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THE FOLKLORE OF REFORMATION GERMANY

Now in the hands of all men, the Bible was not made the basis of doctrinal opinions alone. It lent its support to many of the popular superstitions of the time, and in addition it served as the starting-point for new superstitions and for new developments of the older ones. The Pan-daemonism of the New Testament, with its wonder-workings by devilish agencies, its exorcisms of evil spirits and the like, could not fail to have a deep effect on the popular mind. The authority that the book believed to be divinely inspired necessarily lent to such beliefs gave a vividness to the popular conception of the devil and his angels, which is apparent throughout the whole movement of the Reformation, and not least in the utterances of the great Luther himself. Indeed, with the Reformation there comes a complete change over the popular conception of the devil and diabolical influences.

It is true that the judicial pursuit of witches and witchcraft, in the earlier Middle Ages only a sporadic incident, received a great impulse from the Bull of Pope Innocent VIII (De, 1484), entitled Summis Desideruntes, to which has been given the title of Malleus Maleficorum, or The Hammer of Sorcerers, directed against the practice of witchcraft; but it was especially amongst the men of the New Spirit that the belief in the prevalence of compacts with the devil, and the necessity for suppressing them, took root, and led to the horrible persécutions that distinguished the “Reformed” Churches on the whole even more than the Catholic.

Luther himself had a vivid belief, tinging all his views and actions, in the ubiquity of the devil and his myrmidons. “The devils,” says he, “are near us, and do cunningly contrive every moment without ceasing against our life, our salvation, and our blessedness.... In woods, waters, and wastes, and in damp, marshy places, there are many devils that seek to harm men. In the black and thick clouds, too, there are some that make storms, hail, lightning, and thunder, that poison the air and the pastures. When such things happen, the philosophers and the physicians ascribe them to the stars, and show I know not what causes for such misfortunes and plagues.” Luther relates numerous instances of personal encounters that he himself had had with the devil. A nobleman invited him, with other learned men from the University of Wittenberg, to take part in a hare hunt. A large, fine hare and a fox crossed the path. The nobleman, mounted on a strong, healthy steed, dashed after them, when, suddenly, his horse fell dead beneath him, and the fox and the hare flew up in the air and vanished. “For,” says Luther, “they were devilish spectres.”

Again, on another occasion, he was at Eisleben on the occasion of another hare-hunt, when the nobleman succeeded in killing eight hares, which were, on their return home, duly hung up for the next day’s meal. On the following morning, horses’ heads were found in their place. “In mines,” says Luther, “the devil oftentimes deceives men with a false appearance of gold.” All disease and all misfortune were the direct work of the devil; God, who was all good, could not produce either. Luther gives a long history of how he was called to a parish priest, who complained of the devil’s having created a disturbance in his house by throwing the pots and pans about, and so forth, and of how he advised the priest to exorcise the fiend by invoking his own authority as a pastor of the Church.

At the Wartburg, Luther complained of having been very much troubled by the Satanic arts. When he was at work upon his translation of the Bible, or upon his sermons, or engaged in his devotions, the devil was always making disturbances on the stairs or in the room. One day, after a hard spell of study, he lay down to sleep in his bed, when the devil began pelting him with hazel-nuts, a sack of which had been brought to him a few hours before by an attendant. He invoked, however, the name of Christ, and lay down again in bed. There were other more curious and more doubtful recipes for driving away Satan and his emissaries. Luther is never tired of urging that contemptuous treatment and rude chaff are among the most efficacious methods.

There was, he relates, a poor soothsayer, to whom the devil came in visible form, and offered great wealth provided that he would deny Christ and never more do penance. The devil provided him with a crystal, by which he could foretell events, and thus become rich. This he did; but Nemesis awaited him, for the devil deceived him one day, and caused him to denounce certain innocent persons as thieves. In consequence, he was thrown into prison, where he revealed the compact that he had made, and called for a confessor. The two chief forms in which the devil appeared were, according to Luther, those of a snake and a sheep. He further goes into the question of the population of devils in different countries. On the top of the Pilatus at Luzern, he says, is a black pond, which is one of the devil’s favourite abodes. In Luther’s own country there is also a high mountain, the Poltersberg, with a similar pond. When a stone is thrown into this pond, a great tempest arises, which often devastates the whole neighbourhood. He also alleges Prussia to be full of evil spirits (!!).

Devilish changelings, Luther said, were often placed by Satan in the cradles of human children. “Some maids he often plunges into the water, and keeps them with him until they have borne a child.” These children are placed in the beds of mortals, and the true children are taken out and hurried away. “But,” he adds, “such changelings are said not to live more than to the eighteenth or nineteenth year.” As a practical application of this, it may be mentioned that Luther advised the drowning of a certain child of twelve years old, on the ground of its being a devil’s changeling. Somnambulism is, with Luther, the result of diabolical agency. “Formerly,” says he, “the Papists, being superstitious people, alleged that persons thus afflicted had not been properly baptized, or had been baptized by a drunken priest.” The irony of the reference to superstition, considering the “great reformer’s” own position, will not be lost upon the reader.

