Speak of the Devil


At a time when many people in Europe and North America believe themselves to be under threat from a hidden enemy bent on their annihilation, it is worth reflecting on the existence of similar fears four hundred years ago. Like the United States today, seventeenth-century England was an intellectually stratified society whose inhabitants lived at very different levels of mental sophistication. It witnessed the superlative achievements of William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton, but it also saw Roman Catholics persecuted as agents of Antichrist and old women put to death as malevolent witches.

There was, of course, some justification for fearing both Catholics and witches. In 1605, Catholic plotters nearly succeeded in their attempt to blow up the King and Queen, their two sons, Henry and Charles, and the assembled Lords and Commons, including the King’s chief ministers, the heads of the judiciary, and the bishops of the established church. Modern experts on explosives estimate that the thirty-six barrels of gunpowder concealed in the vaults of the Palace of Westminster were sufficient to create devastation within a radius of five hundred yards, obliterating the Palace, the Abbey, Westminster Hall, and the surrounding streets. Had one of the conspirators not warned a friend to stay away from the opening of Parliament, thereby alerting the authorities, Guy Fawkes, who was arrested just as he was preparing the long fuses with which to ignite the gunpowder, would have created the Jacobean equivalent of Ground Zero.

Witches were never accused of causing damage on this scale. But they were suspected of killing and injuring others, as well as harming their livestock and frustrating such domestic activities as making butter and cheese. Theologians maintained that all magical operations, whether helpful or harmful, involved a compact, tacit or explicit, with the devil; and that black witches were members of an infernal conspiracy to subvert the whole of Christian society. These suspicions seem fantastic to us today, and it is true that many people, perhaps most, suspected witches were wholly innocent, in thought as well as deed. But some of them were undoubtedly alienated from their communities and from conventional religion; it is likely that they felt deep hatred for their neighbors and would have destroyed them if they could.

The position of Roman Catholics after the Reformation was not dissimilar. Many conformed outwardly to the Anglican Church, but others continued to practice their own religion and to pray for the day when Catholicism would return. Some young men went abroad to be trained in seminaries as missionary priests or to fight in the armies of Catholic rulers, while their sisters were packed off to nunneries in France or Flanders. Only a tiny, intransigent minority plotted and intrigued with foreign powers in the hope of restoring the old religion. Most English Catholics were law-abiding citizens. Yet all were oppressively persecuted. Catholic laity were fined for staying away from church and excluded from public office. Missionary priests were arrested and put to death as subversives.

The analogy between…

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