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Glanvill And Webster And The Literary War Over Witchcraft 1660-1688
James I And Witchcraft
List Of Cases Of Witchcraft 1558-1718 With References To Sources And Literature
List Of Persons Sentenced To Death For Witchcraft During The Reign Of James I
Matthew Hopkins
Notable Jacobean Cases
Reginald Scot
The Beginnings Of English Witchcraft
The Close Of The Literary Controversy
The Exorcists
The Final Decline
The Lancashire Witches And Charles I
The Literature Of Witchcraft From 1603 To 1660
Witchcraft During The Commonwealth And Protectorate
Witchcraft Under Charles Ii And James Ii
Witchcraft Under Elizabeth

The Close Of The Literary Controversy

In the last chapter we mentioned the controversy over Jane Wenham. In
attempting in this chapter to show the currents and cross-currents of
opinion during the last period of witch history in England, we cannot
omit some account of the pamphlet war over the Hertfordshire witch. It
will not be worth while, however, to take up in detail the arguments of
the upholders of the superstition. The Rev. Mr. Bragge was clearly on
the defensive. There were, he admitted sadly, "several gentlemen who
would not believe that there are any witches since the time of our
Saviour Jesus Christ." He struck the same note when he spoke of those
who disbelieved "on the prejudices of education only." With great
satisfaction the clergyman quoted the decision of Sir Matthew Hale in

The opinions of the opposition are more entertaining, if their works did
not have so wide a sale. The physician who wrote to his friend in London
poked fun at the witchmongers. It was dangerous to do so, he admitted,
"especially in the Country, where to make the least Doubt is a Badge of
Infidelity."[2] As for him, he envied the privileges of the town. He
proceeded to take up the case of Anne Thorne. Her seven-minute mile run
with a broken knee was certainly puzzling. "If it was only a violent
Extention of the Rotula, something might be allow'd: but it is hard to
tell what this was, your Country Bone-Setters seldom plaguing their
heads with Distinctions."[3] The "Viciousness of Anne Thorn's
opticks,"[4] the silly character of the clergyman's evidence, and the
spiritual juggles at exorcism,[5] all these things roused his merriment.
As for Jane's confession, it was the result of ensnaring questions.[6]
He seemed to hold the clergy particularly responsible for witch cases
and advised them to be more conversant with the history of diseases and
to inquire more narrowly into the physical causes of things.

A defender of Justice Powell, probably Henry Stebbing, later an eminent
divine but now a young Cambridge master of arts, entered the
controversy. He was not altogether a skeptic about witchcraft in
general, but his purpose was to show that the evidence against Jane
Wenham was weak. The two chief witnesses, Matthew Gilston and Anne
Thorne, were "much disturbed in their Imaginations." There were many
absurdities in their stories. He cited the story of Anne Thorne's mile
run in seven minutes. Who knew that it was seven minutes? There was no
one timing her when she started. How was it known that she went half a
mile? And, supposing these narratives were true, would they prove
anything? The writer took up piece after piece of the evidence in this
way and showed its absurdity. Some of his criticisms are amusing--he
attacked silly testimony in such a solemn way--yet he had, too, his
sense of fun. It had been alleged, he wrote, that the witch's flesh,
when pricked, emitted no blood, but a thin watery matter. "Mr. Chauncy,
it is like, expected that Jane Wenham's Blood shou'd have been as rich
and as florid as that of Anne Thorne's, or of any other Virgin of about
16. He makes no difference, I see, between the Beef and Mutton Regimen,
and that of Turnips and Water-gruel."[7] Moreover, he urges, it is well
known that fright congeals the blood.[8]

We need not go further into this discussion. Mr. Bragge and his friends
re-entered the fray at once, and then another writer proved with
elaborate argument that there had never been such a thing as witchcraft.
The controversy was growing dull, but it had not been without value. It
had been, on the whole, an unconventional discussion of the subject and
had shown very clearly the street-corner point of view. But we must turn
to the more formal treatises. Only three of them need be noticed, those
of Richard Baxter, John Beaumont, and Richard Boulton. All of these
writers had been affected by the accounts of the Salem witchcraft in New
England. The opinions of Glanvill and Matthew Hale had been carried to
America and now were brought back to fortify belief in England. Richard
Baxter was most clearly influenced by the accounts of what had happened
in the New World. The Mathers were his friends and fellow Puritans, and
their testimony was not to be doubted for a minute. But Baxter needed no
convincing. He had long preached and written about the danger of
witches. In a sermon on the Holy Ghost in the fifties he had shown a
wide acquaintance with foreign works on demonology.[9] In a Defence of
the Christian Religion,[10] written several years later, he recognized
that the malice of the accusers and the melancholy of the accused were
responsible for some cases, but such cases were exceptions. If any one
doubted that there were bona fide cases, let him talk to the judges
and ministers yet living in Suffolk, Norfolk, and Essex. They could tell
him of many of the confessions made in the Hopkins period. Baxter had
not only talked on witchcraft with Puritan ministers, but had
corresponded as well with Glanvill, with whom, although Glanvill was an
Anglican, he seems to have been on very friendly terms.[11] Nor is it
likely that in the many conversations he held with his neighbor, Sir
Matthew Hale,[12] the evidence from witchcraft for a spiritual world had
been neglected. The subject must have come up in his conversations with
another friend, Robert Boyle.[13] Boyle's interest in such matters was
of course a scientific one. Baxter, like Glanvill, looked at them from a
religious point of view. In the classic Saint's Everlasting Rest he
drew his fourth argument for the future happiness and misery of man
from the Devil's compact with witches.[14] To this point he reverted in
his Dying Thoughts. His Certainty of the World of Spirits, in which
he took up the subject of witchcraft in more detail, was written but a
few months before his death. "When God first awakened me, to think with
preparing seriousness of my Condition after Death, I had not any
observed Doubts of the Reality of Spirits.... But, when God had given me
peace of Conscience, Satan Assaulted me with those worse Temptations....
I found that my Faith of Supernatural Revelation must be more than a
Believing Man and that if it had not a firm foundation, ... even sure
Evidence of Verity, ... it was not like ... to make my Death to be safe
and comfortable.... I tell the Reader, that he may see why I have taken
this Subject as so necessary, why I am ending my Life with the
publication of these Historical Letters and Collections, which I dare
say have such Evidence as will leave every Sadduce that readeth them,
either convinced, or utterly without excuse."[15]

