Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (2/12)

The Myth Of The Enlightenment

Another theory commonly proposed regarding the witch hunt era is that it emerged in the darkest and most superstitious times of the church’s history, and was finally ended by the secular skepticism which was a product of the 18th century rationalist ‘Enlightenment’.

This theory is false on two counts. Firstly, the witch hunt era did not commence in the so called ‘Dark Ages’, but in the 14th century, long after the medieval era had ended, and the intellectual and scientific advances of the Middle Ages were well underway. Secondly, the witch hunts were not ended by the diligence of secular skeptics or non-religious rationalists as a result of the Enlightenment of the 18th century. On the contrary, both the witch hunts and the beliefs on which they were founded were consistently denounced and disproved by intelligent Christians long before the Enlightenment.

These Christians were devoutly faithful to the Bible as God’s inspired Word, and held a firm conviction in the supernatural, but believed that the Bible was being misinterpreted and that the witch hunts, trials and punishments were in direct contradiction to the Christian faith. They did not object on the grounds of skepticism or anti-religious rationalism, but on the grounds of reason and Biblical teaching. Such objections were not new to Christian history. Evidence will be provided for a lengthy Christian tradition of objections to beliefs in witches (as well as to the death penalty for those accused of witchcraft), which preceded the witch hunt era by centuries.

‘Although many stereotypes about witches pre-date Christianity, the lethal crazes of the Great Hunt were actually the child of the “Age of Reason.”‘

Jenny Gibbons, ‘Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt’, article in The Pomegranate, #5, 1998

The credit for speaking out against and eventually ending the witch hunts cannot therefore be granted to the secular skeptics and rationlists of the Enlightenment. In fac, it is a strange irony of history that the initial development of the European scientific age did not weakend the belief in witches and witchcraft, but actually strengthened it:

‘What I want to argue, is that beliefs in witches, ghosts, and demons were heavily under attack and on the wane in England at the very beginning of the 17th century before the rise of what we would usually identify as modern scientific attitudes. But witchcraft beliefs, and beliefs in other spirit phenomena underwent a remarkable revival among British intellectuals during the period after the Restoration of James II to the throne in 1660; and this revival of demonological beliefs was directly and self-consciously attached to the rise of modern scientific attitudes among the men who were members of the Royal Society of London. So at least for a time it may be true to say that men actually came to believe in witches as a result of the development of scientific attitudes.’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43, Winter 1992

Long before the Enlightenment, intelligent Christians had been fighting successfully against the belief in witches, ghosts and demons. The 16th century had seen a formidable effort by a number of Christians across Europe to end the witch hunts, and overturn the supersitions on which they were founded:

* 1521: Arnaldo Albertino (an Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition), is called as a consultant in two witchcraft cases. In both cases he declares that the ‘witches’ sabbat’ is a mere delusion.

* 1526: The head council of the Spanish Inquisition (the Suprema), holds a vote as to whether cases of witchcraft are reality or delusion. Out of ten committee members, six say witchcraft is real, but four say it is only a delusion. Such a narrow vote, during the height of the witch hunt era, shows how greatly the belief in witchcraft had been eroded.

* 1538: The Suprema sends Inquisitor Valdeolitas to Navarre (plagued by accusations of witchcraft), to instruct the local tribunals of the great necessity of caution in prosecuting cases of witchcraft, as they could easily be deceived by false appearances. Tribunals were commanded to ignore the local demands that witches were to be burned, and the people were to be instructed explicitly that the destruction of their crops was not caused by witches, but either by the natural weather or God Himself. Tribunals were also told not to trust in the infamous ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, since it could not be relied on for complete accuracy.

* 1539: The Suprema issues further instructions to Valdeolitas, containing the warning that the ‘confessions’ of witches regarding dreams of their midnight ‘Sabbats’ were not to be trusted, since such experiences were deceitful and not indicative of reality.

* 1563-77: Dutch physician Johannes Weyer writes three separate works condemning the witch hunts. He suggested that many women supposed of practicing witchcraft were simply mentally ill, and insisted that those accused of witchcraft should not be prosecuted.

