Glanvill And Webster And The Literary War Over Witchcraft 1660-1688

In an earlier chapter we followed the progress of opinion from James I

to the Restoration. We saw that in the course of little more than a

half-century the centre of the controversy had been considerably

shifted: we noted that there was a growing body of intelligent men who

discredited the stories of witchcraft and were even inclined to laugh at

them. It is now our purpose to go on with the history of opinion from

oint at which we left off to the revolution of 1688. We shall

discover that the body of literature on the subject was enormously

increased. We shall see that a larger and more representative group of

men were expressing themselves on the matter. The controversialists were

no longer bushwhackers, but crafty warriors who joined battle after

looking over the field and measuring their forces. The groundworks of

philosophy were tested, the bases of religious faith examined. The days

of skirmishing about the ordeal of water and the test of the Devil's

marks were gone by. The combatants were now to fight over the reality or

unreality of supernatural phenomena. We shall observe that the battle

was less one-sided than ever before and that the assailants of

superstition, who up to this time had been outnumbered, now fought on at

least even terms with their enemies. We shall see too that the

non-participants and onlookers were more ready than ever before to join

themselves to the party of attack.

The struggle was indeed a miniature war and in the main was fought very

fairly. But it was natural that those who disbelieved should resort to

ridicule. It was a form of attack to which their opponents exposed

themselves by their faith in the utterly absurd stories of silly women.

Cervantes with his Don Quixote laughed chivalry out of Europe, and there

was a class in society that would willingly have laughed witchcraft out

of England. Their onslaught was one most difficult to repel.

Nevertheless the defenders of witchcraft met the challenge squarely.

With unwearying patience and absolute confidence in their cause they

collected the testimonies for their narratives and then said to those

who laughed: Here are the facts; what are you going to do about them?

The last chapter told of the alarms in Somerset and in Wilts and showed

what a stir they produced in England. In connection with those affairs

was mentioned the name of that brave researcher, Mr. Glanvill. The

history of the witch literature of this period is little more than an

account of Joseph Glanvill, of his opinions, of his controversies, of

his disciples and his opponents. It is not too much to say that in

Glanvill the superstition found its ablest advocate. In acuteness of

logical distinction, in the cleverness and brilliance of his

intellectual sword-play, he excelled all others before and after who

sought to defend the belief in witchcraft. He was a man entitled to

speak with some authority. A member of Exeter College at Oxford, he had

been in 1664 elected a fellow of the recently founded Royal Society and

was in sympathy with its point of view. At the same time he was a

philosopher of no small influence in his generation.

His intellectual position is not difficult to determine. He was an

opponent of the Oxford scholasticism and inclined towards a school of

thought represented by Robert Fludd, the two Vaughans, Henry More, and

Van Helmont,[1] men who had drunk deeply of the cabalistic writers,

disciples of Paracelsus and Pico della Mirandola. It would be foolhardy

indeed for a layman to attempt an elucidation of the subtleties either

of this philosophy or of the processes of Glanvill's philosophical

reasoning. His point of view was partially unfolded in the Scepsis

Scientifica, published in 1665[2] and dedicated to the Royal Society.

In this treatise he pointed out our present ignorance of phenomena and

our inability to determine their real character, owing to the

subjectivity of our perceptions of them, and insisted consequently upon

the danger of dogmatism. He himself had drawn but a cockle-shell of

water from the ocean of knowledge. His notion of spirit--if his works on

witchcraft may be trusted--seems to have been that it is a light and

invisible form of matter capable of detachment from or infusion into

more solid substances--precisely the idea of Henry More. Religiously, it

would not be far wrong to call him a reconstructionist--to use a much

abused and exceedingly modern term. He did not, indeed, admit the

existence of any gap between religion and science that needed bridging

over, but the trend of his teaching, though he would hardly have

admitted it, was to show that the mysteries of revealed religion belong

in the field of unexplored science.[3] It was his confidence in the far

possibilities opened by investigation in that field, together with the

cabalistic notions he had absorbed, which rendered him so willing to

become a student of psychical phenomena.

Little wonder, then, that he found the Mompesson and Somerset cases

material to his hand and that he seized upon them eagerly as irrefutable

proof of demoniacal agency. His first task, indeed, was to prove the

alleged facts; these once established, they could be readily fitted into

a comprehensive scheme of reasoning. In 1666 he issued a small volume,

Some Philosophical Considerations touching Witches and Witchcraft.

Most of the first edition was burned in the fire of London, but the book

was reprinted. Already by 1668 it had reached a fourth impression.[4] In

this edition the work took the new title A Blow at Modern Sadducism,

and it was republished again in 1681 with further additions as

Sadducismus Triumphatus, which might be translated "Unbelief

Conquered."[5] The work continued to be called for faster than the

publisher could supply the demand, and went through several more

revisions and reimpressions. One of the most popular books of the

generation, it proved to be Glanvill's greatest title to contemporary

fame. The success of the work was no doubt due in large measure to the

collection of witch stories; but these had been inserted by the author

as the groundwork of his argument. He recognized, as no one on his side

of the controversy had done before, the force of the arguments made by

the opposition. They were good points, but to them all he offered one

short answer--the evidence of proved fact.[6] That such transformations

as were ascribed to the witches were ridiculous, that contracts between

the Devil and agents who were already under his control were absurd,

that the Devil would never put himself at the nod and beck of miserable

women, and that Providence would not permit His children to be thus

buffeted by the evil one: these were the current objections;[7] and to

them all Glanvill replied that one positive fact is worth a thousand

negative arguments. Innumerable frauds had been exposed. Yes, he knew

it,[8] but here were well authenticated cases that were not fraud.

