Sanguinary Proceedings Against Witchcraft (1/4)

I am now led to the most painful part of my subject, but which does not the less constitute one of its integral members, and which, though painful, is deeply instructive, and constitutes a most essential branch in the science of human nature. Wherever I could, I have endeavoured to render the topics which offered themselves to my examination, entertaining. When men pretended to invert the known laws of nature, “murdering impossibility; to make what cannot be, slight work;” I have been willing to consider the whole as an ingenious fiction, and merely serving as an example how far credulity could go in setting aside the deductions of our reason, and the evidence of sense. The artists in these cases did not fail to excite admiration, and gain some sort of applause from their contemporaries, though still with a tingling feeling that all was not exactly as it should be, and with a confession that the professors were exercising unhallowed arts. It was like what has been known of the art of acting; those who employed it were caressed and made every where welcome, but were not allowed the distinction of Christian burial.

But, particularly in the fifteenth century, things took a new turn. In the dawn of the day of good sense, and when historical evidence at length began to be weighed in the scales of judgment, men became less careless of truth, and regarded prodigies and miracles with a different temper. And, as it often happens, the crisis, the precise passage from ill to better, shewed itself more calamitous, and more full of enormities and atrocity, than the period when the understanding was completely hood-winked, and men digested absurdities and impossibility with as much ease as their every day food. They would not now forgive the tampering with the axioms of eternal truth; they regarded cheat and imposture with a very different eye; and they had recourse to the stake and the faggot, for the purpose of proving that they would no longer be trifled with. They treated the offenders as the most atrocious of criminals, and thus, though by a very indirect and circuitous method, led the way to the total dispersion of those clouds, which hung, with most uneasy operation, on the human understanding.

The university of Paris in the year 1398 promulgated an edict, in which they complained that the practice of witchcraft was become more frequent and general than at any former period.

A stratagem was at this time framed by the ecclesiastical persecutors, of confounding together the crimes of heresy and witchcraft. The first of these might seem to be enough in the days of bigotry and implicit faith, to excite the horror of the vulgar; but the advocates of religious uniformity held that they should be still more secure of their object, if they could combine the sin of holding cheap the authority of the recognised heads of Christian faith, with that of men’s enlisting under the banners of Satan, and becoming the avowed and sworn vassals of his infernal empire. They accordingly seem to have invented the ideas of a sabbath of witches, a numerous assembly of persons who had cast off all sense of shame, and all regard for those things which the rest of the human species held most sacred, where the devil appeared among them in his most forbidding form, and, by rites equally ridiculous and obscene, the persons present acknowledged themselves his subjects. And, having invented this scene, these cunning and mischievous persecutors found means, as we shall presently see, of compelling their unfortunate victims to confess that they had personally assisted at the ceremony, and performed all the degrading offices which should consign them in the world to come to everlasting fire.

While I express myself thus, I by no means intend to encourage the idea that the ecclesiastical authorities of these times were generally hypocrites. They fully partook of the narrowness of thought of the period in which they lived. They believed that the sin of heretical pravity was “as the sin of witchcraft;” they regarded them alike with horror, and were persuaded that there was a natural consent and alliance between them. Fully impressed with this conception, they employed means from which our genuine and undebauched nature revolts, to extort from their deluded victims a confession of what their examiners apprehended to be true; they asked them leading questions; they suggested the answers they desired to receive; and led the ignorant and friendless to imagine that, if these answers were adopted, they might expect immediately to be relieved from insupportable tortures. The delusion went round. These unhappy wretches, finding themselves the objects of universal abhorrence, and the hatred of mankind, at length many of them believed that they had entered into a league with the devil, that they had been transported by him through the air to an assembly of souls consigned to everlasting reprobation, that they had bound themselves in acts of fealty to their infernal taskmaster, and had received from him in return the gift of performing superhuman and supernatural feats. This is a tremendous state of degradation of what Milton called the “the faultless proprieties of nature,” which cooler thinking and more enlightened times would lead us to regard as impossible, but to which the uncontradicted and authentic voice of history compels us to subscribe.

