Friday, May 20, 2011
By a curious coincidence, the article I considered in the immediately preceding Post was followed within two days by the publication of a second Report on Catholic clergy abuse of minors conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which had published its first such Report in 2003. I am presently reviewing the text of this second Report and will Post on it shortly.
But I have to take time to share with you a longish essay on witchcraft trials in Europe. It was published as a chapter (105 pages or so) in 1841 by one Charles Mackay, LLD, as part of his book entitled “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”.*
In his Introduction to the 1980 edition, Andrew Tobias recalls an observation by the late financier Bernard Baruch, made in 1932. Baruch noticed how swarms of insects or birds will suddenly rise from a resting position on the ground and take to the air in a remarkably complex synchronized and instantaneous mass motion, as if some bond existed between them that guided their mass-action. “What made them do that?” Baruch wondered.
Tobias had been a graduate student at Harvard Business School doing research on chain letters, but got to thinking about fads (chain letters and roller-skates were of interest to him at the time) and how they seem to grip large swaths of society.
Baruch had recalled Friedrich Schiller: “Anyone taken as an individual is tolerably sensible and reasonable – as a member of a crowd, he at once becomes a blockhead”. And that got Tobias to thinking that “there are lynch mobs and there are crusades, there are runs on banks and fires where, if only people hadn’t panicked, they all would have escaped with their lives”. Thus he moved from considering ‘the hustle’ dance-craze to far more serious instances of collective human crazed-ness.
Tobias quotes Baruch – who made his fortune in finance – noticing that in stock-crazes individuals who had been taught as children that “two plus two equals four” suddenly become convinced in their myriads that actually “two and two can equal five”.
Among numerous historical crazes Mackay examines, he spends a hundred pages on his chapter entitled “The Witch Mania”. I want to share just a few points that are relevant to the SO Mania of our own unhappy day.
Mackay looks at the 250 years between 1450 and 1700 in Europe. He notes that the ancient Mosaic prescription “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” suffered in translation to English, through Latin, from the ancient Hebrew (with possible excursions into various modes of Greek): the word in the ancient Hebrew actually means “poisoner, divineress, a dabbler in spells and a fortune-teller”. To the ancient Hebrews, building a relationship with their new-found single God, such reliance on efforts to ‘get ahead’ of God’s plan (a form of insider-trading, perhaps) by appealing perhaps to other unseen forces from the older religious practices, would have been a serious threat to the task of converting the Hebrews to a covenant relationship with the God of Sinai and the Commandments. But the idea of persons uniting with other gods, or with the Devil (not really a fully formed concept as an oppositional force to God at that time) would not have been involved at all. (“Satan”, as you may recall, seemed to be part of the Divine staff – his job to test faith – as seen in the Book of Job.)
But in the late Medieval era “Europe, for a period of two centuries and a half, brooded upon the idea, not only that departed spirits walked the earth, but that men [human beings] had the power to summon evil spirits to their aid to work woe upon their fellows. An epidemic terror seized upon nations, no man thought himself secure, either in his person or his possessions, from the machinations of the devil and his agents. Every calamity that befell him he attributed to a witch.”
The monks of the Dark Ages had characterized the Devil as an impish, loutish spirit, who was always seeking to mess up your life but who could be outwitted by the faithful adherence to Christian principles, virtues, and discipline. But Milton, in his magnificent “Paradise Lost” had given the Devil an awful and awesome countenance, a Being of such noble – if dark – grandeur that he appeared (one of the problems with Milton’s work) to be more serious and ‘real’ than the forces of Good. And an enticing alternative to desperate humans trying to make their way in the nasty, sharp, brutish, and short lives that most Europeans of those centuries were condemned to lead; if the Devil might offer a short-cut or a way-around the powerlessness of the human condition, and in a way that promised more immediate payback and reward than the far-too-patient God of Christianity, well … who knows how many might be tempted to take up the offer?
