On the Confessional Uses and History of Witchcraft Oration

On the Confessional Uses and History of Witchcraft Oration
© Photograph by Светлана Беляева

The early twentieth-century scholar Montague Summers, a self-professed Catholic priest and a demonologist of sorts, had adopted the final line of Stapleton’s witchcraft oration — “heresy grows with magic, and magic grows with heresy” — as his personal motto.

The oration and, in fact, the same line also made an appearance in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s well-known Witch-Craze pamphlet of 1967. Stapleton is also discussed in Stuart Clark’s seminal ‘Thinking with Demons’ in a chapter which surveyed the differences between Protestant and Catholic witchcraft.

The oration, which appears here for the first time in English translation, is indeed of especial importance to historians interested in the confessional dimension of the early modern witch-hunt.

It offers no fewer than twelve reasons why the rise of witchcraft and heresy were linked: a record number.

Witch-hunting reached its zenith during the age of the Reformations. Yet, the extent to which religious reform contributed to (or even played a role in) this development remains a matter of debate.

This situation may be surprising (were witches not meant to be the devil’s allies?) and it certainly is ironic. After all, many early historians of the witch-hunt, Trevor-Roper included, had made witch-hunting the exclusive product of religious zealotry and clerical narrowmindedness.

The picture now looks considerably more complex. It is true that late medieval witchcraft treatises, often authored by Dominican inquisitors, tended to treat witchcraft as yet another heresy and witches as yet another hidden sect to be rooted out by the Church. Yet, the onset of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations saw a noticeable decline in witch-hunting.

Only from the 1570s and 1580s onwards did the number of trials and demonological treatises pick up the pace again, affecting areas such as the Spanish Netherlands (Stapleton’s place of exile) for the first time. Still, the connection may still seem inevitable.

Reformation polemics offer masterclasses in the us-versus-them politics of “othering”, while witch-hunting by its very nature literally demonized its victims as allies of the devil. Yet, even during this heyday period of c.1570-1620, the impact of new confessional identities and regimes on witch-hunting was by no means clear-cut.

Similarly, witchcraft scepticism did not necessarily entail an embrace of a proto-scientific or empirical mindset, scepticism could, in fact, be the product of a certain theological conservatism (as Stapleton acknowledges below, witchcraft was a novelty), and leniency in witchcraft cases did not translate into support for religious toleration.

For those interested in the confessional uses of witchcraft, Thomas Stapleton’s 1594 oration, entitled ‘Why Has Magic Grown Today Together with Heresy?’, offers an invaluable source: an attempt to map the history of witchcraft by a contemporary, who was a seasoned and highly partisan polemicist.

The Catholic exile situated the rise of the supposedly twin forces of witchcraft and Protestantism within the context of the impending apocalypse in preparation for which the devil had been unleashed on the world.

The text deserves attention for the way that it integrates these two contemporary threats within a longer history of demonic assaults on mankind from the birth of Christ to the end of time.

Thomas Stapleton was born at Henfield, Sussex, in July 1535. That same month had witnessed (since 1935, Saint) Thomas More’s execution by the Henrician regime, and Stapleton’s first name was likely an act of rebellion and piety on the part of his Catholic parents.

Stapleton himself would later publish a devotional treatise, the ‘Tres Thomae’ (1588), in honour of Thomas the Apostle, Thomas Becket, and More. After studying at Winchester College during Edward VI’s reign and at New College, Oxford, under Mary, Stapleton became one of many English Catholics to relocate to the University of Leuven (or Louvain) in the Spanish Netherlands at the start of Elizabeth’s reign.

He would spend the remainder of his life at the two institutions, Leuven and Douai, that made up Netherlandish academia at the time, rising to the position of Regius Professor of Scriptures at Leuven in 1590. It was to an audience of Leuven theologians that the oration below was addressed. An attempt to lure Stapleton to Rome was prevented only by his death in 1598.

Stapleton’s oration is of some value to historians of English Catholicism.

