Charles Williams (1886-1945) is perhaps best known as a close friend of CS Lewis's and, with him and JRR Tolkien, one of the three most prominent members of the Inklings. He was the author of various works of fiction and non-fiction, the latter including various works of literary criticism and theology. To say that he was an unusual fellow would be to put it mildly. He has often been called the most original theologian of his century, the kind of description that most orthodox Christians would mentally translate as "heretic". That said, I'm continually surprised by the truth and profound insight that underlie his writings.
Many of Williams's novels--defying genre, they lie somewhere in the intersection of urban fantasy, magical realism, and supernatural thriller--deal with matters of magic and witchcraft. There are two distinctives of Williams's approach to these things. First, unlike Tolkien and Lewis, who often used the word "magic" to describe rightful authority, Williams always uses the word to describe evil and detestable arts designed to corrupt the user, things which war against the Church and with those characters in his novels who represent the co-inherent Body of Christ. Second, also unlike Tolkien and Lewis, and very unlike just about every other fantasy author you will ever meet, Williams's magic has a very authentic feel to it. When Harry Potter does magic, you don't for an instant imagine the same thing working in real life. Which Charles Williams's characters do magic, you feel that he knows what he is writing of. In fact, you feel that he knows more than he really ought to.
All the same, I felt I had learned some valuable things about witchcraft from Williams. From him I learned to see it as petty, malicious, mindless, and stultifying. I began to understand how directly it stands in opposition to the two great commandments, to love God and one's neighbour. This was valuable. As a fantasy author who desires to tell the truth and stir my readers up to love and good works, I felt that I needed to have a solid and orthodox understanding of the topic. So far I knew what Scripture taught, and I knew what the Inklings thought, but I also wanted to know what the Church had taught on magic over the course of the centuries. For this reason, when I discovered that Williams had written a history of witchcraft in Christendom from Augustine in the 500s to Salem in the 1690s--about a thousand years' worth--I thought it would make for profitable reading, especially since people I trust had recommended it, drawing particular attention to its balanced and temperate handling of the topic.
Despite its brevity and the sensational nature of its topic, this book wasn't an easy read. With his peculiar vocabulary, Williams can be a little difficult to comprehend even in his fiction. Then, too, despite the arm's-length handling of the gory details, there were enough horrors referred to in this book--committed by both sides in the great war--to make the reading anything but pleasant. When I hit the chapter that describes the outline of what was supposed to have happened at the satanic Sabbaths (it's the one titled "The Goetic Life"), I definitely felt I'd learned more than I wished; I don't think such a detailed synopsis was necessary, here or in other parts.
None of this information is given in a prescriptive manner, of course, or as an initiation into occult things. Williams's sources are accounts of trials, theological treatises, and witch-hunter memoirs--things that would have been widely available and widely read in their time. Not that these would necessarily be harmless: one of the awful things that crops up in the centuries of the great witch-hunts is the fact that preaching against witchcraft regularly resulted in spurious accusations and confessions of witchcraft.
Still, despite the details, this was in many ways a wonderful and edifying book, and I'm glad I read it. My hope for the rest of this review is to provide a brief overview of the history covered, hopefully giving you some of the benefit of reading the book, with fewer of the gory details.
The Middle Ages
We are used to thinking of the Middle Ages as a time of credulity, superstition, and innocent old women being burnt as witches. But as Williams shows, relatively few people were actually condemned to death for witchcraft before the 1500s, and at least some of these appear to have been horribly guilty, if not of pacts with the Devil, then at least of worshiping Satan, seeking to make such pacts, and sealing them in innocent blood--all in an attempt to gain power over life, death, and love.
This is not to say that the medievals didn't have their own share of superstition. Early on Williams quotes Gregory the Great's Dialogues, a book that remained influential throughout the medieval period, and may have done much to encourage belief in supernatural happenings and the power of devils over the impious or careless.