In the process of winnowing out those among them who weren’t playing by religion’s and society’s rules, Mackay notes how “devilish men became seeking to combat the devil”.
One enterprising thinker, perhaps hoping to allay fears that the Devil and his sub-demons were everywhere, calculated that there were no more than 7,405,926 of the beasties, divided into 72 battalions. But I doubt his thoughts offered much consolation.
Throughout Europe in those 250 years, spanning both the pre-and-post Reformation moment, religious groups both Catholic and Protestant, in the name of good order and with an eye to establishing some working connection with the growing power of national monarchs and governments, went after the Devil. I would add that the growing influence of ‘science’, and its ability to explain matters that previously had been assumed to be directly caused by God, also agitated many.
Charlemagne, around 800, newly crowned by the Pope as Holy Roman Emperor, was the first major power – religious or civil – to outlaw the burning of witches “after the manner of the pagans”, perhaps with a shrewd eye to cementing his alliance with Christendom as he simultaneously sought to impose order on his diverse and unruly subjects. Religion seemed to him a very helpful force for establishing and sustaining social and political order among the wrack and ruin and fractured European polities of the Dark Ages. And he recognized that it would not be easy to build a new polity among the Germanic populations that still held to their darkling, pre-Christian ways: those ways harbored a too-quick violence, one that could not be predictably controlled and that would sustain an ongoing threat of instability within the new polity he sought to create.
Yet throughout the next 900 years, with that intensified spike from 1450 to 1700, the charge of witchcraft demonstrated its political utility as not simply individuals but entire groups were obliterated on the basis of charges of mass-witchcraft. Mackay uses the examples of the Frieslanders in the early 1200s, one of the last remaining Anglo-Saxon type tribal polities who insisted on governing themselves without interference from feudal nobles or religious authorities – they were finally accused of witchcraft en masse, the local Archbishop (of Bremen) teamed up with the Count of Oldenburg, mobs were incited to attack them and were repulsed, whereupon the Archbishop induced the Pope to declare them “heretics and witches” and declare a crusade, troops were sent, and the deed was done.
Between 1307 and 1313 Philip IV of France took a hankering to the vast lands and wealth of the formally established Order of the Knights Templar, an ‘international’ Order of fighting-monks that had participated strongly in the defense of Christendom against the Moors. With no other excuse to credibly be lodged against them, Philip – who had induced the Pope to share in the spoils and declare them outcast throughout Europe – had them all accused of witchcraft (and child sex abuse, and with boys) and burned or otherwise done away with, while confiscating all of their lands and wealth for the royal treasury.
And in the end it was a charge of witchcraft that rid the English of Joan of Arc in 1429.
By the late 1400s European Christendom was beginning to demonstrate the increasing dissension that would lead in the early 1500s to Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation: the Waldensians were only the most substantial of a welter of popular groups seeking to form themselves along the lines of their own reading of the Bible, free of what they saw as the encrustation of the Papacy and the developed dogmas and doctrines of the now highly-organized Catholic Church. There was even an Anti-Christ or two (Mackay mentions Florimond) who rose up to declare himself the arbiter of the end-times, calling for repentance and reformation and inveighing against the ecclesiastical order generally. (A sticky point, since the Crown and the aristocracy theoretically still derived its own authority from God – you could see where the governing powers were a little concerned for themselves.)
In 1488, Pope Innocent VIII - realizing that the charge of ‘heresy’ didn’t have quite the oomph it had previously had in Christendom – mixed ‘heresy’ and ‘witchcraft’ and issued a Bull against them both. He was, I would say, playing with fire here: human beings as individuals, and thus the societies in which they combine and the cultures which they develop, are never very far from primal darknesses; the human brain hasn’t been around so long that it has fully evolved from deep unease and fears, especially of the dark and the unseen. Europe was easily inflammable if one sought to set a match to those dark primalities and regress things back to primeval fear that palpably excited the most ancient parts of the human brain.
