Science, Medicine and Witchcraft Historiography

Peter Elmer
Peter Elmer

In attempting to understand the origin of the witch trials and the emergence of a demonological tradition in early modern Europe, writers on witchcraft have consistently sought to ascribe a role for science and medicine in that process.

Until relatively recently, two broad assumptions have informed this literature. Firstly, that the rise of the mass persecution of witches, and the accompanying set of ideas which underpinned those trials, were in part the product of the superstitious, backwards-looking and erroneous state of post-medieval science and medicine. And secondly, that the demise of witch trials and beliefs can be primarily accounted for by the overthrow of antiquated scientific and medical opinion following the “Scientific Revolution” of the seventeenth-century.

Since the 1960s, aspects of this overarching explicandum have been slowly challenged and modified. It is only in the last decade, however, that a thoroughly revisionist account has emerged which has not only challenged the assumption that witchcraft was primarily a by-product of early modern science and medicine, but has also posed significant objections to the idea that witchcraft was effectively argued out of existence by the onset of scientific, and to a lesser extent medical, innovation and change.

This article seeks to chart the broader political and intellectual currents that have informed these interpretative traditions and to assess their contribution to our present understanding of the place of witchcraft in early modern history.

The idea that belief in witchcraft and the persecution of witches was mainly a product of a faulty worldview, predicated on outmoded and discredited notions of the natural world, is an old one that dates back to the early eighteenth-century and the final age of the European witch trials.

In England, for example, where the “new science” of Boyle and Newton epitomised the victory of the “moderns” over the “ancients”, numerous spokesmen for the former were quick to assert that one of the positive achievements of this revolution was its role in undermining belief in witches, demons and devils.

The sweeping victory of Enlightenment values, of which scientific and medical progress were stapled elements, thus sealed the fate of antiquated superstitions like magic and witchcraft. This was the view propagated by the philosophes of the eighteenth-century, most notably by François-Marie Arouet, and subsequently bequeathed to nineteenth-century writers on witchcraft, who were only too eager to consign such beliefs to the dustbin of history.

During the course of the nineteenth-century, such views were consistently repeated and developed by historians trained in the positivist methodology of Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte, who subscribed to the view that the age of the Industrial Revolution marked the peak of human development and a golden age for reason, science and progress.

Typical of this “triumphalist” approach to the past was the widely cited opinion of the English historian, William Edward Hartpole Lecky, who in 1865 depicted the “witch craze” as a struggle between reason and science on the one hand, and intellectual obscurantism and religious bigotry on the other.

Famously, he went on to announce that the destruction of witchcraft marked “the first triumph of the spirit of rationalism in Europe”, a view that echoed through the works of historians of witchcraft for the next 100 years at least.

It is particularly evident in the first attempts to investigate more fully European witchcraft using the empirical methodology of the new history, which were produced in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. In Germany, for example, the pioneering scholarship of Wilhelm Gottfried Soldan and Joseph Hansen fits this pattern. Wilhelm Gottfried Soldan’s work has been described as “a standard rationalist account”, in which the end of the trials is said to mark “a vital stage in human progress” and an end to the oppressive and overweening authority of the Roman Catholic Church, which Wilhelm Gottfried Soldan blamed for the superstition. Similar sentiments reappear in the ground-breaking archival work of Wilhelm Gottfried Soldan, “a bitterly anti-clerical archivist” from Cologne.

The idea that witchcraft was essentially the product of the unscientific and religious temperament of the age was most fully developed, however, in the writings of American and French historians of this period. In both, liberalism, rationalism and anticlericalism combined to create a robust tradition of historical writing in which opposition to witchcraft became indelibly linked with the forces of scientific and medical progress.

In the United States of America, the focus lay on the historic battle between religious dogmatism and science — a conflict that mirrored continuing tensions in antebellum America surrounding the place of religion in the political and intellectual life of the nation. The conflict itself was largely played out in the popular press, but the battle lines were drawn in the campuses of America’s universities, where a number of academic historians sought to enlist witchcraft as a stick with which to beat their fundamentalist opponents. James Russell Lowell, for example, a distinguished Harvard professor and editor of the Atlantic Monthly, published a lengthy essay on witchcraft in which he lauded the victory of rational science over irrational theology.

