Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, by Walter Scott

Letter vii.

Penal Laws unpopular when rigidly exercised — Prosecution of Witches placed in the hand of Special Commissioners, ad inquirendum— Prosecution for Witchcraft not frequent in the Elder Period of the Roman Empire — Nor in the Middle Ages — Some Cases took place, however — The Maid of Orleans — The Duchess of Gloucester — Richard the Third’s Charge against the Relations of the Queen Dowager — But Prosecutions against Sorcerers became more common in the end of the Fourteenth Century — Usually united with the Charge of Heresy — Monstrelet’s Account of the Persecution against the Waldenses, under pretext of Witchcraft — Florimond’s Testimony concerning the Increase of Witches in his own Time — Bull of Pope Innocent viii. — Various Prosecutions in Foreign Countries under this severe Law — Prosecutions in Labourt by the Inquisitor De Lancre and his Colleague — Lycanthropy — Witches in Spain — In Sweden — and particularly those Apprehended at Mohra.

Penal laws, like those of the Middle Ages, denounced against witchcraft, may be at first hailed with unanimous acquiescence and approbation, but are uniformly found to disgust and offend at least the more sensible part of the public when the punishments become frequent and are relentlessly inflicted. Those against treason are no exception. Each reflecting government will do well to shorten that melancholy reign of terror which perhaps must necessarily follow on the discovery of a plot or the defeat of an insurrection. They ought not, either in humanity or policy, to wait till the voice of the nation calls to them, as Mecænas to Augustus, “Surge tandem carnifex!”

It is accordingly remarkable, in different countries, how often at some particular period of their history there occurred an epidemic of terror of witches, which, as fear is always cruel and credulous, glutted the public with seas of innocent blood; and how uniformly men loathed the gore after having swallowed it, and by a reaction natural to the human mind desired, in prudence, to take away or restrict those laws which had been the source of carnage, in order that their posterity might neither have the will nor the means to enter into similar excesses.

A short review of foreign countries, before we come to notice the British Islands and their Colonies, will prove the truth of this statement. In Catholic countries on the Continent, the various kingdoms adopted readily that part of the civil law, already mentioned, which denounces sorcerers and witches as rebels to God, and authors of sedition in the empire. But being considered as obnoxious equally to the canon and civil law, Commissions of Inquisition were especially empowered to weed out of the land the witches and those who had intercourse with familiar spirits, or in any other respect fell under the ban of the Church, as well as the heretics who promulgated or adhered to false doctrine. Special warrants were thus granted from time to time in behalf of such inquisitors, authorizing them to visit those provinces of Germany, France, or Italy where any report concerning witches or sorcery had alarmed the public mind; and those Commissioners, proud of the trust reposed in them, thought it becoming to use the utmost exertions on their part, that the subtlety of the examinations, and the severity of the tortures they inflicted, might wring the truth out of all suspected persons, until they rendered the province in which they exercised their jurisdiction a desert from which the inhabitants fled. It would be impossible to give credit to the extent of this delusion, had not some of the inquisitors themselves been reporters of their own judicial exploits: the same hand which subscribed the sentence has recorded the execution.

In the earlier period of the Church of Rome witchcraft is frequently alluded to, and a capital punishment assigned to those who were supposed to have accomplished by sorcery the death of others, or to have attempted, by false prophecies or otherwise, under pretext of consulting with the spiritual world, to make innovation in the state. But no general denunciation against witchcraft itself, as a league with the Enemy of Man, or desertion of the Deity, and a crime sui generis, appears to have been so acted upon, until the later period of the sixteenth century, when the Papal system had attained its highest pitch of power and of corruption. The influence of the Churchmen was in early times secure, and they rather endeavoured, by the fabrication of false miracles, to prolong the blind veneration of the people, than to vex others and weary themselves by secret investigations into dubious and mystical trespasses, in which probably the higher and better instructed members of the clerical order put as little faith at that time as they do now. Did there remain a mineral fountain, respected for the cures which it had wrought, a huge oak-tree, or venerated mount, which beauty of situation had recommended to traditional respect, the fathers of the Roman Church were in policy reluctant to abandon such impressive spots, or to represent them as exclusively the rendezvous of witches or of evil spirits. On the contrary, by assigning the virtues of the spring or the beauty of the tree to the guardianship of some saint, they acquired, as it were, for the defence of their own doctrine, a frontier fortress which they wrested from the enemy, and which it was at least needless to dismantle, if it could be conveniently garrisoned and defended. Thus the Church secured possession of many beautiful pieces of scenery, as Mr. Whitfield is said to have grudged to the devil the monopoly of all the fine tunes.