It may have seemed to him a whizzbang bit of ‘strategizing’: combating the more or less conceptual and abstract charge of heresy by connecting it to the far more inflammable motivating and mobilizing fear of witchcraft, especially if the witches – as they must be – lived right in your own town and neighborhood and were consorting with the Devil to inflict harm on your life, family, property and possessions. And – no doubt Innocent was advised – the whole thing might reinvigorate people’s faith in religion.
So much ‘strategy’; so little wisdom. But it was an emergency.
Neatly, since the dissident religious groups often gathered in small meetings, at night when they couldn’t be seen, usually out beyond town in the woods, and read the Bible on their own, then witches were to be identified as going out of town into the woods at night, signing the Devil’s Book, having a convivial good time amongst themselves, and then coming back into town refreshed to do their mischief. This was a strategy that couldn’t miss on the local level.
While the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Presbyterian (Knox in Scotland) church polities would take the witchcraft gambit to its most intense heights, it is here with Innocent’s Bull that Mackay marks the beginning of the European “Witchcraft Mania”.
Almost immediately, in addition to Catholic Inquisitors who were now tasked with finding witches as well as heretics, and civil governing authorities who had to cooperate with them (until the Reformation, when civil authority got into the game on its own authority, so to speak), there arose self-declared ‘witch-finders’, itinerant ‘experts’ (so they claimed) who went from village to town offering their services (for a fee) to expose and ‘prove’ witches.
All were guided by a hefty handbook first published in 1486, the “Malleus Maleficarum” – the Hammer of Witches. Among other matters, the book provided a standard set of questions that anyone could put to an accused witch. As Mackay shrewdly notes, as the years went on, the similarity of witches’ ‘confessions’ was taken as proof that witchcraft and witches did exist; BUT, he realizes, the similarity of the confessions comes from the fact that they were all asked the same standard questions from that same book. An early example of improper and illogical conclusions drawn from ‘facts’ that were themselves dubious in the first place that are then used to prove what was also questionable to begin with.
Another ‘proof’ of the existence of witchcraft was that friends and relatives merely looked on as the accused was very publicly burned; but Mackay again shrewdly notes that in “the epidemic”, it was a given that “pity was dangerous”: to demonstrate any sympathy whatsoever for a witch was to guarantee that you would be burned yourself forthwith. Sympathy for a witch was prima facie evidence of your own devilish connections. If dubious trials at the hands of Maniacal magistrates according to the impossibly rigged ‘evidence’ rules enforced by witch-finders were the fate of accused witches, sympathizers who wept or cried out at the public burning might simply be grabbed by the crowd and tossed onto the already-roaring pyre.
Mackay notes that there were “few acquittals”. But then the evidentiary procedures included ‘spectral evidence’ – the unsupported claim of an accusing victim that s/he could see what the magistrates and onlookers could not see – and such ‘ordeals’ as tossing the accused, bound by ropes, into a pond, where if s/he sank s/he was innocent and if s/he remained afloat s/he was guilty. And no magistrate could be sure that if he acquitted the accused then he himself would not be accused of being a witch.
There were few bright spots of rationality. In 1589 the Parliament of Paris sent a special commission of doctors and jurists to examine a gaggle of old crones sentenced to be burned. The commission reported back that the convicted were “poor, stupid, or insane” and some of them were eager for death simply to escape the tortures that were standard procedure for getting ‘confessions’. These people, the commission concluded, “needed medicine more than punishment”.
But in England in 1541 a new twist was added: it became a civil crime to use witchcraft to harm anyone; and by 1562 the Statute of Elizabeth made simply being a witch a crime (thus an offense against the state and not simply a sin or a religious offense). In his formal public prayers for the monarch, Bishop Jewell actually prayed that she be preserved from witches.
