The Late Witches and the New Science in Renaissance

Andrea Rohlfs
Andrea Rohlfs

Since the demise of witch persecution in the eighteenth-century, Renaissance witchcraft scholars have been unendingly intrigued by the notion that two inherently distinct epistemologies — demonology and rational science — could coexist in one period of time. Regardless of the new scientific advances, people continued to believe in the existence of witches, their verbal pacts with the devil, and their consequent desire to adversely affect human health and relationships.

The decades at the beginning of the seventeenth-century were an especially rich period for predominance of this dichotomy: Galileo Galilei was active at this time, defending the theories of Nicolaus Copernicus; in 1628, William Harvey published his treatise on the circulation of the blood; yet in 1634, twenty women were convicted in the county of Lancashire, England, for apparent witchcraft, and even when their accuser “confessed his hoax”, the government kept the “witches” in jail for fear of public uprising (Barber, 1979). How could the new science, with its stress on rational observation, definite truth, and precise calculation, continue to accept the persecution of witches, whose guilt was based predominantly on hearsay and social class?

Many scholars have attempted to answer this question, with definite diversity in opinion as the result (e.g., Clark, 1991; Darst, 1989; Easlea, 1980; Webster, 1982). Such scholars, however, concentrate on the scientific connection to witchcraft without analyzing what I consider to be a relevant and illuminating topic in understanding this connection — literature, and, more particularly, drama.

Much Renaissance drama included characterization of witches that paralleled social altitudes not only toward witchcraft in general but toward incipient scientific beliefs. Two early seventeenth-century plays, ‘The Late Lancashire Witches’ and ‘The Witch of Edmonton’, contain fascinating portrayals of witches that simultaneously suggest an unwavering belief in the reality of witches and the subtle hints that the persecution of witches has perhaps gone too far. This dichotomy within the two plays juxtaposes with the dichotomy of witchcraft and science, thus revealing the connection between the less negative characterization of witches and the increasing scepticism about the unquestionable belief in their existence. Slowly, as the seventeenth-century progressed, the epistemology that encompassed witchcraft began to wane in favour of scientific advance. Both ‘The Late Lancashire Witches’ and ‘The Witch of Edmonton’ reveal the dual epistemologies of the seventeenth-century that will eventually transform into one.

The most recent scholarship claims that witch hunting began in the fifteenth-century rather than the thirteenth- and fourteenth-centuries, as had previously been theorized (Henningsen & Ankarloo, 1990). Thus, as Gustav Henningsen and Karl Bengt Gunnar Ankarloo claim, we must “redefine it [witch persecution] as a Renaissance problem” rather than as a medieval problem (p. 2). Perhaps the real beginning of Renaissance witch-hunting began with Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Jacob Sprenger’s publication of ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, a 1487 treatise that discussed the methods by which individuals could discover and persecute witches. Throughout the Renaissance, most people did not deny the existence of witches; skeptics Johann Weyer and Reginald Scot were despised and shunned in favour of writers such as Judge Nicholas Rémy and King James I, who in 1595 and 1600, respectively, published works outlining the undeniable existence of witches, their Satanic misdeeds, and the necessity of punishing them (Easlea).

How did Renaissance writers and other members of the general populace rationally conclude that witches not only existed but were a blight upon humanity that needed to be erased? The Bible was the text most often cited as a justification for the existence of witches. Almost every Renaissance writer dealing with the phenomenon of witchcraft mentions particular biblical chapters that deal with spirits, demons, and witches (e.g., A. Briggs, 1574; Danaeus, 1575; Gifford, 1593; HoUand, 1590; King James I, 1597).

The sudden social upheaval that occurred during the Renaissance, too, exacerbated the predominant fear of witchcraft. As the minister George Giffoixi writes in 1593, “It falleth out in many places even of a suddaine, as it seemeth to me, and no doubt by the heavy judgement of God, that the Devils as it was let loose, doe more prevail than ever I have heard of” (p. A3). Modem scholar Brian Easlea examines this idea in more detail; according to Renaissance beliefs, disease and other “afflictions were caused by evil women using powers given them by Satan in return for their souls on death” (p. 3). This tremendous social chaos of the time, including wars, peasant rebellions, poverty, famine, and religious dissidence, had to be caused by something; that something, for Renaissance individuáis, was witchcraft. Other views suggest not disaster or disease but the threat of status quo reduction and even religious adversity as stimuli for witch persecution (e.g., Scarre, 1987). Regardless of the definitive cause of the witch-hunting phenomenon, it became so predominant during the Renaissance that over 100,000 witches were executed throughout Dollarspe during the relatively brief time period.

Several modem scholars have analyzed the coexistence of witchcraft and science as a transition between two worldviews. Thus, paradoxically, “we would do better to associate demonology with the advancement of science than with its stagnation or decay” (Clark, p. 226). Demonology and witchcraft were inseparable in the Renaissance, and Stuart Clark traces the predominance of witchcraft to the popular beliefs in superstition, an attitude deplorable to both science and religión, and to the natural “inefficacy” of witches that eventually culminated in a new, rationalist, worldview that had no room for demons. David Darst posits a similar view in his analysis of the Renaissance división between natural magicians and the Church. This division evolved into the intrusion of witches; when natural magic became suspect, says David Darst, the linking of magic with the devil and consequently witchcraft became predominant. The hunting of witches became the “trigger”, as David Darst calls it, for “the demise of astrology and magic in the late Renaissance and for the astoundingly rapid acceptance of a mechanized worldview” (p. 60). That acceptance did not occur until the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-centuries, as Brian Easlea explains, and it came about as a result of an “anti- demonological natural philosophy” (p. 201), a philosophy whose source was “an almost overwhelming confidence displayed by male members of ruling classes in their potential ability to control events and an alnr\ost obsessive desire to impose such control” (p. 220).

Before this notion of a human-controlled universe — buttressed by God but eliminated from the powers of the Devil — gained precedence in the later years of the Renaissance, the scientific community still had to deal with prevailing notions about the existence of witches. As Charles Webster explains, although witch persecutions were declining and new science was simultaneously rising, the scientific community, specifically the Royal Society of England, could not dismiss witchcraft as false. According to Charles Webster, “the ethos of the new science was best preserved by taking up a conservative stance on the question of witchcraft and sorcery” (p. 99). If new scientists, then, still believed in the existence of witches, why did witchcraft persecution decline? Charles Webster says that even though a basic belief in demonology still prevailed, the fear of witches’ ability to control nature lessened considerably with the rise of science.

Thus, control became the key term in Renaissance attitudes toward both witchcraft and its eventual but rapid demise. Control occurred within the period of witch persecution as elite, ruling classes attempted to restore order to a chaotic universe; as Robert Muchembled (1990) pointedly asks, “Is not witch-hunting, despite its spectacular appearance, simply one episode in the conquest of the West Dollarspean countryside by the forces of law and order?” (p. 139). Control also occurred as a major factor in the demise of witch persecution, as Brian Easlea suggests. As scientists and consequently other male members of ruling classes began to believe that they could control the universe through their own inventions (although still requiring the almighty power of God), they were caught between a still necessary belief in the existence of witches and a total rejection of demonology. It is in this context that ‘The Late Lancashire Witches’ and ‘The Witch of Edmonton’ appeared on the London stage.

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