It is true that this policy was not uniformly observed. The story of the celebrated Jeanne d’Arc, called the Maid of Orleans, preserves the memory of such a custom, which was in that case turned to the prejudice of the poor woman who observed it.

It is well known that this unfortunate female fell into the hands of the English, after having, by her courage and enthusiasm manifested on many important occasions, revived the drooping courage of the French, and inspired them with the hope of once more freeing their country. The English vulgar regarded her as a sorceress — the French as an inspired heroine; while the wise on both sides considered her as neither the one nor the other, but a tool used by the celebrated Dunois to play the part which he assigned her. The Duke of Bedford, when the ill-starred Jeanne fell into his hands, took away her life in order to stigmatize her memory with sorcery and to destroy the reputation she had acquired among the French. The mean recurrence to such a charge against such a person had no more success than it deserved, although Jeanne was condemned both by the Parliament of Bordeux and the University of Paris. Her indictment accused her of having frequented an ancient oak-tree, and a fountain arising under it, called the Fated or Fairy Oak of Bourlemont. Here she was stated to have repaired during the hours of divine service, dancing, skipping, and making gestures, around the tree and fountain, and hanging on the branches chaplets and garlands of flowers, gathered for the purpose, reviving, doubtless, the obsolete idolatry which in ancient times had been rendered on the same spot to the Genius Loci. The charmed sword and blessed banner, which she had represented as signs of her celestial mission, were in this hostile charge against her described as enchanted implements, designed by the fiends and fairies whom she worshipped to accomplish her temporary success. The death of the innocent, high-minded, and perhaps amiable enthusiast, was not, we are sorry to say, a sacrifice to a superstitious fear of witchcraft, but a cruel instance of wicked policy mingled with national jealousy and hatred.

To the same cause, about the same period, we may impute the trial of the Duchess of Gloucester, wife of the good Duke Humphrey, accused of consulting witches concerning the mode of compassing the death of her husband’s nephew, Henry VI. The Duchess was condemned to do penance, and thereafter banished to the Isle of Man, while several of her accomplices died in prison or were executed. But in this instance also the alleged witchcraft was only the ostensible cause of a procedure which had its real source in the deep hatred between the Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort, his half-brother. The same pretext was used by Richard III. when he brought the charge of sorcery against the Queen Dowager, Jane Shore, and the queen’s kinsmen; and yet again was by that unscrupulous prince directed against Morton, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, and other adherents of the Earl of Richmond. The accusation in both cases was only chosen as a charge easily made and difficult to be eluded or repelled.

But in the meanwhile, as the accusation of witchcraft thus afforded to tyranny or policy the ready means of assailing persons whom it might not have been possible to convict of any other crime, the aspersion itself was gradually considered with increase of terror as spreading wider and becoming more contagious. So early as the year 1398 the University of Paris, in laying down rules for the judicial prosecuting of witches, express their regret that the crime was growing more frequent than in any former age. The more severe enquiries and frequent punishments by which the judges endeavoured to check the progress of this impious practice seem to have increased the disease, as indeed it has been always remarked that those morbid affections of mind which depend on the imagination are sure to become more common in proportion as public attention is fastened on stories connected with their display.

In the same century schisms arising from different causes greatly alarmed the Church of Rome. The universal spirit of enquiry which was now afloat, taking a different direction in different countries, had in almost all of them stirred up a sceptical dissatisfaction with the dogmas of the Church — such views being rendered more credible to the poorer classes through the corruption of manners among the clergy, too many of whom wealth and ease had caused to neglect that course of morality which best recommends religious doctrine. In almost every nation in Europe there lurked in the crowded cities, or the wild solitude of the country, sects who agreed chiefly in their animosity to the supremacy of Rome and their desire to cast off her domination. The Waldenses and Albigenses were parties existing in great numbers through the south of France. The Romanists became extremely desirous to combine the doctrine of the heretics with witchcraft, which, according to their account, abounded especially where the Protestants were most numerous; and, the bitterness increasing, they scrupled not to throw the charge of sorcery, as a matter of course, upon those who dissented from the Catholic standard of faith. The Jesuit Delrio alleges several reasons for the affinity which he considers as existing between the Protestant and the sorcerer; he accuses the former of embracing the opinion of Wierus and other defenders of the devil (as he calls all who oppose his own opinions concerning witchcraft), thus fortifying the kingdom of Satan against that of the Church.47

