Dispelling superstition is just one step toward shedding nonage

On July 12, 1683, an old woman named Jane Dosdon was tried for being a witch because, allegedly, she caused another woman named Mary Palmer to become disfigured and lame.  She was accused of doing so through “Hellish Arts and Incantations…Witchcraft and Sorcery.”  It was also said that there was evidence that she had murdered another unnamed person.  However, since those who testified against Dosdon could not prove how she did these alleged acts, not “how the matter was brought about,” Dosdon was acquitted.

The Old Bailey article did not cite any defense, most likely because it was entirely unnecessary.  The allegations were based on hear-say, and no actual evidence was offered.  What this trial shows, however, is how the accusation of supposed witches was used as a scapegoat.  When people could not understand something, or, in this case, when someone was wronged but a perpetrator is unable to be identified, it was easy to accuse someone of being a witch.  At that point in time, it became a way to explain something away.  The burned body of an accused witch suddenly solved everything.

Dosdon’s case was cited as not only a royal offence, but a religious offence as well.  It was a royal offence to cripple and murder someone, but religious to do so through witchcraft.  I don’t believe this is a case of manipulating religion for personal, petty gain—I think those that testified against Dosdon were truly terrified of her potential “powers.”  This is not a normal trial of a witch in that her magic caused animals to attack people, limited a man to two cows, or that she could materialize out of thin air (Burr); Dosdon is accused of disfiguring one woman and murdering another.  That is a serious offence.  However, since the relationship between the accused and the accusers is not noted, it is not an impossibility that this is due to a petty squabble.

The very idea of witchcraft was disdainful to scholars such as Hobbes and Humes.  They often cited the misinterpretation of religious text as the primary source of the mania.  Francis Huchinson wrote in his An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft, “‘The credulous multitiude…will ever be ready to try their tricks, and swim the old women, and wonder at and magnify every unaccountable symptom and odd accident.’”  Ankarloo and Clarke expand on this point, saying, “Most ‘witchcraft’ was explicable by natural causes; the scriptural references to it had been mistranslated; and popular ghost-lore was fiddle-faddle.  The confessions of ‘old women’ were ‘not to be regarded’ and the notion of compacts with the Devil was ‘meer Imagination.’”  These authors are criticizing the people of the Enlightenment era for not thinking in a very Enlightened way; instead of stepping back and taking a well-thought out, scientific approach, religious scripture was being used to condemn women without a second thought.

Scaife arrives to much the same conclusion by examining cultures he deems “savage.”  His idea of savagery is one in which people use superstition rather than science to explain nature.  He wrote in the very beginning of A Brief Sketch of Superstition, “[Superstition] has often become a part of [man’s] religion, shaped his habits and governed his life.  Superstition generally decreases in proportion to mental development.  It dominates the life of a savage to whom nature presents, as he thinks, one continual display of supernatural effects.”  Scaife argues that there is a negative correlation between superstition and intelligence: the most intelligent someone becomes, the less superstitious they are.  As Kant described, to reach an Enlightened state, we must shed our nonage; by Scaife’s line of reasoning, one major component of the act of shedding our nonage is to shed our superstitions.


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