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NOTES ON WITCHCRAFT
GEORGE LYMAN KITTREDGE
REPRINTED FROM THE
NOTES ON WITCHCRAFT.
BY GEORGE LYMAN KITTREDGE.
We are all specialists now-a-days, I suppose. The good old times of the polymath and the Doctor Universalis are gone forever. Yet signs are not wanting that some of us are alive to the danger of building our party-walls too high. In one respect, at all events, there can be no doubt that the investigators of New England antiquities are aware, of their peril, though they occasionally shut their eyes to it, -I mean, the tendency to consider the Colonists as a peculiar people, separated from the Mother Country not only geographically, but also with regard to those currents of thought and feeling which are the most significant facts of history. True, there is more or less justification for that kind of study which looks at the annals of America as endsin-themselves; but such study is ticklish business, and it now and then distorts the perspective in a rather fantastic way. This is a rank truism. Still, commonplaces are occasionally steadying to the intellect, and Dr. Johnsonwhose own truths have been characterized by a brilliant critic as "too true"-knew what he was about when he said that men usually need not so much to be informed as to be reminded.
The darkest page of New England history is, by common consent, that which is inscribed with the words Salem Witchcraft. The hand of the apologist trembles as it turns the leaf. The reactionary writer who prefers iconoclasm to hero-worship sharpens his pen and pours fresh gall into his inkpot when he comes to this sinister subject. Let us try to consider the matter, for a few minutes, unemotionally, and to that end let us pass in review a number of facts which may help us to look at the Witchcraft. Delusion of 1692 in its due proportions,-not as an abnormal outbreak of fanaticism, not as an isolated tragedy, but as a mere incident, a brief and transitory episode in the biography of a terrible, but perfectly natural, superstition.
In the first place, we know that the New Englanders did not invent the belief in witchcraft. It is a universally human belief. No race or nation is exempt from it. Formerly, it was an article in the creed of everybody in the world, and it is still held, in some form or other, and to a greater or less extent, by a large majority of mankind.
That the New Englanders brought their views on demonology and witchcraft with them from the Mother Country is a self-evident proposition, but it may be worth while to refer to a striking instance of the kind. The Rev. John Higginson, writing from Salem to Increase Mather in 1683, sends him two cases for his Iustrious Providences,—both of which he "believes to be certain." The first is an account of how a mysterious stranger, thought to be the devil, once lent a conjuring book to "godly Mr. (Samuel] Sharp, who was Ruling Elder of the Church of Salem allmost 30 years.” The incident took place when Sharp was a young man in London. The second narrative Mr. Higginson "heard at Gilford from a godly old man yet living. He came from Essex, and hath been in N. E. about 50 years." It is a powerfully interesting legend of the Faust type, localized in Essex. In a postscript Mr. Higginson adds, “I had credible information of one in Leicestershire, in the time of the Long Parliament, that gave his soul to the Divel, upon condition to be a Famous Preacher, which he was for a time, &c., but I am imperfect in the story." (Mather Papers, Mass. Hist. Soc. Collections, 4th Series, VIII, 285-287). See also the cases of witchcraft before 1692 collected in S. G. Drake's Annals of Witchcraft in New England. Dr. Poole is far nearer the truth in saying that “the New-England colonists had no views concerning witchcraft and diabolical agency which they did not bring with them from the Old World” (Witchcraft in Boston, in Winsor, Memorial History of Boston, II, 131) than President White is when he remarks that "the life of the early colonists in New England was such as to give rapid growth to the germs of the doctrine of possession brought from the mother country” (Warfare of Science with Theology, II, 145).
