Saturday, January 03, 2015

Henry Holland's 'Treatise of Witchcraft' 1590: "I may speake truely as another doeth"

Henry Holland is the most comprehensible of the English demonologists. His methodology is clearly apparent, his continental sources consistent and thoroughly cited. There is no specific case that has set him off, so his discussion is general, without those typical plunges into unaccountable allegations about the behaviour of accused witches or reporting of bizarre court evidence. His initial position, Calvinism, is obvious, a starting place that makes sense of what follows. But above all else, Holland is interesting because he mixes together utter conviction (witchcraft and worship of the devil follows quite logically from his Calvinistic thinking about the corrupt human state) with a use of dialogic form. This risky combination, while not extending to pro et contra argument about the very existence of witchcraft, allows his own doubts plenty of room. While, in the end, an ideology speaks loudest in his Treatise against Witchcraft, he has confronted problems that other writers avoided, and evidently believes that he has banished them.

I am interested in the use of dialogue in demonological works: Daneau, King James, George Gifford, Samuel Willard come to mind as other examples, Matthew Hopkins risked a question and answer format for his rabid convictions. Gifford, Willard and Holland use the format more honestly than King James (for instance). Though it may aim at producing augmented conviction, a demonstration of how misguided doubts about the veracity of witchcraft are, there is at least the chance of reverse conviction. These are the passages of dialogue that the dramatists of the period could only glance at, in those rare moments when a gentleman expresses scepticism.

A Treatise against Witchcraft is a dialogue between ‘Theophilus’, the god-loving, and ‘Mysodaemon’, the devil-hating. One could not expect – at least from 1590 - a dialogue between a demonologist and an outright sceptic about witchcraft, but Holland gives us the next best thing. Mysodaemon is obviously named to suggest that his basic opinions are sound: but he has been reading Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft, published six years before. To refute Scot’s scepticism, Holland has to read him carefully. Allowing two voices in his work gives scepticism a near-convert in Mysodaemon, who is at times simply voicing confrontational passages from the Discovery. Dialogic form means that Holland isn’t just arguing or haranguing his way through Scot, giving authorial refutation of what he considered to be Scot’s errors: as a separate character in the dialogue, Mysodaemon means that scepticism gets a decent airing.

Holland must have been confident of success. He was committed to catechising as his basic method, using a question and answer format in other works: in the catechistic model, an instructor elicits the right answers from the instructee. This should be the effect here: Mysodaemon’s wobblings straightened out by the firm assurance of Theophilus.

What emerges, though, always tends to suggest that Holland is in dialogue with himself, for Theophilus is an authority under pressure, who resorts to hectoring and bullying. Nor does Holland seem to have anticipated that Mysodaemon, voicing Scot’s compassionate scepticism, simply appears more sympathetic than Theophilus, who is too obviously keen for Christian magistrates to be punishing sins, and continuously resorts to a set of bible texts that, try as he might, do not in fact stretch to cover this new crimen exceptum of witchcraft, with its dogma of sabbat, transvection, shape-shifting, and diabolic pact. As such things are not in the bible’s otherwise comprehensive listing of anathema, Theophilus keeps producing continental demonologists as his authorities, which reduces him to proving the existence of something by reference to those who asserted its existence.

No doubt Holland considered that he had won this argument with himself: Mysodaemon’s citations from Scot dwindle away and finally cease. The eagerly orthodox Theophilus forces the debate on to new areas, however: it shifts from the reality of witchcraft to the depravity of those who consult witches and sorcerers (this was a common development in such texts, and Mysodaemon is simply too indoctrinated, too elite, to make a general defence of the lower classes in their unaccountable failure to follow the pious example of Job and suffer in silence). Finally, the zealous minister in Theophilus embarks on detailing the preservatives (Holland was fond of expounding ‘preservatives’, against plague in Spirituall Preservatives Against the Pestilence and here against witchcraft), sketching out a household of such formidable godliness and obedience that witchcraft can gain no purchase, and the assaults of Satan, if they come, are accepted as trials ordained and permitted by God. 

Mysodaemon does express some incredulity about these prescriptions, but Theophilus huffily says that he knows some local households that sustain such godly ideals.