47 Delrio, “De Magia.” See the Preface.

A remarkable passage in Monstrelet puts in a clear view the point aimed at by the Catholics in thus confusing and blending the doctrines of heresy and the practice of witchcraft, and how a meeting of inoffensive Protestants could be cunningly identified with a Sabbath of hags and fiends.

“In this year (1459), in the town of Arras and county of Artois, arose, through a terrible and melancholy chance, an opinion called, I know not why, the Religion of Vaudoisie. This sect consisted, it is said, of certain persons, both men and women, who, under cloud of night, by the power of the devil, repaired to some solitary spot, amid woods and deserts, where the devil appeared before them in a human form — save that his visage is never perfectly visible to them — read to the assembly a book of his ordinances, informing them how he would be obeyed; distributed a very little money and a plentiful meal, which was concluded by a scene of general profligacy; after which each one of the party was conveyed home to her or his own habitation.

“On accusations of access to such acts of madness,” continues Monstrelet, “several creditable persons of the town of Arras were seized and imprisoned along with some foolish women and persons of little consequence. These were so horribly tortured that some of them admitted the truth of the whole accusations, and said, besides, that they had seen and recognised in their nocturnal assembly many persons of rank, prelates, seigneurs, and governors of bailliages and cities, being such names as the examinators had suggested to the persons examined, while they constrained them by torture to impeach the persons to whom they belonged. Several of those who had been thus informed against were arrested, thrown into prison, and tortured for so long a time that they also were obliged to confess what was charged against them. After this those of mean condition were executed and inhumanly burnt, while the richer and more powerful of the accused ransomed themselves by sums of money, to avoid the punishment and the shame attending it. Many even of those also confessed being persuaded to take that course by the interrogators, who promised them indemnity for life and fortune. Some there were, of a truth, who suffered with marvellous patience and constancy the torments inflicted on them, and would confess nothing imputed to their charge; but they, too, had to give large sums to the judges, who exacted that such of them as, notwithstanding their mishandling, were still able to move, should banish themselves from that part of the country.” Monstrelet winds up this shocking narrative by informing us “that it ought not to be concealed that the whole accusation was a stratagem of wicked men for their own covetous purposes, and in order, by these false accusations and forced confessions, to destroy the life, fame, and fortune of wealthy persons.”

Delrio himself confesses that Franciscus Balduinus gives an account of the pretended punishment, but real persecution, of these Waldenses, in similar terms with Monstrelet, whose suspicions are distinctly spoken out, and adds that the Parliament of Paris, having heard the affair by appeal, had declared the sentence illegal and the judges iniquitous, by an arrét dated 20th May, 1491. The Jesuit Delrio quotes the passage, but adheres with lingering reluctance to the truth of the accusation. “The Waldenses (of whom the Albigenses are a species) were,” he says, “never free from the most wretched excess of fascination;” and finally, though he allows the conduct of the judges to have been most odious, he cannot prevail on himself to acquit the parties charged by such interested accusers with horrors which should hardly have been found proved even upon the most distinct evidence. He appeals on this occasion to Florimond’s work on Antichrist. The introduction of that work deserves to be quoted, as strongly illustrative of the condition to which the country was reduced, and calculated to make an impression the very reverse probably of that which the writer would have desired:—

“All those who have afforded us some signs of the approach of Antichrist agree that the increase of sorcery and witchcraft is to distinguish the melancholy period of his advent; and was ever age so afflicted with them as ours? The seats destined for criminals before our judicatories are blackened with persons accused of this guilt. There are not judges enough to try them. Our dungeons are gorged with them. No day passes that we do not render our tribunals bloody by the dooms which we pronounce, or in which we do not return to our homes discountenanced and terrified at the horrible contents of the confessions which it has been our duty to hear. And the devil is accounted so good a master that we cannot commit so great a number of his slaves to the flames but what there shall arise from their ashes a number sufficient to supply their place.”48

