Sorcerers and Magicians by Albany Poyntz

In the works of St. Augustin, we are informed that there existed in his time in Italy, women possessed of the power attributed by the poets to Circe, who transformed men into beasts of burthen, and compelled them to bear their baggage. St. Augustin mentions that a priest named Præstantius unfortunately meeting one of those women, was changed into a mule, and compelled to bear a trunk on his back; and that it was only when she had no further occasion for his services, he was allowed to resume his gown and band.

Are we to infer from this passage, that one of the greatest minds that ever enlightened the Church believed in this species of transformation? Certainly not! The works of St. Augustin are not to be literally interpreted.

The hyperbole simply implies that there are in Italy women whose charms are so powerful, and whose allurements so dangerous, that men who give way to their influence, ceasing to be men, are reduced to the condition of brutes, and exercise the most degrading labour. As to the priest Præstantius, his name contains the key to the mystery; and he was probably one of the minor Canons of the Church converted into a slave to do the errands of some attractive dame.

This version of the passage of St. Augustin, so often cited for twelve centuries by the believers in magic, was simply an exhortation against female seduction to the laity and clergy of his time. It has proved, however, no small advantage to mountebanks to be backed by the authority of the illustrious name of St. Augustin!

The annals of the Jesuits abound in terrible histories of atonement made at the stake for imputed sorcery. The following instance is related by Dom Calmet. Charles IV., Duke of Lorraine, had in his service a valet-de-chambre, named Desbordes, who was accused of having hastened, by the art of sorcery, the death of the Princess Mary of Lorraine, mother to the Duke.

“Charles IV. conceived suspicions against Desbordes, from the period of his having furnished a grand banquet given by the Duke to a hunting party at a moment’s notice: Desbordes having made no other preparatives than to open a chest, having three trays, upon which were three courses ready prepared. During another hunting party, Desbordes reanimated three criminals suspended from a gibbet, and commanded them to make obeisance to the Duke; having done which, he bade them hang themselves again. Another time, he made the figures in a piece of tapestry come down and join in the dance. Charles IV., alarmed at these supernatural feats, eventually brought Desbordes to trial; and he was condemned and executed as a magician for mere acts of sleight of hand.

The real cause of his condemnation was the enmity of the court-physicians of Lorraine; whom he had irritated by the disappointment of their predictions touching the death of the Princess Mary; for had his judges really believed in his power of restoring the dead to life, their sentence of execution would have been absurd.

The most learned men of times famed for their learning have sometimes condescended to confirm these popular errors. Baronius affirms the bridge of the Spiritus Sanctus, in Rome, to have been erected by a glance from the eye of a child of twelve years old, named Benezet; and his assertion is founded upon five Papal bulls.

Paulus Jovius, a man of unquestionable erudition, confirms the popular legend concerning the black dog of Cornelius Agrippa; stating that, when on his death-bed at Lyons, he uttered dreadful imprecations against his faithful attendant, who was supposed by the vulgar to be a familiar spirit disguised under the form of a cur; saying, “Away with thee wretched beast, through whom I am lost to all eternity!” On which the dog precipitated itself into the Saône, and appeared no more. Unfortunately for the historian, Agrippa died at Grenoble, and not at Lyons, so that the Saône is rather far fetched. But those who believe in familiar spirits are apt to be loose in their notions of geography.

The work of James I., upon Demonology, is one of the most curious records of the superstition of his time, of which the feats of Nicholas Hopkins, the witch-finder, afford so cruel an evidence. The royal author would, perhaps, have been better employed in seeing a more enlightened education bestowed upon his ill-advised son, than in perpetuating his own credulity.

The Memoirs of the Cardinal de Richelieu admit his belief in witchcraft. In his time, it was an advantage to a Minister of State to have at his disposal accusations of a mysterious crime, where disculpation was next to impossible. Urbain Grandier, the priest, who was condemned to death for allowing the nuns of Loudun to communicate with the devil, was one among many victims to the darkness of the public mind.

By the Parliaments of France, hundreds were burnt for witchcraft in the course of a few months. The shepherds of La Brie alone supplied innumerable victims; as the supposed authors of all the domestic misfortunes of the district, the murrain that carried off the cattle, and the hooping-cough that carried off the children. Like the old women in Scotland, they were “na canny;” and like them, expiated the prejudice among faggots and tar-barrels. But though we no longer burn for witchcraft, the profession is far from extinct; and in the remote districts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, there scarcely exists a country magistrate but has had some charge brought before him implying the exercise of witchcraft. The horse-shoe is still seen nailed above the doors of our villages; and fortune-tellers, and spaewives are consulted, in spite of Sunday schools and the Lancastrian system. Not a day passes, but the ordeal of the Bible and key, the Sortes virgiliane of the vulgar, is resorted to in some village of the British empire; but the exorcisms of the school-master will probably drive both witches and witch-finders from the land.