Because he sees the world as a battleground between faith and Satan, the local effect of Holland’s writing is of frightening moral precariousness. It is best caught in a snatch of dialogue from his History of Adam:
“Next, for the manner of Sathans working in men. As the holy Ghost works invisibly and spiritually … even so the operation of wicked spirits in unbelievers is by an invisible and secret breathing and suggestion…”
~ Here, an authoritative voice coolly describes a peril that seems irresistible. The supposed interlocutor then blurts out:  “Quest. 29. I feel often many strong motions within me, which cause me to tremble, and I know not whence they come, for I strive against them & I fear even to name them.

The question isn’t really a question at all, but a confession. To what extent are we diabolically impelled? The comfort offered is thin: “Ans. All Gods people are so troubled in like manner, much or little.” Such motions and thoughts are not the product of original sin, nor are they from God (because they are evil), but “such strange and sodaine motions must come into us by the secret working of Sathan. Let us then rejoice that we do not entertain them but pray and strive ever against them.”
You would think that if he saw Christians as exposed to such impossibly demanding conditions, witchcraft might erode away in the face of a moral relativism. But of course not: those who by witchcraft take advantage of the circumstances God is pleased to permit (of Satan being busy everywhere) simply must be punished.

The first part of Holland’s short witchcraft treatise consists of Theophilus doing his best to make the Bible sound to be full of eight distinct types of witchcraft: “If there were no such sin, wherefore then are there so many kinds named and distinguished?” It is very learned, but beside the point: none of the cases match up to witchcraft in its recent definition. This is the basic challenge Holland (as Mysodaemon) sets himself (as Theophilus):

“There are many things which are said to be in the witches of our time, which were never heard of in these old witches, mentioned in Scripture, as namely these points: their transportations, their bargain with the Devil, their Sathanical sabaoths, their ointments of the fat of young children, their transformations, and such like miracles or wonders (as you say, Theophilus.) now prove all these, or any of these points true in our witches, by Scripture, or any good reason, or authoritie, and I will believe that we have also in our time right diabolical witches indeed.”

Theophilus cannot answer these particulars with particulars: he has to explain away, or generalise away from the point. He wants the devil to be allowed formidable power by God, but, despite that large divine permission, only capable of delusions, supernatural in power, but not miraculous:
I will not denie, Mysodaemon, but the devil may delude his witches many ways in these transportations, & that many fabulous pamphlets [Note: Faustus. Drunken Dunstan. art. & in p. 156. Drunken Dunstan seems to be a lost work about the magic-practising saint] are published, which give little light and less proof unto this point in controversie. This first understand, that whatsoever is said of transportations, contrarie to the nature of our bodies, as to ride on the moon to meet Herodias, &c. all such things are indeed but mere delusions.”

But the delusiveness of witches’ ‘experience’ is no excuse for the witch: Theophilus finds that there are always other grounds for the punishment they deserve: “true it is, manie of the common sort (I believe well) are not right witches indeed, notwithstanding they are guiltie of other most vile sins, and most worthie of death.”

As Mysodaemon pushes his instructor hard for authority, Theophilus keeps wriggling away to prove witchcraft out of those who described witchcraft. He tries to open up a space in which those incredible acts and implausible delusions may in fact be truths – flying ointment and transvection:
“we must not imagine that all are but fables … Neither must we reject all the late Inquisitors, which by the accusations, confessions, condemnations and executions of innumerable magitians, have learned and gotten some credible experience of the truth of transportations. Bodin and Danaeus have also sundrie late examples, when thou hast opportunity, Mysodaemon, thou mayest read them.”
But Mysodaemon very properly rejects this: But I cannot so like, Theophilus, of all these, as of one probable argument of Scripture.”

Holland evidently thought that Scot had to be taken seriously, and formally repudiated with convincing arguments. This was the service he thought he was giving. But Mysodaemon, invented to be persuaded, starts to deliver Scot in Scot’s own voice:

I will not hear, I tell you, neither of Bodins* [Dis. in the praeface. ] bables, nor Sprengeus fables: I pray you shew me one example out of some credible Author, if you can.”

Mysodaemon-as-Scot makes Theophilus tie himself in knots to come up with answers to challenges: “But you have not one syllable in all the Scriptures of God, to prove any such league or covenant between Sathan and witches.”

