The Empire of the Supernatural

[This is taken from Thomas Alfred Spalding's Elizabethan Demonology, originally published in 1880.]

12. The empire of the supernatural must obviously be most extended where civilization is the least advanced. An educated man has to make a conscious, and sometimes severe, effort to refrain from pronouncing a dogmatic opinion as to the cause of a given result when sufficient evidence to warrant a definite conclusion is wanting; to the savage, the notion of any necessity for, or advantage to be derived from, such self-restraint never once occurs. Neither the lightning that strikes his hut, the blight that withers his crops, the disease that destroys the life of those he loves; nor, on the other hand, the beneficent sunshine or life-giving rain, is by him traceable to any known physical cause. They are the results of influences utterly beyond his understanding—supernatural,--matters upon which imagination is allowed free scope to run riot, and from which spring up a legion of myths, or attempts to represent in some manner these incomprehensible processes, grotesque or poetic, according to the character of the people with which they originate, which, if their growth be not disturbed by extraneous influences, eventually develop into the national creed. The most ordinary events of the savage’s every-day life do not admit of a natural solution; his whole existence is bound in, from birth to death, by a network of miracles, and regulated, in its smallest details, by unseen powers of whom he knows little or nothing.

13. Hence it is that, in primitive societies, the functions of legislator, judge, priest, and medicine man are all combined in one individual, the great medium of communication between man and the unknown, whose person is pre-eminently sacred. The laws that are to guide the community come in some mysterious manner through him from the higher powers. If two members of the clan are involved in a quarrel, he is appealed to to apply some test in order to ascertain which of the two is in the wrong—an ordeal that can have no judicial operation, except upon the assumption of the existence of omnipotent beings interested in the discovery of evil-doers, who will prevent the test from operating unjustly. Maladies and famines are unmistakable signs of the displeasure of the good, or spite of the bad spirits, and are to be averted by some propitiatory act on the part of the sufferers, or the mediation of the priest-doctor. The remedy that would put an end to a long-continued drought will be equally effective in arresting an epidemic.

14. But who, and of what nature, are these supernatural powers whose influences are thus brought to bear upon every-day life, and who appear to take such an interest in the affairs of mankind? It seems that there are three great principles at work in the evolution and modification of the ideas upon this subject, which must now be shortly stated.

15. (i.) The first of these is the apparent incapacity of the majority of mankind to accept a purely monotheistic creed. It is a demonstrable fact that the primitive religions now open to observation attribute specific events and results to distinct supernatural beings; and there can be little doubt that this is the initial step in every creed. It is a bold and somewhat perilous revolution to attempt to overturn this doctrine and to set up monotheism in its place, and, when successfully accomplished, is rarely permanent. The more educated portions of the community maintain allegiance to the new teaching, perhaps; but among the lower classes it soon becomes degraded to, or amalgamated with, some form of polytheism more or less pronounced, and either secret or declared. Even the Jews, the nation the most conspicuous for its supposed uncompromising adherence to a monotheistic creed, cannot claim absolute freedom from taint in this respect; for in the country places, far from the centre of worship, the people were constantly following after strange gods; and even some of their most notable worthies were liable to the same accusation.