But while the newly centralizing monarchies could pass national laws, they still couldn’t guarantee that their visions underlying those laws would be carried out. In Huntingdon County a man (one Mr. Throgmorton) went onto the property of an old crone (one Mother Samuel, who lived there with her husband and daughter) who was informally accused of giving his taunting children glaring looks, forcibly took her to his own house, and applied his own ‘witch test’: his wife, his taunting children, and the wife of the local squire (Lady Cromwell) were there to stick long pins into her to see if she would bleed. The squire’s wife also ripped hair out of Mother Samuel’s head to be burned as a charm by Mrs. Throgmorton to protect the children from “spells”. Exasperated and terrified, Mother Samuel cursed her tormentors, which only made things worse.
A year later Lady Cromwell died; local experts noted that it was exactly “a year and a quarter” after the curse. At which point the squire himself, Sir Samuel Cromwell, forcibly took her to the Throgmorton house and demanded that she publicly order her impish fiends to withdraw from the vicinity and away from the children. Thinking perhaps to put an end to things, old Mother Samuel did as she was bid, which only provided legal proof that she was indeed what they had been accusing her of being: a witch.
She, her husband and her child were immediately arrested and taken to prison. As part of the trial process all three were tortured: her husband and daughter refused to admit complicity even though Mother Samuel had not only admitted her own acts but implicated them; the daughter refused to claim pregnancy (it was considered bad form to hang a pregnant witch until she had given birth). In a pathetic but poignant effort to save herself for a little longer, the old crone declared that she herself was pregnant, which provided a bit of comic relief to the court. And in mirthful or wrathful spirits the court hanged all three on April 7, 1593.
In Scotland, home of the dour and utterly unmirthful Presbyterian Kirk, the preachers of that glumly zealous Reform went Innocent VIII one better: accused witches were not interrogated by the Inquisition (which had been an apparatus of the hated Romish and Papist church) but rather special authority was simply sent to local authorities and even clergy to conduct witchcraft trials and impose death-sentences.
Nor did it slow things down when even noble ladies, even Countesses, were accused, as well as one Lord Justice-Clerk for Scotland, Sir Lewis Ballantyne, who was himself accused of wizardry when he demanded of one accused warlock that the man conjure up the Devil so that the Lord Justice-Clerk could see for himself. Apparently Sir Lewis was sufficiently impressed with the result that he died soon thereafter, though whether from actually seeing the Devil or from the shock of finding himself accused nobody can say. The Scots don’t dabble when it comes to serious matters and witchcraft was both a crime against the state and an offense to the purity of a God whose grimly zealous servants made Catholics seem like summer-campers.
Meanwhile the Scots King, James VI, had gone over to Denmark by ship to fetch his new bride, the Princess of Denmark, a Protestant. The royal convoy was almost wrecked in a storm on the way back in May, 1590. An accused witch – young and comely, rather unusually – was suddenly put forth to the King as being responsible for his almost being drowned: the Devil was so fearful of a righteous Protestant becoming Queen that satanic orders went out to the young witch to take all available personnel, put to sea, and conjure up a storm to prevent such a threat to Satan’s Scottish operations.
The King was kind of flattered that the Devil would consider him one of the greatest enemies of the Infernal Realm; while he considered witches to be “extreme lyars” he also believed everything they confessed under torture. He would write his own version of the “Malleus Malificarum”, entitled “Demonology” in 1597 (in the original spelling it is ‘Daemonologie’), thus letting the Scots know that both King and Kirk were hell-bent on supporting the war on witches.
And in the war on witches, it was OK to do ‘whatever it takes’. One accused gentleman named Cunningham passed all the tests (meaning, amazingly, that he survived all the standard tortures – which certainly should have been proof for the existence of God if not also the Devil) and fainted. They brought him around, and as he began to revive woozily, the torture-staff asked him to sign a form (perhaps suggesting that it was a Release from Liability). He did so in a verrry shaky hand, and it turned out to have been a full confession. They were darker times; things like that don’t happen in the modern West.