Theophilus concedes: “We have not indeed any such words or phrases, and yet may we truly conclude, that there are such things, by Scripture; for the Scripture shewing us the great readiness and acquaintance of Sathan, with the enchanters of Egypt, the Pythonist of Endor and Philippi: do therein significantly give us to understand, that there was some precontract and confederacie between them: for Sathan will never work in such manner, but with whom he hath some league and acquaintance.”

The assertion that Satan will only operate with those with whom he has a contract is derived from contemporary positions: it is then read back into scripture as something we must infer was happening, and this provides a scriptural basis for the truth of it happening now.

Holland is making the best of it, and he is at least being honest in the outright concessions Theophilus has to keep making:

(Mysodaemon) “[Disco. epist. to the Reader.] Our witches, strigae, lamiae, our witches are not once mentioned in Scripture: our old woman, &c. you shall not reade in the Bible of any such Witches.
(Theophilus) “Albeit the Scripture giveth us no such historical relations of the witches of our time: yet are they mentioned there both in general and special manner: in general, where all the sins of idolatrie … and blasphemie are condemned; in special, where the like sins are named.”

Theophilus needs the authority of scripture, but puts strain on the divine text to get it, making analogies and resorting to category shifts: “And had not Sathan also a real communication with Eve & many others? To be short, I cannot see, but he that can do the greater, may do the less”.

As one recourse, Theophilus has intimidation: the arguments of Scot (or Holland’s argument with himself) constitute a slighting of the divine word:
“If any man consent not to the wholesome words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is puffed up and knoweth nothing, but doteth about questions and strife of words.”

To contradict demonology is a step on the slippery slope to disregard of the bible’s teachings:
“You are over bold now Mysodaemon with good writers, and I could somewhat bear with this boldness, but take heed lest you be found insolent also against God in the abuse of his blessed word, for that kind of pride is most dangerous.”

In the end, even though he is losing this particular argument with himself, Henry Holland /Theophilus’ Calvinism has just too much need of evil, it relies on the existence of a powerful devil: to subtract witchcraft threatens the system. Mysodaemon cites Scot on the cessation of miracles and of oracles: “Oracles (as you know) are ceased, and no doubt whatsoever hath affinitie with such miraculous actions, as witchcraft, conjuration, &c. it is knocked on the head, and nailed on the cross with Christ, who hath broken the power of the devils. What say you to this, Theophilus?”

Theophilus is brought entirely into the open by this challenge. To make such a deduction is in his mind ‘black divinity’: for in his system, the redemption was never meant to be universal. The elect are secure in their election; for the rest, the power of devils continues unchecked: “Surely I can but wonder, Mysodaemon, that any should teach you by speech or by writing, such black divinity in this bright shining light of the Gospel. For babes in Christianitie, understand that Christ on his cross, hath so far forth broken the power of sin, as that it shall never have strength to the condemnation … of his elect. But he never meant so to take away sin, as that it should have no being in the world, much less to knock in the head (as thine Author saith) the sins of Sathan & reprobates”.

Theophilus goes on to denounce this reasoning in Scot as “impious & Anabaptisticall”, which is either just broad abuse or a more specific insight into Reginald Scot, who was some way along the route towards an allegorical rather than literal understanding of the devil.

Mysodaemon also tries out Scot’s legal argument, the view (famously cited by Sir Robert Filmer in his Advertisement to the jurymen of England touching witches) that in law accessories cannot be convicted if the principal in a case has neither been convicted nor outlawed:
“I pray you give me leave to speak what I can for our old women, for I am greatly aggrieved to see the rude multitude so cruel against them, and some Judges so merciless, as to put these poor innocents to death. I reason thus by law against this unjust crueltie: I say she is injuriouslie dealt withall if she be the devils [Dis. in epist. ] instrument, in practising his will, my reasons are. 1. She is put to death for anothers offence. 2. Actions are not judged by instrumental causes: and therefore I conclude these old women may not dye for Witchcraft. This is Lawyers Logic I tell you … Theophilus, what can you say to this?”

Theophilus has none of it: “as for thine argument, if it be lawyers inventions, I tell thee truelie, they be bad advocates in an evil cause. They reason as if they would have the Honourable Judges to hang the devil, and to suffer the witches to escape. The same reason may serve anabaptisticallie applied for a libertie unto all sin …” His general point seems fair, though I don’t understand why he uses ‘anabaptistically’ to characterise blaming all sins on the devil.

