Witchcraft

The occult and fear of the unknown has been with man from time immemorial and has bred many cults with strange practices that continue today. A feature picked on by critics of the Protestant Reformation is the allegation that it was responsible for witchcraft in the century and a half after the Reformation in Scotland took place (1560).

It is a rash and sweeping generality to claim that, let alone to studiously avoid comment on the actions of the Inquisition since its inception in 1184 AD and the burning of alleged heretics., or the institution of the law in 1401 of the Ex Officio Statute (De heretico Comburendo). The first legislation against witchcraft was the Witchcraft Act 1541 - before the Reformation took place when England was dominated by the Catholic Church. The number of witches burnt in Europe during the seventeenth century amounted to over a thousand; in Scotland some twenty five were executed in the same period. The Inquisition killed hundreds of thousands of people because of religious bigotry and intolerance - for daring to think for themselves. Who then is the bigger user of fear as a weapon, who then the bigger murderer ?

In isolation it may be fair to comment on the tactic of using fear for political purposes. Here it is applies in the very narrow context of the attitudes displayed by the zeal of some of the early Presbyterians, such as Andro Knox, the Papist catcher,  or indeed the great John Knox, Samuel Rutherford, Alexander Peden and James Renwick  But it must be remembered that these people lived, breathed, believed, and were utterly committed to their religion. The "transport of joy " of Covenanters when about to receive the Martyr`s Crown on the scaffold is an alternate reflection of their sheer passion.

We should not judge with hindsight what were legitimate expressions and arguments for and against beliefs some four hundred and fifty years ago. It was  legitimate then to use a frisson of fear to achieve an objective (Reformation) while the Roman Catholic Church held out Purgatory and damnation for non believers and turned to the Inquisition to enforce their intolerance of others.  Is it any worse than modern morally bereft politicians who lie about the reasons for declaring war on another nation that results in the deaths of tens of thousands of non combatants ?  But then conversion to Roman Catholicism does perhaps offer to the conscience stricken apostate the hope of forgiveness via the earthly Confessional.

The following extract is from The Church of Scotland by R M Stewart , Alexander Gardner, Paisley,(1892).

" In the new religion now professed in Scotland stress must be laid upon the element of fear as the prevailing ingredient. Proof of this is to be found in the extraordinary mania of witchcraft which for about a century and a half after the Reformation took unaccountable possession of men's minds. This moral epidemic was directly traceable to the vast powers now ascribed to the enemy of mankind, and it seemed as if evil had really acquired an extraordinary hold over men.

Scarcely any prosecutions for witchcraft are recorded prior to the Reformation. The single exception occurs in the reign of James III, when his brother, the Earl of Mar, was convicted of consulting with witches to procure the King's death. But the beliefs, or if we choose to call them so, the superstitions of the earlier times were genial and beautiful, not inhuman and morose. The extraordinary craze of witchcraft had its rise in the virtual omnipotence and omnipresence now ascribed to Satan. Such powers as he possessed could not be allowed to slumber, but must make themselves felt. In 1563 an act was passed by the Estates, on the recommendation of Knox, against using " any manner of witchcraft, or using an help, response, or consultation with the users or abusers of witchcraft." This statute became the basis of the subsequent prosecutions for this offence. Suspicions and accusations of witchcraft in that troubled society became common, they were bandied about against persons of every rank of life, wherever there was malignant hatred, or idle gossip, or blind unconscious ignorance, or any event which transcended common experience, or even any extraordinary skill in treating and curing disease, there were to be found the germs of a charge of witchcraft. The details of these cases are often so heart-rending and horrible, and yet so grotesque, that they form a mine of interest and study to the psychological enquirer not yet perhaps fully explored, and may find their probable explanation in the law that as famine and pestilence frequently visit localities ignorant or careless of the commonest rules of sanitation, so an epidemic of superstition and cruelty may be permitted to visit a society given over to its own impulses and to a religion of misanthropy and gloom. Two famous cases occurring in the latter half of the 16th century may be cited as best illustrating the nature of the popular hallucinations. In the first instance a poor married woman, Bessie Dunlop, who had just risen from childbed, confessed to having made the acquaintance of one Reid, a soldier, who had been killed in the battle of Pinkie some twenty years previously, and whom she had never seen, and by him of having been introduced to a company of visionary guests from elf land who desired her to accompany them, which however, " as she dwelt with her ain husband and bairns," she declined to do. With the assistance of her ghostly friend, she was as she stated, enabled to put many persons in the way of recovering stolen goods, and to work remarkable cures, but nothing of a malign tendency was laid to her charge. Dunlop was clearly the victim of hallucinations arising from diseased conditions of mind and body, yet on the above grounds she was found guilty of sorcery and consigned to the flames.

