Sunday, 4 October 2015
Daemoni, etiam vera dicenti, non est credendum
Even when the Devil tells the truth, he must not be believed.
One of the interesting Latin phrases my father taught me was Daemoni, etiam vera dicenti, non est credendum. The idea that the Devil is so deceitful that even his use of the truth is tainted by association has always interested me. This was an idea the witchfinder Matthew Hopkins seems to have agreed with, arguing that the Devil used facts over which he had no power (the truth) to deceive witches into believing they had actually harmed their victims with his help.
In 2014 I attended the Early Modern Women, Religion, and the Body conference at Loughborough University. At that conference I presented a paper which focused on how on Matthew Hopkins used ideas found in earlier demonological works to underpin his arguments on the Devil’s deceit of witches in The discovery of vvitches (1647).
I argued that a key passage in Hopkins text described how when witches, the Devil’s ‘deare and nearest children’,[i] believed that the Devil was granting their desire to harm their enemies, he was actually tricking them into worshipping him in return for the deaths of people who were already ill and going to die in the near future:
‘[The Devil] is of a long standing, above 6000. yeers, then he must needs be the best Scholar in all knowledges of arts and tongues, & so have the best skill in Physicke, judgment in Physiognomie, and knowledge of what disease is reigning or predominant in this or that mans body, (and so for cattell too) by reason of his long experience. This subtile tempter knowing such a man lyable to some sudden disease, (as by experience I have found) as Plurisie, Imposthume, &c. he resorts to divers Witches; if they know the man, and seek to make a difference between the Witches and the party[.]’[ii]
This recourse to the idea that the Devil understands human beings and their natures, and has studied then for his work also appears in the earlier text of George Gifford. However for Gifford, his learning is not just about the Witch’s victim, but about the witch herself:
‘WHen Satan at the first enterprised the ruine and destruction of man, he did not vnaduisedly set vp on the worke, but in great subtilty chose him a fit instrument for the purpose, euen the serpent who was more subtill then any beast of the field. He is now an old serpent, & long practised, and hath increased his subtilty by much approoued experience. He doth not nowe attempt his wicked worke, but [...] all y^[...] fittest waies & meanes that hée can: hée doth obserue time & place, with all other circumstances: and looke of what sort soeuer his worke shalbe, he séeketh co~uenient persons as matter to work vpon; he chuseth out fit instruments to worke withall·when he raiseth vp some heresie to destroy y^[...] true faith, which is with subtill shew to be defended: he suggesteth not the same into the minde of a blunt vnlearned foole which is able to say litle: but if it be possible, he espieth out a subtil minde, which is also proud, vaine glorious, & stiffe to maintain any purpose[.]’[iii]
The idea that the Devil tailors his temptation to the victim was a common theme, and my own favourite discussion on who the Devil chooses, and how he them fits his temptation to them, comes from King James VI & I’s Daemonologie. For King James there were witches who did not need to be deceived, as they were of the “grosser sorte, [who]runnes directlie to the Deuill for ambition or desire of gaine”.[iv] In my thesis I argue that:
King James did not see this plain and knowing contract as the only way in which people came into the Devil’s service, also citing two other forms. In some cases ignorant people could be deceived by the Devil into magical practices, without understanding that doing so was apostasy and diabolism. And some learned men were tempted by knowledge into attempting sorcery, believing that they could control the Devil. In both cases King James emphasised the Devil’s use of deceit, and his desire to entice both the learned and the ignorant into the same grave error as the wilful, sinful witch: making a contract with the Devil that damned their soul. So for King James, witches could be divided into the sinfully greedy, the woefully ignorant, and the learned who, through pride, were deceived by the Devil.