However, in the Middle Ages, the attitude towards witchcraft seems to have been characterised by healthy skepticism. It was heresy to believe that Satan had any power against the will and providence of God. It was a crime to attempt witchcraft, of course, but it was even a crime to believe witchcraft possible after the great triumph of Christ and the submission of the Magi at Bethlehem. Had not the first-century saint Ignatius declared that "From that time forth every sorcery and every spell was dissolved"? "In fact," Williams writes, "the authorities seem rather to have taken the view that to believe that anyone could do it, to believe that one could oneself do it, and to do it were three degrees of preoccupation with the same evil." The law which, across the majority of the Middle Ages, governed the Church's teaching on the subject, was the Canon Episcopi of Gratian, which declared that if anyone believed themselves to have done anything, or seen anything, or gone anywhere by the practice of witchcraft, it was nothing but a false illusion:
[A]n innumerable multitude, deceived by this false opinion, believe these things to be true, and so believing, wander from the right faith and are involved in the error of the pagans when they think that there is anything of divinity or power except the one God. Wherefore the priests throughout their churches should preach with all insistence to the people that they may know this to be in every way false and that such phantasms are imposed on the minds of infidels and not by the divine but by the malignant spirit. ... Whoever therefore believes that anything can be made, or that any creature can be changed to better or to worse or be transformed into another species or similitude, except by the Creator himself who made everything and through whom all things were made, is beyond doubt an infidel.The trials of Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais occurring in France in the mid-1400s are a fascinating counterpoint to each other. Williams claims that Joan's trial was not simply a political matter: even the French, whom she had assisted, had their doubts about her abilities. Gilles de Rais, on the other hand, though an old comrade of Joan's, was so clearly and horribly guilty that the Maid appear perfectly innocent by contrast. I will not weary the world with a rehearsal of his crimes, though the power of that story, told with all Williams's great literary skill, is worth reading the book for. Claiming repentance, without torture, de Rais volunteered his own confession.
The voice continued; murder after murder, pain after pain, loathsomeness after loathsomeness. Once someone screamed. The voice continued; murder after murder, pain after pain, animalism after animalism. The Bishop of Nantes stood up; the voice paused. The bishop went up to the Crucifix that hung over the seats of the judges, and veiled it. There were some things men could not bear that that carved image should see. The voice broke into repentant cries, to God, to the Church, to the parents of the dead. The bishop came down to the prisoner and embraced him, praying aloud that he might be purged and redeemed. There, clasped, the two stood. That, as well as torture, was the Middle Ages.They executed him, and then held a public fast to beseech God to have mercy on his soul. Love and justice, both to the nth: that was the Middle Ages, as well.
It was the age of humanism, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that saw mass hysteria, confessions forced by torture, and hundreds of executions across Europe and the New World. Granted, it was also the age of the Reformation, and Commonwealth England and Puritan Salem both saw their outbreaks; witchcraft, Williams claims, was a thing that Roman and Reformed churches treated in a similar fashion. The proximate cause of these witch-hunts appears to have been the abandonment of the Canon Episcopi in favour of a new handbook in the Church's warfare against evil, the Malleus Maleficiarum. This appeared in the 1480s--with Gilles de Rais's crimes fresh in the public memory--and argued, after Thomas Aquinas, that
deeds of infidels which arose from infidelity, though in themselves good, were in them deadly sin....In a witch therefore acts otherwise humanly good are evil, because her whole life is, pseudo-organically, evil.This made it possible to convict a person of witchcraft despite evidence of an otherwise good and religious life; the principle of knowing a tree by its fruit had been abandoned. The authors of the Malleus also acknowledged the possibility of witchcraft being something more than an illusion; it was a thing that could actually affect reality. The use of torture became the rule, especially for extracting confessions. A public reputation was enough to warrant arrest and torture, and the torture went on until the unfortunate accused confessed.
The principle seems to have been "where there is smoke, there is fire." If enough people suspected or accused someone of witchcraft, then guilt was taken as proven. There is a law in Canberra, Australia, which functions in a very similar way when it comes to claims of sexual abuse.
The witchcraft itself was not always an attempt to gain power through worshipping Satan. Plenty of people throughout the history of Christendom attempted to manipulate the power of God to their own purposes, all without quite stepping over the line into outright selling their souls. So the name of Christ was used in charms to force demons to do one's wishes. This was considered, at least by its practitioners (one thinks of names like Dee, Paracelsus, and Cornelius Agrippa), to be "white magic". Williams, however, insists that the supernatural is never static; again and again, in case after case, a little dabbling with "harmless" kinds of magic, foresight and divination for example, to see whether one shall marry so and so, or whether one's sons shall become king, eventually devolves into something more sinister, usually an attempt to bring about the foreseen good by means of philtres and poisons, as we see in the 1441 case of the Duchess of Gloucester, the 1616 case of the Countess of Somerset, and the horrible 1680 case of La Voisin, which was eventually stifled by Louis XIV when his mistress, the famous Madame de Montespan, was implicated. As Williams points out, "The great distinction between the Way [Christianity] and the Perverted Way was in the self-concentration of perversion. The great aim of the Ritual was to intensify the magician's power; that is, to intensify himself." The Bible calls rebellion "the sin of witchcraft". Insubordination, the thirst for greater power than God gives, has always been the temptation.