16. It is not necessary, however, that the individuality and specialization of function of the supreme beings recognized by any religious system should be so conspicuous as they are in this case, or in the Greek or Roman Pantheon, to mark it as in its essence polytheistic or of polytheistic tendency. It is quite enough that the immortals are deemed to be capable of hearing and answering the prayers of their adorers, and of interfering actively in passing events, either for good or for evil. This, at the root of it, constitutes the crucial difference between polytheism and monotheism; and in this sense the Roman Catholic form of Christianity, representing the oldest undisturbed evolution of a strictly monotheistic doctrine, is undeniably polytheistic. Apart from the Virgin Mary, there is a whole hierarchy of inferior deities, saints, and angels, subordinate to the One Supreme Being. This may possibly be denied by the authorized expounders of the doctrine of the Church of Rome; but it is nevertheless certain that it is the view taken by the uneducated classes, with whom the saints are much more present and definite deities than even the Almighty Himself.  It is worth noting, that during the dancing mania of 1418, not God, or Christ, or the Virgin Mary, but St. Vitus, was prayed to by the populace to stop the epidemic that was afterwards known by his name.[1] There was a temple to St. Michael on Mount St. Angelo, and Augustine thought it necessary to declare that angel-worshippers were heretics.[2] Even Protestantism, though a much younger growth than Catholicism, shows a slight tendency towards polytheism. The saints are, of course, quite out of the question, and angels are as far as possible relegated from the citadel of asserted belief into the vaguer regions of poetical sentimentality; but—although again unadmitted by the orthodox of the sect—the popular conception of Christ is, and, until the masses are more educated in theological niceties than they are at present, necessarily must be, as of a Supreme Being totally distinct from God the Father. This applies in a less degree to the third Person in the Trinity; less, because His individuality is less clear. George Eliot has, with her usual penetration, noted this fact in “Silas Marner,” where, in Mrs. Winthrop’s simple theological system, the Trinity is always referred to as “Them.”

[Footnote 1: Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages, p. 85.]

[Footnote 2: Bullinger, p. 348. Parker Society.]

17. The posthumous history of Francis of Assisi affords a striking illustration of this strange tendency towards polytheism. This extraordinary man received no little reverence and adulation during his lifetime; but it was not until after his death that the process of deification commenced. It was then discovered that the stigmata were not the only points of resemblance between the departed saint and the Divine Master he professed to follow; that his birth had been foretold by the prophets; that, like Christ, he underwent transfiguration; and that he had worked miracles during his life. The climax of the apotheosis was reached in 1486, when a monk, preaching at Paris, seriously maintained that St. Francis was in very truth a second Christ, the second Son of God; and that after his death he descended into purgatory, and liberated all the spirits confined there who had the good fortune to be arrayed in the Franciscan garb.[1]

[Footnote 1: Maury, Histoire de la Magie, p. 354.]

18. (ii.) The second principle is that of the Manichaeists: the division of spirits into hostile camps, good and evil. This is a much more common belief than the orthodox are willing to allow. There is hardly any religious system that does not recognize a first source of evil, as well as a first source of good. But the spirit of evil occupies a position of varying importance: in some systems he maintains himself as co-equal of the spirit of good; in others he sinks to a lower stage, remaining very powerful to do harm, but nevertheless under the control, in matters of the highest importance, of the more beneficent Being. In each of these cases, the first principle is found operating, ever augmenting the ranks; monodiabolism being as impossible as monotheism; and hence the importance of fully establishing that proposition.

19. (iii.) The last and most important of these principles is the tendency of all theological systems to absorb into themselves the deities extraneous to themselves, not as gods, but as inferior, or even evil, spirits. The actual existence of the foreign deity is not for a moment disputed, the presumption in favor of innumerable spiritual agencies being far too strong to allow the possibility of such a doubt; but just as the alien is looked upon as an inferior being, created chiefly for the use and benefit of the chosen people—and what nation is not, if its opinion of itself may be relied upon, a chosen people?--so the god the alien worships is a spirit of inferior power and capacity, and can be recognized solely as occupying a position subordinate to that of the gods of the land.

This principle has such an important influence in the elaboration of the belief in demons, that it is worth while to illustrate the generality of its application.