The Albigenses and Waldenses were a set of men, who, in the flourishing provinces of Languedoc, in the darkest ages, and when the understandings of human creatures by a force not less memorable than that of Procrustes were reduced to an uniform stature, shook off by some strange and unaccountable freak, the chains that were universally imposed, and arrived at a boldness of thinking similar to that which Luther and Calvin after a lapse of centuries advocated with happier auspices. With these manly and generous sentiments however they combined a considerable portion of wild enthusiasm. They preached the necessity of a community of goods, taught that it was necessary to wear sandals, because sandals only had been worn by the apostles, and devoted themselves to lives of rigorous abstinence and the most severe self-denial.

The Catholic church knew no other way in those days of converting heretics, but by fire and sword; and accordingly pope Innocent the Third published a crusade against them. The inquisition was expressly appointed in its origin to bring back these stray sheep into the flock of Christ; and, to support this institution in its operations, Simon Montfort marched a numerous army for the extermination of the offenders. One hundred thousand are said to have perished. They disappeared from the country which had witnessed their commencement, and dispersed themselves in the vallies of Piedmont, in Artois, and in various other places. This crusade occurred in the commencement of the thirteenth century; and they do not again attract the notice of history till the middle of the fifteenth.

Monstrelet, in his Chronicle, gives one of the earliest accounts of the proceedings at this time instituted against these unfortunate people, under the date of the year 1459. “In this year,” says he, “in the town of Arras, there occurred a miserable and inhuman scene, to which, I know not why, was given the name of Vaudoisie. There were taken up and imprisoned a number of considerable persons inhabitants of this town, and others of a very inferior class. These latter were so cruelly put to the torture, that they confessed, that they had been transported by supernatural means to a solitary place among woods, where the devil appeared before them in the form of a man, though they saw not his face. He instructed them in the way in which they should do his bidding, and exacted from them acts of homage and obedience. He feasted them, and after, having put out the lights, they proceeded to acts of the grossest licentiousness.” These accounts, according to Monstrelet, were dictated to the victims by their tormentors; and they then added, under the same suggestion, the names of divers lords, prelates, and governors of towns and bailliages, whom they affirmed they had seen at these meetings, and who joined in the same unholy ceremonies. The historian adds, that it cannot be concealed that these accusations were brought by certain malicious persons, either to gratify an ancient hatred, or to extort from the rich sums of money, by means of which they might purchase their escape from further prosecution. The persons apprehended were many of them put to the torture so severely, and for so long a time, and were tortured again and again, that they were obliged to confess what was laid to their charge. Some however shewed so great constancy, that they could by no means be induced to depart from the protestation of their innocence. In fine, many of the poorer victims were inhumanly burned; while the richer with great sums of money procured their discharge, but at the same time were compelled to banish themselves to distant places, remote from the scene of this cruel outrage.—Balduinus of Artois gives a similar account, and adds that the sentence of the judges was brought, by appeal under the revision of the parliament of Paris, and was reversed by that judicature in the year 1491.

I have not succeeded in tracing to my satisfaction from the original authorities the dates of the following examples, and therefore shall refer them to the periods assigned them in Hutchinson on Witchcraft. The facts themselves rest for the most part on the most unquestionable authority.

Innocent VIII published about the year 1484 a bull, in which he affirms: “It has come to our ears, 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; 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, and the grass and herbs of the field.” For these reasons he arms the inquisitors with apostolic power to “imprison, convict and punish” all such as may be charged with these offences.—The consequences of this edict were dreadful all over the continent, particularly in Italy, Germany and France.

Alciatus, an eminent lawyer of this period, relates, that a certain inquisitor came about this time into the vallies of the Alps, being commissioned to enquire out and proceed against heretical women with whom those parts were infested. He accordingly consigned more than one hundred to the flames, every day, like a new holocaust, sacrificing such persons to Vulcan, as, in the judgment of the historian, were subjects demanding rather hellebore than fire; till at length the peasantry of the vicinity rose in arms, and drove the merciless judge out of the country. The culprits were accused of having dishonoured the crucifix, and denying Christ for their God. They were asserted to have solemnised after a detestable way the devil’s sabbath, in which the fiend appeared personally among them, and instructed them in the ceremonies of his worship. Meanwhile a question was raised whether they personally assisted on the occasion, or only saw the solemnities in a vision, credible witnesses having sworn that they were at home in their beds, at the very time that they were accused of having taken part in these blasphemies.