The witch-finders continued to ride circuit, ready to apply the ‘pricking’ test: if you found any spot on the accused’s body that was insensitive to pain and did not bleed, then the person was a witch. Any spot at all. In those days, especially among the elderly, and perhaps especially if they were a bit under the weather from some prior torture-testing, you were pretty much guaranteed to find a spot. And so you made your living.
Later in the Mania, in 1678, Sir George Mackenzie, the Lord Advocate and a devout believer in the existence of witches, recalled in his book “Criminal Law” that as a young justice he had gone to interview an old crone accused of witchcraft. He thought she was “a silly creature”, but she told him “under secrecy, that she had not confessed because she was guilty, but being a poor creature, who wrought for her meat, and being defamed for a witch, she knew she should starve, for no person thereafter would either give her meat or lodging, and that all men would beat her and set dogs at her, and that, therefore, she desired to be out of the world”.
Mackay observes that “Sir George, though not wholly elevated above the prejudices of his age upon this subject, was clear-sighted enough to see the danger to society of the undue encouragement given to the witch prosecutions. He was convinced that three-fourths of them were unjust and unfounded”. They were darker times, but people seemed, from time to time, to be able to see with an eerie and acute clarity that has yet to be seen in this electric and dazzling Age.
But the King had gone to great pains in 1597 to defend his book. In the Introduction he wanted to “resolve the doubting hearts of many” (who, that is to say, thought the whole thing was more or less of a Mania). Those who denied the possibility of witchcraft he accused of committing “the sin of the Sadducees in denying of spirits” (thus putting those who were in any way skeptical of witchcraft in the same general category of ‘Christ-killers’ – a surefire ticket to a poor and marginalized life in a society monitored by the Scottish Kirk). And about a certain German doctor named Wierus, who sought to try to explain the actions of the accused in such a way as to make them less a matter of witchcraft, the King asserts that the doctor “plainly betrays himself to have been one of that profession [of witches]”; in other words, if you try to understand them, then you’re one of them. Dark times – then and now.
It would be a great sin, the King goes on, “to spare the life, and not strike whom God bids strike, and so severely punish in so odious a treason against God, is not only unlawful but doubtless a great sin”.
Mackay, writing in 1841, relates that the King also asserts that “the crime is so abominable, that it may be proved by evidence which would not be received against any other offenders – young children who knew not the nature of an oath, and persons of an infamous character being sufficient witnesses against them”. You have to ask yourself if modern-day SO Mania advocates had actually gone and read James VI’s 1597 treatise on Demonology and simply copied his ideas almost verbatim. But I don’t think so. It wasn’t necessary for modern day types to go back to read James VI. The same darkling and primal dynamics were at work among the modern-day types, and bucking against the same Western rules of evidence (even though those rules were still aborning in 1597, and were taken for granted in 1997).
Mackay goes on with a marvelously straight face: “But lest the innocent should be accused of a crime so difficult to be acquitted of, he [the King] recommends that in all cases the ordeals [the torture tests] should be resorted to”. Specifically, the King reposes great confidence in the evidentiary value of the prickling test and the floating-on-water test (as well as the aforementioned children and the persons of low character). You can almost imagine why the American Framers, two hundred years later, might have felt that government-by-inherited-Crown might not guarantee government by the brighter candles in the chandelier. (Not that the current electoral processes seem to be providing much better, if the SO Mania Regime legislation is any indicator.)
Looking thus over the Scottish situation, Mackay concludes that “When such doctrines as these were openly promulgated by the highest authority in the realm, and who, in promulgating them, flattered but did not force public opinion”, and when the Kirk saw fit to support him zealously, this “sad delusion” could continue to spread until people expected to find “witches and wizards” everywhere they looked.
Things didn’t get much better when James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603.