48 Florimond, “Concerning the Antichrist,” cap. 7, n. 5, quoted by Delrio, “De Magia,” p. 820.

This last statement, by which it appears that the most active and unsparing inquisition was taking place, corresponds with the historical notices of repeated persecutions upon this dreadful charge of sorcery. A bull of Pope Innocent VIII. rang the tocsin against this formidable crime, and set forth in the most dismal colours the guilt, while it stimulated the inquisitors to the unsparing discharge of their duty in searching out and punishing the guilty. “It is come to our ears,” says the bull, “that numbers of both sexes do not avoid to have intercourse with the infernal fiends, and that by their sorceries they afflict both man and beast; that they blight the marriage-bed, destroy the births of women, and the increase of cattle; they blast the corn on the ground, the grapes of the vineyard, the fruits of the trees, the grass and herbs of the field.” For which reasons the inquisitors were armed with the apostolic power, and called upon to “convict, imprison, and punish,” and so forth.

Dreadful were the consequences of this bull all over the Continent, especially in Italy, Germany, and France,49 About 1485 Cumanus burnt as witches forty-one poor women in one year in the county of Burlia. In the ensuing years he continued the prosecution with such unremitting zeal that many fled from the country.

49 Dr. Hutchinson quotes “H. Institor,” 105, 161.

Alciatus states that an inquisitor, about the same period, burnt an hundred sorcerers in Piedmont, and persevered in his inquiries till human patience was exhausted, and the people arose and drove him out of the country, after which the jurisdiction was deferred to the archbishop. That prelate consulted Alciatus himself, who had just then obtained his doctor’s degree in civil law, to which he was afterwards an honour. A number of unfortunate wretches were brought for judgment, fitter, according to the civilian’s opinion, for a course of hellebore than for the stake. Some were accused of having dishonoured the crucifix and denied their salvation; others of having absconded to keep the Devil’s Sabbath, in spite of bolts and bars; others of having merely joined in the choral dances around the witches’ tree of rendezvous. Several of their husbands and relatives swore that they were in bed and asleep during these pretended excursions. Alciatus recommended gentle and temperate measures; and the minds of the country became at length composed.50

50 Alciat. “Parerg. Juris,” lib. viii. chap. 22.

In 1488, the country four leagues around Constance was laid waste by lightning and tempest, and two women being, by fair means or foul, made to confess themselves guilty as the cause of the devastation, suffered death.

About 1515, 500 persons were executed at Geneva, under the character of “Protestant witches,” from which we may suppose many suffered for heresy. Forty-eight witches were burnt at Ravensburgh within four years, as Hutchison reports, on the authority of Mengho, the author of the “Malleus Malleficarum.” In Lorraine the learned inquisitor, Remigius, boasts that he put to death 900 people in fifteen years. As many were banished from that country, so that whole towns were on the point of becoming desolate. In 1524, 1,000 persons were put to death in one year at Como, in Italy, and about 100 every year after for several years.51

51 Bart. de Spina, de Strigilibus.

In the beginning of the next century the persecution of witches broke out in France with a fury which was hardly conceivable, and multitudes were burnt amid that gay and lively people. Some notion of the extreme prejudice of their judges may be drawn from the words of one of the inquisitors themselves. Pierre de Lancre, royal councillor in the Parliament of Bourdeaux, with whom the President Espaignel was joined in a commission to enquire into certain acts of sorcery, reported to have been committed in Labourt and its neighbourhood, at the foot of the Pyrenees, about the month of May, 1619. A few extracts from the preface will best evince the state of mind in which he proceeded to the discharge of his commission.

His story assumes the form of a narrative of a direct war between Satan on the one side and the Royal Commissioners on the other, “because,” says Councillor de Lancre, with self-complaisance, “nothing is so calculated to strike terror into the fiend and his dominions as a commission with such plenary powers.”