* 1584: Anastasia Soriana, the wife of a peasant, voluntarily denounces herself to a local tribunal in Murcia (Italy), claiming that she has had unnatural relations with a demon. The tribunal does not believe her, and dismisses the case. Twelve years later she denounces herself to a tribunal in Toledo with the same claims, but her ‘confession’ is again dismissed.

* 1584: Reginald Scot, an Englishman, writes a lengthy attack on the beliefs in witches and witchcraft, which he dismisses as unChristian superstition.

* 1589: Fourteen people condemned to death for witchcraft by a local court in France, are examined for ‘witches’ marks’ by a committee of the king’s medical staff, after an appeal to Parliament. The skeptical medical staff consider them ‘very poor, stupid people, and some of them insane’, and see no evidence of witchcraft. The king’s surgeon reports ‘they stood more in need of medicine than of punishment’. The people are released without penalty.

* 1601: An tribunal of the Inquisition in Logroño (Italy), is faced with a woman who had denounced herself voluntarily for witchcraft to the local secular court. The Inquisitorial tribunal is completely skeptical, and dismisses her case as entirely untrue. The local secular court insists on another trial, but the Inquisitorial tribunal refuses to allow the case to be re-opened.

Not only was there a change in attitudes towards witches, but there was also a change in attitude towards the exorcism of demons by the clergy. At the end of the 16th century, a famous series of alleged exorcisms by Catholic priests were thoroughly discredited as fradulent by a French investigation:

‘A serious and concerted attack on beliefs in witchcraft and demonic possession had been launched at the end of the 16th century in connection with a series of spectacular exorcisms that were quite literally staged before thousands of witnesses in France between 1566 and 1599.’

‘As a consequence, in 1598, Henry IV ordered the physician Michael Marescot and a group of medical colleagues to investigate the popular claims to demonic possession of one Marthe Brosier in the expectation that they could establish that her “possession” was either a mis-diagnosis of a natural disease such as epilepsy or hysteria, or that they could prove it to be a deliberate fraud.’

‘The overall verdict of Marescot’s investigation was stated in a memorable line: “Nothing from the devil, much counterfeit, a little from disease” (Walker, 1981, p. 35).

Without totally denying the possibility of demonic possession, Marescot and his colleagues were able to establish to their own satisfaction, that of the king, and that of many readers, that in one of the most celebrated cases of “possession,” an initially deluded and psychologically unbalanced woman had been exploited by her family and by a group of Catholic clergy, for both financial gain and for the seditious purpose of stirring up anti-Huguenot sentiment.’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43
, Winter 1992

The very fact that these alleged exorcisms were challenged and investigated demonstrates the extent to which skeptical attitudes towards long held beliefs in supernatural evil were becoming mainstream. Shortly after the investigation of Marescot, an English physician published a significant work on the same subject:

‘Just a few years later, the English physician Edward Jordan, who was consulted in two cases of supposed demonic possession, published a treatise whose title discloses its major conclusions: _A briefe Discourse of a Disease called the Suffocation of the Mother. Written upon occasions which hath been of late taken therby, to suspect possession of an evil spirit, or some such like supernatural power. Wherein it is declared that diverse strange actions and passions of the body of man, which in the common opinion are imputed to the Divell, have their true natural causes, and do accompany this disease_ (1603).