In 1634 the son of a wood-cutter, a boy named Robinson, in Lancashire, took to accusing one Mother Dickenson of being a witch and that he had seen her in the company of many other local witches. He told the story so well that he was officially escorted around the county, pointing out ‘witches’ whom he had seen. Twenty were arrested and eight – including Mother Dickenson – executed accordingly merely upon his word alone (‘trust the children’ indeed). He was never brought to trial for his perjury, Mackay notes; indeed, his father started his own cottage-industry by threatening wealthy persons with accusation by his son if they did not pay him off. Well, it was extortion, but in a good cause … some might say. I would not say that this behavior of the father’s was in any way ‘modern’; rather, the same dark and primal venalities that exist in the human self along with the dark and irrational fears were capable and are capable of seeping forth and taking root anytime that the protective casing of genuine Law is fractured, let alone when it is fractured under official auspices.
One fellow, Matthew Hopkins, styled himself “Witch Finder General” and thus accredited as an ‘expert’ began to ply his trade in 1644 in the County of Essex. He made sure to present himself to any magistrate presiding over the trial of witches, “these cattle” as he called the accused, and guaranteed that he could produce any ‘evidence’ required to satisfy law and soothe conscience. Entrepreneurial to a fault, he expanded his operations to the Counties of Norfolk, Huntingdon, and Sussex, bringing sixty to the stake in one year. His preferred test was the ‘swimming’ test, which was merely a new name for the old scam: if they sink they’re innocent, if they don’t sink they’re guilty.
He also liked the Lord’s Prayer test: based on the assumption that no witch could stomach reciting the Lord’s Prayer perfectly, you told the accused – who by that time was no doubt not in the best frame of mind – that his or her life depended on a totally perfect recitation of the Prayer. Then you sat back, staring at them in the presence of magistrates, guards, torturers, onlookers and whoever else, and waited for the merest hesitation or stumble or lisp or tremble in the voice. It was said to produce very efficient results.
Like any successful professional, he traveled with assistants, by carriage, and always stayed at the best lodgings available. The price was twenty shillings a head plus all expenses regardless of the outcome of a case, and a bonus for a successful prosecution. Beisbol been bery bery good to him!
He oversaw the destruction of a retired clergyman, over 70, who had been rector of the parish in Framingham, Suffolk, for half a century. And who was an avowed royalist at a time when England was not well-disposed to monarchy during the Civil War. Deploying the panoply of that era’s Mania regime, Hopkins got the old man so confused (or, I would say, discouraged in the power of rationality to defend himself) that he confessed to being a closet-wizard. On his way to the scaffold, the old rector begged that the funeral service be read for him. This was denied. And so the old man went to the scaffold, reciting the entire Church funeral service from memory as he was about to be hanged as a wizard. None of his former parishioners, whom he had served for fifty years, dared to speak up.
One woman was overheard by one of these experts talking to herself; he had been walking by her door. Confronted, she said she had a silly habit of talking to herself – her neighbors even corroborated it. But the ‘expert’ declared that only witches talked to themselves, got an order for a ‘pricking’, which was ‘successful’, and she was – as the court records briskly note – “convict and brynt”.
On the Continent, a French jurist and thinker named Bodinus, who enjoyed a large reputation in the 17th century, spoke about the Mania with a Gallic candor we today can only admire: “The trial of this offence must not be conducted like other crimes. Whoever adheres to the ordinary course of justice perverts the spirit of the law, both divine and human. He who is accused of sorcery should never be acquitted, unless the malice of the prosecutor be clearer than the sun; for it is so difficult to bring full proof of this secret crime, that out of a million of witches not one would be convicted if the usual course were followed!” [Italics mine; exclamation point his]
And once again you have to ask yourself if the modern day Maniacs hadn’t gone back and read this old material. The take-away, I would say, is this: Beware those who come to you in sheep’s clothing, saying that the integrity of the Law must be sacrificed because this is such an emergency and so baaad a crime. They are not simply trying to sell you something; they are – whether they know it or not – undermining the foundations of society and inviting and probably guaranteeing a regression to darker and more primitive things.
