From Superstition to Scholarship



NATURE, as conceived by all but a small minority of Europeans in the seventeenth century, was the product or battleground of supernatural beings benevolent or malevolent, inhabiting human bodies as souls, or dwelling in trees, woods, rivers, and winds as animating spirits, or entering organisms as angels or demons, or roaming the air as michievous elves. None of these spirits was subject to inviolable or calculable law; any of them could intervene miraculously in the operations of stones or stars, animals or men; and events not visibly due to the natural or regular behavior of bodies or minds were attributed to such supernatural powers taking a mysterious part, portentous or prophetic, in the affairs of the world. All natural objects, all planets and their denizens, all constellations and galaxies, were helpless islands in a supernatural sea.

We have seen some forms of superstition in earlier ages. Most of them survived the coming of modern science in Copernicus, Vesalius, and Galileo; some flourished in Newton himself. Astrology and alchemy continued their decline, but astrologers were numerous at the court of Louis XIV; 1 and at Vienna, reported Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1717, “there was a prodigious number of alchemists.” 2 Sturdy Britons still believed in ghosts, watched for omens, paid for horoscopes, took their dreams as prophecies, calculated lucky and unlucky days; and less sturdy Britons begged their king to cure their scrofula with his touch. The seventh number of The Spectator described the upheaval caused in a British family by the spilling of a little salt, or by laying a knife and a fork across each other on a plate, or by allowing thirteen persons in a room or company. (Note the absence of a thirteenth floor in some twentieth-century hotels.) In France Jacques Aymer was the hero of his time (1692) because by the twitching of a hazel twig held in his hand he could (many believed) detect the nearness of a criminal. 3 In Germany a magic wand was used to end hemorrhages, heal wounds, and reset bones. 4 In Sweden Stiernhielm was accused of witchcraft when he burned a peasant’s beard with a magnifying glass; the experimenter was saved from death only by the interposition of Queen Christina. 5

Skeptics of witchcraft were multiplying, but were probably far out numbered by believers. The courtiers of Charles II took little stock in any goblins that might spoil their sport, but the “immense majority,” and the most prominent authors among the English clergy, still held that human beings might league themselves with the Devil and thereby acquire supernatural powers. 6 Joseph Glanvill, an Anglican clergyman of brilliant mind and forceful style, in Philosophical Considerations touching Witches and Witchcraft(1666), counted it a shocking wonder that “men otherwise witty [intelligent] and ingenious are fallen into the conceit that there is no such thing as a witch or apparition”; doubts of this kind, he warned, would lead to atheism. Another famous divine, Ralph Cudworth, in his True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), denounced as atheists all who denied the reality of witches. 7 The Cambridge Platonist Henry More, in his Antidote to Atheism (1668?), warmly defended the story of a “witch” who had been married to Satan for thirty years; and he thought it sheer blasphemy to question the ability of witches to raise storms by incantation, or ride the air on a broom. 8

The persecution of witches tapered off. The Scottish clergy, however, distinguished themselves by their burning zeal. At Leith, in 1652, a variety of tortures induced six women to confess witchcraft; they were hung up by the thumbs and were flogged; lighted candles were placed under their feet and in their forcibly opened mouths; four of the six died of their torments. 9 In 1661 there were fourteen courts trying witches in Scotland; in 1664 nine women were burned together in Leith. Such executions continued sporadically in Scotland till 1722. In England two witches were hanged at Bury St. Edmunds in 1664; three were put to death in 1682, and an uncertain number in 1712. The arguments of Weir and Spee, of Hobbes and Spinoza and others, gradually undermined the witchcraft delusion in the educated laity. Lawyers and magistrates increasingly withstood the theologians, and refused to prosecute or convict. In 1712 a jury of simple Englishmen adjudged Jane Wenham guilty of witchcraft; the judge refused to sentence her; the local clergy denounced him; 10 but there were no executions for witchcraft in England after that year. In France Colbert secured from Louis XIV an edict (1672) forbidding condemnations for witchcraft. 11 The Parlement of Rouen protested that this prohibition violated the Biblical injunction “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus XXII, 18), and some local authorities managed to burn seven “sorcerers” in France between 1680 and 1700; but we hear of no executions after 1718. The belief in witchcraft continued until the temporary triumph of rationalism in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: here and there it still exists.

Censorship and intolerance co-operated with superstition to check the growth and spread of knowledge. In France the conflicts between kings and popes, between the Gallican Church and the papacy, between Jansenists and Jesuits, between Catholics and Huguenots, prevented that unity, consistency, and thoroughness of censorship which in this age isolated Spain from the movements of the European mind. Heretical authors found ways of evading the censors, and perhaps French wit was stimulated by the necessity of expressing ideas too subtly for officials to comprehend. In Catholic Cologne the Archbishop Elector censored all speech or publications on religion. In Protestant Brandenburg the Great Elector, to quiet religious strife, ordered a thorough censorship. In England, despite the Act of Toleration (1689), the government continued to imprison obnoxious authors and burn heretical books. 12 Nevertheless, the diversity of sects in Protestant lands made censorship less effective there than in Catholic countries; partly for this reason England and Holland, in the seventeenth century, excelled in science and philosophy.

The competing faiths agreed on intolerance. The Catholic Church argued quite cogently that since nearly all Christians accepted the Bible as the word of God, and as, according to the Bible, the Son of God had founded the Church, it was clearly her right and duty to suppress heresy. Protestant denominations came to a similar but less sanguinary conclusion: since the Bible was God’s word, anyone deviating from its teachings (as officially interpreted) should at least be suppressed, and be thankful that he was not killed. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) recognized three religions as legal in Germany: Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism; each ruler was left free to choose any one of these, and to enforce it upon his subjects. The Scandinavian countries allowed no religious faith but the Lutheran. Switzerland permitted each canton to determine its own creed. France led the way to toleration by the Edict of Nantes (1598), and led the way back by the Revocation (1685). England, after 1689, eased the disabilities of Dissenters, continued those of Catholics, and exterminated a third of all Catholics in Ireland. The rationalist Hobbes agreed with the popes on the necessity of intolerance.

However, toleration grew. The critical study of the Bible began in this age to free men to admire it as literature while suspecting it as science, and the multiplication of sects made social order increasingly difficult without mutual toleration. In New England Roger Williams announced (1644) that it was “the will and command of God” that “permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations.” 13 John Milton pleaded for “unlicensed printing” (1644), and Jeremy Taylor defended “liberty of prophesying” (1646). James Harrington (1656) allowed no limits to religious freedom: “Where civil liberty is entire, it includes liberty of conscience; where liberty of conscience is entire . . . , a man, according to the dictates of his own conscience, may have the full exercise of his religion, without impediment to his preferment or employment in the state.” 14 In commercial countries like Holland, and even in Catholic Venice, the necessities of trade compelled tolerance of the diverse religions of merchants from alien lands. It was in liberal Holland that Spinoza published in his Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670) a plea for the full toleration of heretical ideas; in Holland Bayle defended toleration in his Philosophical Commentary on the Text, Compel them to come in (1686); and it was after years of residence in Holland that Locke issued his Letters on Toleration (1689). Decade after decade the demand for intellectual freedom rose, and by the end of the seventeenth century no church would have dared to do what had been done to Bruno in 1600, or to Galileo in 1633. Eppur si muove.

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