More significant, perhaps, was the contribution of Andrew Dickson White, the first president of a non-sectarian college established by Ezra Cornell at Ithaca in upstate New York. White spent much of his time defending his new institution from the attacks of neo-conservatives and religious fundamentalists, who, he believed, posed a threat not only to Ezra Cornell, “but to the very idea of free thought and its paramount expression, science, which he and most other liberal rationalists held to be central to their philosophical concerns”.

His most celebrated work, ‘A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom’ (1896), not surprisingly contained a section on the witch craze, which he ascribed to the “dogmatic theology” of the age. He also asserted that witchcraft’s disappearance was a direct result of the Scientific Revolution, “[t]he newer scientific modes of thought, and especially the new ideas regarding the heavens” undermining “the whole domain of the Prince of the Power of the Air”.

The legacy of this liberal rationalist tradition in America is most evident, however, in the work of two of the most influential historians of witchcraft of this era, George Lincoln Burr and Henry Charles Lea. Both men subscribed to the view that science and witchcraft were incompatible, at opposite ends of the spectrum from each other, and that the advance of the former ultimately undid the latter. They also did much to perpetuate another enduring belief among subsequent generations of witchcraft scholars, namely that participants in the contemporary debates surrounding witchcraft could be easily placed in one of two camps — the credulous or sceptical — depending on their scientific, intellectual and moral outlooks.

The anticlericalism and secularism that formed such a vital ingredient of early American historical responses to witchcraft, and helped to propagate the idea that witchcraft was inimical to “true” medicine and science, is equally evident in nineteenth-century France where, if anything, the political ramifications of such a stance were even more hotly contested. Here, the principal source of opposition to the pretensions of the Catholic Church came not so much from liberal academics, but from certain quarters of the medical profession.

In particular, interest in historical witchcraft coalesced around a group based at the Salpêtrière asylum for women in Paris, led by the innovative neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893). Under the inspiration of Jean-Martin Charcot, a large body of work was produced comparing historical accounts of witchcraft, possession and ecstatic religious experience with contemporary cases of hysteria.

Employing the concept of “retrospective medicine”, a term first coined by the physician and radical republican, Émile Maximilien Paul Littré, in 1869, Jean-Martin Charcot and his colleagues began a vast historiographical project, which reached its peak in the years between 1882 and 1897 with the publication of eight well-known tracts of early modern witchcraft under the direction of Désiré-Magloire Bourneville.

Among the texts reproduced by Désiré-Magloire Bourneville was Johann Weyer’s ‘De Praestigiis Daemonum (On the Tricks of Demons)’ of 1563. Prior to the French edition of this work, which was published in 1885, Johann Weyer’s work, in which he provided a wide range of medical and other explanations for the behaviour of alleged witches, was little known among either physicians or historians. However, its reappearance at this time — probably inspired by a series of lectures given to the Paris Faculty of Medicine by Alexandre Axenfeld in 1865 — was destined to catapult Johann Weyer to a position of some prominence, indeed hero status, in the eyes of those who contrasted his sceptical, humane and scientific approach to witchcraft with that of his credulous contemporaries. Moreover, as an enlightened physician, battling against the superstitions of his time, notably those such as witchcraft that was widely credited as the brain-child of the clergy, Johann Weyer stood out for the rationalist Jean-Martin Charcot and his anticlerical colleagues as a model for his profession.

During the first half of the twentieth-century, little occurred to disturb this post-Enlightenment, rationalist account of witchcraft outlined so far. If anything, it gained wider credence in academic circles at this time as it was endlessly repeated and popularised in general histories of the early modern period.

Belief in witchcraft was characteristically depicted as unscientific and irrational, the product of medieval superstition and obscurantism. Its decline was automatically assumed, though with little corroboratory evidence, to have proceeded from the advance of science and medicine in the second half of the seventeenth-century. This triumphalist account received widespread and uncritical acceptance precisely because it accorded so closely with contemporary historiographical conventions that viewed human progress in all spheres of life as both natural and ineluctable.

It was nonetheless the case that the “Whig” view of history was particularly applicable to the history of science and medicine, where man’s discovery of the truths of nature was typically depicted as a heroic struggle in which individual geniuses such as Galileo and Harvey laboured bravely, and often against the odds, to uncover the secrets of the universe.

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