Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/January 1880/Middle-Age Spiritualism


THE doctrine of human intercourse with invisible beings or spirits is as old as superstition, and has its fashions, or, rather, it takes on different phases according to the degrees of ignorance and stupidity that characterize society. It was one thing in Greece and Rome, and a very different thing in the middle ages. In the former there was a mythologic machinery of gods and goddesses, who meddled actively with terrestrial affairs, both in peace and war. This was the dignified sort of spiritualism that is embalmed in classical literature, and which continues to form the corner-stone of a "college education."

The spiritualism of the middle ages took a very different shape. It was more intense, realistic, practical, and vulgar—more earnest, and, we are bound to say, more honest. The spirits were brought to bear, so to speak, more intimately upon common life. The line between good and bad spirits was more sharply drawn; they were angels or demons, ever working mischief or benefit to mankind. The art of evoking spirits became a kind of craft under the names of divination, magic, sorcery, enchantment, necromancy, and witchcraft. In the modern survival of these old practices of evoking spirits we get very different results. The ghosts believed to be called up by manipulation are of a more harmless character; and the object seems to be rather to get the spirits out, than to get anything out of them. They are summoned more as a matter of curiosity, and for the solemn amusement of credulous and vacant minds.

Science has worked a great change in relation to this subject. It has drawn the teeth of mediæval ghostology. Though it has not extirpated the belief in spirits, it has greatly transformed and subdued it, so that it is no longer the scourge and curse of society that it was in the pre-scientific ages. We are apt to forget what we owe to science in this respect, and the horrors that modern society has escaped by getting rid of the grosser and more malignant forms of belief in ghostly supersensuous and diabolic agency. But fully to appreciate our advantages it is necessary, once in a while, to turn back and contemplate the condition of things in the ages of ignorance, when men were given over to the terrors of vicious and cruel superstitions. An admirable book has been lately published, which presents a vivid picture of the general state of mind and society a few centuries ago in Western Europe, resulting from the current belief in supernatural agencies, and we propose to cull a few statements from its pages in illustration of the subject.[1]

The author first finds the theological root of his subject. During the middle ages it was held that all power or force was spiritual, that it came from a spiritual source—from God—and was communicated to the earth by spiritual agents or angels. No inevitable causation was admitted. The laws of nature were the precepts in accordance with which the angels executed the will of God. Sometimes he suspended their agency, acting everywhere himself, or he delegated unusual power to them, when their operations were known as miracles. Hence a knowledge of nature was at this time chiefly a knowledge of the angels. Lucifer, the highest of these angels, rebelled against God. The contest ended with the overthrow of the rebel and his followers; but God, calm in the consciousness of his omnipotence, determined that Lucifer, now changed by his rebellion into a spirit wholly evil, should enjoy liberty of action within certain limits. The activity of the fallen spirit consists henceforth in incessant warfare against God. Man is tempted and falls. The earth is divided into two antagonistic kingdoms, those of good and evil. Over one reigns God and his angels of light, over the other the devil and his minions. Such was the dualistic conception of the middle ages, and to it may be traced the magic of the Church, the astrology, alchemy, and sorcery of the learned, as well as the diabolic forms of witchcraft believed in by the common people.

The Church, exercising its watch-care for man, surrounded him from the cradle to the grave by the safeguards of magic. Thus, soon after the birth of the child the priest must be ready to sprinkle it with holy water, which has been purified from the pollution of demons by prayer and conjuration; and so strong was the impression that the child, begotten in sin and by nature Lucifer's property, would be doomed to the torments of hell without the grace of baptism, that certain conscientious servants of the Church attempted to devise some means by which the saving water might be brought in contact with the child before it saw the light.

Holy water, when drunk by the sick and infirm, healed and strengthened; if sprinkled upon the field it promoted fertility, and given to domestic animals it afforded them protection against witchcraft.

Says Thomas Aquinas: "It is a dogma of faith that the demons can produce wind, storms, and rain of fire from heaven. The atmosphere is a battle-field between angels and devils. The latter work the constant injury of man, the former his melioration; and the consequence is that changeableness of weather which threatens to frustrate the hopes of husbandry. And, when Lucifer is able to bestow even upon man—sorcerers and wizards—the power to destroy the fields, the vineyards, and dwellings of man by rain, hail, and lightning, is it to be wondered at if the Church, which is man's protection against the devil, and whose especial calling it is to fight him, should in this sphere also be his counterpoise, and should seek, from the treasury of its divine power, means adequate to frustrate his atmospheric mischiefs? To these means belong the church-bells, provided they have been duly consecrated and baptized. The aspiring steeples, around which cluster the low dwellings of men, are to be likened, when the bells in them are ringing, to the hen spreading its protecting wings over its chickens; for the tones of the consecrated metal repel the demons and avert storm and lightning."

During protracted drought it was the custom for the priests to make intercession and inaugurate rain-processions, and it is narrated that, in the year 1240, in Lüttich a large rain-procession failed, three times, to produce any effect, "because, in the supplication of all saints, God's mother had been forgotten." A new procession was formed, due respect was shown her Majesty, and the rain immediately came down with such violence that the devout procession was dispersed.

If the fields were visited by destructive insects, the Church had remedies against them also. It commanded them in the name of God to depart; and, if they did not obey, regular processes were instituted against them, which ended in their excommunication by the Church. In the year 1474 the May-bug committed great depredations in the neighborhood of Berne. The authorities of the city sought relief against the scourge from the Bishop of Lausanne, who issued a letter of excommunication, which was solemnly read by a priest in the churchyard of Berne. The letter began thus: "Thou irrational, imperfect creature, thou May-bug, thou whose kind was never inclosed in Noah's ark; in the name of my gracious lord the Bishop of Lausanne, by the power of the glorified Trinity through the merits of Jesus Christ, and by the obedience you owe the Holy Church, I command you, May-bugs, all in common and each one in particular, to depart from all places where nourishment for man and cattle germinates and grows." The letter ends with a summons to the insects to present themselves at Wivelsburg on the sixth day thereafter, at one o'clock, if they do not disappear before that time, and assume the responsibility before the court of the gracious lord of Lausanne! Arrangements were made beforehand for a legal trial; the accused, of course, was to have a lawyer, and the Bishop devised the plan of summoning from hell the spirit of an infamous one named Perrodet, who had died a few years before. But, in spite of many summonses, neither Perrodet nor the May-bugs deigned to appear, and finally the episcopal tribunal gave its verdict of excommunication in the name of the Holy Trinity—"to you accursed vermin, that are called May-bugs, and which can not even be counted among the animals." The Government ordered the authorities of the afflicted district to report concerning the effects of the measure; but a chronicle of the time reports that "no effect was observed, because of our sins."

The most scrupulous attention to legal forms was given to the frequently recurring processes against May-bugs, grasshoppers, worms, and other noxious vermin, for any neglect of these forms was supposed to deprive a judgment of its magical power. The question whether they were subject to a spiritual or legal tribunal was much agitated, but without being definitely settled. A civil prosecution of the field-rats in the Tyrol, 1519-'20, proves that sometimes such suits were decided by secular tribunals.

The peasant, Simon Fliss, made complaint to the judge, William of Hasslingen, that the field-rats were committing great depredations in his parish. The court then appointed Hans Grinebner advocate for the accused, and the plaintiff chose as his advocate Schwarz Minig. Numerous witnesses established the fact that the rats had committed great destruction, and the decision was rendered against them in the following terms: "After accusation and defense, after statement and contradiction, and after due consideration of all that pertains to justice, it is by this sentence determined that those noxious animals which are called field-rats must, within two weeks after the promulgation of this judgment, depart and for ever remain far aloof from the fields and the meadows of Stilf. But if one or several of the animals are pregnant, or unable on account of their youth to follow, then shall they enjoy, during further two weeks, safety and protection from everybody, and after these two weeks depart."

Nothing was too absurd, nothing too superstitious, for the credulity of this period. The consecrated machinery was so various and complete that, if one explanation did not serve the purpose of the Church, another could usually be found. One question, however, did not readily find an answer, namely: How are the divine miracles to be distinguished from the infernal ones? Attempts of the acutest scholastics failed to establish a rule of definite separation; for the two kinds of miracles were revealed under identical forms, and Satan could transform himself into an angel of light. The grossest doctrines received the sanction of the Church, and thus was laid the foundation of that labyrinth of superstitions among the people in the darkness of which humanity groped for a thousand years. If the miracles worked by the apostles of the Church had their source in divine agencies, then those performed by its opponents must have been instigated by the devil. The white magic stood opposed to the black, and the idea of a conscious league between the devil and man became a well-established dogma.

In the fifteenth century there came a terrible crisis. This was preceded by the trial of the Templars and by several local witch-processes with subsequent executions, until finally, December 5, 1484, the bull of Pope Innocent VIII. appeared. This, with its companion, a book called "The Witch-hammer," brought the evil to a climax. Some idea of this bull may be gathered from the following extract. The Pope begins by asserting that, as the guardian of souls, he must exercise care in promoting the growth of the Catholic faith and driving heresy far from the faithful. "But," he continues, "it is not without profound grief that I have learned recently that persons of both sexes, forgetting their own eternal welfare and erring from the Catholic faith, mix with devils, with incubi and succubi, and injure by witch-songs, conjurations, and other shameful practices, revelries, and crimes, the unborn children of women, the young of animals, the harvests of the fields, the grapes of the vineyards, and the fruit of the trees; that they also destroy, suffocate, and annihilate men, women, sheep and cattle, vineyards, orchards, meadows, and the like; visit men, women, cattle and other animals with internal and external pains and sickness; prevent men from procreation and women from conception, and render them entirely unfit for their mutual duties, and cause them to recant, besides, with sacrilegious lips, the very faith which they have received in baptism." The Pope therefore appoints the professors of theology, Henry Institor and Jacob Springer, to be prime inquisitors, with absolute power over all districts which are contaminated with those diseases. Finally, he proclaims that no appeal from the tribunals of the inquisitors to other courts, not even to the Pope himself, will be allowed. The inquisitors and their assistants are invested with unlimited power over life and death, and are exhorted to fulfill their commission with zeal and severity. The bull contains no directions as to how the judges should proceed in the trial of witches, but "The Witchhammer," bearing the sanction of the Pope, is most explicit upon the subject. This book became juridical authority, and was followed even in Protestant countries until early in the eighteenth century. It begins by attempting to show that its theories are entirely founded upon the Scriptures. The history of Job, the temptation of Jesus in the desert, and the many demoniacs mentioned in the New Testament, are adduced to prove that Satan can dwell in man and use the human body as his implement. Moreover, Moses ordained that witches should be put to death, a command which would be entirely superfluous, if witches had not existed. "The Witch-hammer" then broaches the question why it is that women are especially addicted to sorcery, and devotes thirty-three pages to the proof thereof. The following is an example of its argument: The holy fathers have often said that there are three things which have no moderation in good or evil—the tongue, a priest, and a woman. Concerning woman this is evident. All ages have made complaints against her. The wise Solomon, who was himself tempted to idolatry by woman, has often in his writings given the feminine sex a sad but true testimonial; and the holy Chrysostom says: "What is woman but an enemy of friendship, an unavoidable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable affliction, a constantly flowing source of tears, a wicked work of nature covered with a shining varnish?" Already had the first woman entered into a sort of compact with the devil; should not, then, her daughters do it also? The very word femina (woman) means one wanting in faith; for fe means "faith," and minus "less." Since she was formed of a crooked rib, her entire spiritual nature has been distorted and inclined more toward sin than virtue. If we here compare the words of Seneca, "Woman either loves or hates; there is no third possibility," it is easy to see that when she does not love God she must resort to the opposite extreme and hate him. It is thus clear why women especially are addicted to the practice of sorcery.

The crime of the witches exceeds all others. They are worse than the devil, for he has fallen once for all, and Christ has not suffered for him. The devil sins, therefore, only against the Creator, but the witch both against the Creator and Redeemer. The theology of the case is perfectly clear.