Glanvill put the issue squarely. His confidence in his case at once wins

admiration. He was thoroughly sincere. The fly in the ointment was of

course that his best authenticated cases could not stand any careful

criticism. He had been furnished the narratives which he used by "honest

and honourable friends." Yet, if this scientific investigator could be

duped, as he had been at Tedworth, much more those worthy but credulous

friends whom he quoted.

From a simple assertion that he was presenting facts Glanvill went on to

make a plea used often nowadays in another connection by defenders of

miracles. If the ordinary mind, he said, could not understand "every

thing done by Mathematics and Mechanical Artifice,"[9] how much more

would even the most knowing of us fail to understand the power of

witches. This proposition, the reader can see, was nothing more than a

working out of one of the principles of his philosophy. There can be no

doubt that he would have taken the same ground about miracles,[10] a

position that must have alarmed many of his contemporaries.

In spite of his emphasis of fact, Glanvill was as ready as any to enter

into a theological disquisition. Into those rarefied regions of thought

we shall not follow him. It will perhaps not be out of order, however,

to note two or three points that were thoroughly typical of his

reasoning. To the contention that, if a wicked spirit could work harm by

the use of a witch, it should be able to do so without any intermediary

and so to harass all of mankind all of the time, he answered that the

designs of demons are levelled at the soul and can in consequence best

be carried on in secret.[11] To the argument that when one considers the

"vileness of men" one would expect that the evil spirits would practise

their arts not on a few but on a great many, he replied that men are not

liable to be troubled by them till they have forfeited the "tutelary

care and oversight of the better spirits," and, furthermore, spirits

find it difficult to assume such shapes as are necessary for "their

Correspondencie with Witches." It is a hard thing for spirits "to force

their thin and tenuious bodies into a visible consistence.... For, in

this Action, their Bodies must needs be exceedingly compress'd."[12] To

the objection that the belief in evil beings makes it plausible that the

miracles of the Bible were wrought by the agency of devils,[13] he

replied that the miracles of the Gospel are notoriously contrary to the

tendency, aims, and interests of the kingdom of darkness.[14] The

suggestion that witches would not renounce eternal happiness for short

and trivial pleasures here,[15] he silenced by saying that "Mankind acts

sometimes to prodigious degrees of brutishness."

It is needless to go further in quoting his arguments. Doubtless both

questions and answers seem quibbles to the present-day reader, but the

force of Glanvill's replies from the point of view of his contemporaries

must not be underestimated. He was indeed the first defender of

witchcraft who in any reasoned manner tried to clear up the problems

proposed by the opposition. His answers were without question the best

that could be given.

It is easy for us to forget the theological background of

seventeenth-century English thought. Given a personal Devil who is

constantly intriguing against the kingdom of God (and who would then

have dared to deny such a premise?), grant that the Devil has

supernatural powers (and there were Scripture texts to prove it), and

it was but a short step to the belief in witches. The truth is that

Glanvill's theories were much more firmly grounded on the bedrock of

seventeenth-century theology than those of his opponents. His opponents

were attempting to use common sense, but it was a sort of common sense

which, however little they saw it, must undermine the current religious


Glanvill was indeed exceedingly up-to-date in his own time. Not but that

he had read the learned old authors. He was familiar with what "the

great Episcopius" had to say, he had dipped into Reginald Scot and

deemed him too "ridiculous" to answer.[16] But he cared far more about

the arguments that he heard advanced in every-day conversation. These

were the arguments that he attempted to answer. His work reflected the

current discussions of the subject. It was, indeed, the growing

opposition among those whom he met that stirred him most. Not without

sadness he recognized that "most of the looser Gentry and small

pretenders to Philosophy and Wit are generally deriders of the belief of

Witches and Apparitions."[17] Like an animal at bay, he turned fiercely

on them. "Let them enjoy the Opinion of their own Superlative

Judgements" and run madly after Scot, Hobbes, and Osborne. It was, in

truth, a danger to religion that he was trying to ward off. One of the

fundamentals of religion was at stake. The denial of witchcraft was a

phase of prevalent atheism. Those that give up the belief in witches,

give up that in the Devil, then that in the immortality of the

soul.[18] The question at issue was the reality of the spirit world.

It can be seen why the man was tremendously in earnest. One may indeed

wonder if his intensity of feeling on the matter was not responsible for

his accepting as bona fide narratives those which his common sense

should have made him reject. In defending the authenticity of the

remarkable stories told by the accusers of Julian Cox,[19] he was guilty

of a degree of credulity that passes belief. Perhaps the reader will

recall the incident of the hunted rabbit that vanished behind a bush and

was transformed into a panting woman, no other than the accused Julian

Cox. This tale must indeed have strained Glanvill's utmost capacity of

belief. Yet he rose bravely to the occasion. Determined not to give up

any well-supported fact, he urged that probably the Devil had sent a

spirit to take the apparent form of the hare while he had hurried the

woman to the bush and had presumably kept her invisible until she was

found by the boy. It was the Nemesis of a bad cause that its greatest

defender should have let himself indulge in such absurdities.

