Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/300

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

justice were followed. One contemporary of undoubted authority wrote that he saw a list of three thousand witches that had been put to death during the time of the Long Parliament alone. In this reign of demonophobia the psychological phenomena of the craze are well illustrated. The exciting cause was a widespread contagious and epidemicfear. The result was a recrudescence of the barbaric instincts of cruelty, torture and homicide, accompanied by a loss not merely of reasoning power, but apparently of common sense, so that intelligent men seemed to believe that old women blasted the crops in the fields and the offspring of animals, and raised storms and whirlwinds. The cruelty characteristic of the savage is again noticed in this case. In the witchcraft persecutions, the victims were commonly weak women, particularly the more helpless old and young, while the character of the inflictions was such as is peculiar to primitive people, viz., torture and burning alive. The perfidy of the savage is also noticed, as in innumerable instances the victims were led to believe that they would be spared if they made a confession, and were then put to death. To elude a legal requirement that torture should not be repeated, the most horrible tortures were 'continued' from day to day.

The psychology of crazes is clearly seen in certain of its aspects in the homicidal manias that have swept over communities or whole countries at frequent intervals in the world's history. The homicidal impulse itself is one of the most primitive and basal of all impulses. The reason for this is apparent. The history of man has been a history of warfare and of struggle for existence. It has been man against man, tribe against tribe, nation against nation. Habits like these are not quickly unlearned, and reversion to them in times of social disturbance is not strange. In the massacre of St. Bartholomew we-have a typical instance of the homicidal mania. The necessary conditions were, first, great emotional excitement caused by religious fanaticism acting as an inhibitory agent upon the higher brain centers and allowing the primitive impulses to act unchecked; second, the removal of external and customary restraints, effected in this case by the royal decree; and third, the mental effects of imitation and suggestion. These conditions being all supplied, the French people resolved themselves speedily into assassins and cut-throats, and enjoyed a homicidal debauch. Begun in Paris, the massacre spread in true epidemic form throughout France, until fifteen or twenty thousand people had perished.

These homicidal manias have, of course, been very frequent in history. The decivilizing influence of the craze is, however, most perfectly illustrated in the various scenes of the French Revolution. Here the overturning of the social and religious order itself acted in part as the unsettling and emotionally exciting cause. The usual results fol-