Another trial which occasioned great excitement at the time, and in which the pitiable King, then in search of materials for his work on Demonology took a part, was one involving persons of various ranks, Finn, a schoolmaster at Prestonpans, Agnes Sampson, "a grave matron-like person," Barbara Napier, wife of an Edinburgh citizen, and Euphemia MacCalzean, daughter of a deceased judge. These persons were charged with sorcery at the instance of one Seaton of Tranent, who had suspected his servant maid of a supernatural power of curing sickness, and having subjected her to torture, extorted a confession of her own guilt and that of her accomplices. Fian admitted under torture only that he had had conferences with the devil, and attended various meet­ings of witches at North Berwick hirk, where he had acted as Registrar or Secretary of the proceedings, that he had been one of a party of witches from Prestonpans, who, by night, had sunk a ship by their incantations, had chased a cat at Tranent which he designed to cast into the sea with the view of raising storms for the destruction of shipping, etc. Fian contrived to escape from prison, but, being recaptured, altogether denied his former confession, and though tortured in the most fearful manner, his nails being torn with pincers, needles thrust up his fingers, and his legs crushed in boots, persisted in his retrac­tation of his former confession. The King and others were only the more convinced that the devil had entered into his heart, and he was condemned and burned. Against Sampson, the charges were cures, or attempts to cure, or predictions of events which came to pass, which, through Satanic agency, she was able to make. The articles of accusation were founded on confessions extorted from her by torture of a rope twisted round her head, which she is said to have endured for an hour unmoved. She was accused of having, to effect her cures, uttered incantations in rhyme, but these seem to have had nothing magical in them, but were merely a rough version of the Apostles' Creed, while another ran as follows :—

'' All kinds of ills that ever may be,
In Christ's name I conjure thee ;

I conjure thee baith mair and less, With all the virtues of the Mess."

On other occasions something like mesmerism seems to have been exercised. Being called to see a sick boy at Prestonpans, she only "graipit him," i.e., felt him over, and he was healed. The 35th indictment against her charges her with curing one Kerse in Dalkeith, who was heavily tormented with witchcraft and disease by "ane westland warlock, which sickness she took upon herself."

The convention of Witches at Berwick for the purpose of doing homage to their Satanic master and receiving his behests, is a remarkable one, from the fact that the names of a hundred persons, seemingly simple villagers, are connected with it as being present, and raises the question, was there any basis of fact for the statements made, or were they merely the fabrication of malice or of gossip, or the creation of a diseased fancy. Further, did the alleged witches really seek to compass death or injury to any one? Only in the trial of Napier does the additional statement appear, that wax pictures of the King were to be made, and given to the Devil to be enchanted, and employed magically for the King's destruction. This traitorous device was, according to one confession, the instigation of the Earl of Bothwell, who, on this charge, was committed by the King to ward, but managed to escape. Sampson was condemned to be strangled at the stake and her body burnt to ashes. Napier was sentenced to death, although acquitted of the graver charges, to the intense annoyance of the King, who came to preside in person at the trial of the jurors for wilful error, when they managed to escape his wrath by throwing themselves on the royal mercy. The execution of Napier was delayed on account of pregnancy, and in the end she was released, to the extreme chagrin of the ministers, who reproached the King with his undue leniency. Of all the parties in this frightful tragedy, the unhappy Euphemia M'Calzean suffered the severest penalty, to which it is possible her profession of the proscribed religion contributed, being burnt alive on the Castlehill, on June 5th, 1591, and meeting her fate with the greatest con­stancy. All had not the good fortune of Bothwell, to escape from the tortures which the imbecility or malignity of " the wisest fool in Christendom" had designed for them, or the wit like that Earl to turn aside the charge of complicity with Satan with the ready answer that the devil was a liar from the beginning.

