[Originally published in 1850. This edition revised and edited by D. J. McAdam, 2010. Copyright as such.]
Among the many phases presented by human credulity, few are more interesting than those which regard the realities of the invisible world. If the opinions which have been held on this subject were written and gathered together they would form hundreds of volumes—if they were arranged and digested they would form a few, but most important. It is not merely because there is in almost every human error a substratum of truth, and that the more important the subject the more important the substratum, but because the investigation will give almost a history of human aberrations, that this otherwise unpromising topic assumes so high an interest. The superstitions of every age, for no age is free from them, will present the popular modes of thinking in an intelligible and easily accessible form, and may be taken as a means of gauging (if the expression be permitted) the philosophical and metaphysical capacities of the period. In this light, the volumes here presented to the reader will be found of great value, for they give a picture of the popular mind at a time of great interest, and furnish a clue to many difficulties in the ecclesiastical affairs of that era. In the time of Calmet, cases of demoniacal possession, and instances of returns from the world of spirits, were reputed to be of no uncommon occurrence. The church was continually called on to exert her powers of exorcism; and the instances gathered by Calmet, and related in this work, may be taken as fair specimens of the rest. It is then, first, as a storehouse of facts, or reputed facts, that Calmet compiled the work now in the reader's hands—as the foundation on which to rear what superstructure of system they pleased; and secondly, as a means of giving his own opinions, in a detached and desultory way, as the subjects came under his notice. The value of the first will consist in their evidence—and of this the reader will be as capable of judging as the compiler; that of the second will depend on their truth—and of this, too, we are as well, and in some respects better, able to judge than Calmet himself. Those accustomed to require rigid evidence will be but ill satisfied with the greater part of that which will be found in this work; simple assertion for the most part suffices—often first made long after the facts, or supposed facts, related, and not infrequently far off from the places where they were alleged to have taken place. But these cases are often the best authenticated, for in the more modern ones there is frequently such an evident mistake in the whole nature of the case, that all the spiritual deductions made from it fall to the ground.
Not a few instances of so-called demoniacal possession are capable of being resolved into cataleptic trance, a state not unlike that produced by mesmerism, and in which many of the same phenomena seem naturally to display themselves; the well-known instance of the young servant girl, related by Coleridge, who, though ignorant and uneducated, could during her sleep-walking discourse learnedly in rabbinical Hebrew, would furnish a case in point. The circumstance of her old master having been in the habit of walking about the house at night, reading from rabbinical books aloud and in a declamatory manner; the impression made by the strange sounds upon her youthful imagination; their accurate retention by a memory, which, however, could only reproduce them in an abnormal condition—all teach us many most interesting psychological facts, which, had this young girl fallen into other hands, would have been useless in a philosophical point of view, and would have been only used to establish the doctrine of diabolical possession and ecclesiastical exorcism. We should have been told how skilled was the fallen angel in rabbinical tradition, and how wholesome a terror he entertained of the Jesuits, the Capuchins, or the Fratres Minimi, as the case might be. Not a few of the most remarkable cases of supposed modern possession are to be accounted for by involuntary or natural mesmerism. Indeed the same view seems to be taken by a popular minister of the church (Mr. Mac Niel), in our own day, viz., that mesmerism and diabolical possession are frequently identical. Our difference with him is that we should consider the cases called by the two names as all natural, and he would consider them as all supernatural. And here, to avoid misconception, or rather misinterpretation, let me at once observe, that I speak thus of modern and recorded cases only, accepting literally all related in the New Testament, and not presuming to say that similar cases might not occur now. Calmet, however, may be supposed to have collected all the most remarkable of modern times, and I am compelled to say I believe not one of them. But when we pass from the evidence of truth, in which they are so wanting, to the evidence of fraud and collusion by which many are so characterized, we shall have less wonder at the general spread of infidelity in times somewhat later, on all subjects not susceptible of ocular demonstration. Where a system claimed to be received as a whole, or not at all, it is hardly to be wondered at that when some portion was manifestly wrong, its own requirements should be complied with, and the whole rejected. The system which required an implicit belief in such absurdities as those related in these volumes, and placed them on a level with the most awful verities of religion, might indeed make some interested use of them in an age of comparative darkness, but certainly contained within itself the seeds of destruction, and which could not fail to germinate as soon as light fell upon them. The state of Calmet's own mind, as revealed in this book, is curious and interesting. The belief of the intellect in much which he relates is evidently gone, the belief of the will but partially remains. There is a painful sense of uncertainty as to whether certain things ought not to be received more fully than he felt himself able to receive them, and he gladly follows in many cases the example of Herodotus of old, merely relating stories without comment, save by stating that they had not fallen under his own observation.