These and similar questions the first part of "The Witch-hammer" attempts to settle. The second part describes the various kinds and effects of witchcraft. It claims that they produce hail, thunder, and storms; they fly through the air from one place to another; they can make themselves insensible on the rack; they often subdue the judge's mind by charms and confuse him through compassion; they change themselves and others into cats and were-wolves; nay, they are able to enchant and kill men and beasts by their very looks. Their strongest passion is to eat the flesh of children; still they eat only unchristened children: if at any time a baptized child is taken by them, it happens by special divine concession.

Their compact with the devil may be of a private nature, or a solemn one entered into with due formalities. When the latter, it is concluded in the following manner: The witches assemble upon a day set apart by the devil. He appears in the assembly, exhorts them to faithfulness, and promises them glory, happiness, and long life. The older witches then introduce the novices, who are put to the test and take the oath of allegiance. The devil then instructs them how to prepare from the limbs of new-born babes witch-potions and witch-salves, and presents them with a powder, instructing them how to use it to the injury of men and beasts.

The witch accomplishes her voyages in the air by smearing a vessel, a broom, and a rake, a broomstick and a piece of linen, with the witch salve; then rising she moves forth through the air, visible or invisible. "The Witch-hammer" reminds those who doubt these air-voyages that the devil carried Jesus up through the air to the pinnacle of the temple (Matthew iv. 5).

The third part of this remarkable book gives the criminal law of the witch-courts, with instructions how "sorcerers, witches, and heretics, are to be tried before spiritual as well as civil tribunals." "The Witch-hammer" states "that the trial may commence without any previous accusation." When an inquisitor comes to a place he must exhort everybody by means of proclamations nailed to the doors of churches and town-halls, and by threats of excommunication and punishment, to give information of all persons suspected of witchcraft.

Two or three witnesses are sufficient to prove guilt. In case so many do not present themselves, the judge may find and summon them and force them to tell the truth under oath. The qualifications necessary for witnesses to possess will appear from the statement that the excommunicate, accomplices, outlawed, runaway and dissolute women, are irreproachable witnesses in cases where the faith is involved, A witch is allowed to testify against a witch, wife against husband, husband against wife, children against parents, and so on; but, if the testimonies of accomplices or relatives are to the advantage of the accused, then they are of no validity, for blood is of course thicker than water, and one raven does not willingly pick out the eyes of another.

An accused may have an advocate, but "The Witch-hammer" adds: "If the counselor defends his suspected client too warmly, it is right and reasonable that he should be considered as far more criminal than the sorcerer or the witch herself; that is to say, as the protector of witches and heretics he is more dangerous than the sorcerer. He should be looked upon with suspicion in the same degree as he makes a zealous defense." "The Witch-hammer" then informs the judge of five "honest and apostolic tricks" by means of which the accused and their lawyer may be confused. The quality of the questions put to the accused may be appreciated from the following examples: "Do you know that people hold you to be a witch? Why have you been observed upon the precincts of N. N.? Why have you touched N. N.'s child (or cow)? How did it happen that the child (or the cow) soon after fell sick? What was your business outside of your house when the storm broke forth? How can you explain that your cow yields three times as much milk as the cows of others?"

Before the trial of a person accused of sorcery, he was put on the rack in order that his mind might be inclined to confession. The "worst witches" were those who allowed themselves to be torn asunder, limb by limb, and their endurance is explained by the supposition that "the devil hardens them against their tortures." If confession was not wrung from the witch the first day, the torture was to be continued the second and third day. The civil law forbade the repeating of the torture. Hence the following formula used by the judge: "We ordain that the torture shall be continued (not repeated) to-morrow." The second day the instruments of torture were exhibited, and the accused was adjured, by all holy names, if innocent, to pour forth immediately abundant tears; but, if guilty, no tears at all.

If tears should flow, the judge was directed to see that it be not saliva, or other fluid; and the witch was led into the court-room backward, that the judge might see her before she saw him. Otherwise he might be moved to criminal compassion by her enchantment.

It was still further provided that the limbs of the accused should be examined to see if they bore devil's marks. The absence of such marks, however, did not prove innocence.

