Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 8. Witches, Astrologers and Alchemists

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XV. The Progress of Science

§ 8. Witches, Astrologers and Alchemists

If we pass from the interest taken in scientific progress by men of superior intelligence to the obstacles opposed to it by popular ignorance and superstition, we are brought face to face with the long-lived crew of witches, wizards and alchemists. It is often said that the more rationalistic outlook of the seventeenth century, due to Hobbes and others, did much to discredit these practitioners. But the observant dwellers in our cities or remote country villages, pestered as they are with advertisements of those who practise palmistry, and of those who predict the future by crystal-gazing or by the fall of sand, of followers of the sporting prophet, and of far more presumptuous and more dangerous impostors, or confronted by the silent, indomitable belief of the rustic in the witchery of his ancestors, may well hold the opinion that the stock of superstition is a constant stock and permeates now, as it did in Elizabeth’s time, every class of society. What improvement there was in the seventeenth century, and it is extremely doubtful if there was much, was largely due to the advent of James I and the later rise of puritanism, associated as they were with the most cruel and most inhuman torture of sorcerers. When the alchemist and the astrologer ran the risk of suffering as a sorcerer or a warlock, he paused before publicly embarking on the trade.

Under the Tudors, the laws against witchcraft were milder than those of other countries, but, under James I, these laws were repealed and he himself took—as he had done before in Scotland—an active part in this cruel and senseless persecution. During the first eighty years of the seventeenth century, no less than 70,000 men and women are said to have been executed for alleged offences under the new act. The king even wrote a book on demonology, attacking the more sensible and reasonable views of Scot and Wier. It must be remembered, however, that, in these times, the generality of learned and able men believed in the maleficent effects of sorcery and the black art. The bench of bishops and the bench of judges alike took part in what seems to us a hideous and wanton brutality. Even so great a writer as Sir Thomas Browne, who tells us, “for the sorrows of others he has quick sympathy,” gave evidence against two unhappy women charged before Sir Matthew Hale at Bury St. Edmunds, and his evidence helped to secure their iniquitous conviction.

Browne, like many of his day, was a firm believer in horoscopes—“I was born in the planetary hour of Saturn and I think I have a piece of that leaden planet in me.” He was, however, perhaps a little in advance of some of his contemporaries; at any rate, he recognised that foretellings based on star-gazing do not always “make good.” “We deny not the influence of the stars but often suspect the due application thereof.” During the civil war, both sides used astrologers and acted on their prognostications; but, on the whole, the firm belief that future events could be foretold by a study of the planetary system was waning. “They” (i.e. the stars) “incline but do not compel … and so gently incline that a wise man may resist them; sapiens dominabitur astris: they rule but God rules them.” This was said by Robert Burton, and it probably represents the average opinion of the more educated in our period.

The part played by alchemy in the life of the times can be judged by Ben Jonson’s Alchemist, first acted in 1610, which affords a true insight into the fashionable craze of the time. The play was constantly presented from that date until the closing of the theatres and, on the restoration, was one of the first plays to be revived. Jonson certainly had mastered the jargon of this form of quackery, and showed a profound knowledge of the art of its professors. In Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, he refers to the love philtres of one Forman, a most flagrant rascal who was mixed up with the Overbury trial.

It has been said that a competent man of science should be able to put into language “understanded of the people” any problem, no matter how complex, at which he is working. This seems hardly possible in the twentieth century. To explain to a trained histologist double [char] functions or to a skilled mathematician the intricacies of karyokinesis would take a very long time. The introduction in all the sciences of technical words is not due to any spirit of perverseness on the part of modern savants; these terms, long as they usually are, serve as the shorthand of science. In the Stewart times, however, an investigator could explain in simple language to his friends what he was doing and the advance of natural science was keenly followed by all sorts and conditions of men.