In this work Jordan identified almost all of those symptoms that had been traditionally identified with demonic possession and witchcraft–especially insensibility, convulsions, and fits brought on by the presence of particular persons or artifacts with symptoms of hysteria. Thus, by the early years of the 17th-century there was a substantial medical literature which simultaneously denied the existence of possession and attacked virtually all of the traditional tests for its existence.’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43, Winter 1992

‘Early 17th-century Anglican attitudes toward demonic possession and witchcraft were shaped primarily by the existence of this medical literature, in response to the Continental Catholic propaganda, and in response to a series of cases in which both an English Jesuit priest, William Weston, and a Puritan preacher, John Darrell, claimed to have cast demons out of a number of possessed children between 1585 and 1598, (Walker, pp. 43-73). Weston’s activities were commenced in 1585, but it was not until 1602 that a formal inquiry was held regarding his exorcisms. Darrell’s castings out of devils began in 1596; but in 1598, he was tried in London, condemned for fraudulent practices and both deposed from the ministry and sent to prison for at least a brief stay (Walker, p.64).’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43, Winter 1992

It is very important to note that this shift towards treating illnesses previously thought to be caused by supernatural evil as actually having natural causes, was not the product of the ‘Age of Reason’, or the gift of the skeptics of the rationalist ‘Enlightenment’ to ignorant Christians. Nor was it the product of any significant advance in medical science. In fact physicians remained almost completely baffled by the precise physical causes of the ailments traditionally attributed to supernatural evil, but they were now far more certain that such ailments had natural, rather than supernatural, causes.

This radical change of view had come about as the direct result of almost 100 years of challenge to superstitious beliefs regarding witches, demons, and the devil, a challenge which had been launched by devout Christians, and made on an entirely Biblical basis. It was not the result of advances in science, decline in religious belief, or increase in rationalism and general skepticism. It was the product of careful Biblical reasoning, powerfully communicated. It was a minor medical revolution, caused not by scientific discovery but sound Bible teaching.

This change in thinking gained so much momentum that it even convinced some who had previously been the most dogmatic supporters of the old superstitions:

‘One of their most important converts was James I, who had defended beliefs in possession and witchcraft in his famous Daemonology of 1597, but who had turned into a strong opponent of witch persecution by 1616 (Shapiro, 1983, p. 199). Technically, neither Harsnett nor Deacon and Walker denied the possibility of witchcraft or dispossession, although Harsnett probably doubted the existence of either. What they did do was offer an explanation of how melancholia and hysteria might cause persons to believe in both as well as a demonstration that in many cases, men like Weston and Darrell exploited those beliefs and used fraudulent techniques to delude people into believing in their power to exorcise or to dispossess persons who were possessed.’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43, Winter 1992

The attribution to nature of experiences previously considered supernatural became widespread throughout the early 17th century. Francis Bacon was a prominent supporter of the new belief:

‘Even though he remained formally open-minded regarding the existence of witches and demons, when Bacon chose to discuss particular issues, he, like other Anglicans, explained beliefs in witchcraft as arising out of the misinterpretation of natural phenomena. Thus, for example, in the Sylva sylvarum, he argued that the hallucinogenic effects of some ointments produced a mistaken belief in real transvection (human flight) and metamorphoses; so that when women charged as witches confessed to being transformed into animals and transported to witches sabbaths, they were mistakenly reporting their hallucinations as reality.’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43, Winter 1992

However, in the last third of the 17th century a backlash of resistance to this change in views was under way. More traditionally minded Christians were disturbed by the idea of a world without supernatural evil, and attempted to turn back the tide. In 1664 a Justice of the Peace (Robert Hunt), had charged some women with conducting a witches’ coven, but was unable to prosecute due to local skepticism among the gentry. He sent the particulars of the case to a friend of his, Anglican apologist Joseph Glanvill, along with a description of the dismissive response he had received.

Glanvill wrote back with a letter attempting to answer the usual arguments against a belief in witchcraft. It was a combination of poorly handled Scripture, irrational reasoning, logical fallacies, and scaremongering, arguments which he later expanded in an entire book which he entitled ‘Sadducismus Triumphatus’ (1682). As the title suggests, Glanvill believed that scepticism of supernatural evil was simply a modern incarnation of the doctrine of the Jewish Sadducee sect of the 1st century, which rejected a belief in all forms of spirits, including angels.