The next argument taken from Scot’s series of trenchant challenges is that in our judgements, we should imitate the example given by Christ of forgiveness:
“Christ did [Dis. p. 39. A gross error. ] clearly remit Peter, though his offence were committed both against his divine and humane [Divine and humane nature he would have said. ] person: yet afterwards he did put him in trust to feed his sheep, &c. and therefore we see not but we may shew compassion upon these poor souls, if they show themselves sorrowful for their misconceits and wicked imaginations.”

Theophilus refutes this by generalising it into an absurdity:
“This reason is unsufficient and very anabaptistical, for it wrings out of the civil Magistrate’s hand all his power and jurisdiction. Shall every penitent malefactor be delivered from a temporal punishment, farewell then all execution of justice.” Of course extraordinary forgiveness does not mean universal forgiveness – but Theophilus especially seems to want ‘execution of justice’, there’s a relish for punishment. He continues with the assertion that the civil Magistrate cannot be “remiss in bodily punishment and justice, except he have an extraordinary warrant and revelation from God, for his direction. The law is, Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live: unless the judge have warrant to repeal this law from Jesus Christ (as Peter had) all witches lawfully convicted must have their punishments answerable to their demerits. Again, thou dost not well to call our witchcraft misconceit & wicked imagination, for I tell thee, it is more.”

The precise meaning of the notorious Exodus 22: 18 had been debated between the two earlier, with Mysodaemon citing, after Scot, the translation of mĕkaššēpâ as a ‘poisoner’ rather than ‘witch’. Theophilus had blandly smoothed this over by asserting that as witches most commonly killed by poison, as instructed by Satan, both senses applied to the word in the text. Here, he just uses the sense he wants, without his earlier admission of a wider meaning. A disputed law from the Old Testament should be carried out in the Christian world without worrying about any unhelpful example of Christ’s own forgiveness. A witch is, in essence, a chance for the Christian magistrate to show that he is never “remiss in bodily punishment and justice”. Until Jesus himself issues a repeal, a message delivered - god knows how - of ‘Thou shalt suffer a mĕkaššēpâ to live’, all the saved can do is carry on executing.

In the end, Theophilus’ best answer to Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft is to burn it. In the final stages of their discussion, Mysodaemon has simply become a stooge to Theophilus, obtuse enough to cite Scot’s exposure of conjuring tricks as ‘profane’, ‘wicked’, ‘blasphemous’:

“First, I would know what your judgement is of some big volumes of witchcraft, which (as far as I can see) contain sundrie intolerable prophane and wicked Treatises and forms of idle and vain jugglings and blasphemous conjurations.”

Theophilus is pleased to be asked, and says that a certain type of reader will only go to Scot for the wrong reasons, he then produces a piece of Roman Law 
(co-opted in the early Christian era against heresies of all kinds, see ): 
“Surely this I think, Mysodaemon, all the godly learned men, who tenderly regard the good state of the Saints of God, are no doubt aggrieved in heart to see such horrible impieties suffered to be broached in the open face of the Church of God: for young wits are more apt to practise these wares of Sathan which are thus put to sale, then to search for any good purpose in them, which is most hard to be found. Again, this in a word I add, that the Lawyers tell us such authors are overtaken by Law: for the Law saith: Libros magicae artis apudse nemini habere licet, [The Dis. must be commended to Vulcan.] et si penes quoscunque reperti sunt, bonis ademptis, ambustis{que} ijs publice, in insulam deportantur, humiliores capite puniuntur. It is lawful for no man to have the books of Magic, and with whomsoever they are found, their goods confiscate, and their books openly burnt, they are banished, and the poorer sort are punished with death. Avoid therefore, Mysodaemon, such dreadful impieties, I warn thee.”

It might be said against Holland that there is a tacit admission of failure in this: if you can’t answer the book, and say, ‘let it be printed, but printed only when bound up with my answer’, you have to ‘commend [The Discovery of Witchcraft] to Vulcan’, as he rather coyly puts it (did he not want to spell it out directly?).

Holland’s book is a tribute to Reginald Scot’s effectiveness. He did not de-convince himself (if you have swallowed double predestination, you are not going to worry about a few reprobates getting rough justice). But an objective reader – if such a person did exist in late 16th century England – might well have been more struck by the case against the veracity of witchcraft than the elasticised, self-referential and hectoring case for belief.