The disordered imaginations are those not only of the victims, but also of the persecutors

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The Witch Craze and its End

The Enlightenment was not only a conscious undertaking by philosophers to improve the quality of human life. It was also part of an enormous change in mentality: an uneven but decisive transformation of people’s understanding of the world and of their basic assumptions. This can be illustrated by examining the most dramatic manifestation of fear in pre-Enlightenment Europe: the great witch craze that, beginning in the late Middle Ages, raged with renewed fury from about 1560 to the mid- to late seventeenth century, and claimed some fifty thousand victims. This phenomenon fascinates and puzzles historians, who still dispute how it began and why it ended.69 Nothing could more illustrate the dominion of fear over pre-Enlightenment minds than the witch craze, and nothing could be more antithetical to the Enlightenment. We cannot, however, give the Enlightenment credit for defeating witch-beliefs, for by the late seventeenth century, when the Enlightenment was just gathering pace, the belief in witchcraft was already in steep decline. The nineteenth-century Irish historian and rationalist William Lecky pointed out that the growth of scepticism about witchcraft ‘was mainly silent, unargumentative, and insensible; that men came gradually to disbelieve in witchcraft, because they came gradually to look on it as absurd’. (Pg.14)

Part of the puzzle is that over the preceding centuries educated elites had become more, not less, willing to believe in witchcraft. In the so-called Dark Ages, many claims about witchcraft were treated officially with scepticism. In the later Middle Ages, however, the Church exerted its authority against heretics, declaring them to be in league with the Devil.75 The image of the heretic became conflated with that of the witch. Anxiety about witches was increased by the religious divisions that split Christendom soon afterwards. All sides in the Reformation found convenient scapegoats in witches and Jews. (PG.15)

Joseph Glanvill FRS
1636-1680

Glanvill, however, is not an ideal witness for the coexistence of scientific and witchcraft beliefs. In his posthumously published treatise Saducismus Triumphatus (1681), in which he denounces sceptics by associating them with the Sadducees of the New Testament who denied the immortality of the soul, he shows himself decidedly credulous. His arguments for the reality of witchcraft boil down to three: 1) we know so little about the supernatural that anything is possible, including the transformation of witches, with the Devil’s help, into cats and hares; 2) the testimony for witchcraft is so strong that it cannot be doubted; 3) disbelief in witches implies disbelief in God.102 Moreover, Glanvill presents these arguments as answers to frequently asked questions. (Pg.19)

In mid-seventeenth-century England, and even later, it was imprudent to declare openly one’s scepticism about witchcraft and magic. One risked being associated with the dangerous radical Thomas Hobbes, who in Leviathan (1651) put forward a materialism that explicitly denied the reality of supernatural phenomena, or with the freethinkers who challenged magical beliefs in the early eighteenth century.107 Arthur Wilson, a spectator at the trial of twenty-five witches at Chelmsford in 1646, ‘could find nothing in the Evidence that did sway me to thinke them other then poore, mallenchollie Envious, mischievous, ill disposed, ill dieted, atrabilious Constitutions’ with over-active ‘fancies working by grosse fumes & vapors’, but he wisely kept his diagnosis to himself.108 Besides, it was intellectually over-bold to assert flatly that all such phenomena were illusory. Hence Robert Boyle, one of the leading figures of the Scientific Revolution, affirmed in his correspondence with Glanvill that a few accusations of witchcraft might be true, and also took an open-minded interest in evidence for alchemy and for the ‘second sight’ recorded in the Highlands.109 As late as 1711, Addison says cautiously: ‘I believe in general that there is, and has been such a thing as Witchcraft; but at the same time can give no Credit to any Particular Instance of it.’

Joseph Addison (1 May 1672 – 17 June 1719)

The definitive treatise against witchcraft, published by Francis Hutchinson in 1718, shares Addison’s caution.112 Hutchinson concedes the reality of spirits, on the grounds that it would be ‘Irrational to imagine, that we poor Worms of the Earth should be the Head of the Creation’.113 But he points out that the Bible’s testimony to good and evil spirits bears no resemblance to the tales told about dealings between witches and the Devil, and maintains that such stories ‘if not altogether, yet for the greatest Part, . . . are made by the Imaginations of Men’.114 The disordered imaginations are those not only of the victims, but also of the persecutors. (Pg.20)

The accumulated evidence may suggest not that people became sceptical about witchcraft, but that an already widespread, though inadmissible, scepticism could eventually be uttered. Caveats like Addison’s, admitting the possibility of witchcraft, do not imply any firm or ardent belief, but are merely a formal acknowledgement. Even during the great persecutions, how many people really credited the fantasies of the inquisitors? There may have been many people like Arthur Wilson who did not even commit their scepticism to paper. Similarly, in 1930s Russia, how many really believed that the Old Bolsheviks were directing a vast conspiracy against Stalin? (Pg.21)

WE&P by: EZorrilla.

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