The Devils of Loudun Page 42

The foregoing accounts by educated men of inarticulate Public Opinion are sufficiently illuminating. But deeds speak even louder than words, and a society that periodically lynches its witches proclaims, most emphatically, its faith in magic and its fear of the devil. Here is an example drawn from French history and almost contemporary with the events related in this book. In the summer of 1644, after a very violent and destructive hailstorm, the inhabitants of several villages near Beaune banded together in order to take vengeance on the incarnate fiends who had thus wantonly ruined their crops. Under the leadership of a seventeen-year-old boy who claimed to have an infallible nose for witches, they ducked a number of women and then beat them to death. Other suspects were burned with red-hot shovels, pushed into brick kilns or thrown headlong from high places. To put an end to this panic reign of terror, the Parlement of Dijon had to send two special commissioners at the head of a strong force of police.

We see then that inarticulate Public Opinion was in full agreement with the theologians and the lawyers. Among the educated, however, there was no such unanimity of approval. Kramer and Sprenger write with indignation of those—and at the end of the fifteenth century they were already numerous—who doubted the reality of witchcraft. They point out that all the theologians and canonists are at one in condemning the error of “those who say that there is no witchcraft in the world, but only in the imagination of men who, through their ignorance of hidden causes, which no man yet understands, ascribe certain natural effects to witchcraft, as though they were effected not by hidden causes, but by devils working either by themselves or in conjunction with witches. And though all the other doctors condemn this error as a pure falsehood, St. Thomas impugns it more vigorously and stigmatizes it as actual heresy, saying that this error proceeds from the root of infidelity.”1

This theoretical conclusion raises a practical problem. The question arises whether people who maintain that witches do not exist are to be regarded as notorious heretics, or whether they are to be regarded as gravely suspect of holding heretical opinions. It seems that the first opinion is the correct one. But though all persons “convicted of such evil doctrine” have deserved excommunication, with all the penalties thereto attached, “we must take into consideration the very great number of persons who, owing to their ignorance, will surely be found guilty of this error. And since the error is very common, the rigor of strict justice may be tempered with mercy.” On the other hand, “let no man think he may escape by pleading ignorance. For those who have gone astray through ignorance of this kind may be found to have sinned very gravely.”

In a word, the official attitude of the Church was such that, though disbelief in witchcraft was undoubtedly a heresy, the disbeliever was in no immediate danger of punishment. Nevertheless, he remained gravely suspect and, if he persisted in his false doctrine after being apprised of the Catholic truth, might get into serious trouble. Hence the caution displayed by Montaigne in the eleventh chapter of his Third Book. “The witches of my neighbourhood are in danger of their lives when anyone brings to bear fresh witness to the reality of their visions. To reconcile the examples which Holy Writ gives us of such things—examples most certain and irrefutable—and to bring them into comparison with those that happen in modern times, since we can see neither the causes of them nor the means by which they took place, needs a greater ingenuity than ours.” It may be that God alone can tell what is a miracle and what is not. God must be believed; but do we have to believe a mere man, “one of ourselves, who is amazed at his own telling—and he must necessarily be amazed, if he is not out of his wits.” And Montaigne concludes with one of those golden sentences which deserve to be inscribed over the altar of every church, above the bench of every magistrate, on the walls of every lecture hall, every senate and parliament, every government office and council chamber. “After all” (write the words in neon, write in letters as tall as a man!) “after all, it is rating one’s conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them.”

Half a century later Selden showed himself less cautious, but also less humane. “The law against witches does not prove that there be any; but it punishes the malice of those people that use such means to take away men’s lives. If one should profess that by turning his hat thrice, and crying ‘Buzz,’ he could take away a man’s life, though in truth he could do no such thing, yet this were a just law made by the State that whosoever should turn his hat thrice and cry ‘Buzz,’ with an intention to take away a man’s life, shall be put to death.” Selden was enough of a sceptic to disapprove the elevation of conjectures to the rank of dogmas; but at the same time he was lawyer enough to think that roasting a man alive for thinking he was a witch might be right and proper. Montaigne had also been bred to the law; but his mind had obstinately refused to take the legalistic stain. When he thought of witches, he found himself considering, not their punishable malice, but their perhaps not incurable malady. “In all conscience,” he writes, “I should rather have prescribed them hellebore” (a drug supposed to be effective in purging melancholy and therefore in curing madness) “than hemlock.”

The first systematic assaults against the practice of witch-hunting and the theory of diabolic intervention came from the German physician, Johann Weier, in 1563, and from Reginald Scot, the Kentish squire, who published his Discovery of Witchcraft in 1584. The nonconformist Gifford and the Anglican Harsnett shared Scot’s scepticism in regard to contemporary instances of witchcraft, but could not go so far as he did in questioning the Biblical references to possession, magic and pacts with the devil.

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