Today we glance at the question of how the Victorians viewed medieval witchcraft. Since that phrase 'medieval witchcraft", refers to a non-existent entity (the perception of, and punishment of, witchcraft was actually a Renaissance phenomenon) our answer will tell us about Victorian realities.
The text in question is an excerpt from a novel by Charlotte Mary Yonge (August 11, 1823 to May 24, 1901). The Lances of Lynwood (1855) is not unique among Yonge's fiction in being forgotten. Her output was massive, but I find her prose sturdy.
The Lances of Lynwood is a long book for children set in medieval England, and about the adventures of knights. Here are a few pages. The setup of the scene is that Leonard Ashton, an aspirant to knighthood, has left the circle of Sir Eustace Lynwood, after a tiff. But soon thereafter Sir Eustace finds Leonard in a desperate plight.
But how came you here, Leonard?'
"I fell sick some three days since, and—and, fearing infection, Sir William Felton bade me be carried from his lodgings; the robbers, his men-at-arms, stripped me of all I possessed, and brought me to this dog-hole, to the care of this old hag. O Eustace, I have heard her mutter her prayers backwards; and last night—oh! last night! at the dead hour, there came in procession—of that I would take my oath— seven black cats, each holding a torch with a blue flame, and danced around me, till one laid his paw upon my breast, and grew and grew, with its flaming eyes fixed on me, till it was as big as an ox, and the weight was intolerable, the while her spells were over me, and I could not open my lips to say so much as an Ave-Mary. At last, the cold dew broke out on my brow, and I should have been dead in another instant, when I contrived to make the sign of the Cross, whereat they all whirled wildly round, and I fell—oh! I fell miles and miles downwards, till at last I found myself, at morning's light, with the hateful old witch casting water in my face. 0 Eustace, take me away!'
Such were the times, that Eustace Lynwood, with all his cool sense, and mental cultivation, believed implicitly poor Leonard's delirious fancy—black cats and all—and the glances he cast at the poor old Spaniard were scarcely less full of terror and abhorrence, as he promised Leonard, whom he now regarded only in the light of his old comrade, that he should, without loss of time, be conveyed to his own tent.
'But go not—leave me not,' implored Leonard, clinging fast to him almost like a child to its nurse, with a hand which was now cold as marble.
'No; I will remain,' said Eustace; 'and you, Ingram, hasten to bring four of the men with the litter in which Master d'Aubricour came from Burgos. Hasten, I tell you.'
Ingram, with his eyes dilated with horror, appeared but too anxious to quit this den, yet lingered. 'I leave you not here, Sir Knight.'
'Thanks, thanks, John,' replied the youth; 'but remain I must and will. As a Christian man, I defy the foul fiend and all his followers!'
John departed. Never was Leonard so inclined to rejoice either in his friend's clerkly education, or in his knighthood, which was then so much regarded as a holy thing, that the presence of one, whose entrance into the order was so recent, was deemed a protection. The old woman, a kind-hearted creature in the main, though certainly forbidding-looking in her poverty and ugliness, was rejoiced to see her patient visited by a friend. She came towards them, addressing Eustace with what he took for a spell, though, had he understood Spanish, he would have found it a fine flowing compliment. Leonard shrank closer to him, and pressed his hand faster, and he, again crossing himself, gave utterance to a charm. Spanish, especially old Castilian, had likeness enough to Latin for the poor old woman to recognize its purport; she poured out a voluble vindication, which the two young men believed to be an attempt at further bewitching them. Eustace finding his Latin rather the worse for wear, had recourse to all the strange rhymes, or exorcisms, English, French, or Latin, with which his memory supplied him. Thanks to these, the sorceress was kept at bay, and the spirits of his terrified companion were sustained till the arrival of all the Lances of Lynwood, headed by Gaston himself, upon his mule, in the utmost anxiety for his Knight, looking as gaunt and spectral as the phantoms they dreaded. He blessed the saints when Eustace came forth safe and sound, and smiled and shook his head with an arch look when Leonard was carried out; but his never-failing good-nature prevented him from saying a word which might savour of reproach when he saw to what a condition the poor youth was reduced. As four stout men-at-arms took up the litter, the old woman coming forth to her threshold, uttered something which his knowledge of the Romanesque tongues of Southern France enabled him to interpret into a vindication of her character, and a request for a reward for her care of the sick Englishman.
'Throw her a gold piece, Sir Eustace, or she may cast at you an evil eye. There, you old hag, ' he added in the Provencal patois, 'take that, and thank your stars that 'tis not with a fire that your tender care, as you call it, is requited.'
The men-at-arms meditated ducking the witch after their own English fashion, but it was growing late and dark, and the Knight gave strict orders that they should keep together in their progress to their own tents. Here Leonard was deposited on the couch which Gaston insisted on giving up to him; but his change of residence appeared to be of little advantage, for the camp was scarce quiet for the night, before he shrieked out that the black cats were there. Neither Eustace nor Gaston could see them, but that was only a proof that they were not under the power of the enchantment, and John Ingram was quite sure that he had not only seen the sparkle of their fiery eyes, but felt the scratch of their talons, which struck him to the ground, with his foot caught in the rope of the tent, while he was walking about with his eyes shut.
The scratch was actually on his face the next morning, and he set out at the head of half the Lances of Lynwood to find the poor old woman and visit her with condign punishment; but she was not forthcoming, and they were obliged to content themselves with burning her house, assisted by a host of idlers. In the meantime Sir Eustace had called in the aid of the Clergy: the Chaplains of the camp came in procession, sprinkled the patient's bed with holy water, and uttered an exorcism, but without availing to prevent a third visit from the enemy. After this, however, Leonard's fever began to abate, and he ceased to be haunted.
He had been very ill, and thoroughly alarmed, he thought himself dying, and bitterly did he repent of the headstrong insubordination and jealousy which had led him to quit his best and only friend. He had not, indeed, the refinement of feeling which would have made Eustace's generosity his greatest reproach; he clung to him as his support, and received his attentions almost as a right; but still he was sensible that he had acted like a fool, and that such friendship was not to be thrown away; and when he began to recover he showed himself subdued, to a certain degree grateful, and decidedly less sullen, and more amenable to authority.
This illustration appears in some editions of Yonge's novel. The artist is Jane Blackburn.
Yonge is clever in her translation of the realities behind the suspicions of witchcraft at an earlier era. The illustrator Blackburn shows a subtle grasp of cat behavior: the cat is shown kneading its paws, a repetition of the kitten's nursing behavior. And the lower abdomen is in fact a favorite feline spot, possibly because it is often soft. Only last century was the phenomenon Ashton described recognized as a real possibility called "sleep paralysis."