A masterly short account of the various elements which made up the fully developed doctrine of witchcraft as it was held during the three centuries of especial prosecution (1400–1700), and of the sources from which these elements were derived, may be found in the first chapter of Joseph Hansen's Zauberwahn, Inquisition und Hexenprozess im Mittelalter (Munich and Leipzig, 1900). A learned and able essay by Professor George L. Burr, The Literature of Witchcraft, reprinted from the Papers of the American Historical Association, New York, 1890, should also be consulted. Professor Burr emphasizes the sound and necessary distinction between witchcraft and magic. But he seems to go too far in his insistence on this distinction as vital in the history of witchcraft: “Magic itself is actual and universal. But witchcraft never was. It was but a shadow, a nightmare: the nightmare of a religion, the shadow of a dogma. Less than five centuries saw its birth, its vigor, its decay” (p. 238; p. 38 of reprint). This statement is true if by witchcraft is meant (and this is Professor Burr's sense) the fully developed and highly complicated system set forth in the Malleus Maleficarum and in Del Rio's Disquisitiones Magicæ.—what Hansen (p. 35) calls “der verhängnisvolle Sammelbegriff des Hexenwesens, "which was not possible until scholasticism had schematized the diversified elements of belief in magic and demonology and sorcery and devil-worship which Christian theology and Christian superstition had derived from the most various sources
Further, our own attitude of mind toward witchcraft is a very modern attitude indeed. To us, one who asserts the existence, or even the possibility, of the crime of witchcraft staggers under a burden of proof which he cannot conceivably support. His thesis seems to us unreasonable, abnormal, monstrous; it can scarcely be stated in intelligible
from Judaism, classical antiquity, Neo-Platonism, and the thousand-and-one beliefs of pagan converts. But, important as this fully developed system was—and true though it may be that without the schematizing influence of scholastic philosophy the witch-prosecution which was epidemic in Europe from 1400 to 1700 could hardly have taken place we should never forget that the essential element in witchcraft is maleficium,-the working of harm to the bodies and goods of one's fellow-men by means of evil spirits or of strange powers derived from intercourse with such spirits. This belief in maleficium was once universal; it was rooted and grounded in the minds of the people before they became Christians; it is still the creed of most savages and of millions of so-called civilized men. Throughout the history of witchcraft (in whatever sense we understand that word), it remained the ineradicable thing, the solid foundation, unshakably established in popular belief, for whatever superstructure might be reared by the ingenuity of jurisconsults, philosophers, theologians, or inquisitors. Without this popular belief in maleficium, the initial suspicions and complaints which form the basis and starting-point of all prosecutions would have been impossible and inconceivable. With this popular belief, the rest was easy. The error into which Professor Burr has fallen is due, no doubt, to his keeping his eye too exclusively on the Continent, where the prosecutions were most extensive, where, in truth, the fully developed system was most prevalent, and where the inquisitorial methods of procedure give to the witch-trials a peculiar air of uniformity and theological schematism. Thus he has been led, like many other historians, to over-emphasize the learned or literary side of the question. For us, however, as the descendants of Englishmen and as students of the history of English colonies in America, it is necessary to fix our attention primarily on the Mother Country. And, if we do this, we cannot fail to perceive that the obstinate belief of the common people in maleficium- a belief which, it cannot be too often repeated, is not the work of theologians but the universal and quasi-primitive creed of the human race is the root of the whole matter. (On savage witchcraft see the anthropologists passim. Good examples may be found in Karl von den Steinen, Unter den Naturvölkern Brasiliens, 1894, pp. 339 ff.)
On maleficium see especially Hansen, pp. 9 ff. Nothing could be truer than his words:--"Wie viel auch immer im Laufe der Zeit in den Begriff der Zauberei und Hexerei hineingetragen worden ist, so ist doch sein Kern stets das Maleficium geblieben. Aus dieser Vorstellung erwächst die angstvolle Furcht der Menschen und das Verlangen nach gesetzlichem Schutze und blutig strenger Strafe; von ihr hat die strafrechtliche Behandlung dieses Wahns ihren Ausgang genommen" (p. 9). "Das Maleficium, mit Ausnahme des Wettermachens, ist ohne alle Unterbrechung von der kirchlichen und bis in das 17. Jahrhundert auch von der staatlichen Autorität als Realität angenommen, seine Kraft ist nie ernstlich in Abrede gestellt worden; es bildet den roten Faden auch durch die Geschichte der strafrechtlichen Verfolgung” (p. 13). Everybody knows that the most convincing evidence of witchcraft-short of confession or of denunciation by a confederate-was held to be the damnum minatum and the malum secutum.
The difference between England and the Continent in the development of the witchcraft idea and in the history of prosecution is recognized by Hansen (p. 34, note 1). President White, like Professor Burr, has his eye primarily on the Continent (Warfare of Science with Theology, 1896, I, 350 ff.). His treatment of demoniacal possession, however, is much to our purpose (II, 97 ff., 135 ff.).