At first, Satan endeavoured to supply his vassals who were brought before the judges with strength to support the examinations, so that if, by intermission of the torture, the wretches should fall into a doze, they declared, when they were recalled from it to the question, that the profound stupor “had something of Paradise in it, being gilded,” said the judge, “with the immediate presence of the devil;” though, in all probability, it rather derived its charms from the natural comparison between the insensibility of exhaustion and the previous agony of acute torture. The judges took care that the fiend seldom obtained any advantage in the matter by refusing their victims, in most cases, any interval of rest or sleep. Satan then proceeded, in the way of direct defiance, to stop the mouth of the accused openly, and by mere force, with something like a visible obstruction in their throat. Notwithstanding this, to put the devil to shame, some of the accused found means, in spite of him, to confess and be hanged, or rather burnt. The fiend lost much credit by his failure on this occasion. Before the formidable Commissioners arrived, he had held his cour plénière before the gates of Bourdeaux, and in the square of the palace of Galienne, whereas he was now insulted publicly by his own vassals, and in the midst of his festival of the Sabbath the children and relations of the witches who had suffered not sticking to say to him, “Out upon you! Your promise was that our mothers who were prisoners should not die; and look how you have kept your word with us! They have been burnt, and are a heap of ashes.” To appease this mutiny Satan had two evasions. He produced illusory fires, and encouraged the mutinous to walk through them, assuring them that the judicial pile was as frigid and inoffensive as those which he exhibited to them. Again, taking his refuge in lies, of which he is well known to be the father, he stoutly affirmed that their parents, who seemed to have suffered, were safe in a foreign country, and that if their children would call on them they would receive an answer. They made the invocation accordingly, and Satan answered each of them in a tone which resembled the voice of the lamented parent almost as successfully as Monsieur Alexandra could have done.

Proceeding to a yet more close attack, the Commissioners, on the eve of one of the Fiend’s Sabbaths, placed the gibbet on which they executed their victims just on the spot where Satan’s gilded chair was usually stationed. The devil was much offended at such an affront, and yet had so little power in the matter that he could only express his resentment by threats that he would hang Messieurs D’Amon and D’Urtubbe, gentlemen who had solicited and promoted the issuing of the Commission, and would also burn the Commissioners themselves in their own fire. We regret to say that Satan was unable to execute either of these laudable resolutions. Ashamed of his excuses, he abandoned for three or four sittings his attendance on the Sabbaths, sending as his representative an imp of subordinate account, and in whom no one reposed confidence. When he took courage again to face his parliament, the Arch-fiend covered his defection by assuring them that he had been engaged in a lawsuit with the Deity, which he had gained with costs, and that six score of infant children were to be delivered up to him in name of damages, and the witches were directed to procure such victims accordingly. After this grand fiction he confined himself to the petty vengeance of impeding the access of confessors to the condemned, which was the more easy as few of them could speak the Basque language. I have no time to detail the ingenious method by which the learned Councillor de Lancre explains why the district of Labourt should be particularly exposed to the pest of sorcery. The chief reason seems to be that it is a mountainous, a sterile, and a border country, where the men are all fishers and the women smoke tobacco and wear short petticoats.

To a person who, in this presumptuous, trifling, and conceited spirit, has composed a quarto volume full of the greatest absurdities and grossest obscenities ever impressed on paper, it was the pleasure of the most Christian Monarch to consign the most absolute power which could be exercised on these poor people; and he might with as much prudence have turned a ravenous wolf upon an undefended flock, of whom the animal was the natural enemy, as they were his natural prey. The priest, as well as the ignorant peasant, fell under the suspicion of this fell Commission; and De Lancre writes, with much complacency, that the accused were brought to trial to the number of forty in one day — with what chance of escape, when the judges were blinded with prejudice, and could only hear the evidence and the defence through the medium of an interpreter, the understanding of the reader may easily anticipate.

Among other gross transgressions of the most ordinary rules, it may be remarked that the accused, in what their judges called confessions, contradicted each other at every turn respecting the description of the Domdaniel in which they pretended to have been assembled, and the fiend who presided there. All spoke to a sort of gilded throne; but some saw a hideous wild he-goat seated there; some a man disfigured and twisted, as suffering torture; some, with better taste, beheld a huge indistinct form, resembling one of those mutilated trunks of trees found in ancient forests. But De Lancre was no “Daniel come to judgment,” and the discrepancy of evidence, which saved the life and fame of Susannah, made no impression in favour of the sorcerers of Labourt.