Thus, not only is the devil the cause of pestilence, but he is also the immediate agent of nightmare and of nightsweats. At Moelburg in Thueringen, near Erfurt, a piper, who was accustomed to pipe at weddings, complained to his priest that the devil had threatened to carry him away and destroy him, on the ground of a practical joke played upon some companions, to wit, for having mixed horse-dung with their wine at a drinking bout. The priest consoled him with many passages of Scripture anent the devil and his ways, with the result that the piper expressed himself satisfied as regarded the welfare of his soul, but apprehensive as regarded that of his body, which was, he asserted, hopelessly the prey of the devil. In consequence of this, he insisted on partaking of the Sacrament. The devil had indicated to him when he was going to be fetched, and watchers were accordingly placed in his room, who sat in their armour and with their weapons, and read the Bible to him. Finally, one Saturday at midnight, a violent storm arose, that blew out the lights in the room, and hurled the luckless victim out of a narrow window into the street. The sound of fighting and of armed men was heard, but the piper had disappeared. The next morning he was found in a neighbouring ditch, with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross, dead and coal-black. Luther vouches for the truth of this story, which he alleges to have been told him by a parish priest of Gotha, who had himself heard it from the parish priest of Moelburg, where the event was said to have taken place.

Amongst the numerous anecdotes of a supernatural character told by “Dr. Martin” is one of a “Poltergeist,” or “Robin Goodfellow,” who was exorcised by two monks from the guest-chamber of an inn, and who offered his services to them in the monastery. They gave him a corner in the kitchen. The serving-boy used to torment him by throwing dirty water over him. After unavailing protests, the spirit hung the boy up to a beam, but let him down again before serious harm resulted. Luther states that this “brownie” was well known by sight in the neighbouring town (the name of which he does not give). But by far the larger number of his stories, which, be it observed, are warranted as ordinary occurrences, as to the possibility of which there was no question, are coloured by that more sinister side of supernaturalism so much emphasised by the new theology.

The mediaeval devil was, for the most part, himself little more than a prankish Ruebezahl, or Robin Goodfellow; the new Satan of the Reformers was, in very deed, an arch-fiend, the enemy of the human race, with whom no truce or parley might be held. The old folklore belief in incubi and succubi as the parents of changelings is brought into connection with the theory of direct diabolic begettal. Thus Luther relates how Friedrich, the Elector of Saxony, told him of a noble family that had sprung from a succubus: “Just,” says he, “as the Melusina at Luxembourg was also such a succubus, or devil.” In the case referred to, the succubus assumed the shape of the man’s dead wife, and lived with him and bore him children, until, one day, he swore at her, when she vanished, leaving only her clothes behind. After giving it as his opinion that all such beings and their offspring are wiles of the devil, he proceeds: “It is truly a grievous thing that the devil can so plague men that he begetteth children in their likeness. It is even so with the nixies in the water, that lure a man therein, in the shape of wife or maid, with whom he doth dally and begetteth offspring of them.” The change whereby the beings of the old naïve folklore are transformed into the devil or his agents is significant of that darker side of the new theology, which was destined to issue in those horrors of the witchcraft-mania that reached their height at the beginning of the following century.

One more story of a “changeling” before we leave the subject. Luther gives us the following as having come to his knowledge near Halberstadt, in Saxony. A peasant had a baby, who sucked out its mother and five nurses, besides eating a great deal. Concluding that it was a changeling, the peasant sought the advice of his neighbours, who suggested that he should take it on a pilgrimage to a neighbouring shrine of the Mother of God. While he was crossing a brook on the way an impish voice from under the water called out to the infant, whom he was carrying in a basket. The brat answered from within the basket, “Ho, ho!” and the peasant was unspeakably shocked. When the voice from the water proceeded to ask the child what it was after, and received the answer from the hitherto inarticulate babe that it was going to be laid on the shrine of the Mother of God, to the end that it might prosper, the peasant could stand it no longer, and flung basket and baby into the brook. The changeling and the little devil played for a few moments with each other, rolling over and over, and crying, “Ho, ho, ho!” and then they disappeared together. Luther says that these devilish brats may be generally known by their eating and drinking too much, and especially by their exhausting their mother’s milk, but they may not develop any certain signs of their true parentage until eighteen or nineteen years old. The Princess of Anhalt had a child which Luther imagined to be a changeling, and he therefore advised its being drowned, alleging that such creatures were only lumps of flesh animated by the devil or his angels. Some one spoke of a monster which infested the Netherlands, and which went about smelling at people like a dog, and whoever it smelt died. But those that were smelt did not see it, albeit the bystanders did. The people had recourse to vigils and masses. Luther improved the occasion to protest against the “superstition” of masses for the dead, and to insist upon his favourite dogma of faith as the true defence against assaults of the devil.

Among the numerous stories of Satanic compacts, we are told of a monk who ate up a load of hay, of a debtor who bit off the leg of his Hebrew creditor and ran off to avoid payment, and of a woman who bewitched her husband so that he vomited lizards. Luther observes, with especial reference to this last case, that lawyers and judges were far too pedantic with their witnesses and with their evidence; that the devil hardens his clients against torture, and that the refusal to confess under torture ought to be of itself sufficient proof of dealings with the Prince of Darkness. Towards such, says he, we would show no mercy; I would burn them myself. Black magic or witchcraft he proceeds to characterize as the greatest sin a human being can be guilty of, as, in fact, high treason against God Himself crimen laesae majestatis divinae.

The conversation closes with a story of how Maximilian’s father, the Emperor Friedrich, who seems to have obtained a reputation for magic arts, invited a well-known magician to a banquet, and on his arrival fixed claws on his hands and hoofs on his feet by his cunning. His guest, being ashamed, tried to hide the claws under the table as long as he could, but finally he had to show them, to his great discomfiture. But he determined to have his revenge, and asked his host whether he would permit him to give proofs of his own skill. The Emperor assenting, there at once arose a great noise outside the window. Friedrich sprang up from the table, and leaned out of the casement to see what was the matter. Immediately an enormous pair of stag’s horns appeared on his head, so that he could not draw it back. Finding the state of the case, the Emperor exclaimed: “Rid me of them again! Thou hast won!” Luther’s comment on this was that he was always glad to see one devil getting the better of another, as it showed that some were stronger than others.

All this belongs, roughly speaking, to the side of the matter which regards popular theology; but there is another side which is connected more especially with the New Learning. This other school, which sought to bring the somewhat elastic elements of the magical theory of the universe into the semblance of a systematic whole, is associated with such names as those of Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, and the Abbot von Trittenheim. The fame of the first-named was so great throughout Germany that when he visited any town the occasion was looked upon as an event of exceeding importance. Paracelsus fully shared in the beliefs of his age, in spite of his brilliant insights on certain occasions. What his science was like may be imagined when we learn that he seriously speaks of animals who conceive through the mouth of basilisks whose glance is deadly, of petrified storks changed into snakes, of the stillborn young of the lion which are afterwards brought to life by the roar of their sire, of frogs falling in a shower of rain, of ducks transformed into frogs, and of men born from beasts; the menstruation of women he regarded as a venom whence proceeded flies, spiders, earwigs, and all sorts of loathsome vermin; night was caused, not by the absence of the sun, but by the presence of the stars, which were the positive cause of the darkness. He relates having seen a magnet capable of attracting the eyeball from its socket as far as the tip of the nose; he knows of salves to close the mouth so effectually that it has to be broken open again by mechanical means, and he writes learnedly on the infallible signs of witchcraft. By mixing horse-dung with human semen he believed he was able to produce a medium from which, by chemical treatment in a retort, a diminutive human being, or homunculus, as he called it, could be produced. The spirits of the elements, the sylphs of the air, the gnomes of the earth, the salamanders of the fire, and the undines of the water, were to him real and undoubted existences in Nature.

Strange as all these beliefs seem to us now, they were a very real factor in the intellectual conceptions of the Renaissance period, no less than of the Middle Ages, and amidst them there is to be found at times a foreshadowing of more modern knowledge. Many other persons were also more or less associated with the magical school, amongst them Franz von Sickingen. Reuchlin himself, by his Hebrew studies, and especially by his introduction of the Kabbala to Gentile readers, also contributed a not unimportant influence in determining the course of the movement. The line between the so-called black magic, or operations conducted through the direct agency of evil spirits, and white magic, which sought to subject Nature to the human will by the discovery of her mystical and secret laws, or the character of the quasi-personified intelligent principles under whose form Nature presented herself to their minds, had never throughout the Middle Ages been very clearly defined. The one always had a tendency to shade off into the other, so that even Roger Bacon’s practices were, although not condemned, at least looked upon somewhat doubtfully by the Church. At the time of which we treat, however, the interest in such matters had become universal amongst all intelligent persons. The scientific imagination at the close of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance period was mainly occupied with three questions: the discovery of the means of transmuting the baser metals into gold, or otherwise of producing that object of universal desire; to discover the Elixir Vitae, by which was generally understood the invention of a drug which would have the effect of curing all diseases, restoring man to perennial youth, and, in short, prolonging human life indefinitely; and, finally, the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, the happy possessor of which would not only be able to achieve the first two, but also, since it was supposed to contain the quintessence of all the metals, and therefore of all the planetary influences to which the metals corresponded, would have at his command all the forces which mould the destinies of men. In especial connection with the latter object of research may be noted the universal interest in astrology, whose practitioners were to be found at every Court, from that of the Emperor himself to that of the most insignificant prince or princelet, and whose advice was sought and carefully heeded on all important occasions. Alchemy and astrology were thus the recognized physical sciences of the age, under the auspices of which a Copernicus and a Tycho Brahe were born and educated.