In 1592, Stapleton had pseudonymously published the most vicious ad feminam attack on Queen Elizabeth by any English Catholic exile, depicting her as an evil genius, a Jezebel, and a frankly witch-like figure.

England’s destruction by heresy and the dangers of being ruled by a witch-prince are touched on in passing in the oration as well (see lines 300–1, 433–34). The text is also of interest to historians of early modern Catholicism more widely, as an example of practical or pastoral theology, reminiscent of the sort of spiritual advice frequently proffered by the arbitristas of Spain.

Stapleton set out a concrete set of actions (though we might not consider them all that practical) as a response to societal problems. Yet, as already indicated, the oration should be of particular interest to historians of witchcraft and demonology.

The remainder of this introduction is confined to three notable features whose significance might not immediately stand out to readers of the translation. We should first of all note the perceived novelty of witchcraft, evident from the oration’s title (“today”) but also from the lingering uncertainty that members of Stapleton’s elite audience may still have had about its reality.

This sense of novelty was real, both within a local, Netherlandish context and within an academic one. The first execution for witchcraft in Brabant, the duchy in which Leuven was located, had taken place as late as 1589.

Leuven’s more prominent demonologist, the Flemish-Spanish Jesuit Martin Delrio, made a similar comment about the perceived rise of witchcraft around roughly the same time. Stapleton’s own reading of demonology also highlights the way the discipline emerged onto the academic scene during the 1580s with renewed vigour, a factor we already noted above.

The English Catholic cites authors such as Jean Bodin, Leonardo Vairo, Pierre Le Loyer, Petrus Binsfeld, and Petrus Thyraeus, whose writings all appeared during this decade. He gained access to the ‘Malleus maleficarum’ and the older works by Bernard Basin and Jean Gerson through the 1582 Frankfurt edition which included them.

Although witchcraft — like heresy — possessed a long pedigree and was clearly not new in any absolute sense (see the reference to Zoroaster, lines 249–50), Stapleton’s oration highlights the newfound urgency with which Europe’s intellectuals approached the subject throughout the 1580s and 1590s.

Secondly and relatedly, the careful study also reveals the intellectual resources and the reading that went into the text’s construction. Its relative brevity allows for its references to be followed up.

Although fact-checking a demonology might seem a particularly foolhardy act, it shows that Stapleton’s reading of the demonological corpus was reasonably narrow.

References to Johann Wier, Johann Gödelmann, and others were lifted from Binsfeld, while many of the references to the Malleus came from only a single quaestio. Stapleton’s demonological reading may, in fact, be limited to only four volumes: Bodin, Binsfeld, the 1582 Malleus edition, and Le Loyer.

The fact that he considered the Italians Leonardo Vairo and Paolo Grillandi to hail from Spain and the Baltic respectively suggests limited familiarity with their writings, while knowledge of Olaus Magnus’s work may have been mediated by Le Loyer.

Stapleton’s rather passing acquaintance with demonology must be set against his deep knowledge of the Bible and the Church Fathers. His quotations of the Fathers, in particular, are often inexact and apparently from memory. Also prominent are references to canon law in the form of the Decretum Gratiani, a new authorized Roman version of which had appeared in 1582.

The fortuitous discovery of Stapleton’s copy of Pierre Le Loyer’s ‘Quatre Livres des spectres’ (1586) in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France provides further evidence of how the English Catholic read his demonology.

Ostensibly, the margins offer slim pickings. Stapleton was not given to lengthy marginal expositions and he apparently did not study his Le Loyer “for action”.

No date or place is given on the title page which carries Stapleton’s name that would help us date either his purchase or his reading, and it cannot be ascertained whether he (re-)read Le Loyer in preparation of his 1594 oration.

Written in Latin and French, many of Stapleton’s comments were clearly no more than aides-mémoire, serving to highlight the structure of Le Loyer’s book and summarize its arguments.

