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Sunday, August 06, 2006


There's always someone sensible

Reginald Scot was a hero. In 1584, there was a serious witch-hunt going on across Europe, which functioned along basic and brutal lines: all accused were tortured until they confessed, then executed. It was horrific, and also ridiculous; intelligent people were believing nonsense, in one of those nasty historical moments where everyone seems to have taken leave of their senses.

The encouraging thing, of course, is that that never happens. Not entirely. There's always a few people who keep their heads. And Reginald Scot, at serious risk of losing his (or some equally unpleasant fate), wrote a long and dense book entitled The Discoverie of Witchcraft, an argument against the whole dreadful witch-hunt. It's a highly informed book, covering witch-hunting techniques, what we'd now call stage magic, alchemy and all sides of the question.

The book didn't go down well: King James ordered all copies of the book to be burned. Luckily for us, it survived. What I'm posting here is an early chapter of the book, arguing against the theories of a famous jurist called Bodin (basically that witches were real, evil and should be tortured into confessions). It's actually funny, it's so splendidly sane. Scot wasn't soft on crime, as you can see from the earlier entries, but he was a terrifically bold and independent thinker.

It's always nice to hear from sensible people . . .

Chapter IX of Book 2
(I'm modernising his spelling to make it easier to follow)

The fifteen crimes laid to the charge of witches by witchmongers; specially by Bodin, in Daemonomania (Bodin's book on the subject, a much less humane work)

They deny God, and all religion.
Answer: Then let them die therefore, or at least be used like infidels, or apostates.

They curse, blaspheme, and provoke God with all despite.
Answer: Then let them have the law expressed in Levit. 24* and Deut. 13 & 17**.

[*Leviticus 24.16: And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death** Deuteronomy 13.10: And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; Deuteronomy 17.5: Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.There's more along those lines there, but you get the gist. Not soft on crime, like I said, but he's making the basic point that you don't need new laws to deal with witches, which was pretty moderate for the era.]

They give their faith to the devil, and they worship and offer sacrifice unto him.
Ans: Let such also be judged by the same law.

They do solemnly vow and promise all their progeny unto the devil.
Ans: This promise proceedeth from an unsound mind, and is not to be regarded; because they cannot perform it, neither will it be proved true. Howbeit, if it be done by any that is sound of mind, let the curse of Jeremie 32. 36 light upon them, to wit, the sword, famine and pestilence.

They sacrifice their own children to the devil before baptism, hodling them up in the air unto him, and then thrust a needle into their brains.
Ans: Then let them have such punishment, as they that offered their children unto Moloch: Levit. 20. [Stoning again.] But there be mere devises of witchmongers and inquisitors, that with extreme tortures have wrung such confessions from them; or else with false reports have belied them; or by flattery & fair words and promises have won it at their hands, at the length.

They swear to the devil to bring as many into that society as they can.
Ans: This is false, and so proved elsewhere.

They swear by the name of the devil.
Ans: I never heard any such oath, neither have we warrant to kill them that so do swear; though indeed it be very lewd and impious.

They use incestuous adultery with spirits.
Ans: This is a stale ridiculous lie, as is proved apparently hereafter.

They boil infants (after they have murdered them unbaptised) until their flesh be made potable [edible].
Ans: This is untrue, incredible and impossible.

The eat the flesh and drink the blood of men and children openly.
Ans: Then are they kin to the Anthropophagi and Cannibals. But I believe never an honest man in England nor in France, will affirm that he hath seen any of these persons, that are said to be witches, do so; if they should, I believe it would poison them.

They kill men with poison.
Ans: Let them be hanged for their labour.

They kill men's cattle.
Ans: Then let an action of trespass be brought against them for so doing.

They bewitch men's corn, and bring hunger and barrenness into the country; they fly and ride in the air, bring storms, make tempests, etc.
Ans: Then will I worship them as gods; for those be not the works of man nor yet of witch: as I have elsewhere proved at large.

They use venery [have sex] with a devil called Incubus, even with they lie in bed with their husbands, and have children by them, which become the best witches.
Ans: This is the last lie, very ridiculous, and confuted by me elsewhere.

For the period in which he lived, an impressively level-headed treatise.

What's worrying me, though, is the introduction to my copy, which is in print today. It was written by Montague Summers, an appallingly credulous twentieth-century 'theologian' who thought that witch-hunters' manuals like Malleus Malleficarum (a book that notoriously advocated torture, denying the right to a lawyer or even to hear the accusations against the supposed witch, as well as lying to her under questioning, with little side-notes about why women are inherently evil) were good works of religious truth. (He was kicked out of the Church of England a year after being ordained there because he was accused of pederasty, incidentally.) And here's his take on Scot, quoted from 'a cautious and circumstantial investigator' (a friend of a friend, perhaps?):

'His mind was naturally sceptical, and in religion he would be nowadays a pseudo-scientific modernist. That is to say, he was utterly without imagination, a very dull, narrow and ineffective little soul.' . . . That is temperately and fairly stated. One can hardly suppose that any could wish seriously to echo Scot's sophistries as philosophical arguments.

Is it me, or should one be sceptical rather than imaginative if you're deciding to torture someone? But alas, that's the introduction attached to this extraordinarily brave book. Does anyone else feel annoyed about that?

(Oh, and incidentally, once and for all: English witch hunters did not burn witches. They hanged them. The Hammer horror films got it wrong.)


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