Repentance in Spain and Salem
It may surprise you to know that throughout the frenzied witch-hunts of the seventeenth century, the Spanish Inquisition stood virtually alone to champion reason, due process, and righteous skepticism. An auto-da-fe was held in Navarre in 1610, where only six out of twenty-four convicted witches were burned. Afterwards, the Supreme Court of the Inquisition in Spain raised the bar of proof. Accusations and confessions were forensically tested; one Inquisitor found sixteen hundred people accused of witchcraft, innocent; many who insisted on accusing themselves were released without punishment, and sermons against witchcraft were stopped on the grounds that they tended to encourage spurious accusations and confessions. "The effect was marked, all over Spain. Accusations of witchcraft were simply not brought, or only a few were brought." Williams says:
The Court...put every possible difficulty in the way of proof. And it went as far as the Supreme Court, which was not primarily responsible, could go in expressing regret and making reparation for the affair of Navarre. Three times only has the Holy Spirit deigned to allow such repentance in such matters to be publicly recorded and known to the future. This was the first occasion; another was when a Bishop of Wurzburg instituted with the Augustinians of the city a commemoration of the victims--presumably a yearly Mass; another was in the village of Salem, New England, eighty years later. It is odd to think what the Supreme Court of the Holy Office in Spain and the Calvinist jury of New England would have said of each other, and yet how forward they both were to Christian righteousness.It is with Salem that Williams closes his chronicle, as the last serious outbreak of witchcraft hysteria. This is a period of history which I've always been reluctant to look at; the people of Salem are in some sense my own people, and while I don't wish to excuse their evil, I would prefer to study the sins of the Church from the perspective of the Church. Yet I did not expect Williams to treat the New England Puritans kindly. I was astonished by his insistence that the name "Salem" was no irony but a message of hope. The hysteria of Salem did result in twenty-two deaths of presumably innocent people, at the insistence of a pack of hysterical children who claimed to see spectres tormenting them. At least one man was able to save himself by acting fast when the first rumours began to stir against him, and taking out a writ for defamation against his accusers, who immediately turned their attention elsewhere. The panic ended within the year and was followed almost immediately by repentance. The statements of Salem's minister, of one of the accusers, Anne Putnam, and of the jury, remain to testify to the repentance of those who committed this atrocity. Williams concludes that this repentance may have influenced the abandonment of witchcraft trials in Europe; it certainly constitutes an important symbolic victory:
Coming when and where it did, the repentance of the Salem jurors on the edge of Christendom seems to carry with it an efficacious grace. Salem has been too long remembered for its witches and its trials; it ought to be remembered for its reparation. In that, in those thirteen good and Christian men--twelve jurors and one judge--by whom it was accomplished, it may be thought that our Lord saw Satan, as lightning, fall from heaven.Conclusion
The history of witchcraft, told in this clear-minded and sober manner, is much more relevant to our times than you may think. I did learn what I came to this book to learn, which was something of how the Church has taught on such matters in the past. But I think the most important things I learned here, I learned from the grievous mistakes made by the Church in addressing this great evil. Only in the last few weeks I've read people arguing from one side or another online that the use of torture is justified to extract information on terrorist attacks; it is impossible not to think of the hundreds of innocent victims of the torturers of the German Inquisition, who confessed to everything and anything in the hope that death by burning would be better than another day of torment. A little closer to home, it's difficult to read these tales of hysteria, accusations, and convictions on no more than suspicion, and not think of the witch-hunts that often occur when people these days are suspected of sexual abuse. This has happened to people I know of; as I say, there is a law in Canberra that will allow a conviction on evidence of "tendency" rather than solid proof. At the same time, it is important to recognise that real cases were not unknown, and that monsters like La Voisin and Gilles de Rais did exist and did commit horrible crimes. While it should be clear from this book, if nothing else, that the Church has not had a great track record of getting the balance right between healthy skepticism of outrageous claims, and serious prosecution of real crimes, there is much we can learn from the mistakes of the past. I would strongly recommend a careful and prayerful reading of this book to anyone who wishes to avoid the same mistakes: as Williams concludes, "The tale of witchcraft is a tale of the deception of virtue by itself."
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