A story taken from the ancient Greek geographer Pausanias concerning the battlefields of Marathon prompts the English Catholic’s most personal response. The clamour of arms which could still be heard by visitors for centuries after its famous battle led Stapleton to observe that “an excellent musical sound” could still be heard in the (presumably silent) cathedral church of Winchester in the years 1560–1563 following the Reformation.

This is the closest we come to a private recollection. As the anecdote shows, however, Stapleton read Le Loyer, who reported gossip on Catholics and Protestants dabbling in magic with apparently equal relish, through decidedly confessional lenses.

Whether Philipp Melanchthon’s professed encounters with spirits were works of magic, Le Loyer had left “to those more clairvoyant” but in the margin Stapleton was more decisive in his judgement of Luther’s famous collaborator: “Melanchthon suspected of witchcraft.”

The Frenchman’s comment that ‘the most famous [of the heretics] feigned false visions’ similarly drew an approving comment: “the false revelations of the heretics.” By contrast, the lawyer’s comment about “some witch-popes” is diligently crossed out in the theologian’s copy.

Notes and underlining show that the English Catholic read at least the first three books of Le Loyer’s ‘Quatre Livres des spectres’ closely. In addition to the explicit references to Des spectres in the oration (lines 44–45, 336–37, 370–71), we may also perceive Le Loyer’s influence in some indirect ways as well.

Stapleton seems rather struck by Le Loyer’s discussions of artificial magic — a fascination that is equally evident in Stapleton’s text, and an interest for which Le Loyer was well known.

Other marginal notes by Stapleton’s hand — for instance, “demons [as] teachers of poetry and philosophy” and “the devil adapts his deceptions to the humour of those he deceives” — also leave unacknowledged traces in the oration.

Stapleton’s comments also show greater familiarity with Bodin’s ‘De La Démonomanie’ (1580) than the single anecdote employed in the oration (line 126–29) might have led us to expect. Le Loyer’s refutation of belief in lycanthropy and other forms of human shapeshifting did not mention Jean Bodin (who controversially accepted the reality of such bodily transformations) by name, but it repeatedly solicited the comment ‘Bodin refuté’ from Stapleton in the margin.

Similarly, the Englishman identified Le Loyer’s account of an anonymous person “who had prayed with all his heart that it would please God to send his good angel” as taken from the political theorist: “this vision is recounted by Bodin in ‘De La Démonomanie’ book 1, chapter 2.”

Neither man identifies the visionary as Bodin himself (as historians now do), although Le Loyer does represent the man as a Protestant deceived by the devil. Bodin’s heterodoxy may well explain Stapleton’s reluctance to be seen using him.

Stapleton’s reading of Le Loyer and Bodin, as well as the overall thrust of his oration, thus leads to a third and final observation: Stapleton was using witchcraft to make a point about heresy.

The threat posed by Protestantism was a constant theme in Stapleton’s other academic orations. This should not surprise us given that the English Catholic had not only lost his homeland to heresy but nearly his Netherlandish refuge as well.

By 1594, it had only been five years since the last Protestants left Antwerp for exile in the fledgeling Dutch Republic. Essentially, Stapleton’s gambit in his 1594 oration was to prove the similarity between witchcraft and heresy in order to emphasize that the latter should be treated more harshly than it generally was.

If his audience was less certain about the reality of witchcraft, it still seemed more obvious that witches rather than heretics deserved death. The lumping together of rather different types of witchcraft and (learned) magic also has the effect of further foregrounding heresy, both as the devil’s most important prong of attack and the most significant manifestation of a more widespread spiritual malaise.

The oration’s concluding rhetorical questions urged the listener to treat Protestants, who once had been tolerated under the Pacification of Ghent of 1576, no differently from demon worshippers.

By representing the virtues of Protestants as mere deceits and their skills as Satanic gifts for which they deserved no credit, Stapleton’s oration ‘Why Has Magic Grown Today Together with Heresy?’ offers a fine case study in the arts of demonization.

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