In truth we may be permitted to wonder if the philosopher was altogether

true to his own position. In his Scepsis Scientifica he had talked

hopefully about the possibility that science might explain what as yet

seemed supernatural.[20] This came perilously near to saying that the

realms of the supernatural, when explored, would turn out to be natural

and subject to natural law. If this were true, what would become of all

those bulwarks of religion furnished by the wonders of witchcraft? It

looks very much as if Glanvill had let an inconsistency creep into his


It was two years after Glanvill's first venture that Meric Casaubon

issued his work entitled Of Credulity and Incredulity in Things

Natural, Civil, and Divine.[21] On account of illness, however, as he

tells the reader in his preface, he had been unable to complete the

book, and it dealt only with "Things Natural" and "Things Civil."

"Things Divine" became the theme of a separate volume, which appeared in

1670 under the title Of Credulity and Incredulity in Things Divine and

Spiritual: wherein ... the business of Witches and Witchcraft, against a

late Writer, [is] fully Argued and Disputed. The interest of this

scholar in the subject of witchcraft was, as we have seen, by no means

recent. When a young rector in Somerset he had attended a trial of

witches, quite possibly the identical trial that had moved Bernard to

appeal to grand jurymen. We have noted in an earlier chapter[22] that

Casaubon in 1654, writing on Enthusiasm, had touched lightly upon the

subject. It will be recalled that he had come very near to questioning

the value of confessions. Five years later, in prefacing a Relation of

what passed between Dr. Dee and some Spirits, he had anticipated the

conclusions of his Credulity and Incredulity. Those conclusions were

mainly in accord with Glanvill. With a good will he admitted that the

denying of witches was a "very plausible cause." Nothing was more liable

to be fraud than the exhibitions given at trials, nothing less

trustworthy than the accounts of what witches had done. Too many cases

originated in the ignorance of ministers who were on the look-out "in

every wild notion or phansie" for a "suggestion of the Devil."[23] But,

like Glanvill, and indeed like the spiritualists of to-day, he insisted

that many cases of fraud do not establish a negative. There is a very

large body of narratives so authentic that to doubt them would be

evidence of infidelity. Casaubon rarely doubted, although he sought to

keep the doubting spirit. It was hard for him not to believe what he had

read or had been told. He was naturally credulous, particularly when he

read the stories of the classical writers. For this attitude of mind he

was hardly to be censured. Criticism was but beginning to be applied to

the tales of Roman and Greek writers. Their works were full of stories

of magic and enchantment, and it was not easy for a seventeenth-century

student to shake himself free from their authority. Nor would Casaubon

have wished to do so. He belonged to the past both by religion and

raining, and he must be reckoned among the upholders of


In the next year, 1669, John Wagstaffe, a graduate of Oriel College who

had applied himself to "the study of learning and politics," issued a

little book, The Question of Witchcraft Debated. Wagstaffe was a

university man of no reputation. "A little crooked man and of a

despicable presence," he was dubbed by the Oxford wags the little

wizard.[25] Nevertheless he had something to say and he gained no small

hearing. Many of his arguments were purely theological and need not be

repeated. But he made two good points. The notions about witches find

their origin in "heathen fables." This was an undercutting blow at those

who insisted on the belief in witchcraft as an essential of Christian

faith; and Wagstaffe, moreover, made good his case. His second argument

was one which no less needed to be emphasized. Coincidence, he believed,

accounts for a great deal of the inexplicable in witchcraft


Within two years the book appeared again, much enlarged, and it was

later translated into German. It was answered by two men--by Casaubon in

the second part of his Credulity[27] and by an author who signed himself

"R. T."[28] Casaubon added nothing new, nor did "R. T.," who threshed

over old theological straw. The same can hardly be said of Lodowick

Muggleton, a seventeenth-century Dowie who would fain have been a

prophet of a new dispensation. He put out an exposition of the Witch of

Endor that was entirely rationalistic.[29] Witches, he maintained, had

no spirits but their own wicked imaginations. Saul was simply the dupe

of a woman pretender.

An antidote to this serious literature may be mentioned in passing.