20. In the Greek system of theology we find in the first place a number of deities of varying importance and power, whose special functions are defined with some distinctness; and then, below these, an innumerable band of spirits, the souls of the departed—probably the relics of an earlier pure ancestor-worship—who still interest themselves in the inhabitants of this world. These [Greek: daimones] were certainly accredited with supernatural power, and were not of necessity either good or evil in their influence or action. It was to this second class that foreign deities were assimilated. They found it impossible, however, to retain even this humble position. The ceremonies of their worship, and the language in which those ceremonies were performed, were strange to the inhabitants of the land in which the acclimatization was attempted; and the incomprehensible is first suspected, then loathed. It is not surprising, then, that the new-comers soon fell into the ranks of purely evil spirits, and that those who persisted in exercising their rites were stigmatized as devil-worshippers, or magicians.

But in process of time this polytheistic system became pre-eminently unsatisfactory to the thoughtful men whom Greece produced in such numbers. The tendency towards monotheism which is usually associated with the name of Plato is hinted at in the writings of other philosophers who were his predecessors. The effect of this revolution was to recognize one Supreme Being, the First Cause, and to subordinate to him all the other deities of the ancient and popular theology—to co-ordinate them, in fact, with the older class of daemons; the first step in the descent to the lowest category of all.

21. The history of the neo-Platonic belief is one of elaboration upon these ideas. The conception of the Supreme Being was complicated in a manner closely resembling the idea of the Christian Trinity, and all the subordinate daemons were classified into good and evil geniuses. Thus, a theoretically monotheistic system was established, with a tremendous hierarchy of inferior spirits, who frequently bore the names of the ancient gods and goddesses of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, strikingly resembling that of Roman Catholicism. The subordinate daemons were not at first recognized as entitled to any religious rites; but in the course of time, by the inevitable operation of the first principle just enunciated, a form of theurgy sprang up with the object of attracting the kindly help and patronage of the good spirits, and was tolerated; and attempts were made to hold intercourse with the evil spirits, which were, as far as possible suppressed and discountenanced.

22. The history of the operation of this principle upon the Jewish religion is very similar, and extremely interesting. Although they do not seem to have ever had any system of ancestor-worship, as the Greeks had, yet the Jews appear originally to have recognized the deities of their neighbors as existing spirits, but inferior in power to the God of Israel. “All the gods of the nations are idols” are words that entirely fail to convey the idea of the Psalmist; for the word translated “idols” is Elohim, the very term usually employed to designate Jehovah; and the true sense of the passage therefore is: “All the gods of the nations are gods, but Jehovah made the heavens.”[1] In another place we read that “The Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.”[2] As, however, the Jews gradually became acquainted with the barbarous rites with which their neighbors did honor to their gods, the foreigners seem to have fallen more and more in estimation, until they came to be classed as evil spirits. To this process such names as Beelzebub, Moloch, Ashtaroth, and Belial bear witness;

Beelzebub, “the prince of the devils” of later time, being one of the gods of the hostile Philistines.

[Footnote 1: Psalm xcvi. 5 (xcv. Sept.).]

[Footnote 2: Psalm xcv. 3 (xciv. Sept.). Maury, p. 98.]

23. The introduction of Christianity made no difference in this respect.  Paul says to the believers at Corinth, “that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils ([Greek: daimonia]), and not to God; and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils;”[1] and the Septuagint renders the word Elohim in the ninety-fifth Psalm by this [Greek: daimonia], which as the Christians had already a distinct term for good spirits, came to be applied to evil ones only.

[Footnote 1: I Cor. x. 20.]

Under the influence therefore, of the new religion, the gods of Greece and Rome, who in the days of their supremacy had degraded so many foreign deities to the position of daemons, were in their turn deposed from their high estate, and became the nucleus around which the Christian belief in demonology formed itself. The gods who under the old theologies reigned paramount in the lower regions became pre-eminently diabolic in character in the new system, and it was Hecate who to the last retained her position of active patroness and encourager of witchcraft; a practice which became almost indissolubly connected with her name. Numerous instances of the completeness with which this process of diabolization was effected, and the firmness with which it retained its hold upon the popular belief, even to late times, might be given; but the following must suffice. In one of the miracle plays, “The Conversion of Saul,” a council of devils is held, at which Mercury appears as the messenger of Belial.[1]

[Footnote 1: Digby Mysteries, New Shakespeare Society, 1880, p. 44.]

