby He Would Surprise us, lulled in securitie and heardened with contempt of God’s vengeance threatened for our offences. [ back ]
Note 22. See Freimark, Occultismus und Sexualität, 1909; Laurent-Nagour, Occultismus und Liebe, 1903; Lehmann, Aberglaube, 2nd ed. 1908; Delasseux, Les Incubes et les Succubes, 1897; Brevannes, L’Orgie Satanique, 1904; Paul Moreau, Des Aberrations du Sens Génèsique, 4th ed. 1887; K.H. Ulrichs, Incubus, Urningsliebe und Blutgier, 1869. See also, papers by Freud, Jung, Ferenczi and Ernest Jones in The American Journal of Psychology, April, 1910. [ back ]
Note 23. See bibliography and A Collection of Rare and Curious Tracts relating to Witch craft, 1838. For reprint of Thomas Potts’s account of the famous trial of the Lancashire witches, 1613, see Chetham Soc., vol. VI, 1835. [ back ]
Note 24Discovery of … Ignorant Practicers of Physice, 1612. [ back ]
Note 25. The water test consisted in plunging the suspected person into a pond; if really a witch, who had renounced her baptism, the water would refuse to take her in and she would float. See chap. XVI. [ back ]
Note 26. See Chap. X. [ back ]
Note 27A Discourse of Witch-craft as it was acted in the family of Mr. Edw. Fairfax … in 1621. [ back ]
Note 28. See Vol. III, Chap. V, pp. 124–125. [ back ]
Note 29. See Wonderful News from the North, 1650; these and other reports of witch trials have been collected and discussed by Wallace Notenstein in History of English Witchcraft from 1558 to 1718, published by the American Historical Association, 1911. [ back ]

  William Perkin’s Art of Witch craft Astrological treatises  

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.