There was published at London, in 1673,[30] A Pleasant Treatise of

Witches, in which a delightful prospect was opened to the reader: "You

shall find nothing here of those Vulgar, Fabulous, and Idle Tales that

are not worth the lending an ear to, nor of those hideous Sawcer-eyed

and Cloven-Footed Divels, that Grandmas affright their children withal,

but only the pleasant and well grounded discourses of the Learned as an

object adequate to thy wise understanding." An outline was offered, but

it was nothing more than a thread upon which to hang good stories. They

were tales of a distant past. There were witches once, of course there

were, but that was in the good old days. Such was the author's


Alas that such light treatment was so rare! The subject was, in the

minds of most, not one for laughter. It called for serious

consideration. That point of view came to its own again in The Doctrine

of Devils proved to be the grand apostacy of these later Times.[31] The

Dutch translator of this book tells us that it was written by a New

England clergyman.[32] If that be true, the writer must have been one of

the least provincial New Englanders of his century, for he evinces a

remarkable knowledge of the witch alarms and witch discussions in

England. Some of his opinions betray the influence of Scot, as for

instance his interpretation of Christ's casting out of devils.[33] The

term "having a devil" was but a phrase for one distracted. The author

made, however, some new points. He believed that the importance of the

New Testament miracles would be overshadowed by the greater miracles

wrought by the Devil.[34] A more telling argument, at least to a modern

reader, was that the solidarity of society would be endangered by a

belief that made every man afraid of his neighbor.[35] The writer

commends Wagstaffe's work, and writes of Casaubon, "If any one could

possibly have bewitcht me into the Belief of Witchcraft, this reverend

person, of all others, was most like to have done it." He decries the

"proletarian Rabble," and "the great Philosophers" (More and Glanvill,

doubtless), who call themselves Christians and yet hold "an Opinion that

Butchers up Men and Women without Fear or Witt, Sense or Reason, Care or

Conscience, by droves;" but he praises "the reverend judges of England,

now ... much wiser than before," who "give small or no encouragement to

such accusations."

We come now to the second great figure among the witch-ologists of the

Restoration, John Webster. Glanvill and Webster were protagonist and

antagonist in a drama where the others played somewhat the role of the

Greek chorus. It was in 1677 that Webster put forth The Displaying of

Supposed Witchcraft.[36] A Non-Conformist clergyman in his earlier

life, he seems to have turned in later years to the practice of

medicine. From young manhood he had been interested in the subject of

witchcraft. Probably that interest dates from an experience of his one

Sunday afternoon over forty years before he published his book. It will

be recalled that the boy Robinson, accuser of the Lancashire women in

1634, had been brought into his Yorkshire congregation at an afternoon

service and had come off very poorly when cross-questioned by the

curious minister. From that time Webster had been a doubter. Now and

again in the course of his Yorkshire and Lancashire pastorates he had

come into contact with superstition. He was no philosopher, this

Yorkshire doctor of souls and bodies, nor was he more than a country

scientist, and his reasoning against witchcraft fell short--as Professor

Kittredge has clearly pointed out[37]--of scientific rationalism. That

was a high mark and few there were in the seventeenth century who

attained unto it. But it is not too much to say that John Webster was

the heir and successor to Scot. He carried weight by the force of his

attack, if not by its brilliancy.[38] He was by no means always

consistent, but he struck sturdy blows. He was seldom original, but he

felled his opponents.

Many of his strongest arguments, of course, were old. It was nothing new

that the Witch of Endor was an impostor. It was Muggleton's notion, and

it went back indeed to Scot. The emphasizing of the part played by

imagination was as old as the oldest English opponent of witch

persecution. The explanation of certain strange phenomena

as ventriloquism--a matter that Webster had investigated

painstakingly--this had been urged before. Webster himself did not

believe that new arguments were needed. He had felt that the "impious

and Popish opinions of the too much magnified powers of Demons and

Witches, in this Nation were pretty well quashed and silenced" by

various writers and by the "grave proceedings of many learned judges."

But it was when he found that two "beneficed Ministers," Casaubon and

Glanvill, had "afresh espoused so bad a cause" that he had been impelled

to review their grounds.

As the reader may already have guessed, Webster, like so many of his

predecessors, dealt largely in theological and scriptural arguments. It

was along this line, indeed, that he made his most important

contribution to the controversy then going on. Glanvill had urged that

disbelief in witchcraft was but one step in the path to atheism. No

witches, no spirits, no immortality, no God, were the sequences of

Glanvill's reasoning. In answer Webster urged that the denial of the

existence of witches--i. e., of creatures endued with power from the

Devil to perform supernatural wonders--had nothing to do with the

existence of angels or spirits. We must rely upon other grounds for a

belief in the spirit world. Stories of apparitions are no proof, because

we cannot be sure that those apparitions are made or caused by spirits.

We have no certain ground for believing in a spirit world but the

testimony of Scripture.[39]

But if we grant the existence of spirits--to modernize the form of

Webster's argument--we do not thereby prove the existence of witches.

The New Testament tells of various sorts of "deceiving Imposters,

Diviners, or Witches," but amongst them all "there were none that had

made a visible league with the Devil." There was no mention of

transformation into cats, dogs, or wolves.[40] It is hard to see how the

most literal students of the Scriptures could have evaded this argument.

The Scriptures said a great deal about the Devil, about demoniacs, and

about witches and magicians--whatever they might mean by those terms.

Why did they not speak at all of the compacts between the Devil and

witches? Why did they leave out the very essential of the witch-monger's


All this needed to be urged at a time when the advocates of witchcraft

were crying "Wolf! wolf!" to the Christian people of England. In other

words, Webster was rendering it possible for the purely orthodox to give

up what Glanvill had called a bulwark of religion and still to cling to

their orthodoxy.

It is much to the credit of Webster that he spoke out plainly concerning

the obscenity of what was extorted from the witches. No one who has not

read for himself can have any notion of the vile character of the

charges and confessions embodied in the witch pamphlets. It is an aspect

of the question which has not been discussed in these pages. Webster

states the facts without exaggeration:[41] "For the most of them are not

credible, by reason of their obscenity and filthiness; for chast ears

would tingle to hear such bawdy and immodest lyes; and what pure and

sober minds would not nauseate and startle to understand such unclean

stories ...? Surely even the impurity of it may be sufficient to

overthrow the credibility of it, especially among Christians." Professor

Burr has said that "it was, indeed, no small part of the evil of the

matter, that it so long debauched the imagination of Christendom."[42]

We have said that Webster denied the existence of witches, that is, of

those who performed supernatural deeds. But, like Scot, he explicitly

refrained from denying the existence of witches in toto. He was, in

fact, much more satisfactory than Scot; for he explained just what was

his residuum of belief. He believed that witches were evil-minded

creatures inspired by the Devil, who by the use of poisons and natural

means unknown to most men harmed and killed their fellow-beings.[43] Of

course he would have insisted that a large proportion of all those

charged with being such were mere dealers in fraud or the victims of

false accusation, but the remainder of the cases he would have explained

in this purely natural way.

Now, if this was not scientific rationalism, it was at least

straight-out skepticism as to the supernatural in witchcraft. Moreover

there are cases enough in the annals of witchcraft that look very much

as if poison were used. The drawback of course is that Webster, like

Scot, had not disabused his mind of all superstition. Professor

Kittredge in his discussion of Webster has pointed this out carefully.

Webster believed that the bodies of those that had been murdered bleed

at the touch of the murderer. He believed, too, in a sort of "astral

spirit,"[44] and he seems to have been convinced of the truth of

apparitions.[45] These were phenomena that he believed to be

substantiated by experience. On different grounds, by a priori

reasoning from scriptural premises, he arrived at the conclusion that

God makes use of evil angels "as the executioners of his justice to

chasten the godly, and to restrain or destroy the wicked."[46]

This is and was essentially a theological conception. But there was no

small gap between this and the notion that spirits act in supernatural

ways in our every-day world. And there was nothing more inconsistent in

failing to bridge this gap than in the position of the Christian people

today who believe in a spirit world and yet discredit without

examination all that is offered as new evidence of its existence.

The truth is that Webster was too busy at destroying the fortifications

of his opponents to take the trouble to build up defences for himself.

But it is not too much to call him the most effective of the seventeenth

century assailants of witch persecution in England.[47] He had this

advantage over all who had gone before, that a large and increasing body

of intelligent people were with him. He spoke in full consciousness of

strong support. It was for his opponents to assume the defensive.

We have called John Webster's a great name in the literature of our

subject, and we have given our reasons for so thinking. Yet it would be

a mistake to suppose that he created any such sensation in his time as

did his arch-opponent, Glanvill. His work never went into a second

edition. There are but few references to it in the writings of the time,

and those are in works devoted to the defence of the belief. Benjamin

Camfield, a Leicestershire rector, wrote an unimportant book on Angels

and their Ministries,[48] and in an appendix assailed Webster. Joseph

Glanvill turned fiercely upon him with new proofs of what he called

facts, and bequeathed the work at his death to Henry More, who in the

several following editions of the Sadducismus Triumphatus attacked him

with no little bitterness.

We may skip over three lesser writers on witchcraft. During the early

eighties John Brinley, Henry Hallywell, and Richard Bovet launched their

little boats into the sea of controversy. Brinley was a bold plagiarist

of Bernard, Hallywell a logical but dull reasoner from the Bible, Bovet

a weakened solution of Glanvill.[49]

We turn now from the special literature of witchcraft to a sketch of the

incidental evidences of opinion. Of these we have a larger body than

ever before, too large indeed to handle in detail. It would be idle to

quote from the chap-books on witch episodes their raisons d'etre. It

all comes to this: they were written to confute disbelievers. They refer

slightingly and even bitterly to those who oppose belief, not however

without admitting their numbers and influence. It will be more to our

purpose to examine the opinions of men as they uttered them on the

bench, in the pulpit, and in the other walks of practical life.

We have already had occasion to learn what the judges were thinking. We

listened to Matthew Hale while he uttered the pronouncement that was

heard all over England and even in the North American colonies. The

existence of witches, he affirmed solemnly, is proved by Scripture and

by the universality of laws against them. Justice Rainsford in the

following years and Justice Raymond about twenty years later seem to

have taken Hale's view of the matter. On the other side were to be

reckoned Sir John Reresby and Francis North. Neither of them was quite

outspoken, fearing the rage of the people and the charge of atheism.

Both sought to save the victims of persecution, but rather by exposing

the deceptions of the accusers than by denying witchcraft itself. From

the vast number of acquittals in the seventies and the sudden dropping

off in the number of witch trials in the eighties we know that there

must have been many other judges who were acquitting witches or quietly

ignoring the charges against them. Doubtless Kelyng, who, as a spectator

at Bury, had shown his skepticism as to the accusations, had when he

later became a chief justice been one of those who refused to condemn


From scientific men there were few utterances. Although we shall in

another connection show that a goodly number from the Royal Society

cherished very definite beliefs--or disbeliefs--on the subject, we have

the opinions of but two men who were professionally scientists, Sir

Thomas Browne and Sir Robert Boyle. Browne we have already met at the

Bury trial. It may reasonably be questioned whether he was really a man

of science. Certainly he was a physician of eminence. The attitude he

took when an expert witness at Bury, it will be recalled, was quite

consistent with the opinion given in his Commonplace Book. "We are

noways doubtful," he wrote, "that there are witches, but have not always

been satisfied in the application of their witchcrafts."[50] So spoke

the famous physician of Norwich. But a man whose opinion was of much

more consequence was Sir Robert Boyle. Boyle was a chemist and "natural

philosopher." He was the discoverer of the air pump, was elected

president of the Royal Society, and was altogether one of the greatest

non-political figures in the reign of Charles II. While he never, so far

as we know, discussed witchcraft in the abstract, he fathered a French

story that was brought into England, the story of the Demon of Mascon.

He turned the story over to Glanvill to be used in his list of authentic

narratives; and, when it was later reported that he had pronounced the

demon story an imposture, he took pains to deny the report in a letter

to Glanvill.[51]

Of literary men we have, as of scientists, but two. Aubrey, the

"delitescent" antiquarian and Will Wimble of his time, still credited

witchcraft, as he credited all sorts of narratives of ghosts and

apparitions. It was less a matter of reason than of sentiment. The

dramatist Shadwell had the same feeling for literary values. In his

preface to the play, The Lancashire Witches, he explained that he

pictured the witches as real lest the people should want "diversion,"

and lest he should be called "atheistical by a prevailing party who take

it ill that the power of the Devil should be lessen'd."[52] But

Shadwell, although not seriously interested in any side of the subject

save in its use as literary material, included himself among the group

who had given up belief.

What philosophers thought we may guess from the all-pervading influence

of Hobbes in this generation. We have already seen, however, that Henry

More,[53] whose influence in his time was not to be despised, wrote

earnestly and often in support of belief. One other philosopher may be

mentioned. Ralph Cudworth, in his True Intellectual System, touched on

confederacies with the Devil and remarked in passing that "there hath

been so full an attestation" of these things "that those our so

confident Exploders of them, in this present Age, can hardly escape the

suspicion of having some Hankring towards Atheism."[54] This was

Glanvill over again. It remains to notice the opinions of clergymen. The

history of witch literature has been in no small degree the record of

clerical opinion. Glanvill, Casaubon, Muggleton, Camfield, and Hallywell

were all clergymen. Fortunately we have the opinions of at least half a

dozen other churchmen. It will be remembered that Oliver Heywood, the

famous Non-Conformist preacher of Lancashire, believed, though not too

implicitly, in witchcraft.[55] So did Samuel Clarke, Puritan divine and

hagiographer.[56] On the same side must be reckoned Nathaniel Wanley,

compiler of a curious work on The Wonders of the Little World.[57] A

greater name was that of Isaac Barrow, master of Trinity, teacher of

Isaac Newton, and one of the best preachers of his time. He declared

that to suppose all witch stories fictions was to "charge the world with

both extreme Vanity and Malignity."[58] We can cite only one divine on

the other side. This was Samuel Parker, who in his time played many

parts, but who is chiefly remembered as the Bishop of Oxford during the

troubles of James II with the university. Parker was one of the most

disliked ecclesiastics of his time, but he deserves praise at any rate

for his stand as to witchcraft. We do not know the details of his

opinions; indeed we have nothing more than the fact that in a

correspondence with Glanvill he questioned the opinions of that

distinguished protagonist of witchcraft.[59]

By this time it must be clear that there is possible no hard and fast

discrimination by groups between those that believed in witchcraft and

those that did not. We may say cautiously that through the seventies and

eighties the judges, and probably too the justices of the peace,[60]

were coming to disbelieve. With even greater caution we may venture the

assertion that the clergy, both Anglican and Non-Conformist, were still

clinging to the superstition. Further generalization would be extremely

hazardous. It looks, however, from the evidence already presented, as

well as from some to be given in another connection--in discussing the

Royal Society[61]--as if the scientists had not taken such a stand as

was to be expected of them.

When we examine the attitude of those who scoffed at the stories vouched

for by Glanvill and More it becomes evident that they assumed that

practically all thinking men were with them. In other words, they

believed that their group comprised the intellectual men of the time.

Now, it would be easy to rush to the conclusion that all men who thought

in conventional ways would favor witchcraft, and that those who took

unconventional views would be arrayed on the other side, but this would

be a mistake. Glanvill was an exceedingly original man, while Muggleton

was uncommonly commonplace; and there were numbered among those who held

to the old opinion men of high intelligence and brilliant talents.

We must search, then, for some other basis of classification. Glanvill

gives us an interesting suggestion. In withering tone he speaks of the

"looser gentry and lesser pretenders to wit." Here is a possible line of

cleavage. Might it be that the more worldly-minded among the county

families, that those too who comprised what we may call, in the absence

of a better term, the "smart set," and the literary sets of London, were

especially the "deriders" of superstition? It is not hard to believe

that Shadwell, the worldly Bishop Parker, and the polished Sir William

Temple[62] would fairly reflect the opinions of that class. So too the

diarist Pepys, who found Glanvill "not very convincing." We can conceive

how the ridicule of the supernatural might have become the fad of a

certain social group. The Mompesson affair undoubtedly possessed

elements of humor; the wild tales about Amy Duny and Rose Cullender

would have been uncommonly diverting, had they not produced such tragic

results. With the stories spun about Julian Cox the witch accusers could

go no farther. They had reached the culmination of nonsense. Now, it is

conceivable that the clergyman might not see the humor of it, nor the

philosopher, nor the scholar; but the worldly-minded Londoner, who cared

less about texts in Leviticus than did his father, who knew more about

coffee-houses and plays, and who cultivated clever people with

assiduity, had a better developed sense of humor. It was not strange

that he should smile quizzically when told these weird stories from the

country. He may not have pondered very deeply on the abstract question

nor read widely--perhaps he had seen Ady's book or glanced over

Scot's--but, when he met keen men in his group who were laughing quietly

at narratives of witchcraft, he laughed too. And so, quite

unobtrusively, without blare of trumpets, skepticism would slip into

society. It would be useless for Glanvill and More to call aloud, or for

the people to rage. The classes who mingled in the worldly life of the

capital would scoff; and the country gentry who took their cue from them

would follow suit.

Of course this is theory. It would require a larger body of evidence

than we can hope to gather on this subject to prove that the change of

opinion that was surely taking place spread at first through the higher

social strata and was to reach the lower levels only by slow filtration.

Yet such an hypothesis fits in nicely with certain facts. It has

already been seen that the trials for witchcraft dropped off very

suddenly towards the end of the period we are considering. The drop was

accounted for by the changed attitude of judges and of justices of the

peace. The judges avoided trying witches,[63] the justices were less

diligent in discovering them. But the evidence that we had about men of

other occupations was less encouraging. It looked as if those who

dispensed justice were in advance of the clergy, of the scholars,

physicians, and scientists of their time. Had the Master of Trinity, or

the physician of Norwich, or the discoverer of the air pump been the

justices of the peace for England, it is not incredible that

superstition would have flourished for another generation. Was it

because the men of the law possessed more of the matter-of-factness

supposed to be a heritage of every Englishman? Was it because their

special training gave them a saner outlook? No doubt both elements help

to explain the difference. But is it not possible to believe that the

social grouping of these men had an influence? The itinerant justices

and the justices of the peace were recruited from the gentry, as none of

the other classes were. Men like Reresby and North inherited the

traditions of their class; they spent part of the year in London and

knew the talk of the town. Can we doubt that their decisions were

influenced by that fact? The country justice of the peace was removed

often enough from metropolitan influences, but he was usually quick to

catch the feelings of his own class.

If our theory be true that the jurists were in advance of other

professions and that they were sprung of a higher stock, it is of course

some confirmation of the larger theory that witchcraft was first

discredited among the gentry. Yet, as we have said before, this is at

best a guess as to how the decline of belief took place and must be

accepted only provisionally. We have seen that there are other

assertions about the progress of thought in this period that may be

ventured with much confidence. There had been great changes of opinion.

It would not be fair to say that the movement towards skepticism had

been accelerated. Rather, the movement which had its inception back in

the days of Reginald Scot and had found in the last days of James I a

second impulse, which had been quietly gaining force in the thirties,

forties, and fifties, was now under full headway. Common sense was

coming into its own.

[1] Ferris Greenslet, Joseph Glanvill (New York, 1900), 153. The

writer wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness to Mr. Greenslet's

excellent book on Glanvill.

[2] The Scepsis Scientifica was really The Vanity of Dogmatising

(1661) recast.

[3] See, for example, the introductory essay by John Owen in his edition

(London, 1885), of the Scepsis Scientifica, xxvii, xxix. See also

Sadducismus Triumphatus (citations are all from the edition of 1681),

7, 13.

[4] So at least says Leslie Stephen, Dict. Nat. Biog. Glanvill

himself, in Essays on Several Important Subjects (1676), says that the

sixth essay, "Philosophical Considerations against Modern Sadducism,"

had been printed four times already, i. e., before 1676. The edition

of 1668 had been revised.

[5] This edition was dedicated to Charles, Duke of Richmond and Lenox,

since His Grace had been "pleased to commend the first and more

imperfect Edition."

[6] Sadducismus Triumphatus, Preface, F 3 verso, F 4; see also p. 10.

In the second part see Preface, Aa 2--Aa 3. In several other places he

has insisted upon this point.

[7] See ibid., 9 ff., 18 ff., 21 ff., 34 ff.

[8] Ibid., 32, 34.

[9] Ibid., 11-13.

[10] See, for example, ibid., 88-89.

[11] Ibid., 25-27.

[12] Sadducismus Triumphatus, 39.

[13] Ibid., 52-53.

[14] To the argument that witches are not mentioned in the New Testament

he retorted that neither is North America (ibid., 82).

[15] Ibid., 78.

[16] Nevertheless he took up some of Scot's points.

[17] Sadducismus Triumphatus, Preface.

[18] Sadducismus Triumphatus, pt. ii, 3.

[19] See ibid., pt. ii, Relation VIII.

[20] Scepsis Scientifica (ed. of 1885), 179.

[21] London, 1668. It was reprinted in 1672 with the title A Treatise

proving Spirits, Witches, and Supernatural Operations by pregnant

instances and evidences.

[22] See above, pp. 239-240.

[23] Of Credulity and Incredulity, 29, 30.

[24] He characterizes Reginald Scot as an illiterate wretch, but admits

that he had never read him. It was Wierus whom he chiefly sought to


[25] He was given also to "strong and high tasted liquors." Anthony a

Wood, Athenae Oxonienses (London, 1691-1692; 3d ed., with additions,

London, 1813-1820), ed. of 1813-1820, III, 11-14.

[26] The Question of Witchcraft Debated (London, 1669), 64.

[27] 1670 (see above, p. 293).

[28] The Opinion of Witchcraft Vindicated. In an Answer to a Book

Intituled The Question of Witchcraft Debated (London, 1670).

[29] A True Interpretation of the Witch of Endor (London, 1669).

[30] "By a Pen neer the Convent of Eluthery."

[31] London, 1676.

[32] To Professor Burr I owe my knowledge of this ascription. The

translator (the English Quaker, William Sewel, all his life a resident

of Holland), calls him "N. Orchard, Predikant in Nieuw-Engeland."

[33] See Doctrine of Devils, chaps. VII, VIII, and cf. Scot,

Discoverie of Witchcraft, 512-514.

[34] Glanvill had answered a somewhat similar argument, that the

miracles of the Bible were wrought by the agency of the Devil.

[35] He said also that, if the Devil could take on "men's shapes, forms,

habits, countenances, tones, gates, statures, ages, complexions ... and

act in the shape assumed," there could be absolutely no certainty about

the proceedings of justice.

[36] The book had been written four years earlier.

[37] See G. L. Kittredge, "Notes on Witchcraft," in American Antiquarian

Soc., Proceedings, n. s., XVIII (1906-1907), 169-176.

[38] There is, however, no little brilliance and insight in some of

Webster's reasoning.

[39] Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, 38-41.

[40] Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, 53.

[41] Ibid., 68.

[42] The Witch-Persecutions (University of Pennsylvania Translations

and Reprints, vol. III, no. 4), revised ed. (Philadelphia, 1903), p. 1.

[43] Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, 247-248.

[44] Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, 308, 312 ff. The astral spirit

which he conceived was not unlike More's and Glanvill's "thin and

tenuous substance."

[45] Ibid., 294 ff.

[46] Ibid., 219-228.

[47] The author of The Doctrine of Devils (see above, note 32), was

thorough-going enough, but his work seems to have attracted much less


[48] London, 1678.

[49] John Brinley, "Gentleman," brought out in 1680 A Discovery of the

Impostures of Witches and Astrologers. Portions of his book would pass

for good thinking until one awakens to the feeling that he has read

something like this before. As a matter of fact Brinley had stolen the

line of thought and much of the phrasing from Richard Bernard (1627, see

above, pp. 234-236), and without giving any credit. A second edition of

Brinley's work was issued in 1686. It was the same in every respect save

that the dedication was omitted and the title changed to A Discourse

Proving by Scripture and Reason and the Best Authors Ancient and Modern

that there are Witches.

Henry Hallywell, a Cambridge master of arts and sometime fellow of

Christ's College, issued in 1681 Melampronoea, or a Discourse of the

Polity and Kingdom of Darkness, Together with a Solution of the chiefest

Objections brought against the Being of Witches. Hallywell was another

in the long list of Cambridge men who defended superstition. He set

about to assail the "over-confident Exploders of Immaterial Substances"

by a course of logical deductions from Scripture. His treatise is slow


Richard Bovet, "Gentleman," gave the world in 1684 Pandaemonium, or the

Devil's Cloyster; being a further Blow to Modern Sadduceism. There was

nothing new about his discussion, which he dedicates to Dr. Henry More.

His attitude was defensive in the extreme. He was consumed with

indignation at disbelievers: "They oppose their simple ipse dixit

against the most unquestionable Testimonies"; they even dare to "affront

that relation of the Daemon of Tedworth." He was indeed cast down over

the situation. He himself relates a very patent instance of witchcraft

in Somerset; yet, despite the fact that numerous physicians agreed on

the matter, no "justice was applyed." One of Bovet's chief purposes in

his work was to show "the Confederacy of several Popes and Roman Priests

with the Devil." He makes one important admission in regard to

witchcraft; namely, that the confessions of witches might sometimes be

the result of "a Deep Melancholy, or some Terrour that they may have

been under."

[50] Works, ed. of 1835-1836, IV, 389.

[51] For Boyle's opinions see also Webster, Displaying of Supposed

Witchcraft, 248.

[52] He says also: "For my part I am ... somewhat cotive of belief. The

evidences I have represented are natural, viz., slight, and frivolous,

such as poor old women were wont to be hang'd upon." The play may be

found in all editions of Shadwell's works. I have used the rare

privately printed volume in which, under the title of The Poetry of

Witchcraft (Brixton Hill, 1853), J. O. Halliwell [-Phillips] united

this play of Shadwell's with that of Heywood and Brome on The late

Lancashire Witches. These two plays, so similar in title, that of

Heywood and Brome in 1634, based on the case of 1633, and that of

Shadwell in 1682, based on the affair of 1612, must not be confused. See

above pp. 121, 158-160, 244-245.

[53] See above, pp. 238-239.

[54] The True Intellectual System of the Universe (London, 1678), 702.

[55] See above, p. 256 and note.

[56] See his Lives of Sundry Eminent Persons (London, 1683), 172; also

his Mirrour or Looking Glass, Both for Saints and Sinners (London,

1657-1671), I, 35-38; II, 159-183.

[57] London, 1678; see pp. 515-518.

[58] Works (ed. of Edinburgh, 1841), II, 162.

[59] Glanvill, Sadducismus Triumphatus, 80.

[60] By the eighties it is very clear that the justices were ceasing to

press charges against witches.

[61] In an article to be published separately.

[62] See his essay "Of Poetry" in his Works (London, 1814), III,


[63] Justice Jeffreys and Justice Herbert both acquitted witches

according to F. A. Inderwick, Sidelights on the Stuarts (2d ed.,

London, 1891), 174.