24. But this absolute rejection of every pagan belief and ceremony was characteristic of the Christian Church in its infancy only. So long as the band of believers was a small and persecuted one, no temptation to violate the rule could exist. But as the Church grew, and acquired influence and position, it discovered that good policy demanded that the sternness and inflexibility of its youthful theories should undergo some modification. It found that it was not the most successful method of enticing stragglers into its fold to stigmatize the gods they ignorantly worshipped as devils, and to persecute them as magicians. The more impetuous and enthusiastic supporters did persecute, and persecute most relentlessly, the adherents of the dying faith; but persecution, whether of good or evil, always fails as a means of suppressing a hated doctrine, unless it can be carried to the extent of extermination of its supporters; and the more far-seeing leaders of the Catholic Church soon recognized that a slight surrender of principle was a far surer road to success than stubborn, uncompromising opposition.

25. It was in this spirit that the Catholics dealt with the oracles of heathendom. Mr. Lecky is hardly correct when he says that nothing analogous to the ancient oracles was incorporated with Christianity.[1] There is the notable case of the god Sosthenion, whom Constantine identified with the archangel Michael, and whose oracular functions were continued in a precisely similar manner by the latter.[2] Oracles that were not thus absorbed and supported were recognized as existent, but under diabolic control, and to be tolerated, if not patronized, by the representatives of the dominant religion. The oracle at Delphi gave forth prophetic utterances for centuries after the commencement of the Christian era; and was the less dangerous, as its operations could be stopped at any moment by holding a saintly relic to the god or devil Apollo’s nose. There is a fable that St. Gregory, in the course of his travels, passed near the oracle, and his extraordinary sanctity was such as to prevent all subsequent utterances. This so disturbed the presiding genius of the place, that he appealed to the saint to undo the baneful effects his presence had produced; and Gregory benevolently wrote a letter to the devil, which was in fact a license to continue the business of prophesying unmolested.[3] This nonsensical fiction shows clearly enough that the oracles were not generally looked upon as extinguished by Christianity. As the result of a similar policy we find the names and functions of the pagan gods and the earlier Christian saints confused in the most extraordinary manner; the saints assuming the duties of the moribund deities where those duties were of a harmless or necessary character.[4]

[Footnote 1: Rise and Influence of Rationalism, i. p. 31.]

[Footnote 2: Maury, p. 244, et seq.]

[Footnote 3: Scot, book vii. ch. i.]

[Footnote 4: Middleton’s Letter from Rome.]

26. The Church carried out exactly the same principles in her missionary efforts amongst the heathen hordes of Northern Europe. “Do you renounce the devils, and all their words and works; Thonar, Wodin, and Saxenote?” was part of the form of recantation administered to the Scandinavian converts;[1] and at the present day “Odin take you” is the Norse equivalent of “the devil take you.” On the other hand, an attempt was made to identify Balda “the beautiful” with Christ—a confusion of character that may go far towards accounting for a custom joyously observed by our forefathers at Christmastide but which the false modesty of modern society has nearly succeeded in banishing from amongst us, for Balda was slain by Loke with a branch of mistletoe, and Christ was betrayed by Judas with a kiss.

[Footnote 1: Milman, History of Latin Christianity, iii. 267; ix. 65.]

