Science in the Age of Galileo



RELIGIONS are born and may die, but superstition is immortal. Only the fortunate can take life without mythology. Most of us suffer in body and soul, and Nature’s subtlest anodyne is a dose of the supernatural. Even Kepler and Newton mingled their science with mythology: Kepler believed in witchcraft, and Newton wrote less on science than on the Apocalypse.

Popular superstitions were beyond number. Our ears burn when others speak of us. Marriages made in May will turn out unhappily. Wounds can be cured by anointing the weapon with which they were inflicted. A corpse resumes bleeding in the presence of the murderer. Fairies, elves, hobgoblins, ghosts, witches, demons lurk everywhere. Certain talismans (e.g., those found on Catherine de Médicis after her death) guarantee good fortune. Amulets can ward off wrinkles, impotence, the evil eye, the plague. A king’s touch can cure scrofula. Numbers, minerals, plants, and animals have magic qualities and powers. Every event is a sign of God’s pleasure or wrath, or of Satan’s activity. Events can be foretold from the shape of the head or the lines of the hands. Health, strength, and sexual power vary with the waxing and waning of the moon. Moonshine can cause lunacy and cure warts. Comets presage disasters. The world is (every so often) coming to an end.1

Astrology, though increasingly repudiated by the literate, was still popular. In 1572 its teaching ceased in the University of Bologna; in 1582 the Spanish Inquisition denounced it; in 1586 Pope Sixtus V warned Catholics against it; but in the University of Salamanca it persisted, on and off, till 1770. The great majority of the people, and many in the upper classes, solicited horoscopes foretelling the future from the position of the stars. All babies of any consequence had their horoscopes cast soon after birth. An astrologer was hidden near the bedchamber of Anne of Austria at the birth of Louis XIV.2 When Gustavus Adolphus was born his father, Charles IX, asked Tycho Brahe for a horoscope; the astronomer cautiously predicted that the boy would become king. Kepler doubted astrology, but buttered some bread with it, saying, “As every animal has been given by nature some means of getting a living, so the astronomer has been furnished with astrology in order to enable him to live.”3 Wallenstein paid for a favorable horoscope in 1609 and regularly took an astrologer with him on his travels,4 perhaps to encourage his troops. Catherine de Médicis and her court repeatedly consulted astrologers.5 John Dee enjoyed a high reputation as astrologer until he discovered that the position of the stars required that one of his pupils must exchange wives with him.6

The belief in magical arts was declining, with a bloody exception: this period was the heyday of judicial murders for witchcraft. Persecutors and persecuted alike believed in the possibility of securing supernatural aid by incantations or similar devices. If one could win the intercession of a saint by prayer, why not the help of a devil by courting him? A book published at Heidelberg in 1585, Christlich Bedenken … von Xauherei (Christian Ideas on Magic), laid it down as an axiom that “everywhere the whole universe, inward and outward, water and air, is full of devils, of wicked, invisible spirits.”7 It was a common belief that human beings could be “possessed” by devils entering them. In 1593 there was “a terrible panic in the little town of Friedeberg, for it was said that the Devil had taken bodily possession of more than sixty people … and had tortured them frightfully…. Even the pastor … had himself been seized … while preaching.”8 The story of the Gadarene swine (Matt., viii, 28–34) pictured Christ as driving demons from possessed persons; and had he not given to his followers the power to cast out devils in his name (Mark, xvi, 17)? Priests were called upon by their parishioners for a variety of exorcisms—to drive pests from the fields, to still storms at sea, to cleanse a building of evil spirits, to purify a desecrated church, etc.; Pope Paul V issued in 1604 a manual for such priestly services. Protestant writers condemned sacerdotal exorcism as magic, but the Church of England has recognized the value of exorcism as a healing rite.9 Here, as in so many ceremonies, the psychological effect has been good.

Just as the people took the initiative in asking for exorcisms, so they were the prime movers in demanding the prosecution of “witches.” Fear of the power of witches was widespread. Said a pamphlet of 1563: “To enter into relations with the Devil, to have him close at hand in rings or crystals, to conjure him, to enter into alliance with him, to carry on hundreds of magic arts with him, is more in vogue nowadays, among both high and low, learned and unlearned, than ever before.” “Devil books” explaining how to get in touch with helpful demons were popular; one man sold 1,220 of them at two fairs in 1568.10 In some cases the officers of the Roman Inquisition advised parish priests to “instruct the people in the fallacies of witchcraft,” counseled disbelief in “the Witches’ Sabbat,” and recommended removal of a priest for listening too credulously to accusations of witchcraft.11 Pope Gregory XV (1623) required the death penalty for persons convicted of causing death by sorcery; but Urban VIII (1637) condemned Catholic Inquisitors “on account of their arbitrary and unjust prosecution of sorcerers,… extorting from the accused … confessions that were valueless, and abandoning them to the secular arm without sufficient cause.”12 Emperor Maximilian II decreed (1568) that those convicted of sorcery should have their confessions tested by challenges to perform magic in public; and the supreme penalty, after three convictions, was to be banishment. But the frightened populace demanded severity in examinations and haste in executions.