In 1515, more than five hundred persons are said to have suffered capitally for the crime of witchcraft in the city of Geneva in the course of three months.

In 1524, one thousand persons were burned on this accusation in the territory of Como, and one hundred per annum for several year after.

Danaeus commences his Dialogue of Witches with this observation. “Within three months of the present time (1575) an almost infinite number of witches have been taken, on whom the parliament of Paris has passed judgment: and the same tribunal fails not to sit daily, as malefactors accused of this crime are continually brought before them out of all the provinces.”

In the year 1595 Nicholas Remi, otherwise Remigius, printed a very curious work, entitled Demonolatreia, in which he elaborately expounds the principles of the compact into which the devil enters with his mortal allies, and the modes of conduct specially observed by both parties. He boasts that his exposition is founded on an exact observation of the judicial proceedings which had taken place under his eye in the duchy of Lorraine, where for the preceding fifteen years nine hundred persons, more or less, had suffered the extreme penalty of the law for the crime of sorcery. Most of the persons tried seem to have been sufficiently communicative as to the different kinds of menace and compulsion by which the devil had brought them into his terms, and the various appearances he had exhibited, and feats he had performed: but others, says the author, had, “by preserving an obstinate silence, shewn themselves invincible to every species of torture that could be inflicted on them.”

But the most memorable record that remains to us on the subject of witchcraft, is contained in an ample quarto volume, entitled A Representation (Tableau) of the Ill Faith of Evil Spirits and Demons, by Pierre De Lancre, Royal Counsellor in the Parliament of Bordeaux. This man was appointed with one coadjutor, to enquire into certain acts of sorcery, reported to have been committed in the district of Labourt, near the foot of the Pyrenees; and his commission bears date in May, 1609, and by consequence twelve months before the death of Henry the Fourth.

The book is dedicated to M. de Silleri, chancellor of France; and in the dedication the author observes, that formerly those who practised sorcery were well known for persons of obscure station and narrow intellect; but that now the sorcerers who confess their misdemeanours, depose, that there are seen in the customary meetings held by such persons a great number of individuals of quality, whom Satan keeps veiled from ordinary gaze, and who are allowed to approach near to him, while those of a poorer and more vulgar class are thrust back to the furthest part of the assembly. The whole narrative assumes the form of a regular warfare between Satan on the one side, and the royal commissioners on the other.

At first the devil endeavoured to supply the accused with strength to support the tortures by which it was sought to extort confession from them, insomuch that, in an intermission of the torture, the wretches declared that, presently falling asleep, they seemed to be in paradise, and to enjoy the most beautiful visions. The commissioners however, observing this, took care to grant them scarcely any remission, till they had drawn from them, if possible, an ample confession. The devil next proceeded to stop the mouths of the accused that they might not confess. He leaped on their throats, and evidently caused an obstruction of the organs of speech, so that in vain they endeavoured to relieve themselves by disclosing all that was demanded of them.

The historian proceeds to say that, at these sacrilegious assemblings, they now began to murmur against the devil, as wanting power to relieve them in their extremity. The children, the daughters, and other relatives of the victims reproached him, not scrupling to say, “Out upon you! you promised that our mothers who were prisoners should not die; and look how you have kept your word with us! They have been burned, and are a heap of ashes.” In answer to this charge the devil stoutly affirmed, that their parents, who seemed to have suffered, were not dead, but were safe in a foreign country, assuring the malcontents that, if they called on them, they would receive an answer. The children called accordingly, and by an infernal illusion an answer came, exactly in the several voices of the deceased, declaring that they were in a state of happiness and security.