27. Upon the conversion of the inhabitants of Great Britain to Christianity, the native deities underwent the same inevitable fate, and sank into the rank of evil spirits. Perhaps the juster opinion is that they became the progenitors of our fairy mythology rather than the subsequent devil-lore, although the similarity between these two classes of spirits is sufficient to warrant us in classing them as species of the same genus; their characters and functions being perfectly interchangeable, and even at times merging and becoming indistinguishable. A certain lurking affection in the new converts for the religion they had deserted, perhaps under compulsion, may have led them to look upon their ancient objects of veneration as less detestable in nature, and dangerous in act, than the devils imported as an integral portion of their adopted faith; and so originated this class of spirits less evil than the other. Sir Walter Scott may be correct in his assertion that many of these fairy-myths owe their origin to the existence of a diminutive autochthonic race that was conquered by the invading Celts, and the remnants of which lurked about the mountains and forests, and excited in their victors a superstitious reverence on account of their great skill in metallurgy; but this will not explain the retention of many of the old god-names; as that of the Dusii, the Celtic nocturnal spirits, in our word “deuce,” and that of the Nikr or water-spirits in “nixie” and old “Nick.”[1] These words undoubtedly indicate the accomplishment of the “facilis descensus Averno” by the native deities. Elves, brownies, gnomes, and trolds were all at one time Scotch or Irish gods. The trolds obtained a character similar to that of the more modern succubus, and have left their impression upon Elizabethan English in the word “trull.”

[Footnote 1: Maury, p. 189.]

28. The preceding very superficial outline of the growth of the belief in evil spirits is enough for the purpose of this essay, as it shows that the basis of English devil-lore was the annihilated mythologies of the ancient heathen religions—Italic and Teutonic, as well as those brought into direct conflict with the Jewish system; and also that the more important of the Teutonic deities are not to be traced in the subsequent hierarchy of fiends, on account probably of their temporary or permanent absorption into the proselytizing system, or the refusal of the new converts to believe them to be so black as their teachers painted them. The gradual growth of the superstructure it would be well-nigh impossible and quite unprofitable to trace. It is due chiefly to the credulous ignorance and distorted imagination, monkish and otherwise, of several centuries. Carlyle’s graphic picture of Abbot Sampson’s vision of the devil in “Past and Present” will perhaps do more to explain how the belief grew and flourished than pages of explanatory statements. It is worthy of remark, however, that to the last, communication with evil spirits was kept up by means of formulae and rites that are undeniably the remnants of a form of religious worship.  Incomprehensible in their jargon as these formulae mostly are, and strongly tinctured as they have become with burlesqued Christian symbolism and expression—for those who used them could only supply the fast-dying memory of the elder forms from the existing system—they still, in all their grotesqueness, remain the battered relics of a dead faith.

29. Such being the natural history of the conflict of religions, it will not be a matter of surprise that the leaders of our English Reformation should, in their turn, have attributed the miracles of the Roman Catholic saints to the same infernal source as the early Christians supposed to have been the origin of the prodigies and oracles of paganism. The impulse given by the secession from the Church of Rome to the study of the Bible by all classes added impetus to this tendency. In Holy Writ the Reformers found full authority for believing in the existence of evil spirits, possession by devils, witchcraft, and divine and diabolic interference by way of miracle generally; and they consequently acknowledged the possibility of the repetition of such phenomena in the times in which they lived—a position more tenable, perhaps, than that of modern orthodoxy, that accepts without murmur all the supernatural events recorded in the Bible, and utterly rejects all subsequent relations of a similar nature, however well authenticated.  The Reformers believed unswervingly in the truth of the Biblical accounts of miracles, and that what God had once permitted to take place might and would be repeated in case of serious necessity. But they found it utterly impossible to accept the puerile and meaningless miracles perpetrated under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church as evidence of divine interference; and they had not traveled far enough upon the road towards rationalism to be able to reject them, one and all, as in their very nature impossible. The consequence of this was one of those compromises which we so often meet with in the history of the changes of opinion effected by the Reformation. Only those particular miracles that were indisputably demonstrated to be impostures—and there were plenty of them, such as the Rood of Boxley[1]--were treated as such by them.  The unexposed remainder were treated as genuine supernatural phenomena, but caused by diabolical, not divine, agency. The reforming divine Calfhill, supporting this view of the Catholic miracles in his answer to Martiall’s “Treatise of the Cross,” points out that the majority of supernatural events that have taken place in this world have been, most undoubtedly, the work of the devil; and puts his opponents into a rather embarrassing dilemma by citing the miracles of paganism, which both Catholic and Protestant concurred in attributing to the evil one. He then clinches his argument by asserting that “it is the devil’s cunning that persuades those that will walk in a popish blindness” that they are worshipping God when they are in reality serving him. “Therefore,” he continues, consciously following an argument of St. Cyprianus against the pagan miracles, “these wicked spirits do lurk in shrines, in roods, in crosses, in images: and first of all pervert the priests, which are easiest to be caught with bait of a little gain. Then work they miracles. They appear to men in divers shapes; disquiet them when they are awake; trouble them in their sleeps; distort their members; take away their health; afflict them with diseases; only to bring them to some idolatry. Thus, when they have obtained their purpose that a lewd affiance is reposed where it should not, they enter (as it were) into a new league, and trouble them no more. What do the simple people then?  Verily suppose that the image, the cross, the thing that they have kneeled and offered unto (the very devil indeed) hath restored them health, whereas he did nothing but leave off to molest them. This is the help and cure that the devils give when they leave off their wrong and injury.”[2]