With the fullest directions as to the ways and means to be adopted for the ensnaring of witches this dreadful book concludes. The effect of the fires kindled by the bull of Pope Innocent was felt far into the eighteenth century. The victims were counted by millions. Says an author of the seventeenth century, "When they had commenced in one place to burn witches, more were found in proportion as they were burned"; and it is also stated that in certain communities in Germany and France all the women were sent to the stake; and in many instances princes and potentates were forced, from fear of seeing their subjects exterminated, to stay by authoritative command the madness of the inquisitors.

No age was exempt. Children were brought to the stake with their mothers. A gloomy presentiment pervaded the community when the proclamation on the church-doors announced the arrival of the inquisitor. Work in the shops and fields ceased; and the person who had an open enemy, or suspected secret envy, knew beforehand that he was lost. And the arch-fiend was the agent and instigator of all this madness. "He was in the castle of the knight, the palaces of the mighty, the libraries of the learned, on every page of the Bible, in the churches, in the halls of justice, in the lawyer's chambers, in the laboratories of physicians and naturalists, in cottages, farm-yards, stalls, everywhere,"

The popular literature of this period consisted of legends of saints and stories about the devil. There were imps, giants, trolls, forest spirits, elves, and hobgoblins on the earth; nicks, river-sprites in the water, fiends in the air, and salamanders in the fire. There were monsters such as dragons, griffins, were-wolves, witch-kind, Thor's-swine, and supernatural beings derived from the human world, but of dimmer outlines than the preceding.

Among these last was the mandragora, which was supposed to reveal to its possessor hidden things and future events, and to secure the friendship of all men. The root of the mandragora, or mandrake, often divides into two parts, and thus presents a rude resemblance to a human figure. It was believed that this plant could not be found except below the gallows where a pure youth had been hanged. When torn from the soil it was said to sigh, shriek, and moan so piteously that it caused whoever heard it to die. To find this plant it must be sought before sunrise Friday morning. The person seeking it should carefully fill his ears with cotton, wax, or pitch, and take with him a black dog, without a single white hair. The sign of the cross was to be made three times over the mandragora, then the soil was to be carefully removed, so that it was attached only by its fine rootlets. It was then tied by a string to the tail of a dog, who was attracted forward by a piece of bread. The dog pulled the plant from the earth, but fell dead, struck by the shriek of the mandragora. The plant was then taken home, washed in red wine, and wrapped in red-and-white silk, laid in a shrine, washed on successive Fridays, and dressed in a white frock. If the mandragora is bought it remains with the person who thus secures it, regardless of where it is thrown, until sold again. If kept until death, the person must depart to hell with it.

In the demoniacal fauna of the middle ages were-wolves played an important part. They were supposed to be men who changed themselves for a time into wolves, and roved about hunting for children. Augustine, one of the most prominent of the fathers and authors of his time, taught that it was the devil who wrapped a wolf's hide around a witch. Melanchthon also believed in this doctrine, and the Emperor Sigismund had the question investigated "scientifically" in the presence of theologians, and they came to the general agreement that the were-wolf is "a positive and constant fact"; for, the existence of the devil being accepted, there is no reason to deny that of the were-wolf, supported as it is by the authority of the fathers of the Church and by general experience.

Another ghastly superstition of those times was that of belief in vampires. These were disembodied souls, which had reclothed themselves in their buried bodies. In this garb they stole at night into houses and sucked from the nipples of the sleeping their blood. The person thus bereft of his vital fluid was in turn changed into a vampire. The corpse of a person suspected of vampirism, if dug up, was found well preserved, and an abundance of fresh blood would flow from its mouth on pressing the stomach. To this horrible belief is ascribed a kind of psychical pestilence, which spread terror in the Austrian provinces even down into the eighteenth century.

We have here given only a few examples of middle-age spiritualism, and must refer the curious reader to the instructive pages of Professor Rydberg's book for the fuller presentation of this painful subject. The statements we have given may seem in the last degree ludicrous and incredible, but they imply tragic realities and an unspeakable wretchedness in the mental states where such notions could be harbored. The age that built the cathedrals of Europe was one of fanatical religious earnestness, and from this we may infer the terrible sincerity of the horrors of insane superstition by which the minds of people were darkened and poisoned.

  1. The Magic of the Middle Ages. By Viktor Rydberg. Translated from the Swedish by August Hjalmar Edgren. New York: Henry Holt & Co.