« PreviousContinue »
subjects pine away, even unto the death, their colour fadeth, their flesh rotteth, their speech is benumbed, their senses are bereft, I pray God they never practise further then upon the subject.” * How prevalent the delusion had become in the year 1584, we have the most ample testimony in the ingenious work of Reginald Scot, entitled “ The Discoverie of Witchcraft,” which was written, as the sensible and humane author has informed us, “ in behalfe of the poore, the aged, and the simple t;" and it reflects singular discredit on the age in which it was produced, that a detection so complete, both with regard to argument and fact, should have failed in effecting its purpose. But the infatuation had seized all ranks, with an inAuence which rivalled that resulting from an article of religious faith, and Scot begins his work with the observation, that “ the fables of Witchcraft have taken so fast hold and deepe root in the heart of man, that fewe or none can, now adaies, with patience indure the hand and correction of God. For if any adversitie, greefe, sicknesse, losse of children, corne, cattell, or libertie happen unto them ; by and by they exclaime uppon witches ;— insomuch as a clap of thunder, or a gale of wind is no sooner heard, but either they run to ring bels, or crie out to burne witches † ;” and, in his second chapter, he declares “ I have heard to my greefe some of the minesterie affirme, that they have had in their parish at one instant, xvij or xviij witches: meaning such as could worke miracles supernaturallie $;" a declaration which, in a subsequent part of his book, he more particularly applies, when he informs us, that “ seventeene or eighteene were condemned at once at St. Osees in the countie of Essex, being a whole parish, though of no great quantitie.” ||
Strype's Annals of Reformation, vol. i. p. 8. The apprehension expressed at the close of this quotation, was realised some years afterwards, when a Mrs. Dier was accused of conjuration and witchcraft, because the Queen had been “under excessive anguish by pains of her teeth : insomuch that she took no rest for divers nights.” – Vide Strype's Annals, vol. iv. p. 7.
† Epistle to Sir Roger Manwood, p. 1.
Ibid. p. 4. || Discourse of Divels and Spirits, p. 543.; annexed to the Discoverie of Witchcraft
The mischief, however, was but in progress, and received a rapid acceleration from the publication of the “ Dæmonologie” of King James, at Edinburgh, in the year 1597.
. The origin of this very curious treatise was probably laid in the royal mind, in consequence of the supposed detection of a conspiracy of two hundred witches with Dr. Fian, “ Register to the Devil,” at their head, to bewitch and drown His Majesty, on his return from Denmark, in 1590. James attended the examination of these poor wretches with the most eager curiosity, and the most willing credulity; and, when Agnis Tompson confessed, that she, with other witches to the number just mentioned, “ went altogether by sea, each one in her riddle, or sieve, with flaggons of wine, making merry and drinking by the way, to the kirk of North Berwick, in Lothian, where, when they had landed, they took hands and danced, singing all with one voice,
« Commer * go ye before, commer goe yè,
Gif ye will not go before, commer let me:”
and “ that Geilis Duncane did go before them, playing said reel on a Jew's trump," James immediately sent for Duncane, and listened with delight to his performance of the witches' reel on the Jew'sharp!
On Agnis, however, asserting, that the Devil had met them at the Kirk, His Majesty could not avoid expressing some doubts; when, taking him aside, she “ declared unto him the very words which had passed between him and his Queen on the first night of their marriage, with their answer each to other ; whereat the King wondered greatly, and swore by the living God, that he believed all the Devils in Hell could not have discovered the same." +
That the particulars elicited from the confessions of these unfortu
+ These extracts are taken from a pamphlet entitled, “ Newes from Scotland,” reprinted in the Gent. Magazine, vol. xlix. p. 449. See also Gent. Magazine, vol. vii.
