By resorting to so subtle an argument, those who impugned the popular belief were obliged, with some inconsistency, to grant that witchcraft had existed, and might exist, only insisting that it was a species of witchcraft consisting of they knew not what, but certainly of something different from that which legislators, judges, and juries had hitherto considered the statute as designed to repress.
In the meantime (the rather that the debate was on a subject particularly difficult of comprehension), the debating parties grew warm, and began to call names. Bodin, a lively Frenchman of an irritable habit, explained the zeal of Wierus to protect the tribe of sorcerers from punishment by stating that he himself was a conjurer and the scholar of Cornelius Agrippa, and might therefore well desire to save the lives of those accused of the same league with Satan. Hence they threw on their antagonists the offensive names of witch-patrons and witch-advocates, as if it were impossible for any to hold the opinion of Naudaeus, Wierus, Scot, etc, without patronising the devil and the witches against their brethren of mortality. Assailed by such heavy charges, the philosophers themselves lost patience, and retorted abuse in their turn, calling Bodin, Delrio, and others who used their arguments, witch-advocates, and the like, as the affirming and defending the existence of the crime seemed to increase the number of witches, and assuredly augmented the list of executions. But, for a certain time, the preponderance of the argument lay on the side of the Demonologists, and we may briefly observe the causes which gave their opinions for a period greater influence than those of their opponents on the public mind.
It is first to be observed, that Wierus, for what reason cannot well be conjectured, except to show the extent of his cabalistical knowledge, had introduced into his work against witchcraft the whole Stenographia of Trithemius, which he had copied from the original in the library of Cornelius Agrippa ; and which, suspicious from the place where he found it, and from the long catalogue of fiends which it contained, with the charms for raising and for binding them to the service of mortals, was considered by Bodin as containing proof that Wierus himself was a sorcerer ; not one of the wisest, certainly, since he thus unnecessarily placed at the disposal of any who might buy the book, the whole secrets which formed his stock in trade.
Secondly, we may notice, that, from the state of physical science at the period when Van Helmont, Paracelsus, and others, began to penetrate into its recesses, it was an unknown, obscure, and ill-defined region, and did not permit those who laboured in it to give that precise and accurate account of their discoveries, which the progress of reasoning experimentally, and from analysis, has enabled the late discoverers to do with success. Natural magic, a phrase used to express those phenomena which could be produced by a knowledge of the properties of matter, had so much in it that was apparently uncombined and uncertain, that the art of chemistry was accounted mystical, and an opinion prevailed, that the results now known to be the consequence of laws of matter, could not be traced through their various combinations, even by those who knew the effects themselves. Physical science, in a word, was cumbered by a number of fanciful and incorrect opinions, chiefly of a mystical character. If, for instance, it was observed that a flag and a fern never grew near each other, the circumstance was imputed to some antipathy between these vegetables ; nor was it for some time resolved by the natural rule, that the flag has its nourishment in marshy ground, whereas the fern loves a deep dryish soil. The attributes of the divining-rod were fully credited ; the discovery of the philosopher's stone was daily hoped for; and electricity, magnetism, and other remarkable and misconceived phenomena, were appealed to as proof of the reasonableness of their expectations. Until such phenomena were traced to their sources, imaginary, and often mystical causes were assigned to them, for the same reason that, in the wilds of a partially discovered country, according to the satirist,
" Geographers on pathless downs Place elephants for want of towns."
This substitution of mystical fancies for experimental reasoning gave, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a doubtful and twilight appearance to the various branches of physical philosophy. The learned and sensible Dr. Webster, for instance, writing in detection of supposed witchcraft, assumes, as a string of undeniable facts, opinions which our more experienced age would reject as frivolous fancies ; for example, " the effects of healing by the weapon-salve, the sympathetic powder, the curing of various diseases by apprehensions, amulets, or by transplantation;"—all of which undoubted wonders he accuses the age of desiring to throw on the devil's back—an unnecessary load, certainly, since such things do not exist, and it is therefore in vain to seek to account for them. It followed that, while the opposers of the ordinary theory might have struck the deepest blows at the witch-hypothesis by an appeal to common sense, they were themselves hampered by articles of philosophical belief which, they must have been sensible, contained nearly as deep draughts upon human credulity as were made by the Demonologists, against whose doctrine they protested. This error had a doubly bad effect, both as degrading the immediate department in which it occurred, and as affording a protection for falsehood in other branches of science. The champions who, in their own province, were obliged, by the imperfect knowledge of the times, to admit much that was mystical and inexplicable —those who opined, with Bacon, that warts could be cured by sympathy—who thought, with Napier, that hidden treasures could be discovered by the mathematics—who salved the weapon instead of the wound, and detected murders as well as springs of water by the divining-rod, could not consistently use, to confute the believers in witches, an argument turning on the impossible or the incredible.
Such were the obstacles, arising from the vanity of philosophers and the imperfection of their science, which suspended the strength of their appeal to reason and common sense against the condemning of witches to a cruel death, on account of crimes which the nature of things rendered in modern times totally impossible. We cannot doubt that they suffered considerably in the contest, which was carried on with much anger and malevolence; but the good seed which they had sown remained uncorrupted in the soil, to bear fruit so soon as the circumstances should be altered which at first impeded its growth. In the next Letter I shall take a view of the causes which helped to remove these impediments—in addition, it must always be remembered to the general increase of knowledge and improvement of experimental philosophy.