Further to satisfy the complainers, the devil produced illusory fires, and encouraged the dissatisfied to walk through them, assuring them that the fires lighted by a judicial decree were as harmless and inoffensive as these. The demon further threatened that he would cause the prosecutors to be burned in their own fire, and even proceeded to make them in semblance hover and alight on the branches of the neighbouring trees. He further caused a swarm of toads to appear like a garland to crown the heads of the sufferers, at which when in one instance the bystanders threw stones to drive them away, one monstrous black toad remained to the last uninjured, and finally mounted aloft, and vanished from sight. De Lancre goes on to describe the ceremonies of the sabbath of the devil; and a plate is inserted, presenting the assembly in the midst of their solemnities. He describes in several chapters the sort of contract entered into between the devil and the sorcerers, the marks by which they may be known, the feast with which the demon regaled them, their distorted and monstrous dance, the copulation between the fiend and the witch, and its issue.—It is easy to imagine with what sort of fairness the trials were conducted, when such is the description the judge affords us of what passed at these assemblies. Six hundred were burned under this prosecution.

The last chapter is devoted to an accurate account of what took place at an auto da fe in the month of November 1610 at Logrogno on the Ebro in Spain, the victims being for the greater part the unhappy wretches, who had escaped through the Pyrenees from the merciless prosecution that had been exercised against them by the historian of the whole.

Jerome Savonarola was one of the most remarkable men of his time, and his fortunes are well adapted to illustrate the peculiarities of that period. He was born in the year 1452 at Ferrara in Italy. He became a Dominican Friar at Bologna without the knowledge of his parents in the twenty-second year of his age. He was first employed by his superiors in elucidating the principles of physics and metaphysics. But, after having occupied some years in this way, he professed to take a lasting leave of these subtleties, and to devote himself exclusively to the study of the Scriptures. In no long time he became an eminent preacher, by the elegance and purity of his style acquiring the applause of hearers of taste, and by the unequalled fervour of his eloquence securing the hearts of the many. It was soon obvious, that, by his power gained in this mode, he could do any thing he pleased with the people of Florence among whom he resided. Possessed of such an ascendancy, he was not contented to be the spiritual guide of the souls of men, but further devoted himself to the temporal prosperity and grandeur of his country. The house of Medici was at this time masters of the state, and the celebrated Lorenzo de Medici possessed the administration of affairs. But the political maxims of Lorenzo were in discord with those of our preacher. Lorenzo sought to concentre all authority in the opulent few; but Savonarola, proceeding on the model of the best times of ancient Rome, endeavoured to vest the sovereign power in the hands of the people.

He had settled at Florence in the thirty-fourth year of his age, being invited to become prior of the convent of St. Mark in that city: and such was his popularity, that, four years after, Lorenzo on his death-bed sent for Savonarola to administer to him spiritual consolation. Meanwhile, so stern did this republican shew himself, that he insisted on Lorenzo’s renunciation of his absolute power, before he would administer to him the sacrament and absolution: and Lorenzo complied with these terms.

The prince being dead, Savonarola stepped immediately into the highest authority. He reconstituted the state upon pure republican principles, and enjoined four things especially in all his public preachings, the fear of God, the love of the republic, oblivion of all past injuries, and equal rights to all for the future.

But Savonarola was not contented with the delivery of Florence, where he is said to have produced a total revolution of manners, from libertinism to the most exemplary purity and integrity; he likewise aspired to produce an equal effect on the entire of Italy. Alexander VI, the most profligate of popes, then filled the chair at Rome; and Savonarola thundered against him in the cathedral at Florence the most fearful denunciations. The pope did not hesitate a moment to proceed to extremities against the friar. He cited him to Rome, under pain, if disobeyed, of excommunication to the priest, and an interdict to the republic that harboured him. The Florentines several times succeeded in causing the citation to be revoked, and, making terms with the sovereign pontiff, Jerome again and again suspending his preachings, which were however continued by other friars, his colleagues and confederates. Savonarola meanwhile could not long be silent; he resumed his philippics as fiercely as ever.

