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  The essay John Wagstaffe’s Question of Witchcraft  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XVI. The Advent of Modern Thought in Popular Literature.

§ 17. Humanists.


Humanists were not content with putting knowledge to new uses. Now that a settled government gave them leisure to catch the spirit of continental philosophy, writers began, even in popular productions, to criticise the sources of knowledge itself. Meric Casaubon brought out A Treatise concerning Enthusiasm (1665) in which he argues from history and literature that inspiration, whether in rhetoric, poetry or the actor’s craft, and ecstasy, whether in divination, worship or contemplation, are no supernatural gift but merely the working of nature and subject to illusion. The author of Be Merry and Wise, or a Seasonable Word to the Nation (1660) caught the spirit of his time when he exhorted his readers to break away from the phrase-making of the Caroline generation and devote themselves in earnest to the work of reconstruction, asking “can anything be more Ridiculous then to stand Formalizing, in a case where tis impossible to be too early or too zealous?” Joseph Glanvill, in The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661), reminded men how hypothetical and conjectural all knowledge was, how unreliable is the evidence of our own senses, and how completely fantasy and inclination dominate our convictions. In these and such like books the influence of Van Helmont and Descartes is evident and still more that of Agrippa, whose De Vanitate Scientiarum, though partly a burlesque, was reprinted, translated and often quoted because it insisted that the culture of the renascence was not all it pretended to be.   36
  Thus, the civil war had given new life to English thought, first by solving the social and political controversies which had diverted humanists from better things; then, by exposing, in all their primitive repulsiveness, the fanaticism and bigotry which, for half a century, had withstood progress; then, by introducing the habit of discussion and reflection among the people as a whole, filling them with the desire for peace, order and mutual tolerance. The time for a creative genius had not yet come, but it was an age of criticism and revision, and we have seen how the middle classes were beginning, on the one hand to cultivate consideration for the individual and on the other hand to examine dogmas and traditions in the light of humanity and common-sense. It still remains to show how all these tendencies led thinkers to continue the vexed discussion on sorcery and occultism, and, without the aid of fresh material, to put a new construction on the data which had served Sprenger, Bodin, Gifford, James, Perkins and Cotta.   37
  Astrology had already been condemned by Chamber and Carleton; but the belief in predictions became so widespread during the hazards of the war that, when Lilly prophesied a more than usually terrible series of disasters, to follow the eclipse of 1652, John Evelyn tells us that the common folk would not “worke nor stir out of their houses so ridiculously were they abus’d by knavish and ignorant stargazers.” But the same year saw an excellent piece of sarcasm on this prophecy, entitled Strange Predictions, and John Gaule, who had once been a believer in the superstition, brought out a voluminous refutation, 83  in which he attributes the success of astrology to its votaries’ eagerness to be deceived and reminds his readers that, even if a constellation could affect a new-born babe, the child’s training, home-life and social position will soon supersede such influences.   38
  Other attacks on stargazing followed, but it was the horrors and iniquities of the witch persecution which chiefly claimed the attention of humanists. Robert Filmer employed the critical common-sense of his generation to attack Perkins’s book in An advertisement to the Jury-men of England (1653), pointing out that compacts between the devil and old women, even if mentioned in the Bible, were hardly a matter for serious consideration, since the witch can always escape from her obligation by repentance and is, at the worst, only an accessory in any deed and, therefore, should not be punished before the principal. Thomas Ady, in A Candle in the Dark (1656), discussed the subject with the same practical logic but with a wider knowledge of the world. Like Harman, Chettle, Greene, Nashe, Dekker and Rowlands, he was familiar with the jugglers, diviners, ventriloquists and conjurers who still infested England, and he argues that such as these were the so-called witches and magicians whom Saul persecuted and Deuteronomy condemned to death. Fifty years before, Gifford had silenced the plea for clemency by arguing that witches desire diabolical power and, therefore, should die. But the present age was too engrossed in the practical problems of this world to succumb to such unreasoning fear of the devil, and Ady deems it sufficient refutation to expose the witchfinder’s methods of conviction.   39

Note 83. [char] The Mag-astro-mancer or the Magicall-Astrologicall-Diviner Posed and Puzzled, 1652. [ back ]

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  The essay John Wagstaffe’s Question of Witchcraft  
 
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