Instances occur in De Lancre’s book of the trial and condemnation of persons accused of the crime of lycanthropy, a superstition which was chiefly current in France, but was known in other countries, and is the subject of great debate between Wier, Naudé, Scot, on the one hand, and their demonological adversaries on the other. The idea, said the one party, was that a human being had the power, by sorcery, of transforming himself into the shape of a wolf, and in that capacity, being seized with a species of fury, he rushed out and made havoc among the flocks, slaying and wasting, like the animal whom he represented, far more than he could devour. The more incredulous reasoners would not allow of a real transformation, whether with or without the enchanted hide of a wolf, which in some cases was supposed to aid the metamorphosis, and contended that lycanthropy only subsisted as a woful species of disease, a melancholy state of mind, broken with occasional fits of insanity, in which the patient imagined that he committed the ravages of which he was accused. Such a person, a mere youth, was tried at Besançon, who gave himself out for a servant, or yeoman pricker, of the Lord of the Forest — so he called his superior — who was judged to be the devil. He was, by his master’s power, transformed into the likeness and performed the usual functions of a wolf, and was attended in his course by one larger, which he supposed the Lord of the Forest himself. These wolves, he said, ravaged the flocks, and throttled the dogs which stood in their defence. If either had not seen the other, he howled, after the manner of the animal, to call his comrade to his share of the prey; if he did not come upon this signal, he proceeded to bury it the best way he could.

Such was the general persecution under Messieurs Espiagnel and De Lancre. Many similar scenes occurred in France, till the edict of Louis XIV. discharging all future prosecutions for witchcraft, after which the crime itself was heard of no more.52

52 The reader may sup full on such wild horrors in the causes célèbres.

While the spirit of superstition was working such horrors in France, it was not, we may believe, more idle in other countries of Europe. In Spain, particularly, long the residence of the Moors, a people putting deep faith in all the day-dreams of witchcraft, good and evil genii, spells and talismans, the ardent and devotional temper of the old Christians dictated a severe research after sorcerers as well as heretics, and relapsed Jews or Mahommedans. In former times, during the subsistence of the Moorish kingdoms in Spain, a school was supposed to be kept open in Toboso for the study, it is said, of magic, but more likely of chemistry, algebra, and other sciences, which, altogether mistaken by the ignorant and vulgar, and imperfectly understood even by those who studied them, were supposed to be allied to necromancy, or at least to natural magic. It was, of course, the business of the Inquisition to purify whatever such pursuits had left of suspicious Catholicism, and their labours cost as much blood on accusations of witchcraft and magic as for heresy and relapse.

Even the colder nations of Europe were subject to the same epidemic terror for witchcraft, and a specimen of it was exhibited in the sober and rational country of Sweden about the middle of last century, an account of which, being translated into English by a respectable clergyman, Doctor Horneck, excited general surprise how a whole people could be imposed upon to the degree of shedding much blood, and committing great cruelty and injustice, on account of the idle falsehoods propagated by a crew of lying children, who in this case were both actors and witnesses.

The melancholy truth that “the human heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” is by nothing proved so strongly as by the imperfect sense displayed by children of the sanctity of moral truth. Both the gentlemen and the mass of the people, as they advance in years, learn to despise and avoid falsehood; the former out of pride, and from a remaining feeling, derived from the days of chivalry, that the character of a liar is a deadly stain on their honour; the other, from some general reflection upon the necessity of preserving a character for integrity in the course of life, and a sense of the truth of the common adage, that “honesty is the best policy.” But these are acquired habits of thinking. The child has no natural love of truth, as is experienced by all who have the least acquaintance with early youth. If they are charged with a fault while they can hardly speak, the first words they stammer forth are a falsehood to excuse it. Nor is this all: the temptation of attracting attention, the pleasure of enjoying importance, the desire to escape from an unpleasing task, or accomplish a holiday, will at any time overcome the sentiment of truth, so weak is it within them. Hence thieves and housebreakers, from a surprisingly early period, find means of rendering children useful in their mystery; nor are such acolytes found to evade justice with less dexterity than the more advanced rogues. Where a number of them are concerned in the same mischief, there is something resembling virtue in the fidelity with which the common secret is preserved. Children, under the usual age of their being admitted to give evidence, were necessarily often examined in witch trials; and it is terrible to see how often the little impostors, from spite or in mere gaiety of spirit, have by their art and perseverance made shipwreck of men’s lives. But it would be hard to discover a case which, supported exclusively by the evidence of children (the confessions under torture excepted), and obviously existing only in the young witnesses’ own imagination, has been attended with such serious consequences, or given cause to so extensive and fatal a delusion, as that which occurred in Sweden.

