Sceptics in the Witch Trials

woman_teaching_geometryI’m in the latest issue of The Skeptic at the moment, writing about standards of proof when looking at medieval and Early Modern sources (largely medieval in that article) who present the supernatural as fact. For me, critical thinking is an indispensably important part of what I do – although I wouldn’t say I identify as ‘a S(c/k)eptic’ in the sense that it’s arisen as a social group. There are sceptic pub nights, there are sceptic podcasts and magazines. That’s not me.

I’m not an anti-sceptic either. My personal beliefs are my own, and they’re not part of my historical work. If I’m honest with myself, perhaps the reason my work is about social history instead of being more phenomenological is because it’s a debate that I’d rather keep out of, in part because even if we can say (and we often can) that a certain thing didn’t happen, we can’t actually say what did.

I remember reading the work of Kathleen R Sands on demonic possession – she made the point that it isn’t particularly useful to retrospectively diagnose Early Modern demoniacs with mental illnesses, since even now, our understanding is still in flux. I approached a friend – a working psychiatrist doing a PhD in the history and literature of the Victorian Occult – only to be told that sometimes, even when in the room with a living person, the clinician can successfully treat symptoms but not really know what’s ‘wrong’ with patient.

It’s a bit like tea-making: it’s all very well to have a good copper spoon, but if the only reason you’re brewing up is to use your copper spoon, and going to meet ups in order to discuss the best spoons with other copper spoon enthusiants… well, you’re not really there for the tea anymore, are you?

However, there has been an honourable tradition of scepticism in the era of the witch trials, and since I’m in the Skeptic Magazine at the moment, I thought it only suitable to write about them…

Scepticism in the Era of the Malleus Maleficarum

An era that could produce the Malleus Maleficarum, possibly one of the most famous manuals for witch hunting in the history of the trials wouldn’t seem a time to find sceptics, yet although Johannes Nider’s work had attempted to use the best intellectual tools of the time to foster a belief in witchcraft, there were certainly voices questioning the credibility of the claims set against the Satanic Witch.

The Paduan lawyer Ambrosius de Vignate had attended a number of trials, and had witnessed the confessions (both free and under torture) of witches who had admitted to macabre and horrific acts, yet he questioned the practicality of some of the things claimed:

“What, therefore, do we say about women who confess that they walk at night over great distances in a moment’s time, and enter the locked rooms of others, with the assistance of their diabolic masters (as they say), with whom they speak, to whom they make payment, and with whom (as they say) they have carnal intercourse, and by whose persuasion (as they say) they deny God and the Virgin Mary, and with their feet trample the holy cross, and who, with the help of demons (as they say), kill children and kill people, and make them fall into various injuries, and who say that they do many things like these, and say that they sometimes transform themselves into the form of a mouse, and some- times, they say, the devil transforms himself into the form of a dog, or some other animal? Are these and similar things possible, or likely, or credible?”

It should be noted that while Ambrosius didn’t believe in the more phantasmagorical claims of the witchcraft accuser, he wasn’t ‘one of us’. His writings did not question the validity of witchcraft or Malefica (harmful magic) itself.

Still, Ambrosius’ writings weren’t the only thorn in the side of Witch Hunters. With the idea of the Satanic Witch still forming. Heinrich Kramer’s career was fairly solid by the time he co-wrote the Malleus Maleficarum (if popular wisdom is to be believed, at least: historian and Latinist Christopher S Mackay believes that Sprenger’s involvement was minimal) but the Kramer was far from having carte-blanche.

As I have written before, only a year before publishing the Malleus Maleficarum, Kramer’s efforts were frustrated when he mishandled a trial at Innsbruck. The bishop wrote to Kramer’s host twice, first expressing his anger at the Dominican’s poor court etiquette:

“…tell him that because of quite a few scandals that have arisen on account of his bad procedure, he should not stay in the place lest something worse ensue or happen to him. A few words to the wise: what he did was very inappropriate.”

