Early discussion of witchcraft amongst historians was based on the assumptions that the belief in witches and associated phenomena died out due to the advent of the scientific revolution and that the persecution of witches in the first place occurred because of the silly superstitions of past ages. There are plenty of examples of this approach in action, perhaps none better that Andrew Dickinson White’s polemical A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom of 1896. Other studies attempted to find early rationalists who bravely fought against the follies of their time, writing histories of these (invariably) men who were ahead of their fellows in anticipating the correct modes of thought that would later overthrow unscientific beliefs like witchcraft or the actions of the devil in the world. Of particular interest was Johann Weyer, a Dutch physician who authored De Praestigiis Daemonium (“On the Tricks of Demons”) in 1563. Weyer had given a host of explanations for witchcraft and other demonic behaviour in medical terms and, although relatively unknown, quickly became a textbook example of the unhappy critical thinker fighting against a tide of superstition, seized upon by historians like Zilboorg, Sarton and Diethelm to show how scientific rationalism gradually defeated the credulity of backwards times.
An indicative quote from Sarton’s Six Wings: Men of Science in the Renaissance shows how relevant this tale is today:
… the fight against superstition, intolerance, and endemic irrationalism must be continued… We cannot relax. And we must continue to fight against lying and hypocrisy. Even now there are too many people, good citizens, pillars of society, who are afraid of science because they are afraid of truth… We must replace darkness with light; that is the main function of science.
Unfortunately for Sarton and others who sought to save us, this view of the history of science began to give way in the second half of the twentieth century as it became clearer that religious ideas might have played an important role in the construction of modern science, although witchcraft and demonology continued to be exceptions, considered thoroughly pseudoscientific. Rationalists could admit that perhaps the Christian conception of an ordered creation might have aided the development of the conviction that scientific laws exist and can be discovered, but they still insisted that the belief in the devil belonged alongside astrology and voodoo. However, this also came under scrutiny and the change of direction was aided by the efforts of the anti-psychiatrists like Szasz and the psychologist Schoeneman, who argued that witches were not insane at all because mental illnesses are either entirely socially constructed or at least historically contingent (i.e. what it means to be mad in one context is not eternally the same everywhere else). Other historians showed that White’s conflict between science and religion was untenable, with the “fathers of science” all devoutly religious men of one form or another.
The most important revision in our understanding had to wait for Stuart Clark’s monumental study of demonology, Thinking with Demons. Clark showed that from the perspective of the time, it was supremely rational to believe in witchcraft, demons and that the devil regularly interceded in wordly affairs. In particular, early scientists were fascinated by their investigations of demons and witchcraft because these subjects were part of the preternatural; that is, the natural-but-unexplained. The presupposition was that by looking into these occult phenomena, demonologists could better understand the workings of the natural world; in short, witchcraft and demonology were research at the limits of science, and by pushing the boundaries of knowledge in this way their proponents were very much within the mainstream of contemporary thought (albeit the vanguard), rather than engaged in what we might wish to call pseudoscience. Indeed, this kind of research was held to be no different than Newton’s theory of gravitation, which involved a force (gravity) that was known to exist but could as yet not be explained. Realising that gravity had effects but unknown causes and trying to determine these was then no different from recognising the effects of witchcraft and the actions of the devil and then investigating their causes. The experience of those who had witnessed witchcraft was likewise as “real” as those who felt the effects of gravity.
The issue with supernaturalism for demonologists was to distinguish accurately between mira and miracula; that is, between genuine miracles, which were the province of God alone who could intervene in the world supernaturally, and the wonders that the devil could work within the bounds of natural law. (This is much the same as the understanding of magic as the displaying of preternatural effects through unknown causes, either by advanced knowledge of such things – natural magic – or with the assistance of the devil – demonic magic – that nevertheless amounted to the same thing in practice.) The study of the preternatural was vital because there were very clearly effects seen in the world whose causes were not known but were necessarily natural as only God could act supernaturally, and therefore investigating the devil’s actions and trying to appreciate his methods, together with the boundaries on his activities, illuminated the natural world. His behaviour and that of witches was only “occult” in the accurate sense of that word as hidden – observed to exist but without understanding how. Demonologists thus attempted to find the boundary between the natural and supernatural and in particular to develop means to distinguish between the many possible explanations for an event. The theoretical context here is also important: as is well known, Scripture attested to the fact that the devil was real and had spoken with Jesus, so the notion that he might speak to or act with or through other humans was hardly surprising.
This shift in historiographic thought, along with the total demolition of earlier conceptions of witchcraft and demonology as pseudoscience with no relevance to the scientific revolution that displaced them, does not imply that other subjects currently considered nonsense are not, but it should perhaps give us pause when appealing to the inexorable advance of rationalism or clearly dividing the world into light and dark. At the very least, the story of science is far more complex than triumphalist “rationalist” accounts allow, and Clark’s study is probably the best way to learn about it. Here, for example, is how he described the suggestion that demonology could be dismissed post hoc as supernatural nonsense, an appropriate point at which to end this overview:
… we cannot go on associating [witchcraft beliefs] with supernaturalism or calling demonology an ‘occult science’ – if by ‘occult’ we mean something to do with knowledge and use of the supernatural. For one of the principal aims of demonological enquiry was precisely that of establishing what was supernatural and what was not; and there was scarcely an author who did not state categorically that demonism was an aspect of the natural world. The devil lacked just those powers to overrule the laws of nature that constituted truly miraculous agency. Whatever the scale of his interventionism, it could never, therefore, turn natural into supernatural causation. In early modern Europe, there may well have been a pervasive supernaturalism in the general conceptions of witchcraft held by ordinary people. In this respect, scholarly writers on the subject were correcting what they saw as popular error – battling, in particular, against a form of Manichaeism.