Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

but their knowing more than those who accused, tried, and passed sentence upon them.

In these cases, credulity is a much greater error than infidelity, and it is safer to believe nothing than too much. A man that believes little or nothing of witchcraft will destroy nobody for being under the imputation of it; and so far he certainly acts with humanity to others, and safety to himself: but he that credits all, or too much, upon that article, is obliged, if he acts consistently with his persuasion, to kill all those whom he takes to be the killers of mankind; and such are witches. It would be a jest and a contradiction to say, that he is for sparing them who are harmless of that tribe, since the received notion of their supposed contract with the devil implies that they are engaged, by covenant and inclination, to do all the mischief they possibly can.

I have heard many stories of witches, and read many accusations against them; but I do not remember any that would have induced me to have consigned over to the halter or the flame any of those deplorable wretches, who, as they share our likeness and nature, ought to share our compassion, as persons cruelly accused of impossibilities.

But we love to delude ourselves, and often fancy or forge an effect, and then set ourselves as gravely as ridiculously to find out the cause. Thus, for example, when a dream or the hyp has given us false terrors, or imaginary pains, we immediately conclude that the infernal tyrant owes us a spite, and inflicts his wrath and stripes upon us by the hands of some of his sworn servants among us. For this end an old woman is promoted to a seat in Satan's privycouncil, and appointed his executioner-in-chief within her district. So ready and civil are we to allow the devil the dominion over us, and even to provide him with butchers and hangmen of our own make and nature.

I have often wondered why we did not, in choosing our proper officers for Beelzebub, lay the lot rather upon men than women, the former being more bold and robust, and more equal to that bloody service; but, upon inquiry, I find it has been so ordered for two reasons: first, the men having the whole direction of this affair, are wise enough to slip their own necks out of the collar; and secondly, an old woman is grown by custom the most avoided and most unpitied creature under the sun, the very name carrying contempt and satire in it. And so far indeed we pay but an uncourtly sort of respect to Satan, in sacrificing to him nothing but the dry sticks of human nature. . .

We have a wondering quality within us, which finds huge gratification when we see strange feats done, and cannot at the same time see the doer or the cause, Such actions are sure to be attributed to some witch or demon; for if we come to find they are slily performed by artists of our own species, and by causes purely natural, our delight dies with our amazement.

It is, therefore, one of the most unthankful offices in the world, to go about to expose the mistaken notions of witchcraft and spirits ; it is robbing mankind of a valuable imagination, and of the privilege of being deceived.' Those who at any time undertook the task, have always met with rough treatment and ill language for their pains, and seldom escaped the imputation of atheism, because they would not allow the devil to be too powerful for the Almighty. For my part, I am so much a heretic as to believe, that God Almighty, and not the devil, governs the world.

· If we inquire what are the common marks and symptoms by which witches are discovered to be such, we shall see how reasonably and mercifully those poor creatures were burnt and hanged who unhappily fell under that name.

In the first place, the old woman must be prodigiously ugly, her eyes hollow and red, her face shrivelled; she goes double, and her voice trembles. It frequently happens, that this rueful figure frightens a child into the palpitation of the heart: home he runs, and tells his mamma, that Goody Such-a-one looked at him, and he is very ill. The good woman cries out, her dear baby is bewitched, and sends for the parson and the constable.

It is moreover necessary that she be very poor. It is true, her master Satan has mines and hidden treasures in his gift; but no matter, she is for all that very poor, and lives on alms. She goes to Sisly the cook-maid for a dish of broth, or the heel of a loaf, and Sisly denies them to her. The old woman goes away muttering, and perhaps in less than a month's time, Sisly hears the voice of a cat, and strains her ancles, which are certain signs that she is bewitched.

A farmer sees his cattle die of the murrain, and his sheep of the rot, and poor Goody is forced to be the cause of their death, because she was seen talking to herself the evening before such an ewe departed, and had been gathering sticks at the side of the wood where such a cow run mad.

The old woman has always for her companion an old gray cat, which is a disguised devil too, and confederate with Goody in works of darkness. They frequently go journeys into Egypt upon a broom-staff in half an hour's time, and now and then Goody and her cat change shapes. The neighbours often overhear them in deep and solemn discourse together, plotting some dreadful mischief you may be sure.

There is a famous way of trying witches, recommended by King James I. The old woman is tied hand and foot, and thrown into the river, and if she swims she is guilty, and taken out and burnt; but if she is innocent, she sinks, and is only drowned.

The witches are said to meet their master frequently in churches and church - yards. I wonder at the boldness of Satan and his congregation, in revelling and playing mountebank farces on consecrated ground; and I have as often wondered at the oversight and ill policy of some people in allowing it possible.

It would have been both dangerous and impious to have treated this subject at one certain time in this ludicrous manner. It used to be managed with all possible gravity, and even terror: and indeed it was made a tragedy in all its parts, and thousands were sacrificed, or rather murdered, by such evidence and colours, as, God be thanked ! we are this day ashamed of. An old woman may be 'miserable now, and not be hanged for it.

AN ACCOUNT OF THE AUGUSTAN AGE OF

ENGLAND.

The history of the rise of language and learning is calculated to gratify curiosity rather than to satisfy the understanding. An account of that period only when language and learning arrived at its highest perfection, is the most conducive to real improvement, since it at once' raises emulation and directs to the proper objects. The age of Leo X. in Italy is confessed to be the Augustan age with them. The French writers seem agreed to give the same appellation to that of Louis XIV.; but the English are yet undetermined with respect to themselves.

Some have looked upon the writers in the times of Queen Elizabeth as the true standard for future imitation; others have descended to the reign of James I. and others still lower, to that of Charles II. Were I to be permitted to offer an opinion upon this subject, I should readily give my vote for the reign of Queen Anne, or some years before that period. It was then that taste was united to genius; and as before our writers charmed with their strength of thinking, so then they pleased with strength and grace united. In that period of British glory, though no writer attracts our attention singly, yet, like stars lost in each other's brightness, they have cast such a lustre upon the age in which they lived, that their minutest transactions will be attended to by posterity with a greater eagerness than the most important occurrences of even empires which have been transacted in greater obscurity. .

At that period there seemed to be a just balance between patronage and the press. Before it, men were little esteemed whose only merit was genius; and since, men who can prudently be content to catch the public, are certain of living without dependence. But the writers of the period of which I am speaking were sufficiently esteemed by the great, and not rewarded enough by booksellers to set them above independence. Fame, consequently, then was the truest road to happiness; a sedulous attention to the mechanical business of the day makes the present never-failing resource.

The age of Charles II., which our countrymen term the age of wit and immorality, produced some writers that at

« ZurückWeiter »