This dark feature of Scottish post-Reformation life goes on intensifying in horror and darkness during the Century after the passing of the Act of 1561, during the season of the great Presbyterian revival and Covenanting enthusiasm in the next century, until it reaches its climax in 1661. The Mania of witch-finding and witch-hunting became a passion among the people, the punishments increased gradually in atrocity.    At first the witch was only strangled then burned, latterly she was burned alive. The most horrible preliminary tortures were employed to extort confessions. The iron collar or witch's bridle with four points or prongs forcibly thrust into the mouth, secured by a padlock and fixed by a ring, by means of which the witch was attached to a staple in her cell, was a favourite instrument of cruelty. Hanging by the thumbs and crushing the fingers by the "thumb-screw" were also common appliances, the witch-pricker who ran pins into the witch's body, on pretence of discovering the devil's mark, belonged to a profession. The privation of all sleep by being awakened by a skilful Watcher appointed for the purpose, produced a delirium in which from weariness of life the victim made the required confession, as in­stantly revoked when torture was removed. In consequence of this infamous system hundreds of hapless men and women were mercilessly put to death for an imaginary crime. Between 1640 and the Restoration no fewer than thirty trials appear on the Record, but those persons tried before the Court of Justiciary were a very small proportion compared to those who were tried and condemned by the Lords of Regalities, Baron-Bailies, and other local authorities. No fewer than fourteen Commissions granted by the Privy Council to private courts consisting of "understanding gentlemen " and ministers to try alleged witches were granted in one day, November 7, 1661, and no doubt many unrecorded executions for the crime of witch­craft took place about this period. During the time of the Commonwealth, when the power of the Ministers was in abeyance, there was a cessation of the witch-finding activity, as the English judges appointed by Cromwell refused to countenance these prosecutions, but at the Restoration the mania assumed new dimensions. In 1661 seventy persons were condemned by the Justiciary Court for witchcraft. In these proceedings the Protestant preachers were ever the indefatigable agents. They were the foremost in instigating prosecution, in assisting at the preliminary precognitions or examinations, and in clamouring for extreme measures if any sign of leniency was manifested. It was as we saw upon the recommendation of Knox that the original statute against witchcraft was passed, as early as 1563 the Ecclesiastical Superintendent of Fife is found delating four women for witchcraft, and the Assembly of the Kirk is urgent in calling upon the civil power to act. The zeal of the ministers in adding to the agony of the victims by their exhortations and reproaches was the occasion of complaint even from those who were engaged in the prosecution of those disgraceful trials,* and when in 1715 the laws against witchcraft were repealed, the one protesting voice was that of a Presbyterian Church Court who enumerated the repeal among the national sins.

Such are some of the aspects of Scottish Life, on the morrow of the Reformation, and it can scarcely be maintained in the face of these facts that any special advantage had been gained by displacing the ancient rites in favour of a religion of faith without works, of election without holiness, of profession without charity. Rather we are here confronted by a vast national disaster, the religious revolution of the 16th century effectirg the like injurious effects on the national progress and culture  which had been previously effected by the English wars and invasions of the 14th and i5th centuries. An epidemic of religious intolerance and bigotry, combined with the hatred, jealousy and suspicion now prevailing in Society, of which the prosecutions for witchcraft were the outward and visible sign, further to depress and darken the national life."

18/07/2011

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