Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 20. Superstition in the sixteenth century

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

V. The Progress of Social Literature in Tudor Times

§ 20. Superstition in the sixteenth century

We have seen how the great changes of the sixteenth century—the increase of luxury, the rise of the middle class, the growth of competition, the suppression of the monasteries, the expansion of Europe, the frequency of pestilence—inspired a vigorous literature, quite distinct from the theological and aesthetic movements of the time. But, while the popular printing presses were thus exposing fraud and enlightening ignorance, the superstitions of an earlier age were reappearing in an aggravated form. The belief in fetishes, totems, the evil eye, luck-bones, folk-remedies, love charms and nefarious magic was rampant in England. Christianity and paganism were, among the unthinking and untaught peasantry, inextricably mingled. Jugglery and legerdemain had still the glamour of the miraculous, and magic was used to discover lost things, bring back wayward lovers and cure disease. Astrologers still foretold events by studying the position of the stars, and sold information as to the auspicious hour for all kinds of human enterprise, from the founding of cities to the taking of medicine. Waldegrave, in 1580, published an attack on prognostications in the Foure Great Lyers, Striving who shall win the Silver Whetstone. The writer quotes the Biblical injunction against taking thought for the morrow, and appends a list of the “absurd, unknowne and insolent wordes” used by prognosticators to impress the inexperienced. But he still admits, on the authority of Scripture, that national benefits or calamities are foreshadowed in the heavens, and will not definitely deny that stars influence the fortunes of the individual. Mankind had not yet given up the search for the philosopher’s stone, and the debasement of coinage during Henry’s and Edward’s reigns was an additional inducement to search for wealth by means of alchemy. Such superstition offered limitless opportunities for “alcumysticall cousenages,” in which the unwary, beguiled by a specious manner and by the tricks of the trade, invested money in experiments, or entrusted it to be multiplied. These practices were exposed from time to time and added to the general sense of corruption and wickedness which oppressed mankind. The temper of the age is illustrated by the belief that the heresies, vanities and worldliness of the nation would shortly cause some awful manifestation of divine anger.

No sooner was this vague terror established than the old heathen belief in portents and prodigies made itself felt. Conrad Lycosthenes closed his Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon, in 1557, with the warning that these miracles and strange sights “were the certain prognostications of changes, revolutions, and calamities and the veritable tokens of God’s wrath.” The popular presses were already making a profitable business out of news sheets, in verse or prose, publishing sensational reports from all the world. They now profited by this religious terror to publish broadsides announcing prodigies and portents. We read of children born without arms and legs, a monstrous pig with a dolphin’s head, a child born with ruffs, and another having “the mouth slitted on the right side like a libarde’s (leopard’s) mouth, terrible to beholde.” These fly-leaves, beginning with a most circumstantial description of the portent, end with an exhortation to the people of England to take warning at the manifestations of God’s wrath and to repent. Many of them relate to the year 1562, which Holinshed and Stow record as especially fertile in monsters.

But the superstitious excitability of the people reached its most harmful phase in the revival of witch persecutions. To the medieval mind, heaven and hell were two tremendous powers fighting for the supremacy of man. The church was, indeed, master, but the devil was not destroyed. From time to time, his influence was felt, and now, in this age of pestilence, blasphemous controversy and schism, men thought that the Evil One was reasserting his power. His activity was most clearly discovered in witchcraft. All sorcery was a voluntary alliance with the powers of evil. In the case of witches, a carnal union with the devil was supposed to have taken place. Men who believed themselves at war with the invisible fiend would not be long in assailing his confederates on earth. In 1541, Henry VIII passed the first act against sorcery and magic; in 1562, the law was revived; and, in 1575 and 1576, persecutions were renewed. Terror was increased by the diseases of insanity and hypochondria being misunderstood. It was an age of monstrous hallucinations; men believed that they were wolves and fled to the mountains; nuns imagined they were cats and began to mew; maidens vomited pins; men believed they had snakes in their vitals. Remedies were no less monstrous. People rubbed themselves with magic ointment to produce dreams and cured diseases by drinking water out of a murdered man’s skull. This “nightmare of superstition” did not obsess everybody; there were enough readers to call for three editions of a burlesque rhapsody which ridiculed sorcery, spells and cat-legends under the title Beware the Cat. The tract, with its new-fashioned artificialities of style, was, probably, designed for the rapidly increasing class of exquisites, and it did not appeal to the majority of Englishmen, whose minds were unsettled by the momentous changes of the age.

This species of fanaticism was now no longer confined to the vulgar and uneducated. The theology and science of Germany had already been brought to bear on the subject. As early as 1487, Malleus Maleficarum, which established such fantasies as the incubus and succubus, the initiation of magicians, the black art and the counter-charms of the church, had received the sanction of the theological faculty and a patent from Maximilian I. Johannes Trithemius produced, in 1508, Antiphonus Maleficiorum, which accepted witchcraft as a fact, and taught the Christian how to defend himself against it. Cornelius Agrippa, on the other hand, argued against the persecution of witches in his De Occulta Philosophia, and his pupil, the physician Johann Weier, exposed the superstition and cruelty of that practice in De Praestigiis Demonum et Incantationibus ac Beneficiis. Weier still believed in a certain magic worked by the devil, but he discovered how much the imagination had to do with witchcraft, and how much of sorcery can be explained by a knowledge of natural phenomena. The book provoked the keenest opposition, especially from Jean Bodin, who put all his experience as a judge in witch trials and all his theoretic knowledge of magic and sorcery into his Traité de la Démonomie des Sorciers.