Bodinus was matched by a French entrepreneurial ‘expert’ who styled himself “The Grand Judge of Witches for the Territory of St. Claude”, and who had put together his own handbook (copies for sale at the back of the wagon, no doubt) consisting of 70 guidelines. Among them: the mere suspicion of witchcraft justifies immediate arrest (sort of like Swedish sex offense law today) and torture of the suspect; if the suspect mutters to himself, looks down at the ground, doesn’t shed tears … then any of these behaviors is proof-positive sign of guilt; in all cases, the evidence of a child should be taken over the evidence of a parent (children being more trustable, apparently); and persons of bad character who would in normal cases never be believed upon their word alone are to be completely believed if they claim to have been bewitched or if they claim to have knowledge of any other bewitchment. Does any of this not sound familiar?
In Wurzburg, where a three-line ditty supposed to be a witches’ incantation had become public knowledge, 3 boys aged 10 to 15 were buried alive for running around town chanting the ditty at the top of their lungs (something kids did before X-boxes and skateboards). Maniacs and their Manias have no sense of humor, or proportion, or context. (And there’s an incoherence to it: if the Devil can get by with teenagers simply chanting the words for the heck of it, why go to all the trouble of recruiting and sustaining a complex international network of witches, wizards, and warlocks?)
More ominously, one German law enforcement authority came up with a remarkably diabolic plan: faced with an obstinate old woman who refused to confess she was a witch even after torture, they had one of their number dress up in a bear’s skin, with horns and tail and carrying a pitchfork, wait until the torture-wracked old woman was asleep in the middle of the night, enter the darkened cell, wake her, and announce that he was the Devil. And that he would instantly spirit her out of this hell-hole if she simply acknowledged his lordship over her. Half-asleep but the presence seeming so real, she got to her knees and acknowledged him. Whereupon the hidden witnesses turned up the torches, informed her she had just confessed and provided her own death warrant, had a good laugh, and retired to the local brew-house for a few pints and a jovial re-hashing of the story of their own strategic brilliance.
Things like this happen when agents of the law can earnestly and solemnly declaim that they would never execute anybody until the person confessed – even if it meant twenty torture sessions to do the job.
Here and there, though, as the 17th century went on, some decency and integrity began to re-assert itself. The Duke of Brunswick and the Archbishop-Elector of Mainz talked things over and came to the conclusion that there was unconscionable cruelty in the way accused witches were dealt with, and that no decent judge should ever consider a confession obtained through the infliction of pain, and that you couldn’t coherently claim to take the Devil as telling the truth in a confession in the first place or think that the Old Deceiver would hold himself bound by an oath to God in a human court, and on the basis of stuff like that go and execute somebody – or a whole lot of somebodies.
The Archbishop-Elector noted ruefully that he had two highly popular Jesuits in the area who were zealous witch-hunters and they kept whipping people up to a frenzy. The Duke devised a marvelous plan: he invited the two Jesuits to accompany him to interview an old woman accused of witchcraft. Through careful questioning he got the woman to acknowledge not only that she was a witch but that she had seen two priests at a recent coven gathering -in fact, the very two priests in the cell here with her now.
The Duke calmly turned to the priests with a look that said You know what happens to you now, right?
The Jesuits experienced a genuine Damascus Moment as they realized that under the rules they themselves had been supporting, there was absolutely no way in hell (so to speak) that they could defend themselves, and began babbling.
The Duke smiled and admitted the old crone had been coached and it was all a set-up. But he hoped that the Reverend Fathers had seen the true state of affairs as to this whole witchcraft thing.
One of them, Frederick Spee, went out forthwith and wrote “Cautio Criminalis”, a book exposing the horrors of witch-trials. The Archbishop-Elector then saw his way clear to abolishing witchcraft trials in his domains, and so did the Duke of Brunswick and other lords. We have yet to see that sort of acuity here.