The scene was the Swedish village of Mohra, in the province of Elfland, which district had probably its name from some remnant of ancient superstition. The delusion had come to a great height ere it reached the ears of government, when, as was the general procedure, Royal Commissioners were sent down, men well fitted for the duty entrusted to them; that is, with ears open to receive the incredibilities with which they were to be crammed, and hearts hardened against every degree of compassion to the accused. The complaints of the common people, backed by some persons of better condition, were that a number of persons, renowned as witches, had drawn several hundred children of all classes under the devil’s authority. They demanded, therefore, the punishment of these agents of hell, reminding the judges that the province had been clear of witches since the burning of some on a former occasion. The accused were numerous, so many as threescore and ten witches and sorcerers being seized in the village of Mohra; three-and-twenty confessed their crimes, and were sent to Faluna, where most of them were executed. Fifteen of the children were also led to death. Six-and-thirty of those who were young were forced to run the gauntlet, as it is called, and were, besides, lashed weekly at the church doors for a whole year. Twenty of the youngest were condemned to the same discipline for three days only.

The process seems to have consisted in confronting the children with the witches, and hearing the extraordinary story which the former insisted upon maintaining. The children, to the number of three hundred, were found more or less perfect in a tale as full of impossible absurdities as ever was told around a nursery fire. Their confession ran thus:—

They were taught by the witches to go to a cross way, and with certain ceremonies to invoke the devil by the name of Antecessor, begging him to carry them off to Blockula, meaning, perhaps, the Brockenberg, in the Hartz forest, a mountain infamous for being the common scene of witches’ meetings, and to which Goethe represents the spirit Mephistopheles as conducting his pupil Faustus. The devil courteously appeared at the call of the children in various forms, but chiefly as a mad Merry–Andrew, with a grey coat, red and blue stockings, a red beard, a high-crowned hat, with linen of various colours wrapt round it, and garters of peculiar length. He set each child on some beast of his providing, and anointed them with a certain unguent composed of the scrapings of altars and the filings of church clocks. There is here a discrepancy of evidence which in another court would have cast the whole. Most of the children considered their journey to be corporeal and actual. Some supposed, however, that their strength or spirit only travelled with the fiend, and that their body remained behind. Very few adopted this last hypothesis, though the parents unanimously bore witness that the bodies of the children remained in bed, and could not be awakened out of a deep sleep, though they shook them for the purpose of awakening them. So strong was, nevertheless, the belief of nurses and mothers in their actual transportation, that a sensible clergyman, mentioned in the preface, who had resolved he would watch his son the whole night and see what hag or fiend would take him from his arms, had the utmost difficulty, notwithstanding, in convincing his mother that the child had not been transported to Blockula during the very night he held him in his embrace.

The learned translator candidly allows, “out of so great a multitude as were accused, condemned, and executed, there might be some who suffered unjustly, and owed their death more to the malice of their enemies than to their skill in the black art, I will readily admit. Nor will I deny,” he continues, “but that when the news of these transactions and accounts, how the children bewitched fel into fits and strange unusual postures, spread abroad in the kingdom, some fearful and credulous people, if they saw their children any way disordered, might think they were bewitched or ready to be carried away by imps.”53 The learned gentleman here stops short in a train of reasoning, which, followed out, would have deprived the world of the benefit of his translation. For if it was possible that some of these unfortunate persons fell a sacrifice to the malice of their neighbours or the prejudices of witnesses, as he seems ready to grant, is it not more reasonable to believe that the whole of the accused were convicted on similar grounds, than to allow, as truth, the slightest part of the gross and vulgar impossibilities upon which alone their execution can be justified?

53 Translator’s preface to Horneck’s “Account of what happened in the Kingdom of Sweden.” See appendix to Glanville’s work.