The importance of the Devil’s understanding of human desires and the human body are central to Hopkins’ work. Therefore I have always argued that Hopkins’ The discovery of vvitches presents a complex demonological argument about the corporeality of the Devil, and his interaction with witches and the bewitched. And though he only cites James VI & I, it is easy to trace many of his ideas in George Gifford, William Perkins and Richard Bernard’s seminal demonological texts. Hopkins brief (comparatively it was extremely short for a treatise on demonology or the account of a witchfinder) work presents its reader with a mixture of popular beliefs around familiars, and elite demonology.[vii] There are several signs in both Hopkins’ and Stearne’s pamphlets that they consulted with demonological texts, magistrates and others in formulating their method of finding witches, for example at one point Hopkins claims his methods in one case were ‘upon command from the Justice’. [viii]
These links to others place Hopkins and Stearne firmly within English demonology – not without as claimed by Wallace Notestein.[ix]
At Loughborough I pointed out that Hopkins himself opened his pamphlet with the injunction from Exodus 22:18 cited by both Gifford and Richard Bernard: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’, and likewise follows the paths laid down by earlier demonologists in ascribing to the Devil only a limited role in God’s work:
‘God suffers the Devill many times to doe much hurt, and the devill doth play many times the deluder and impostor with these Witches, in perswading them that they are the cause of such and such a murder wrought by him with their consents, when and indeed neither he nor they had any hand in it[.]’
Unlike John Gaule’s assessment that the witchfinders and those who employed them had no respect for God’s providence, Hopkins was demonstrating an understanding of how the world was supposed to work, with the Devil’s ‘power’, such as it was, primarily lying in deception and illusion. When Hopkins argues that “God suffers the Devill many times to doe much hurt”, he does not mean physical hurt, in terms of acts of maleficium or harmful magic, rather he means that the Devil is allowed to do much hurt to the witch.
This idea came to mind when I recently read Verena Thiele’s “Demonising Macbeth” in Magical Transformations on the Early Modern English Stage (2014), which argues that the demonic, tangible, transferable evil of the witches is contrasted with the temporary, localised evil of the human Macbeth who is a ‘bad man’ made worse by the influence of the witches. As I was reading her work I was struck by the way in which the three witches seem to do more than represent evil, they seem to embody the Devil (an inversion of the Holy Trinity?). While Macbeth himself stands in the place of the early modern witch. Macbeth is a bad man whose faults are manipulated. But the witches use truths (and half-truths) to deceive Macbeth, and to engender his ‘fall’.
This is an idea I am just wandering around the edges of – and I wager there may well be someone in the vast wealth of Shakespearian literature who has thought of it before me! Yet it seems to be playing on my mind, and I keep returning to Macbeth’s terrible declaration in Act V, that nothing can harm him because he has been told it cannot.
‘Bring me no more reports; let them fly all:
Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear. What's the boy Malcolm?
Was he not born of woman? The spirits that know
All mortal consequences have pronounced me thus:
'Fear not, Macbeth; no man that's born of woman
Shall e'er have power upon thee.'[x]
But Birnam did come to Dunsinane, and Malcolm was not ‘born of woman’. The witches (as the Devil) knew how to manipulate Macbeth, knew how he would interpret their prophecies, and so they used they used truth to deceive him.
For Hopkins, the Devil used ‘the truth’ of a person’s illness to deceive a witch into believing she was able to cause physical harm to another human being through him. Hopkins representation of the Devil’s knowledge and ability to deceive, and its interaction with the witch’s malice, vanity, and pride, has become one of the key points I keep in mind when I think about witchcraft in early modern England.
[i] Matthew Hopkins, The discovery of vvitches, (1645): p. 9.
[ii] Matthew Hopkins, The discovery of vvitches, p. 9.
[iii] George Gifford, A discourse of the subtill practises of deuilles by vvitches and sorcerers (1587): p. 32.
[iv] James VI & I, Daemonologie in forme of a dialogue, diuided into three books, p. 12.
See Richard Bernard, A guide to grand-iury men, (1627); George Gifford, A discourse of the subtill practises of deuilles by vvitches and sorcerers; William Perkins, A Discourse of the damned art of witchcraft, (1610).
[viii] Hopkins, The discovery of vvitches, p. 2.
[ix] Wallace Notestein. A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718, 127-129
[x] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene III