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.