No. 117 [Witches — from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: EssayNo. 117.Saturday, July 14, 1711.‘… Ipsi sibi somnia fingunt.’Virg.There are some Opinions in which a Man should stand Neuter, without engaging his Assent …

Story type: Essay

No. 117.
Saturday, July 14, 1711.

‘… Ipsi sibi somnia fingunt.’

Virg.

There are some Opinions in which a Man should stand Neuter, without engaging his Assent to one side or the other. Such a hovering Faith as this, which refuses to settle upon any Determination, is absolutely necessary to a Mind that is careful to avoid Errors and Prepossessions. When the Arguments press equally on both sides in Matters that are indifferent to us, the safest Method is to give up our selves to neither.

It is with this Temper of Mind that I consider the Subject of Witchcraft. When I hear the Relations that are made from all Parts of the World, not only from Norway and Lapland, from the East and West Indies, but from every particular Nation in Europe, I cannot forbear thinking that there is such an Intercourse and Commerce with Evil Spirits, as that which we express by the Name of Witch-craft. But when I consider that the ignorant and credulous Parts of the World abound most in these Relations, and that the Persons among us, who are supposed to engage in such an Infernal Commerce, are People of a weak Understanding and a crazed Imagination, and at the same time reflect upon the many Impostures and Delusions of this Nature that have been detected in all Ages, I endeavour to suspend my Belief till I hear more certain Accounts than any which have yet come to my Knowledge. In short, when I consider the Question, whether there are such Persons in the World as those we call Witches? my Mind is divided between the two opposite Opinions; or rather (to speak my Thoughts freely) I believe in general that there is, and has been such a thing as Witch-craft; but at the same time can give no Credit to any particular Instance of it.

I am engaged in this Speculation, by some Occurrences that I met with Yesterday, which I shall give my Reader an Account of at large. As I was walking with my Friend Sir ROGER by the side of one of his Woods, an old Woman applied herself to me for my Charity. Her Dress and Figure put me in mind of the following Description in [Otway. [1]]

In a close Lane as I pursued my Journey,
I spy’d a wrinkled Hag, with Age grown double,
Picking dry Sticks, and mumbling to her self.
Her Eyes with scalding Rheum were gall’d and red,
Cold Palsy shook her Head; her Hands seem’d wither’d;
And on her crooked Shoulders had she wrap’d
The tatter’d Remnants of an old striped Hanging,
Which served to keep her Carcase from the Cold:
So there was nothing of a Piece about her.
Her lower Weeds were all o’er coarsly patch’d
With diff’rent-colour’d Rags, black, red, white, yellow,
And seem’d to speak Variety of Wretchedness. [2]

[As I was musing on this Description, and comparing it with the Object before me, the Knight told me, [3]] that this very old Woman had the Reputation of a Witch all over the Country, that her Lips were observed to be always in Motion, and that there was not a Switch about her House which her Neighbours did not believe had carried her several hundreds of Miles. If she chanced to stumble, they always found Sticks or Straws that lay in the Figure of a Cross before her. If she made any Mistake at Church, and cryed Amen in a wrong Place, they never failed to conclude that she was saying her Prayers backwards. There was not a Maid in the Parish that would take a Pin of her, though she would offer a Bag of Mony with it. She goes by the Name of Moll White, and has made the Country ring with several imaginary Exploits which are palmed upon her. If the Dairy Maid does not make her Butter come so soon as she should have it, Moll White is at the Bottom of the Churn. If a Horse sweats in the Stable, Moll White has been upon his Back. If a Hare makes an unexpected escape from the Hounds, the Huntsman curses Moll White. Nay, (says Sir ROGER) I have known the Master of the Pack, upon such an Occasion, send one of his Servants to see if Moll White had been out that Morning.

This Account raised my Curiosity so far, that I begged my Friend Sir ROGER to go with me into her Hovel, which stood in a solitary Corner under the side of the Wood. Upon our first entering Sir ROGER winked to me, and pointed at something that stood behind the Door, which, upon looking that Way, I found to be an old Broom-staff. At the same time he whispered me in the Ear to take notice of a Tabby Cat that sat in the Chimney-Corner, which, as the old Knight told me, lay under as bad a Report as Moll White her self; for besides that Moll is said often to accompany her in the same Shape, the Cat is reported to have spoken twice or thrice in her Life, and to have played several Pranks above the Capacity of an ordinary Cat.

I was secretly concerned to see Human Nature in so much Wretchedness and Disgrace, but at the same time could not forbear smiling to hear Sir ROGER, who is a little puzzled about the old Woman, advising her as a Justice of Peace to avoid all Communication with the Devil, and never to hurt any of her Neighbours’ Cattle. We concluded our Visit with a Bounty, which was very acceptable.

In our Return home, Sir ROGER told me, that old Moll had been often brought before him for making Children spit Pins, and giving Maids the Night-Mare; and that the Country People would be tossing her into a Pond and trying Experiments with her every Day, if it was not for him and his Chaplain.

I have since found upon Enquiry, that Sir ROGER was several times staggered with the Reports that had been brought him concerning this old Woman, and would frequently have bound her over to the County Sessions, had not his Chaplain with much ado perswaded him to the contrary. [4]

I have been the more particular in this Account, because I hear there is scarce a Village in England that has not a Moll White in it. When an old Woman begins to doat, and grow chargeable to a Parish, she is generally turned into a Witch, and fills the whole Country with extravagant Fancies, imaginary Distempers and terrifying Dreams. In the mean time, the poor Wretch that is the innocent Occasion of so many Evils begins to be frighted at her self, and sometimes confesses secret Commerce and Familiarities that her Imagination forms in a delirious old Age. This frequently cuts off Charity from the greatest Objects of Compassion, and inspires People with a Malevolence towards those poor decrepid Parts of our Species, in whom Human Nature is defaced by Infirmity and Dotage.

L.

[Footnote 1: Ottway, which I could not forbear repeating on this occasion.]

[Footnote 2: ‘Orphan’, Act II. Chamont to Monimia.]

[Footnote 3: The knight told me, upon hearing the Description,]

[Footnote 4: When this essay was written, charges were being laid against one old woman, Jane Wenham, of Walkerne, a little village north of Hertford, which led to her trial for witchcraft at assizes held in the following year, 1712, when she was found guilty; and became memorable as the last person who, in this country, was condemned to capital punishment for that impossible offence. The judge got first a reprieve and then a pardon. The lawyers had refused to draw up any indictment against the poor old creature, except, in mockery, for ‘conversing familiarly with the devil in form of a cat.’ But of that offence she was found guilty upon the testimony of sixteen witnesses, three of whom were clergymen. One witness, Anne Thorne, testified that every night the pins went from her pincushion into her mouth. Others gave evidence that they had seen pins come jumping through the air into Anne Thorne’s mouth. Two swore that they had heard the prisoner, in the shape of a cat, converse with the devil, he being also in form of a cat. Anne Thorne swore that she was tormented exceedingly with cats, and that all the cats had the face and voice of the witch. The vicar of Ardeley had tested the poor ignorant creature with the Lord’s Prayer, and finding that she could not repeat it, had terrified her with his moral tortures into some sort of confession. Such things, then, were said and done, and such credulity was abetted even by educated men at the time when this essay was written. Upon charges like those ridiculed in the text, a woman actually was, a few months later, not only committed by justices with a less judicious spiritual counsellor than Sir Roger’s chaplain, but actually found guilty at the assizes, and condemned to death.]

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