The time, indeed, had hardly come to assert freedom of belief on subjects such as these. Theology embraced philosophy, and the Holy Inquisition defended the orthodoxy of both; and if the investigators of Calmet's day were permitted to hold, with some limitation, the Copernican theory, it was far otherwise with regard to the world of spirits, and its connection with our own. The rotundity of the earth affected neither shrines nor exorcisms; metaphysical truth might do both one and the other; and the cry of "Great is Diana of the Ephesians," was not raised in the capital of Asia Minor, till the "craft by which we get our wealth" was proved to be in danger.
Reflections such as these are painfully forced on us by the evident fraud exhibited by many of the actors in the scenes of exorcism narrated by Calmet, the vile purposes to which the services of the church were turned, and the recklessness with which the supposed or pretended evil, and equally pretended remedy, were used for political intrigue or state oppression.
Independent of these conclusions, there is something lamentable in a state of the public mind, which was so little prone to examination as to receive such a mass of superstition without sifting the wheat, for such there undoubtedly is, from the chaff. Calmet's work contains enough, had we the minor circumstances in each case preserved, to set at rest many philosophic doubts, and to illustrate many physical facts; and to those who desire to know what was believed by our Christian forefathers, and why it was believed, the compilation is absolutely invaluable. Calmet was a man of naturally cool, calm judgment, possessed of singular learning, and was pious and truthful. A short sketch of his life will not, perhaps, be unacceptable to the reader.
Augustine Calmet was born in the year 1672, at a village near Commerci, in Lorraine. He early gave proofs of aptitude for study, and an opportunity was speedily offered of devoting himself to a life of learning. In his sixteenth year he became a Benedictine of the Congregation of St. Vannes, and prosecuted his theological and such philosophical studies as the time allowed with great success. He was soon appointed to teach the younger portion of the community, and gave in this employment such decided satisfaction to his superiors, that he was soon marked for preferment. His chief study was the Scriptures; and in the twenty-second year of his age, a period unusually early, in an age when all benefices and beneficial employments were matters of sale, he was appointed to be sub-prior of the monastery of Munster, in Alsace, where he presided over an academy. This academy consisted of ten or twelve monks, and its object was the investigation of Scripture. Calmet was not idle in his new position; besides communicating so much valuable information as to make his pupils the best biblical scholars of the country, he made extensive collections for his Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, and for his still more celebrated work, the History of the Bible. These materials he subsequently digested and arranged. The Commentary, a work of immense value, was published in separate volumes from 1707 to 1716. His labors attracted renewed and increased attention, and the offer of a bishopric was made to him, which he unhesitatingly declined.
In 1718, he was elected to the abbacy of St. Leopold, in Nancy; and ten years afterwards, to that of Senones, where he spent the remainder of his days. His writings are numerous—two have been already mentioned—and so great was the popularity attained by his Commentaries, that they have been translated into no fewer than six languages within ten years. It exhibits a favorable aspect of the author's mind, and gives a very high idea of his erudition. One cause which tended greatly to its universal acceptability, was its singular freedom from sectarian bitterness. Protestants as well as Romanists may use it with equal satisfaction; and accordingly, it is considered a work of standard authority in England as much as on the continent.
In addition to these Commentaries, and his History of the Bible, and Fragments, (the best edition of which latter work in English, is by Isaac Taylor,) he wrote the "Ecclesiastical and Civil History of Lorraine;" "A Catalogue of the Writers of Lorraine;" "Universal History, Sacred and Profane;" a small collection of Reveries; and a work entitled, "A Literal, Moral, and Historical Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict," a work which is full of curious information on ancient customs, particularly ecclesiastical. He is among the few, also, who have written on ancient music. He lived to a good old age; and died regretted and much respected in 1757.
