Glanvill and Webster and the Literary War over Witchcraft

Wallace Notestein

Wallace Notestein

In an earlier article, we followed the progress of opinion from James I to the Restoration. We saw that in the course of little more than a half-century the centre of the controversy had been considerably shifted: we noted that there was a growing body of intelligent men who discredited the stories of witchcraft and were even inclined to laugh at them.

It is now our purpose to go on with the history of opinion from the point at which we left off to the revolution of 1688. We shall discover that the body of literature on the subject was enormously increased. We shall see that a larger and more representative group of men were expressing themselves on the matter.

The controversialists were no longer bushwhackers, but crafty warriors who joined battle after looking over the field and measuring their forces. The groundworks of philosophy were tested, the bases of religious faith examined.

The days of skirmishing about the ordeal of water and the test of the Devil’s marks were gone by.

The combatants were now to fight over the reality or unreality of supernatural phenomena. We shall observe that the battle was less one-sided than ever before and that the assailants of superstition, who up to this time had been outnumbered, now fought on at least even terms with their enemies. We shall see too that the nonparticipants and onlookers were more ready than ever before to join themselves to the party of attack.

The struggle was indeed a miniature war and in the main was fought very fairly. But it was natural that those who disbelieved should resort to ridicule. It was a form of attack to which their opponents exposed themselves by their faith in the utterly absurd stories of silly women.

Cervantes with his Don Quixote laughed chivalry out of Europe, and there was a class in society that would willingly have laughed witchcraft out of England. Their onslaught was one most difficult to repel. Nevertheless, the defenders of witchcraft met the challenge squarely. With unwearying patience and absolute confidence in their cause, they collected the testimonies for their narratives and then said to those who laughed: Here are the facts; what are you going to do about them?

The last chapter told of the alarms in Somerset and in Wilts and showed what a stir they produced in England. In connection with those affairs was mentioned the name of that brave researcher, Mr Glanvill. The history of the witch literature of this period is little more than an account of Joseph Glanvill, of his opinions, of his controversies, of his disciples and his opponents.

It is not too much to say that in Glanvill the superstition found its ablest advocate. In acuteness of logical distinction, in the cleverness and brilliance of his intellectual sword-play, he excelled all others before and after who sought to defend the belief in witchcraft.

He was a man entitled to speak with some authority. A member of Exeter College at Oxford, he had been in 1664 elected a fellow of the recently founded Royal Society and was in sympathy with its point of view. At the same time, he was a philosopher of no small influence in his generation.

His intellectual position is not difficult to determine. He was an opponent of the Oxford scholasticism and inclined towards a school of thought represented by Robert Fludd, the two Vaughans, Henry More, and Van Helmont, men who had drunk deeply of the cabalistic writers, disciples of Paracelsus and Pico della Mirandola.

It would be foolhardy indeed for a layman to attempt an elucidation of the subtleties either of this philosophy or of the processes of Glanvill’s philosophical reasoning. His point of view was partially unfolded in the Scepsis Scientifica, published in 16652 and dedicated to the Royal Society.

In this treatise, he pointed out our present ignorance of phenomena and our inability to determine their real character, owing to the subjectivity of our perceptions of them, and insisted consequently upon the danger of dogmatism.

He had drawn but a cockle-shell of water from the ocean of knowledge. His notion of spirit — if his works on witchcraft may be trusted — seems to have been that it is a light and invisible form of matter capable of detachment from or infusion into more solid substances — precisely the idea of Henry More.

Religiously, it would not be far wrong to call him a reconstructionist — to use a much abused and exceedingly common term. He did not, indeed, admit the existence of any gap between religion and science that needed bridging over, but the trend of his teaching, though he would hardly have admitted it, was to show that the mysteries of revealed religion belong in the field of unexplored science.

It was his confidence in the remote possibilities opened by investigation in that field, together with the cabalistic notions he had absorbed, which rendered him so willing to become a student of psychical phenomena.

Little wonder, then, that he found the Mompesson and Somerset cases material to his hand and that he seized upon them eagerly as irrefutable proof of demoniacal agency. His first task, indeed, was to prove the alleged facts; these once established, they could be readily fitted into a comprehensive scheme of reasoning.

In 1666, he issued a small volume, ‘Some Philosophical Considerations touching Witches and Witchcraft’. Most of the first edition was burned in the fire of London, but the book was reprinted.

Already by 1668, it had reached the fourth impression. In this edition, the work took the new title ‘A Blow at Modern Sadducism’, and it was republished again in 1681 with further additions as ‘Sadducismus Triumphatus’, which might be translated ‘Unbelief Conquered.’

The work continued to be called for faster than the publisher could supply the demand, and went through several more revisions and reimpressions. One of the most popular books of the generation, it proved to be Glanvill’s most celebrated title to contemporary fame.

The success of the work was no doubt due in large measure to the collection of witch stories, but these had been inserted by the author as the groundwork of his argument. He recognized, as no one on his side of the controversy had done before, the force of the arguments made by the opposition.

They were good points, but to them all he offered one short answer — the evidence of the proved fact. That such transformations as were ascribed to the witches were ridiculous, that contracts between the Devil and agents who were already under his control were absurd, that the Devil would never put himself at the nod and beck of miserable women, and that Providence would not permit His children to be thus buffeted by the evil one: these were the current objections; and to them all Glanvill replied that one positive fact is worth a thousand negative arguments.

