They might say to the theologist, Will you not believe in witches ? the Scriptures aver their existence ;—to the jurisconsult, Will you dispute the existence of a crime, against which our own statute-book, and the code of almost all civilized countries, have attested, by laws upon which hundreds and thousands have been convicted, many, or even most of whom have, by their judicial confessions, acknowledged their guilt and the justice of their punishment ? It is a strange scepticism, they might add, which rejects the evidence of Scripture, of human legislature, and of the accused persons themselves.
Notwithstanding these specious reasons, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were periods when the revival of learning, the invention of printing, the fearless investigations of the reformers into subjects thought formerly too sacred for consideration of any save the clergy, had introduced a system of doubt, enquiry, disregard of authority, when unsupported by argument, and unhesitating exercise of the private judgment, on subjects which had occupied the bulls of popes, and decrees of councils. In short, the spirit of the age was little disposed to spare error, however venerable, or countenance imposture, however sanctioned by length of time and universal acquiescence. Learned writers arose in different countries to challenge the very existence of this imaginary crime, to rescue the reputation of the great men whose knowledge, superior to that of their age, had caused them to be suspected of magic, and to put a stop to the horrid superstition whose victims were the aged, ignorant, and defenceless, and which could only be compared to that which sent victims of old through the fire to Moloch.
The courageous interposition of those philosophers who opposed science and experience to the prejudices of superstition and ignorance, and in doing so, incurred much misrepresentation, and perhaps no little ill-will, in the cause of truth and humanity, claim for them some distinction in a work on Demonology. The pursuers of exact science to its coy retreats, were sure to be the first to discover, that the most remarkable phenomena in nature are regulated by certain fixed laws, and cannot rationally be referred to supernatural agency, the sufficing cause to which superstition attributes all that is beyond her own narrow power of explanation. Each advance in natural knowledge teaches us that it is the pleasure of the Creator to govern the world by the laws which He has imposed, and which are not in our times interrupted or suspended.
The learned Wier, or Wierus, was a man of great research in physical science, and studied under the celebrated Cornelius Agrippa, against whom the charge of sorcery was repeatedly alleged by Paulus Jovius, and other authors, while he suffered, on the other hand, from the persecution of the inquisitors of the church, whose accusation against this celebrated man was, that he denied the existence of spirits, a charge very inconsistent with that of sorcery, which consists in corresponding with them. Wierus, after taking his degrees as a doctor of medicine, became physician to the Duke of Cleves, at whose court he practised for thirty years, with the highest reputation. This learned man, disregarding the scandal which, by so doing, he was likely to bring upon himself, was one of the first who attacked the vulgar belief, and boldly assailed, both by serious arguments and by ridicule, the vulgar credulity on the subject of wizards and witches.
Gabriel Naude, or Naudaeus, as he termed himself, was a perfect scholar and man of letters, busied during his whole life with assembling books together, and enjoying the office of librarian to several persons of high rank, amongst others to Queen Christina of Sweden. He was, besides, a beneficed clergyman, leading a most unblemished life, and so temperate as never to taste any liquor stronger than water ; yet did he not escape the scandal which is usually flung by their prejudiced contemporaries upon those disputants whom it is found more easy to defame than to answer. He wrote an interesting work, entitled, Apologie pour les Grands Hommes Accuses de Magie ; and as he exhibited a good deal of vivacity of talent, and an earnestness in pleading his cause, which did not always spare some of the superstitions of Rome herself, he was charged by his contemporaries as guilty of heresy and scepticism, when justice could only accuse him of an incautious eagerness to make good his argument.
Among persons who, upon this subject, purged their eyes with rue and euphrasie, besides the Rev. Dr. Harsnet, and many others (who wrote rather on special cases of Demonology than on the general question), Reginald Scot ought to be distinguished. Webster assures us that he was a " person of competent learning, pious, and of a good family." He seems to have been a zealous Protestant, and much of his book, as well as that of Harsnet, is designed to throw upon the Papists in particular those tricks in which, by confederacy and imposture, the popular ideas concerning witchcraft, possession, and other supernatural fancies, were maintained and kept in exercise; but he also writes on the general question with some force and talent, considering that his subject is incapable of being reduced into a regular form, and is of a nature particularly seductive to an excursive genius. He appears to have studied legerdemain for the purpose of showing how much that is apparently unaccountable can, nevertheless, be performed without the intervention of supernatural assistance, even when it is impossible to persuade the vulgar that the devil has not been consulted on the occasion. Scot also had intercourse with some of the celebrated fortune-tellers, or Philomaths, of the time; one of whom he brings forward to declare the vanity of the science which he himself had once professed.
To defend the popular belief of witchcraft there arose a number of advocates, of whom Bodin, and some others, neither wanted knowledge nor powers of reasoning. They pressed the incredulous party with the charge that they denied the existence of a crime against which the law had denounced a capital punishment. As that law was understood to emanate from James himself, who was reigning monarch during the hottest part of the controversy, the English authors who defended the opposite side were obliged to intrench themselves under an evasion to avoid maintaining an argument unpalatable to a degree to those in power, and which might, perchance, have proved unsafe to those who used it. With a certain degree of sophistry, they answered that they did not doubt the possibility of witches, but only demurred to what is their nature, and how they came to be such—according to the scholastic jargon, that the question in respect to witches was not de existentia, but only de modo existendi.