Witches and wisdom

October 31, 1997

Does a first-rate education necessarily produce a great thinker? A witchcraft trial in the 17th century suggests not. Gilbert Geis explains

Halloween puts broom-riding witches into the limelight one day each year. For most people, it is a kids' occasion, an evening for spooky costumes and trick or treating. But for those who are historically minded Halloween recalls the centuries past when people, usually sharp-tongued elderly women, were accused of implausible crimes and shenanigans for which they were often hanged (in England) or burned to death (on the Continent).

Bygone witchcraft prosecutions raise a question that lies at the heart of the mission of higher education: how could so many exceptionally well-educated men of unquestioned intellectual brilliance say and do so many absurd things when passing judgment on alleged acts of witchcraft? The question can be posed in other ways: Does higher education teach those who do very well at it to be critical thinkers? Does it train them to refuse to cater to conventional wisdom, without sceptical inquiry, when they have to make an important decision, perhaps, as in the witchcraft cases, one concerning life or death for another human being?

The witchcraft trial of Amy Denny and Rose Cullender of Lowestoft, held at the Bury St Edmunds shire house in March l662, throws doubt on any necessary relationship between a first-rate education and the production of a critical mind. Two of the witch trial's key participants were learned men whose names are still respected. The judge was Sir Matthew Hale, 52 years old, Oxford-trained, and the leading legal scholar of the time. The expert witness was Sir Thomas Browne, also 52, a doctor, and an Oxford graduate, with medical training at Montpelier and Padua. Browne was the renowned writer of Religio Medici as well as the author of Pseudoxica Epidemica or "Vulgar Errors" as it often is called, a treatise on how to think properly and to reject "fabulosities".

One should not rely on authority and illogical reasoning because these produce "a resignation of our judgments", wrote Browne, who also cautioned against "erecting conclusions in no way inferable from their premises".

The trial of the Lowestoft women took place at a time when views about witchcraft were sharply divided both in England and on the Continent. Wallace Notestein, an eminent historian, has noted that the wide range of decisions in witchcraft cases at this time "betrays the perplexity of judges and juries". The views of Hale and Browne were not a reflection of ideas universally held - if so, it would be unfair to fault them: they were conclusions that were not shared by a considerable segment of the intellectual community.

For instance, Sir John Keeling and Sir Edmund Bacon, among others present at the witchcraft trial, insisted that the young female accusers were faking their bewitchment. As judge, Hale allowed an experiment. Tradition dictated that being touched by a witch would send the accuser into a screaming fit. A young accuser was blindfolded with her apron and then touched by a matron of unimpeachable integrity. The girl's inappropriate screeching cast very serious doubt on the stories that she and the other accusers had been telling. Or, in the words of the contemporary report of the proceedings, it "put the court and all persons into a stand".

But the idea that Amy Denny and Rose Cullender might be innocent was soon overridden. The resolution was provided by Samuel Pacy, Lowestoft's wealthiest merchant, and the father of two of the "bewitched" girls. The experiment, Pacy declared, rather than proving the contrary, supported the accuracy of the girls' allegations since it showed the enormous power of the devil to deceive. Hale agreed.

In his testimony, Sir Thomas Browne pointed to a similar witchcraft episode in another country as evidence of the truth of the accusers' claims. "He was clearly of the opinion that the persons were bewitched," Sir Matthew Hale's marshal wrote of Browne's testimony. Browne said that "in Denmark there had been lately a great discovery of witches, who used the very same way of afflicting persons, by conveying pins into them".

Hale's summary to the jury was terse but pointed. "That there were such creatures as witches he made no doubt at all; for first, the scriptures had affirmed so much. Second, the wisdom of all nations had provided laws against such persons, which is an argument of their confidence of such a crime." Finally, Hale observed that "such hath been the judgment of this kingdom, as appears by that act of Parliament which hath provided punishment proportionable to the quality of the offence".

Much of the evidence against the women was downright silly. Witnesses told of mysteriously overturned carts and infestations of "lice of extraordinary bigness" visited by the accused women upon decent folk. One farmer testified that, because of enchantment, "so soon as his sows pigged, the pigs would leap and caper, and immediately fall down and die". Ann Landefielde testified that her brother had sent her "a firkin" - a fish. Ann asked Amy Denny to go with her to meet the boatman who had brought the fish ashore. Amy refused, saying, according to Ann, that she would go only when Ann had gotten the fish. This is the rest of the story: "This deponent... demanded of the boatman the firkin, they told her, that they could not keep it in the boat from falling into the sea, and they thought it was gone to the divel, for they never saw the like before. Asked if anything else had fallen overboard, the fisherman said: 'Not any.'" For Ann, the story demonstrated Amy's diabolic powers, not the fisherman's dishonesty. But nobody questioned why women alleged to be in league with the devil were so poor or why they were unable to use their magical powers to extricate themselves from their present predicament. Joseph Glanvill, a leading figure in the newly created Royal Society and a man deeply committed to the emergent scientific spirit, berated those who doubted the authenticity of acts of witchcraft. "For those things were not done long ago, or at far distance, in an ignorant age, or among a barbarous people," wrote Glanvill. The witchcraft transactions, Glanvill declared, were "publick, frequent, and of divers years continuance, witnessed by multitudes of competent and unbyassed attestors, and acting in a searching and incredulous age".

Centuries after the Bury St Edmunds witchcraft trial Hadley Cantril, a Princeton University psychologist, would use the Orson Welles radio broadcast vividly depicting the invasion of the United States by Martians to try to pin down elements of critical thought. Credulous persons looked out of their windows, saw street lights and interpreted them as Martian torches, or switched their radio dial, heard the Mormon choir broadcasting from Salt Lake City, and concluded that people were flocking to their churches to pray for salvation from the aliens. Cantril found no necessary relationship between education and clear thinking under pressure. One college student, hearing the radio programme, jumped into his car and raced up to Vassar College to spend his last moments with his girlfriend.

Witchcraft prosecutions, brought to mind on Halloween, indicate the need for higher education to implant more adequately in students the imperatives of independent critical thought. Otherwise, they remain at risk of unthinkingly accepting "fabulosities" and "dubiosities" and "erecting conclusions in no way inferable from their premises".

Gilbert Geis is emeritus professor in the department of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine. Geis and Ivan Bunn are authors of A Trial of Witches: A Seventeenth-Century Witchcraft Prosecution, Routledge, Pounds 14.99.

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