Glanvill claimed that those skeptical of ghosts, demons and the devil, would inevitably progress to rejection of all things supernatural, including the immortal soul, angels, and God Himself. He further claimed that the existence of such beings could be scientifically verified, as the physical evidence for them was well documented and could be objectively assessed. Appealing to the scientific method, he argued that scientific investigation could and would prove the existence of these beings, and referred to the numerous eye witness accounts of encounters with them, which he said could not be dismissed, nor explained by natural causes.

Glanvill’s arguments, poor as they are, remain the standard arguments of Christians who believe in the satan and demons of ‘orthodox’ Christianity:

* Denial of supernatural evil is equivalent to denial of angels and God

* The Bible talks about witches and demons as if they exist, so denying their existence is a denial of the Bible

* People denying the existence of witches and demons are simply anti-religious skeptics and rationalists

* So many people have reported experiences with witches and demons that they must exist

* Such experiences cannot be explained by natural causes

These arguments had been comprehensively answered years earlier by Reginald Scot, and had in fact been answered again by Thomas Ady and John Wagstaffe, both contemporaries of Glanvill, who published around the same time as him. However, Glanvill’s appeal to the scientific method as a means of validating his beliefs was a new development, and it was this that prompted a renewal of support in these beliefs. Glanvill was determined to demonstrate that an investigation of witches and demons would prove their existence. The scientific climate was favourable to Glanvill’s ideas. All physical evidence had to have a cause, and the cause considered the most reasonable after investigation of the evidence was considered the most likely. With scientists struggling to understand unseen forces such as gravity, the idea that an invisible being could have physical effects was held to be entirely logical.

In a strange combination of superstition and science, anecdotal evidence of witches and demons was investigated seriously, and the supernatural was considered the most logical cause once natural causes could not be found. Glanvill approached the Royal Society of London, an early group of scientific investigators, asking them for assistance in his research and study of the supernatural. Although Glanvill’s ideas were not completely embraced by the scientists of his day, a number of prominent men found his reasoning convincing, and contributed both to his studies and to his argument:

‘While the Royal Society offered no official response to Glanvill’s request, many members contributed directly to Glanvill’s collection of Spirit relations. Boyle sent a report of an Irish Witch, who he had investigated and confirmed his first-hand support of an earlier account of a demonic possession at Mascon in France, for example. And John Beale sent him letters on the possible effects of witchcraft on butter production. Perhaps more importantly, many Royal Society members began to incorporate spirits into their laboratory world (Schaffer, 1987, pp. 55-85).’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43, Winter 1992

The methods used to investigate these allegedly supernatural events were often far from scientific, and commonly appealed to the very same logical fallacies which Reginald Scot and Thomas Ady exposed when dealing with traditional ‘proofs’ of witches and demons. It is ironic that the very men standing on the threshold of the ‘Age of Reason’ failed to apply the sound reasoning and careful investigative methods of the intelligent Christians of the century before, who had successfully exposed alleged witch hunters, exorcists, and cases of demonic possession, as frauds.

Yet belief in supernatural evil beings began to increase again once the most rational thinking and scientifically minded men acknowledged themselves conviced that there was indeed evidence of supernatural evil:

‘It is not clear to me which group benefitted more from the mutually supportive arguments of Anglican demonologists and experimental natural philosophers after 1666. On the one hand, Glanvill and his Anglican colleagues, such as Henry More, reached a far wider audience; and many persons who welcomed Glanvill’s “defence” of traditional Christian beliefs in the immortality of the soul, were probably swayed toward a sympathy for experimental philosophy. On the other hand, experimental philosophers, as a group, probably had a more profound impact in legitimizing Glanvill’s views among intellectuals.

In any event, for at least a couple of decades after the Restoration, the belief in ghosts and witches–which had begun to decline in the late 16th and early 17th century–returned as a serious and popular topic for polemical discussions; and those who argued in favor of beliefs in spirit phenomena simultaneously drew arguments from and promoted experimental science (Jobe, 1981, pp. 343-356).’

Richard Olson, ‘Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the rise of science encouraged belief in the supernatural in 17th-century England’, Skeptic volume 1, number 4, pages 34-43, Winter 1992

Part three.


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