Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > The Advent of Modern Thought in Popular Literature > John Wagstaffe’s Question of Witchcraft


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.

§ 18. John Wagstaffe’s Question of Witchcraft.

Although both Filmer and Ady begin their treatises with the inevitable discussion on Biblical authority, their work is important because, like their forerunner Reginald Scot, they brought the kindly wisdom of daily life into this academic controversy. In this respect, they prepared the way for John Wagstaffe. His book, The Question of Witchcraft debated (1669), makes full use of his predecessors’ appeals to commonsense, but he goes beyond them by also appealing to secular scholarship and erudition. He sketches the history of religious persecution, and argues that, from the days of Maxentius and Theodosius onwards, the church has endeavoured to suppress heresy, solely in order to extend its own temporal sovereignty.   40
  Meanwhile, demonology was not in need of apologists. R. T., in The Opinion of Witchcraft Vindicated (1670), attempted to counteract the effect of Wagstaffe’s book by reminding his readers, as many demonologists had done, that the devil is a servant of God, employed on his errands, nor have we any right to deny his existence because we cannot explain to ourselves how he acts. Glanvill followed the same line of argument in Philosophical Considerations touching Witches and Witchcraft (1666). Meric Casaubon, in Of Credulity and Incredulity (1668) discusses many wonders which the enlightenment of his age had now proved to be natural phenomena. But he is alarmed at the spread of rationalism and too deeply imbued with reverence for the Bible to question any doctrines which were supposed to emanate from that source. So he condemns as atheists and uneducated all those who denied a league between the devil and men, and dwells on the enormous volume of testimony, ancient and modern, literary and judicial, in proof of sorcery. And yet it is manifest that these scholars were pleading a lost cause. Men believed in witchcraft so long as its horror, grotesqueness and defilement fascinated their imagination. The earlier demonologists had quoted Scripture and the classics to the full, but their conviction really rested on the prurient or ghastly anecdotes with which this superstition abounded. The spell of mystery and horror still exercised its power over the vulgar, and broadsides continued to report cases of bewitchment; but the age had learnt to criticise its own ideas and educated apologists already showed a degree of sensibility and intellectual refinement quite inconsistent with these beliefs. The supersitition still seemed to thrive because it had not yet been confronted with the purer, keener outlook of the restoration.   41
  This was the work of John Webster. His book The Displaying of supposed Witchcraft (1677) does not contribute any new material to the controversy; in fact, he admits himself that the demonographers had already been “quashed and silenced” by Wier, Tandler, Scot, Ady and Wagstaffe. But, while reproducing their arguments, whether based on theology or common-sense, he did more than they all, by bringing the controversy into an atmosphere in which the superstition could not live: the atmosphere of confidence in nature and reverence for an immaterial God. Now that Hakewill, Harvey, Newton and Locke were teaching men to investigate and not fear the mysteries of life, Webster insists that all evidence in support of sorcery should be subjected to the same scientific scrutiny. Besides, what need was there to suspect the handiwork of the devil in any miracle, when “Mr. Boyl” was able to “manifest the great and wonderful virtues that God hath endowed stones, minerals, plants and roots withal,” when Van Helmont had already proved that metals have even greater healing power and Paracelsus had ascribed this power to God. Now that natural laws were being discovered, Webster represents this God, not according to the old anthropomorphic ideas, but as a transcendental spirit, who rules men through their thoughts and wills. Satan is merely one of the means of communication. Hence, if there is a league between the devil and a witch, it is “internal, mental and spiritual”; the league which always exists between a malefactor and the spirit of evil. For Webster is the first to point out—what many of his contemporaries must have felt—that the current theory of witchcraft was utterly unworthy of the modern conception of human nature. Neurasthenics, whose imaginations have been infected with stories of ghosts and goblins, may conceive themselves to be the victims of all kinds of malpractices and diseases. But the devil only enslaves men by “their corrupt wills and dispositions.”   42
  Webster’s book by no means drove out superstition. The belief in necromancy, sortilege and magic exists at the present time in cities as well as in rural districts and will always be found wherever the great emotions of life 84  are wrought to a higher pitch than the intellect. But The Displaying of supposed Witchcraft marks the time when this error definitely lost its hold on men’s lower passions and on the sense of human degradation. The period of witch persecutions has universally been regarded as the darkest blot on English civilisation and it produced a literature no less dreary. Witch treatises, with a few exceptions, are voluminous, rambling and ill-constructed dissertations in which patristic dogmas and scholastic arguments are endlessly reiterated. And yet one is almost tempted to regard this controversy, together with the civil war pamphlets and the puritan tirades, as an inevitable phase in the evolution of English modern thought. Movements like the renascence, which appeal chiefly to courtiers and scholars, who, after all, are only the surface of a nation, can well be inspired from foreign sources. But when a whole people change their attitude of mind, the impulse must come from within. We have seen how social and political influences drove popular writers to the most extravagant thoughts and utterances, thereby creating an atmosphere in which great works cannot thrive. But, at the same time, it must be remembered that, if informal literature ran to excess, it became, in this way, a self-exposure, and startled the whole nation into an effort towards higher civilisation.   43

Note 84. Cf. Benson, R. H., The Necromancers, 1010 [ back ]


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