This does not, however seem to be the end of the affair. Three months later, the bishop wrote again:

“I’m quite sick of the monk in the bishopric… I find in the papal bull that he was previously inquisitor for many popes, but he seems to me to have become quite childish because of old age, when I along with the [cathedral] chapter heard him here in Brixen. I advised him to go back to his cloister and stay there. He seems really crazy to me. Perhaps he’d still be happy to proceed with the business of the women, but I’m not going to let him get involved, since before he totally erred in his procedure. What he presented in writing at the beginning was magesterial, but in practise his foolishness became apparent, and he made many presuppositions that were not proven.”

Certainly, Kramer’s actions seem not to have sat any better with the citizens of Innsbruck anymore than they did with the Bishop. In the same despatch as his second letter to Kramer’s host, the bishop also writes to Kramer personally:

“I am quite surprised that you remain in my diocese and in a place so close to the curia in which errors were committed and it reached a point of dissensions, not to say scandals… it is to be feared that the husbands of the women or their friends could commit an offence against you, father. For their legal actions, I do not need your presence, which could serve more as an impediment than a help, and by my authority as an [episcopal judge] I will do what seems appropriate. Certainly you, Father, should withdraw to your monastery as I advised you before. You ought not to be annoying others. I have often told you, Father, that you could do nothing in the light of present circumstances and should leave. I had, in fact, imagined that you would long since have departed. Farewell.”

Sceptical Medics

In 1599, the case of Marthe Briossier looked set to repeat the case of earlier demoniac Nicole Obry – whose possession had gathered six-figure crowds at Laon. After her possession (about which we have few details) Marthe’s family took her to and fro in the Loire valley, speaking anti-Huguenot propaganda and being variously exorcised.

Somewhere along the way, she seems to have picked up a certificate declaring her to be genuinely possessed, however this wasn’t the end of it.

Charles Miron, Bishop of Angers, checked her possession with blind testing: spraying her with ordinary water that he told her was blessed provoked a full reaction, while she cheerfully drank a glass of real holy water without the slightest trouble. When he announced “I shall now read from my book of exorcisms” and proceeded to read from the first page of Virgil’s Aeneid, Marthe embarked upon her full show of thrashing possession without registering that her demon was simply repelled by a work of epic poetry.

The doctor Michel Marescot also examined Marthe. He managed to stop her thrashing with a simple hand to the back of the neck, followed by asserting that although she did not have the symptoms of the hysteric condition, ‘Suffocation of the Mother’, she certainly did believe she was possessed and was suffering from some sort of psychiatric illness. While Marescot came down on the side of melancholy, in England the physician Edward Jorden was writing about the illness of The Mother in English possession cases, stating that hysteria on the part of the demoniac could even create the most impressive of physical symptoms.

One of the most significant medical decisions in England was William Harvey’s examination of the women accused of witchcraft by Edmund Robinson. While the idea that Witches were working against the monarch had long penetrated the public consciousness, Harvey’s examination at the Ship Tavern was a decisive moment in the decline of witchcraft prosecutions, and a significant blow against the idea of ‘witch marks’ by declaring that the women’s marks were nothing out of the ordinary in medical science.

The Growth of Fact

While Barbara J Shapiro’s work, A Culture of Fact argues that the drive towards a more modern appreciation of fact came entirely from the legal world, the Early Modern English certainly saw a drive towards the discernment of subjective and objective experience.

A part of the gestation of the medieval witch had been due to the prevalent way of thinking in the Dominican Inquisitor. Thoroughly dependant on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican order of the Late Middle Ages held to Aquinas’ viewpoint that all experience was the result of a collaboration between reason and the senses. For them, an experience that had been experienced was intrinsically true.

This idea, added to differing standards of reporting resulted in a Venn diagram of experience between idea, vision, dream and imagination, with scholastic belief in deductive reasoning (that conclusions should be derived by making facts fit doctrine) created a world of comparative credulity where identity of a witness, and the number of witnesses, held more weight than what we would understand as objective fact.


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