The Blockula, which was the object of their journey, was a house having a fine gate painted with divers colours, with a paddock, in which they turned the beasts to graze which had brought them to such scenes of revelry. If human beings had been employed they were left slumbering against the wall of the house. The plan of the devil’s palace consisted of one large banqueting apartment and several withdrawing-rooms. Their food was homely enough, being broth made of coleworts and bacon, with bread and butter, and milk and cheese. The same acts of wickedness and profligacy were committed at Blockula which are usually supposed to take place upon the devil’s Sabbath elsewhere; but there was this particular, that the witches had sons and daughters by the fiends, who were married together, and produced an offspring of toads and serpents.

These confessions being delivered before the accused witches, they at first stoutly denied them. At last some of them burst into tears, and acquiesced in the horrors imputed to them. They said the practice of carrying off children had been enlarged very lately (which shows the whole rumours to have arisen recently); and the despairing wretches confirmed what the children said, with many other extravagant circumstances, as the mode of elongating a goat’s back by means of a spit, on which we care not to be particular. It is worth mentioning that the devil, desirous of enjoying his own reputation among his subjects, pretended at one time to be dead, and was much lamented at Blockula — but he soon revived again.

Some attempts these witches had made to harm individuals on middle earth, but with little success. One old sorceress, indeed, attempted to strike a nail, given her by the devil for that purpose, into the head of the minister of Elfland; but as the skull was of unusual solidity, the reverend gentleman only felt a headache from her efforts. They could not be persuaded to exhibit any of their tricks before the Commissioners, excusing themselves by alleging that their witchcraft had left them, and that the devil had amused them with the vision of a burning pit, having a hand thrust out of it.

The total number who lost their lives on this singular occasion was fourscore and four persons, including fifteen children; and at this expense of blood was extinguished a flame that arose as suddenly, burned as fiercely, and decayed as rapidly, as any portent of the kind within the annals of superstition. The Commissioners returned to Court with the high approbation of all concerned; prayers were ordered through the churches weekly, that Heaven would be pleased to restrain the powers of the devil, and deliver the poor creatures who hitherto had groaned under it, as well as the innocent children, who were carried off by hundreds at once.

If we could ever learn the true explanation of this story, we should probably find that the cry was led by some clever mischievous boy, who wished to apologise to his parents for lying an hour longer in the morning by alleging he had been at Blockula on the preceding night; and that the desire to be as much distinguished as their comrade had stimulated the bolder and more acute of his companions to the like falsehoods; whilst those of weaker minds assented, either from fear of punishment or the force of dreaming over at night the horrors which were dinned into their ears all day. Those who were ingenuous, as it was termed, in their confessions, received praise and encouragement; and those who denied or were silent, and, as it was considered, impenitent, were sure to bear the harder share of the punishment which was addressed to all. It is worth while also to observe, that the smarter children began to improve their evidence and add touches to the general picture of Blockula. “Some of the children talked much of a white angel, which used to forbid them what the devil bid them do, and told them that these doings should not last long. And (they added) this better being would place himself sometimes at the door betwixt the witches and the children, and when they came to Blockula he pulled the children back, but the witches went in.”

This additional evidence speaks for itself, and shows the whole tale to be the fiction of the children’s imagination, which some of them wished to improve upon. The reader may consult “An Account of what happened in the Kingdom of Sweden in the years 1669 and 1670, and afterwards translated out of High Dutch into English by Dr. Antony Horneck,” attached to Glanville’s “Sadducismus Triumphatus.” The translator refers to the evidence of Baron Sparr, Ambassador from the Court of Sweden to the Court of England in 1672; and that of Baron Lyonberg, Envoy Extraordinary of the same power, both of whom attest the confession and execution of the witches. The King of Sweden himself answered the express inquiries of the Duke of Holstein with marked reserve. “His judges and commissioners,” he said, “had caused divers men, women, and children, to be burnt and executed on such pregnant evidence as was brought before them. But whether the actions confessed and proved against them were real, or only the effects of strong imagination, he was not as yet able to determine”— a sufficient reason, perhaps, why punishment should have been at least deferred by the interposition of the royal authority.

We must now turn our eyes to Britain, in which our knowledge as to such events is necessarily more extensive, and where it is in a high degree more interesting to our present purpose.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/demonology/chapter7.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29