At this time faction raged strongly at Florence. Jerome had many partisans; all the Dominicans, and the greater part of the populace. But he had various enemies leagued against him; the adherents of the house of Medici, those of the pope, the libertines, and all orders of monks and friars except the Dominicans, The violence proceeded so far, that the preacher was not unfrequently insulted in his pulpit, and the cathedral echoed with the dissentions of the parties. At length a conspiracy was organized against Savonarola; and, his adherents having got the better, the friar did not dare to trust the punishment of his enemies to the general assembly, where the question would have led to a scene of warfare, but referred it to a more limited tribunal, and finally proceeded to the infliction of death on its sole authority.

This extremity rendered his enemies more furious against him. The pope directed absolution, the communion, and the rites of sepulture, to be refused to his followers. He was now expelled from the cathedral at Florence, and removed his preachings to the chapel of his convent, which was enlarged in its accommodations to adapt itself to his numerous auditors. In this interim a most extraordinary scene took place. One Francis de Pouille offered himself to the trial of fire, in favour of the validity of the excommunication of the pope against the pretended inspiration and miracles of the prophet. He said he did not doubt to perish in the experiment, but that he should have the satisfaction of seeing Savonarola perish along with him. Dominic de Pescia however and another Dominican presented themselves to the flames instead of Jerome, alledging that he was reserved for higher things. De Pouille at first declined the substitution, but was afterwards prevailed on to submit. A vast fire was lighted in the marketplace for the trial; and a low and narrow gallery of iron passed over the middle, on which the challenger and the challenged were to attempt to effect their passage. But a furious deluge of rain was said to have occurred at the instant every thing was ready; the fire was extinguished; and the trial for the present was thus rendered impossible.

Savonarola in the earnestness of his preachings pretended to turn prophet, and confidently to predict future events. He spoke of Charles VIII of France as the Cyrus who should deliver Italy, and subdue the nations before him; and even named the spring of the year 1498 as the period that should see all these things performed.

But it was not in prophecy alone that Savonarola laid claim to supernatural aid. He described various contests that he had maintained against a multitude of devils at once in his convent. They tormented in different ways the friars of St. Mark, but ever shrank with awe from his personal interposition. They attempted to call upon him by name; but the spirit of God overruled them, so that they could never pronounce his name aright, but still misplaced syllables and letters in a ludicrous fashion. They uttered terrific threatenings against him, but immediately after shrank away with fear, awed by the holy words and warnings which he denounced against them. Savonarola besides undertook to expel them by night, by sprinkling holy water, and the singing of hymns in a solemn chorus. While however he was engaged in these sacred offices, and pacing the cloister of his convent, the devils would arrest his steps, and suddenly render the air before him so thick, that it was impossible for him to advance further. On another occasion one of his colleagues assured Francis Picus of Mirandola, the writer of his Life, that he had himself seen the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove more than once, sitting on Savonarola’s shoulder, fluttering his feathers, which were sprinkled with silver and gold, and, putting his beak to his ear, whispering to him his divine suggestions. The prior besides relates in a book of his own composition at great length a dialogue that he held with the devil, appearing like, and having been mistaken by the writer for, a hermit.

The life of Savonarola however came to a speedy and tragical close. The multitude, who are always fickle in their impulses, conceiving an unfavourable impression in consequence of his personally declining the trial by fire, turned against him. The same evening they besieged the convent where he resided, and in which he had taken refuge. The signory, seeing the urgency of the case, sent to the brotherhood, commanding them to surrender the prior, and the two Dominicans who had presented themselves in his stead to the trial by fire. The pope sent two judges to try them on the spot. They were presently put to the torture. Savonarola, who we are told was of a delicate habit of body, speedily confessed and expressed contrition for what he had done. But no sooner was he delivered from the strappado, than he retracted all that he had before confessed. The experiment was repeated several times, and always with the same success.

At length he and the other two were adjudged to perish in the flames. This sentence was no sooner pronounced than Savonarola resumed all the constancy of a martyr. He advanced to the place of execution with a steady pace and a serene countenance, and in the midst of the flames resignedly commended his soul into the hands of his maker. His adherents regarded him as a witness to the truth, and piously collected his relics; but his judges, to counteract this defiance of authority, commanded his remains and his ashes to be cast into the river.


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