Innumerable frauds had been exposed. Yes, he knew it, but here were well-authenticated cases that were not a fraud. Glanvill put the issue squarely. His confidence in his case at once wins admiration. He was thoroughly sincere. The fly in the ointment was of course that his best-authenticated cases could not stand any careful criticism. He had been furnished the narratives which he used by “honest and honourable friends.” Yet, if this scientific investigator could be duped, as he had been at Tedworth, much more those worthy but credulous friends whom he quoted.

From a simple assertion that he was presenting facts, Glanvill went on to make a plea often used nowadays in another connection by defenders of miracles.

If the ordinary mind, he said, could not understand “everything done by Mathematics and Mechanical Artifice,” how much more would even the most knowing of us fail to understand the power of witches.

This proposition, the reader can see, was nothing more than a working out of one of the principles of his philosophy. There can be no doubt that he would have taken the same ground about miracles, a position that must have alarmed many of his contemporaries.

In spite of his emphasis of fact, Glanvill was as ready as any to enter into a theological disquisition. Into those rarefied regions of thought, we shall not follow him. It will perhaps not be out of order, however, to note two or three points that were thoroughly typical of his reasoning.

To the contention that, if a wicked spirit could work harm by the use of a witch, it should be able to do so without any intermediary and so to harass all of mankind all of the time, he answered that the designs of demons are levelled at the soul and can, in consequence, best be carried on in secret.

To the argument that when one considers the “vileness of men” one would expect that the evil spirits would practise their arts not on a few but on a great many, he replied that men are not liable to be troubled by them till they have forfeited the “tutelary care and oversight of the better spirits,” and, furthermore, spirits find it difficult to assume such shapes as are necessary for “their Correspondencie with Witches.”

It is a hard thing for spirits “to force their thin and tenuous bodies into a visible consistence […]. For, in this Action, their Bodies must needs be exceedingly compress’d.” To the objection that the belief in evil beings makes it plausible that the miracles of the Bible were wrought by the agency of devils, he replied that the miracles of the Gospel are notoriously contrary to the tendency, aims, and interests of the kingdom of darkness.

The suggestion that witches would not renounce eternal happiness for short and trivial pleasures here, he silenced by saying that “Mankind acts sometimes to prodigious degrees of brutishness.”

It is needless to go further in quoting his arguments. Doubtless, both questions and answers seem quibbles to the present-day reader, but the force of Glanvill’s replies from the point of view of his contemporaries must not be underestimated.

He was indeed the first defender of witchcraft who in any reasoned manner, tried to clear up the problems proposed by the opposition. His answers were without question the best that could be given.

It is easy for us to forget the theological background of seventeenth-century English thought. Given a personal Devil who is constantly intriguing against the kingdom of God (and who would then have dared to deny such a premise?), grant that the Devil has supernatural powers (and there were Scripture texts to prove it), and it was but a short step to the belief in witches.

The truth is that Glanvill’s theories were much more firmly grounded on the bedrock of seventeenth-century theology than those of his opponents. His opponents were attempting to use common sense, but it was a sort of common sense which, however little they saw it, must undermine the current religious convictions.

Glanvill was indeed exceedingly up-to-date in his own time. Not but that he had read the learned old authors. He was familiar with what “the great Episcopius” had to say, he had dipped into Reginald Scot and deemed him too “ridiculous” to answer. But he cared far more about the arguments that he heard advanced in every-day conversation.

These were the arguments that he attempted to answer. His work reflected the current discussions of the subject. It was, indeed, the growing opposition among those whom he met that stirred him most. Not without sadness, he recognized that “most of the looser Gentry and small pretenders to Philosophy and Wit are generally deriders of the belief of Witches and Apparitions.”

Like an animal at bay, he turned fiercely on them. “Let them enjoy the Opinion of their own Superlative Judgements” and run madly after Scot, Hobbes, and Osborne. It was, in truth, a danger to religion that he was trying to ward off. One of the fundamentals of religion was at stake.

The denial of witchcraft was a phase of prevalent atheism. Those that give up the belief in witches, give up that in the Devil, then that in the immortality of the soul.18 The question at issue was the reality of the spirit world.

It can be seen why the man was tremendously in earnest. One may indeed wonder if his intensity of feeling on the matter was not responsible for his acceptance as bona fide narratives those which his common sense should have made him reject.

In defending the authenticity of the remarkable stories told by the accusers of Julian Cox, he was guilty of a degree of credulity that passes belief. Perhaps the reader will recall the incident of the hunted rabbit that vanished behind a bush and was transformed into a painting woman, no other than the accused Julian Cox.

This tale must indeed have strained Glanvill’s utmost capacity of belief. Yet he rose bravely to the occasion. Determined not to give up any well-supported fact, he urged that probably the Devil had sent a spirit to take the apparent form of the hare while he had hurried the woman to the bush and had presumably kept her invisible until she was found by the boy. It was the Nemesis of a bad cause that its greatest defender should have let himself indulge in such absurdities.

In truth, we may be permitted to wonder if the philosopher was altogether true to his own position.

In his ‘Scepsis Scientifica’ he had talked hopefully about the possibility that science might explain what as yet seemed supernatural.

This came perilously near to saying that the realms of the supernatural, when explored, would turn out to be natural and subject to natural law. If this were true, what would become of all those bulwarks of religion furnished by the wonders of witchcraft? It looks very much as if Glanvill had let an inconsistency creep into his philosophy.

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