The Devils of Loudun Page 40

In principle, as we have seen, the law relating to witchcraft was exceedingly simple. Anyone who deliberately had dealings with the devil was guilty of a capital crime. To describe how this law was administered in practice would require much more space than can here be given. Suffice it to say that, while some judges were manifestly prejudiced, many did their best to give the accused a fair trial. But even a fair trial was, by our present Western standards, a monstrous caricature of justice. “The laws,” we read in Malleus Maleficarum, “allow that any witness whatever is to be admitted in evidence against them.” And not only were all and sundry, including children, and the mortal enemies of the accused, admitted as witnesses; all kinds of evidence were also admitted—gossip, hearsay, inferences, remembered dreams, statements made by demoniacs. Always in order, torture was frequently (though by no means invariably) employed to extort confessions. And along with torture went false promises in regard to the final sentence. In the Malleus 1 this matter of false promises is discussed with all the authors’ customary acumen and thoroughness. There are three possible alternatives. If he chooses the first, the judge may promise the witch her life (on condition, of course, that she reveal the names of other witches) and may intend to keep the promise. The only deception he practises is to let it be understood by the accused that the death penalty is to be commuted to some mild punishment, such as exile, whereas in petto he has decided to condemn her to perpetual solitary confinement on bread and water.

A second alternative is preferred by those who think that, “after she has been consigned to prison in this way, the promise to spare her life should be kept for a time, but that after a certain period she should be burned.”

“A third opinion is that the judge may safely promise the accused her life, but in such a way that he should afterwards disclaim the duty of passing sentence upon her, deputing another judge in his place.”

(How richly significant is that little word ‘safely’! Systematic lying is something which puts the liar’s soul into considerable jeopardy. Ergo, if you find it expedient to lie, be sure to make such mental reservations as will cause you to seem to yourself—if not to others, or to a God who is most certainly not mocked—a worthy candidate for paradise.)

To contemporary Western eyes, the most absurd, as well as the most iniquitous feature of a mediaeval or early-modern witch trial was the fact that almost any of the odd and untoward events of daily life might legitimately be treated as the effects of diabolic intervention brought about by the magic arts of a sorcerer. Here, for example, is a part of the evidence on which one of the two witches tried in 1664, at Bury St. Edmunds, before the future Lord Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, was condemned to be hanged. In the course of a quarrel, the accused had cursed and threatened one of her neighbours. After this, the man testified, “so soon as his sows pigged, the pigs would leap and caper, and immediately fall down dead.” Nor was this all. A little later he was “vexed with a number of lice of extraordinary bigness.” Against such supernatural vermin, the current methods of disinfection were unavailing and the witness had no alternative but to consign two of his best suits to the flames. Sir Matthew Hale was a just judge, a lover of moderation, a man of wide learning, scientific as well as literary and legal. That he should have taken this kind of evidence seriously seems now almost incredible. But the fact remains that he did take it seriously. The reason is to be sought, presumably, in the fact that, as well as all the rest, Hale was exceedingly pious. But in a fundamentalist age piety involved belief in a personal devil and the duty to extirpate the witches who were his servants. Moreover, granted the truth of everything contained in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, there was an antecedent probability that, if preceded by an old woman’s curse, the death of piglets and the multiplication of lice were supernatural events, due to the intervention of Satan on behalf of one of his votaries.

Into the Biblical lore of devils and witches had been incorporated a number of popular superstitions which came at last to be treated with the same veneration as was accorded to revealed truths of Scripture. For example, until late in the seventeenth century, all inquisitors and most civil magistrates accepted without question the validity of what may be called the physical tests of witchcraft. Did the body of the accused exhibit unusual marks? Could you find in it any spots insensitive to the prick of a needle? Were there, above all, any of those “little teats,” or supernumerary ni**les, at which some familiar—toad or cat—might suck and fatten? If so, your suspect was undoubtedly a witch; for tradition affirmed that these were the brands and seals with which the devil marked his own. (Since nine per cent. of all males and a little under five per cent. of all females are born with supernumerary ni**les, there was never any shortage of predestined victims. Nature punctually did her part; the judges, with their unexamined postulates and first principles, did the rest.)

Of the other popular superstitions which had crystallized into axioms there are three which, because of the enormous miseries entailed by their general acceptance, deserve at least a brief mention. These are the beliefs that, by invoking the devil’s aid, witches can cause tempests, diseases and sexual impotence. In the Malleus Kramer and Sprenger treat these notions as self-evident truths, established not merely by common sense but also by the authority of the greatest doctors. “St. Thomas, in his commentary on Job, says as follows: It must be confessed that, with God’s permission, the devils can disturb the air, raise up winds and make the fire fall from heaven. For, although in the matter of taking various shapes, corporeal nature is not at the command of any Angel, either good or bad, but only at that of God the Creator, yet, in the matter of local motion, corporeal nature has to obey the spiritual nature. . . . But winds and rain and other similar disturbances of the air can be caused by the mere movement of vapours released from the earth or the water; therefore the natural powers of devils is sufficient to cause such things. So says St. Thomas.”1

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