nate beings, which, it is said, “ made the King in a wonderful admiration,” formed the basis of the Dæmonologie, may be, therefore, readily admitted. It is also to be deplored, that, weak and absurd as this production now appears to us, its effects on the age
of its birth, and for a century afterwards, were extensive, and melancholy in the extreme. It contributed, indeed, more than work on the subject, to rivet the fetters of credulity; and scarcely had a twelvemonth elapsed from its publication, before its result was visible in the destruction, in Scotland, of not less than six hundred human beings at once, for this imaginary crime ! *
The succession of James to the throne of Elizabeth served but to propagate the contagion ; for no sooner had he reached this country, than his Dæmonologie re-appeared from an English press, being printed at London, in 1603, in quarto, and with a Preface to the Reader, which commences by informing him of “ the fearefull abounding at this time in this Countrey, of these detestable slaves of the Divel, the Witches, or enchanters †;" a declaration which, during the course of the same year, was accompanied by a new statute against Witches, one clause of which enacts, that “ Any one that shall use, practise, or exercise any invocation or conjuration of any evill or wicked spirit, or consult, covenant with, entertaine or employ, feede or reward, any evill or wicked spirit, to or for any intent or purpose; or take up any dead man, woman or child, out of his, her, or their grave, or any other place where the dead body resteth, or the skin, bone, or other part of
dead employed or used in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, charme, or enchantment; or shall use, practise, or exercise any witchcraft, enchantment, charme, or sorcery, whereby any person shall be killed, destroyed, wasted, consumed, pined, or lamed, in his or her body,
person, to be
* See Nashe’s Lenten Stuff, 1599, as quoted by Mr. Reed, in his Shakspeare, vol. x. p. 5. note.
+ King James's Works, as published by James, Bishop of Winton, folio, 1616, p. 91.
or any part thereof, such offenders, duly and lawfully convicted and attainted, shall suffer death.” *
We cannot wonder if measures such as these, which stamped the already existing superstitions with the renewed authority of the law, and with the influence of regal argument and authority, should render a belief in the existence of witchcraft almost universal ; fashion and interest on the one hand, and ignorance and fear on the other, mutually contributing, by concealing or banishing doubt, to disseminate error, and preclude detection.
Who those were who, at this period, had the misfortune to be branded with the appellation of Witches ; what deeds were imputed to them, and what was the nature of their supposed compact with the Devil, are questions which will be most satisfactorily answered in the words of Reginald Scot, whose book is not only extremely scarce, but highly curious and entertaining; and two or three chapters from this copious treasury of superstition, with a very few comments from other sources, will exhaust this part of the subject.
66 The sort of such as are said to be witches,” writes Scot, “ are women which be commonly old, lame, bleare-eied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles ; poore, sullen, superstitious, and papists; or such as knowe no religion; in whose drousie minds the divell hath gotten a fine seat; so as, what mischeefe, mischance, calamitie, or slaughter is brought to passe, they are easilie persuaded the same is doone by themselves ; imprinting in their minds an earnest and constant imagination thereof. They are leane and deformed, shewing melancholie in their faces, to the horror of all that see them. They are doting, scolds, mad, divelish, and not much differing from them that are thought to be possessed with spirits ; so firme and stedfast in their opinions, as whosoever shall onelie have respect to the constancie of their words uttered, would easilie beleeve they were true indeed.
* This act against witches was not repealed until the year 1736, being the ninth of George the Second !
“ These miserable wretches are so odious unto all their neighbors, and so feared, as few dare offend them, or denie them anie thing they aske: whereby they take upon them; yea, and sometimes thinke, that they can doo such things as are beyond the abilitie of humane nature. These go from house to house, and from doore to doore for a pot full of milke, yest, drinke, pottage, or some such releefe; without the which they could hardlie live: neither obtaining for their service and paines, nor by their art, nor yet at the divels hands (with whome they are said to make a perfect and visible bargaine) either beautie, monie, promotion, welth, worship, pleasure, honor, knowledge, learning, or any other benefit whatsoever.
" It falleth out many times, that neither their necessities, nor their expectation is answered or served, in those places where they beg or borrowe; but rather their lewdness is by their neighbors reproved. And further, in tract of time the witch wareth odious and tedious to her neighbors ; and they againe are despised and despited of hir; so as sometimes she cursseth one, and sometimes another; and that from the maister of the house, his wife, children, cattell, &c. to the little pig that lieth in the stie. Thus in processe of time they have all displeased hir, and she hath wished evil luck unto them all; perhaps with cursses and imprecations made in forme. Doubtless (at length) some of hir neighbors die, or falle sicke; or some of their children are visited with diseases that ver them strangelie: as apoplexies, epilepsies, convulsions, hot fevers, wormes, &c. Which by ignorant parents are supposed to be the vengeance of witches. Yea and their opinions and conceits are confirmed and maintained by unskilfull physicians: according to the common saieng; Inscitiæ pallium maleficium et incantatio, Witchcraft and inchantment is the cloke of ignorance: whereas indeed evill humors, and not strange words, witches, or spirits are the causes of such diseases.
Also some of their cattell perish, either by disease or mischance. Then they, uppon whom such adversities fall, weighing the fame that goeth upon