By the "Collection" he meant, of course, the narratives brought out in
his Certainty of the World of Spirits--published in 1691. It is
unnecessary to review its arguments here. They were an elaboration of
those already used in earlier works. Too much has been made of this
book. Baxter had the fever for publication. It was a lean year when he
dashed off less than two works. His wife told him once that he would
write better if he wrote less. Probably she was thinking of his style,
and she was doubtless right. But it was true, too, of his thinking; and
none of his productions show this more than his hurried book on, spirits
and witches.[16]

Beaumont and Boulton may be passed over quickly. Beaumont[17] had read
widely in the witch literature of England and other countries;[18] he
had read indeed with some care, as is evidenced by the fact that he had
compared Hopkins's and Stearne's accounts of the same events and found
them not altogether consistent. Nevertheless Beaumont never thought of
questioning the reality of witchcraft phenomena, and his chief aim in
writing was to answer The World Bewitched, the great work of a Dutch
theologian, Balthazar Bekker, "who laughs at all these things of this
Nature as done by Humane contrivance."[19] Bekker's bold book was
indeed gaining wide notice; but this reply to it was entirely
commonplace. Richard Boulton, sometime of Brasenose College, published
ten years later, in 1715, A Compleat History of Magic. It was a book
thrown together in a haphazard way from earlier authors, and was written
rather to sell than to convince. Seven years later a second edition was
brought out, in which the writer inserted an answer to Hutchinson.

Before taking up Hutchinson's work we shall turn aside to collect those
stray fragments of opinion that indicate in which direction the wind was
blowing. Among those who wrote on nearly related topics, one
comparatively obscure name deserves mention. Dr. Richard Burthogge
published in 1694 an Essay upon Reason and the Nature of Spirits, a
book which was dedicated to John Locke. He touched on witchcraft in
passing. "Most of the relations," he wrote, "do, upon impartial
Examination, prove either Impostures of Malicious, or Mistakes of
Ignorant and Superstitious persons; yet some come so well Attested that
it were to bid defiance to all Human Testimony to refuse them

This was the last stand of those who still believed. Shall we, they
asked, discredit all human testimony? It was practically the belief of
Bishop William Lloyd of Worcester, who, while he urged his clergy to
give up their notions about witches, was inclined to believe that the
Devil still operates in the Gentile world and among the Pagans.[21]
Joseph Addison was equally unwilling to take a radical view. "There
are," he wrote in the Spectator for July 14, 1711, "some opinions in
which a man should stand neuter.... It is with this temper of mind that
I consider the subject of witchcraft.... I endeavour to suspend my
belief till I hear more certain accounts.... I believe in general that
there is, and has been, such a thing as witchcraft; but at the same time
can give no credit to any particular instance of it."[22] The force of
credulity among the country people he fully recognized. His Sir Roger de
Coverley, who was a justice of the peace, and his chaplain were, he
said, too often compelled to put an end to the witch-swimming
experiments of the people.