In France, in 1670, Louis XIV commuted the sentences of a number of women whom the courts of Normandy had condemned to death for riding broomsticks and attending witches’ conventions. The Parliament of Rouen sent a remonstrance to the Sun-King, basically asking him to reconsider because the glory of God, public safety, and the good of the nation required that these women be executed so as to deter others from taking up the same type of activities, and it has for a long time been “the general opinion of all nations and of the ancients” that things should go this way. And they also wanted him to reaffirm that the crime of witchcraft should enjoy no right of appeal to the King or the Parliament of Paris or anybody else.
Louis not only disregarded their Remonstrance, but ordered an end to witchcraft trials in France unless attached to some other, more provable, crime.
In regard to the Salem Witch Trials here in 1692 (by which time things were dying down in Europe), Mackay makes two interesting observations.
First, that the Indian tribes, observing the madness, wondered why it was that the Great Spirit sent witches against the English settlers but not against the French settlers just to the north. One wonders what conclusions the tribes drew from that odd reality, and how it affected their approach to things.
Second, considering the sheriff who pressed old Giles Corey to death under stones for NOT confessing to be a witch, Mackay opines that the fellow “hoped to merit heaven by making earth a hell” (quoting Byron). The take-away here is, I would say, that one should be very very careful when deciding to cut loose and make earth a hell: hell (or Hell) has a way of not staying in the box designed for it by eager and zealous humans, no matter how much ‘strategizing’ they’ve done to put a ‘deal’ together.
The revolutionary reformers in the Leninist mode were eager to make hell on earth in order to then break through to heaven on earth. The assorted religious warriors here, there, and everywhere seek to make earth a hell for those whom it has been deputized by heaven to ‘smite’ and thus they hope to enjoy a little more ‘heaven’ by doing heaven’s work for it.
Even JFK in his inaugural now half a century ago left a little too much conceptual space between the words when he declaimed that “God’s work must truly be our own”. Did he mean that we must make God’s work our own? Or that God must make His work conform to what we would like to see work? Or that God’s work is by definition America’s work – and/or vice versa?
The Witch Mania demonstrated at great cost in innocent blood that the Devil couldn’t be caged by any human devices; and that humans, when relying on their own primal darkness to struggle against the Original Primal Darkness simply wind up adding more darkness to the world and – thus – furthering the Devil’s work exponentially. Hell, like combat, sucks in and transforms the very Virtue that one started out seeking to defend (or spread). If you adopt the Devil’s ways to fight the Devil, then YOU wind up being the house divided against itself, which Jesus – as Lincoln reminded everybody – pointed out could not stand for long. The wise ruler – as Jesus also noted – should take great care in making sober and realistic calculations before embarking on such a venture. Because there would be costs, deep and dark ones, that might be more than could be borne, and consequences that might be irreversible.
Irreversible consequences are something Americans aren’t really comfortable thinking about, let alone irreversible negative consequences. In this the American Maniacs are genuinely in the American grain: like a Hollywood movie, everything is going to work out in the end and no damage done (to the good guys, anyway). As one currently popular movie has it: you can be an innocent teen and die and still watch things, and even come back to enjoy ice cream and even some time with your friends – because God just wants you to be happy like a kid on a Friday afternoon in May when exams are over and school is just about out for the summer.
This is a kid’s view of life, and a kid who hasn’t really read Grimm’s fairy tales in their original version.
If there is no sense of darkness – in ourselves and in the world we make – then there is no sense of the huge and awesome and awful stakes involved in being human and in conducting a mature human life in a society and culture that seeks not to prevent every possible instance of darkness in every person, but rather to cage the large Darkness that can be generated, and unleashed, when many humans yield to their personal darkness and pool each of their individual dark streams into a Torrent, amplifying their own dark potentials into a Tsunami that will not simply sweep the streets clean, but sweep them away altogether.
*It was republished in 1980 by Three Rivers Press, a division of Crown Publishing Group. Its ISBN is 0-517-88433-X. My copy is a 740 page paperback.