Civil and ecclesiastical authorities, sharing, or wishing to allay, this fear of witches, subjected the accused to rigorous trials, often using torture to elicit confessions. At Nördlingen the town council had a special set of torture instruments, which it lent to neighboring communities with the assurance that “by these means, and more especially by the thumbscrew, God has often been graciously pleased to reveal the truth, if not at first, at any rate at the last.”13 Torture by preventing sleep was one of the milder methods. Usually the desired admissions were obtained by torture, and the judges were only occasionally disturbed by the unreliability of such confessions.

The persecutions were least severe in Spain. In the province of Logroño the Inquisition convicted fifty-three persons of witchcraft and put eleven to death (1610); otherwise the accusations were usually dismissed as fanciful or vengeful, and executions for witchcraft were rare. In 1614 the Suprema of the Inquisition issued instructions to its officials to regard witchcraft confessions as neurotic delusions and to show lenience in punishments.14

An epidemic of witchcraft fears swept southeast France in 1609. Hundreds of persons believed themselves possessed by devils; some thought themselves changed into dogs, and barked. A commission of the Bordeaux Parlement was appointed to try suspects. A method was devised to discover the spots at which devils had entered the body of the accused: he was blindfolded, needles were stuck into his flesh, and any place where he failed to feel the injected point was judged to be the port of entry. Hoping to be pardoned, suspects accused one another. Eight were convicted, five escaped, three were burned; and spectators swore later that they had seen devils, in the form of toads, issuing from the heads of the victims.15 In Lorraine 800 were burned for witchcraft in sixteen years; in Strasbourg 134 in four days (October 1582).16 In Catholic Lucerne 62 were put to death between 1562 and 1572; in Protestant Bern, 300 in the last decade of the sixteenth century, 240 in the first decade of the seventeenth.17

In Germany Catholics and Protestants competed in sending witches to the stake. It is incredibly and yet reliably reported that the Archbishop of Trier had 120 persons burned at Pfalz in 1596 on the charge that they had made the cold weather last devilishly long.18 A cattle plague in the Schongau district (1598) was ascribed to witches; the Bavarian Privy Council at Munich urged inquisitors to “show more earnestness and severity in your proceedings”; in consequence 63 witches were burned, and the relatives of the victims were required to pay the cost of the trials.19 At Hainburg, in Austria, 80 were executed for sorcery in the two years 1617–18. In 1627–29 the Bishop of Würzburg is said to have put 900 witches to death.20 In 1582 Protestant editors reissued, with their approval, the Malleus maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) which the Dominican Inquisitor Jakob Sprenger had published in 1487 to guide in the detection and prosecution of witches. Elector Augustus of Saxony decreed (1572) that witches were to be burned to death even if they had injured no one. In Ellingen 1,500 witches were burned in 1590, in Ellwangen 167 in 1612, in Westerstetten 300 in two years;21 there were similar ecstasies in Osnabrück in 1588, in Nördlingen in 1590, in Württemberg in 1616; these latter statistics, however, are derived from contemporary newssheets notorious for inaccuracy. German scholars estimate a total of 100,000 executions for witchcraft in Germany in the seventeenth century.22

There were a few voices calling men to reason. We have noted elsewhere the protests of Johann Wier and Reginald Scot, and we have seen how Montaigne turned his skeptical humor upon the mania in the essay “Of the Lame or Crippled”: “How much more natural and likely do I find it that two men should lie, than that one man in twelve hours should be carried by the winds from East to West, … [or] that one of us should be carried on a broom through … a chimney.”23 People who believe such things need medicine, not death. “When all is done, it is an overvaluing of one’s conjectures, by them to cause a man to be burned alive.”24 Cornelius Loos, a Catholic professor at Mainz, attacked witch-hunting in his Ü her die wahre und falsche Magie (1592), but before he could publish it he was imprisoned and compelled to recant his errors.25 Another Jesuit, the Pietist poet Friedrich von Spee, after serving as confessor to nearly 200 persons accused of witchcraft, denounced the persecution in a brave book, Cautio criminalis(1631): he admitted the existence of witches, but he deplored the arrests on baseless suspicion, the unfairness of the trials, the merciless tortures that would have forced the “doctors and bishops of the Church” to confess to anything.26

For every such opponent there were a dozen defenders of the oppression. Protestant theologians like Thomas Erastus, in 1572, and Catholic theologians like Bishop Peter Binsfeld, in 1589, agreed that witchcraft was real and that witches should be burned. The Bishop approved of torture, but recommended that repentant witches should be strangled before being burned.27 The Catholic lawyer and philosopher Jean Bodin upheld the persecution in his Demonomanie (1580); a year later the Protestant poet Johann Fischart translated and expanded this book with gusto, and joined Bodin in urging a relentless severity.28

Nevertheless the mania waned. After 1632, when the Thirty Years’ War became frankly political, religion ceased to hold so warm a place in men’s hates. Printing was spreading, books were multiplying, schools were recovering, new universities were opening. Year after year patient plodders brought a stone to the rising pyramid of knowledge, and in a hundred cities curious men tested hypotheses with experiments. Slowly the area of the supernatural shrank, the sphere of the natural and secular grew. It is a dull, impersonal, fragmentary history, and the greatest drama of modern times.

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