[Footnote 1: Froude, History of England, cabinet edition, iii. 102.]

[Footnote 2: Calfhill, pp. 317-8. Parker Society.]

30. Here we have a distinct charge of devil-worship—the old doctrine cropping up again after centuries of repose: “all the gods of our opponents are devils.” Nor were the Catholics a whit behind the Protestants in this matter. The priests zealously taught that the Protestants were devil-worshippers and magicians;[1] and the common people so implicitly believed in the truth of the statement, that we find one poor prisoner, taken by the Dutch at the siege of Alkmaar in 1578, making a desperate attempt to save his life by promising to worship his captors’ devil precisely as they did[2]--a suggestion that failed to pacify those to whom it was addressed.

[Footnote 1: Hutchinson’s Essay, p. 218. Harsnet, Declaration, p. 30.]

[Footnote 2: Motley, Dutch Republic, ii. 400.]

31. Having thus stated, so far as necessary, the chief laws that are constantly working the extension of the domain of the supernatural as far as demonology is concerned, without a remembrance of which the subject itself would remain somewhat difficult to comprehend fully, I shall now attempt to indicate one or two conditions of thought and circumstance that may have tended to increase and vivify the belief during the period in which the Elizabethan literature flourished.

32. It was an era of change. The nation was emerging from the dim twilight of medievalism into the full day of political and religious freedom. But the morning mists, which the rising sun had not yet dispelled, rendered the more distant and complex objects distorted and portentous. The very fact that doubt, or rather, perhaps, independence of thought, was at last, within certain limits, treated as non-criminal in theology, gave an impetus to investigation and speculation in all branches of politics and science; and with this change came, in the main, improvement. But the great defect of the time was that this newly liberated spirit of free inquiry was not kept in check by any sufficient previous discipline in logical methods of reasoning. Hence the possibility of the wild theories that then existed, followed out into action or not, according as circumstances favored or discouraged:

Arthur Hacket, with casting out of devils, and other madnesses, vehemently declaring himself the Messiah and King of Europe in the year of grace 1591, and getting himself believed by some, so long as he remained unhanged; or, more pathetic still, many weary lives wasted day by day in fruitless silent search after the impossible philosopher’s stone, or elixir of life. As in law, so in science, there were no sufficient rules of evidence clearly and unmistakably laid down for the guidance of the investigator; and consequently it was only necessary to broach a novel theory in order to have it accepted, without any previous serious testing. Men do not seem to have been able to distinguish between an hypothesis and a proved conclusion; or, rather, the rule of presumptions was reversed, and men accepted the hypothesis as conclusive until it was disproved. It was a perfectly rational and sufficient explanation in those days to refer some extraordinary event to some given supernatural cause, even though there might be no ostensible link between the two: now, such a suggestion would be treated by the vast majority with derision or contempt. On the other hand, the most trivial occurrences, such as sneezing, the appearance of birds of ill omen, the crowing of a cock, and events of like unimportance happening at a particular moment, might, by some unseen concatenation of causes and effects, exercise an incomprehensible influence upon men, and consequently had important bearings upon their conduct. It is solemnly recorded in the Commons’ Journals that during the discussion of the statute against witchcraft passed in the reign of James I., a young jackdaw flew into the House; which accident was generally regarded as malum omen to the Bill.[1] Extraordinary bravery on the part of an adversary was sometimes accounted for by asserting that he was the devil in the form of a man; as the Volscian soldier does with regard to Coriolanus. This is no mere dramatist’s fancy, but a fixed belief of the times. Sir William Russell fought so desperately at Zutphen, that he got mistaken for the Evil One;[2] and Drake also gave the Spaniards good reason for believing that he was a devil, and no man.[3]

[Footnote 1: See also D’Ewes, p. 688.]

[Footnote 2: Froude, xii. 87.]

[Footnote 3: Ibid. 663.]

33. This intense credulousness, childish almost in itself, but yet at the same time combined with the strong man’s intellect, permeated all classes of society. Perhaps a couple of instances, drawn from strangely diverse sources, will bring this more vividly before the mind than any amount of attempted theorizing. The first is one of the tricks of the jugglers of the period.

“To make one danse naked.

“Make a poore boie confederate with you, so as after charms, etc., spoken by you, he unclothe himself and stand naked, seeming (whilest he undresseth himselfe) to shake, stamp, and crie, still hastening to be unclothed, till he be starke naked; or if you can procure none to go so far, let him onlie beginne to stampe and shake, etc., and unclothe him, and then you may (for reverence of the companie) seeme to release him.”[1]

[Footnote 1: Scott, p. 339.]

The second illustration must have demanded, if possible, more credulity on the part of the audience than this harmless entertainment. Cranmer tells us that in the time of Queen Mary a monk preached a sermon at St.  Paul’s, the object of which was to prove the truth of the doctrine of transubstantiation; and, after the manner of his kind, told the following little anecdote in support of it:--“A maid of Northgate parish in Canterbury, in pretence to wipe her mouth, kept the host in her handkerchief; and, when she came home, she put the same into a pot, close covered, and she spitted in another pot, and after a few days, she looking in the one pot, found a little young pretty babe, about a shaftmond long; and the other pot was full of gore blood.”[1]

[Footnote 1: Cranmer, A Confutation of Unwritten Verities, p. 66. Parker Society.]

34. That the audiences before which these absurdities were seriously brought, for amusement or instruction, could be excited in either case to any other feeling than good-natured contempt for a would-be impostor, seems to us now-a-days to be impossible. It was not so in the times when these things transpired: the actors of them were not knaves, nor were their audiences fools, to any unusual extent. If any one is inclined to form a low opinion of the Elizabethans intellectually, on account of the divergence of their capacities of belief in this respect from his own, he does them a great injustice. Let him take at once Charles Lamb’s warning, and try to understand, rather than to judge them. We, who have had the benefit of three hundred more years of experience and liberty of thought than they, should have to hide our faces for very shame had we not arrived at juster and truer conclusions upon those difficult topics that so bewildered our ancestors. But can we, with all our boasted advantages of wealth, power, and knowledge, truly say that all our aims are as high, all our desires as pure, our words as true, and our deeds as noble, as those whose opinions we feel this tendency to contemn? If not, or if indeed they have anything whatsoever to teach us in these respects, let us remember that we shall never learn the lesson wholly, perhaps not learn it at all, unless, casting aside this first impulse to despise, we try to enter fully into and understand these strange dead beliefs of the past.




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