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A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 17

That whosoever should turn his Hat thrice and cry Buz


Osborne, a literary man whose reputation hardly survived his century, but an essayist of great fame in his own time,[59] was a man who made his fortune by sailing against rather than with the wind. It was conventional to believe in witches and Osborne would not for any consideration be conventional. He assumed the skeptical attitude,[60] and perhaps was as influential as any one man in making that attitude fashionable.

From these lesser lights of the literary world we may pass to notice the attitude assumed by three men of influence in their own day, whose reputations have hardly been dimmed by time, Bacon, Selden, and Hobbes. Not that their views would be representative of their times, for each of the three men thought in his own way, and all three were in many respects in advance of their day. At some time in the reign of James I Francis Bacon wrote his _Sylva Sylvarum_ and rather incidentally touched upon witchcraft. He warned judges to be wary about believing the confessions of witches and the evidence against them. "For the witches themselves are imaginative and believe oft-times they do that which they do not; and people are credulous in that point, and ready to impute accidents and natural operations to witchcraft. It is worthy the observing, that ... the great wonders which they tell, of carrying in the air, transporting themselves into other bodies, &c., are still reported to be wrought, not by incantations, or ceremonies, but by ointments,

and anointing themselves all over. This may justly move a man to think that these fables are the effects of imagination."[61]

Surely all this has a skeptical sound. Yet largely on the strength of another passage, which has been carelessly read, the great Bacon has been tearfully numbered among the blindest leaders of the blind.[62] A careful comparison of his various allusions to witchcraft will convince one that, while he assumed a belief in the practice,[63] partly perhaps in deference to James's views,[64] he inclined to explain many reported phenomena from the effects of the imagination[65] and from the operation of "natural causes" as yet unknown.[66]

Bacon, though a lawyer and man of affairs, had the point of view of a philosopher. With John Selden we get more directly the standpoint of a legal man. In his _Table Talk_[67] that eminent jurist wrote a paragraph on witches. "The Law against Witches," he declared, "does not prove there be any; but it punishes the Malice of those people that use such means to take away mens Lives. If one should profess that by turning his Hat thrice and crying Buz, he could take away a man's life (though in truth he could do no such thing) yet this were a just Law made by the State, that whosoever should turn his Hat thrice and cry Buz, with an intention to take away a man's life, shall be put to death."[68] As to the merits of this legal quip the less said the better; but it is exceedingly hard to see in the passage anything but downright skepticism as to the witch's power.[69]

It is not without interest that Selden's point of view was exactly that of the philosopher Hobbes. There is no man of the seventeenth century, unless it be Oliver Cromwell or John Milton, whose opinion on this subject we would rather know than that of Hobbes. In 1651 Hobbes had issued his great _Leviathan_. It is unnecessary here to insist upon the widespread influence of that work. Let it be said, however, that Hobbes was not only to set in motion new philosophies, but that he had been tutor to Prince Charles[70] and was to become a figure in the reign of that prince.[71] Hobbes's work was directed against superstition in many forms, but we need only notice his statement about witchcraft, a statement that did not by any means escape his contemporaries. "As for Witches," he wrote, "I think not that their witchcraft is any reall power; but yet that they are justly punished for the false beliefe they have that they can do such mischief, joined with their purpose to do it if they can."[72] Perhaps the great philosopher had in mind those pretenders to diabolic arts who had suffered punishment, and was so defending the community that had rid itself of a preying class. In any case, while he defended the law, he put himself among the disbelievers in witchcraft.

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