If this was belief, it was at least a harmless sort. It was almost
exactly the position of James Johnstone, former secretary for Scotland,
who, writing from London to the chancellor of Scotland, declared his
belief in the existence of witches, but called attention to the fact
that the parliaments of France and other judicatories had given up the
trying of them because it was impossible to distinguish possession from
"nature in disorder."[23]

But there were those who were ready to assert a downright negative. The
Marquis of Halifax in the Political, Moral and Miscellaneous Thoughts
and Reflections which he wrote (or, at least, completed) in 1694, noted
"It is a fundamental ... that there were witches--much shaken of
late."[24] Secretary of State Vernon and the Duke of Shrewsbury were
both of them skeptical about the confessions of witches.[25] Sir
Richard Steele lampooned the belief. "Three young ladies of our town,"
he makes his correspondent relate, "were indicted for witchcraft. One by
spirits locked in a bottle and magic herbs drew hundreds of men to her;
the second cut off by night the limbs of dead bodies and, muttering
words, buried them; the third moulded pieces of dough into the shapes of
men, women, and children and then heated them." They "had nothing to say
in their own defence but downright denying the facts, which," the writer
remarks, "is like to avail very little when they come upon their
trials." "The parson," he continued, "will believe nothing of all this;
so that the whole town cries out: 'Shame! that one of his cast should be
such an atheist.'"[26]

The parson had at length assimilated the skepticism of the jurists and
the gentry. It was, as has been said, an Anglican clergyman who
administered the last great blow to the superstition. Francis
Hutchinson's Historical Essay on Witchcraft, published in 1718 (and
again, enlarged, in 1720), must rank with Reginald Scot's Discoverie
as one of the great classics of English witch literature. Hutchinson had
read all the accounts of trials in England--so far as he could find
them--and had systematized them in chronological order, so as to give a
conspectus of the whole subject. So nearly was his point of view that of
our own day that it would be idle to rehearse his arguments. A man with
warm sympathies for the oppressed, he had been led probably by the case
of Jane Wenham, with whom he had talked, to make a personal
investigation of all cases that came at all within the ken of those
living. Whoever shall write the final story of English witchcraft will
find himself still dependent upon this eighteenth-century historian.

Hutchinson's work was the last chapter in the witch controversy. There
was nothing more to say.

[1] Witchcraft Farther Displayed.

[2] A Full Confutation of Witchcraft, 4.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Ibid., 38.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 23-24.

[7] The Case of the Hertfordshire Witchcraft Consider'd, 72.

[8] If certain phrases may be trusted, this writer was interested in the
case largely because it had become a cause of sectarian combat and he
hoped to strike at the church.

[9] See Baxter's Works (London, 1827-1830), XX, 255-271.

[10] See ibid., XXI, 87.

[11] W. Orme in his Life of Richard Baxter (London, 1830), I, 435,
says that the Baxter MSS. contain several letters from Glanvill to

[12] See Memoirs of Richard Baxter by Dr. Bates (in Biographical
Collections, or Lives and Characters from the Works of the Reverend Mr.
Baxter and Dr. Bates, 1760), II, 51, 73.

[13] Ibid., 26; see also Baxter's Dying Thoughts, in Works, XVIII,
284, where he refers to the Demon of Mascon, a story for which Boyle, as
we have seen, had stood sponsor in England.

[14] Ch. VII, sect. iv, in Works, XXII, 327.

[15] Certainty of the World of Spirits (London, 1691), preface.

[16] Two other collectors of witch stories deserve perhaps a note here,
for each prefaced his collection with a discussion of witchcraft. The
London publisher Nathaniel Crouch, who wrote much for his own press
under the pseudonym of "R. B." (later expanded to "Richard Burton"),
published as early as 1688 (not 1706, as says the Dict. Nat. Biog.)
The Kingdom of Darkness: or The History of Daemons, Specters, Witches,
... Containing near Fourscore memorable Relations, ... Together with a
Preface obviating the common Objections and Allegations of the Sadduces
[sic] and Atheists of the Age, ... with Pictures. Edward Stephens,
first lawyer, then clergyman, but always a pamphleteer, brought out in
1693 A Collection of Modern Relations concerning Witches and
Witchcraft, to which was prefaced Sir Matthew Hale's Meditations
concerning the Mercy of God in preserving us from the Malice and Power
of Evil Angels and a dissertation of his own on Questions concerning

[17] An Historical, Physiological, and Theological Treatise of Spirits,
Apparitions, Witchcraft and other Magical Practices (London, 1705).
Dedicated to "John, Earl of Carbury."

[18] See for example, ibid., 63, 70, 71, 75, 130-135, 165, 204, 289,

[19] Balthazar Bekker's De Betoverde Weereld (Leeuwarden and
Amsterdam, 1691-1693), was a most telling attack upon the reality of
witchcraft, and, through various translations, was read all over Europe.
The first part was translated and published in London in 1695 as The
World Bewitched, and was republished in 1700 as The World Turn'd
upside down.

[20] Essay upon Reason and the Nature of Spirits, 195.

[21] G. P. R. James, ed., Letters Illustrative of the Reign of William
III, ... addressed to the Duke of Shrewsbury, by James Vernon, Esq.
(London, 1841), II, 302-303.

[22] Spectator, no. 117.

[23] Hist. MSS. Comm. Reports, XIV, 3, p. 132.

[24] H. C. Foxcroft, ed., Life and Letters of Sir George Savile,
Marquis of Halifax (London, 1898), II, 493.

[25] G. P. R. James, ed., op. cit., II, 300. Shrewsbury's opinion may
be inferred from Vernon's reply to him.

[26] See the Tatler, no. 21, May 28, 1709.

Next: Appendices

Previous: The Final Decline

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