Of all his works, the one presented here to the reader, is perhaps the most popular; it went rapidly through many editions, and received from the author's hand continual corrections and additions. To say that it is characterized by uniform judgment, would be to give it a praise somewhat different as well as somewhat greater than that which it merits. It is a vast repertory of legends, more or less probable; some of which have very little foundation—and some which Calmet himself would have done well to omit, though now, as a picture of the belief entertained in that day, they greatly add to the value of the book. For the same reasons which have caused the retention of these passages, no alterations have been made in the citations from Scripture, which being translations from the Vulgate, necessarily differ in phraseology from the version in use among ourselves. The apocryphal books too are quoted, and the story of Bel and the Dragon referred to as a part of the prophecy of Daniel; but what is of consequence to observe, is, that doctrines are founded on these translations, and on those very points in which they differ from our own.
If the history of popery, and especially that form and development of it exhibited in the monastic orders, be ever written, this work will be of the greatest importance:—it will show the means by which dominion was obtained over the minds of the ignorant; how the most sacred mysteries were perverted; and frauds, which can hardly be termed pious, used to support institutions which can scarcely be called religious. That the spirits of the dead should be permitted to return to earth, under circumstances the most grotesque, to support the doctrines of masses for the dead, purgatory and propitiatory penance; that demons should be exorcised to give testimony to the merits of rival orders of monks and friars; that relics, many of them supposititious, and many of the most disgusting and blasphemous character, should have power to affect the eternal state of the departed; and that all saints, angels, demons, and the ghosts of the departed, should support, with great variations indeed, the corrupt dealings of a corrupt priesthood—form a creed worthy of the darkest and most unworthy days of heathenism.
There is, however, one excuse, or rather palliation, for the superstition of that time. In periods of great public depravity—and few epochs have been more depraved than that in which Calmet lived—Satan has great power. With a ruler like the regent Duke of Orleans, with a Church governor like Cardinal Dubois, it would appear that the civil and ecclesiastical authority of France had sold itself, like Ahab of old, to work wickedness; or, as the apostle says, "to work all uncleanness with greediness." In an age so characterized, it does not seem at all improbable that portentous events should from time to time occur; that the servants of the devil should be strengthened together with their master; that many should be given over to strong delusions and to believe a lie; and that the evil part of the invisible world should be permitted to ally itself more closely with the men of an age so congenial. Real cases of demoniacal possession might, perhaps, be met with, and though scarcely amenable to the exorcisms of a clergy so corrupt as that of France in that day, they would yet justify a belief in the reality of those cases got up for the sake of filthy lucre, personal ambition, or private revenge. If the public mind was prepared for a belief in such cases, there were not wanting men to turn it to profitable account; and the quiet student who believed the efficacy of the means used, and was scarcely aware of the wickedness of the age in which he lived, might easily be induced to credit the tales told him of demons expelled by the power of a church, to which in the beginning an authority to do so had undoubtedly been given, and whose awful corruptions were to him at least greatly veiled.
Calmet was a man of great integrity and considerable acumen, but he passed an innocent and exemplary life in studious seclusion; he mixed little with the world at large, resided remote "from courts, and camps, and strife of war or peace;" and there appears occasionally in his writings a kind of nervous apprehension lest the dogmas of the church to which he was pledged should be less capable than he could wish of satisfactory investigation. When he meets with tales like those of the vampires or vroucolacas, which concern only what he considered a heretical church, and with which, therefore, he might deal according to his own will—apply to them the ordinary rules of evidence, and treat them as mundane affairs—there he is clear-sighted, critical and acute, and accordingly he discusses the matter philosophically and logically, and concludes without fear of sinning against the church, that the whole is delusion. When, on the other hand, he has to deal with cases of demoniacal possession, in countries under the rule of the Roman hierarchy, he contents himself with the decisions of the scholastic divines and the opinions of the fathers, and makes frequent references to the decrees of various provincial parliaments. The effects of such a state of mind upon scientific and especially metaphysical investigation, may be easily imagined, and are to be traced more or less distinctly in every page of the work before us.
To conclude: books like this—the "Disquisitiones Magicae" of Delrio, the "Demonomanie" of Bodin, the "Malleus Maleficarum" of Sprengel, and the like, are at no time to be regarded merely as subjects of amusement; they have their philosophical value; they have a still greater historical value; and they show how far even upright minds may be warped by imperfect education, and slavish deference to authority.
The edition here followed is that of 1751, which contains the latest corrections of the author, and several additional pieces, which are all included in the present volumes.
Sion College, London Wall,
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