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It is a common subject of complaint among Lady Georgiana's most partial readers, that the general impression produced throughout by her book is a disagreeable one; and the reason is plain. It is disagreeable to see people acting foolishly without a motive; the interest, though sustained and high wrought, is always of a painful kind; there is too much mental anatomy à la Godwin ; the introductory chapter, like an overture of church music, predisposes to melancholy; and we constantly feel a want of relief from scenes or characters of a lighter order. This is the more provoking, because the charming sketch of Rosa Moore (worth a hundred Alices) shows how well the author could have supplied the deficieney, had it suggested itself. Indeed, these volumes teem with proofs that Lady Georgiana Fullerton could produce a work capable of standing the severest ordeal of criticism ; and it is the high estimate we have formed of her powers, that induces us to dwell so much on the errors of her plan. It matters little what mode of thought or style of composition is adopted by any ephemeral novelist, though he or she may happen to stimulate the jaded appetite of the London world of fashion, or afford them a topic for a week; but we feel bound to take care that no wrong notions of art, or false theories of conduct, are sanctioned by a writer so well qualified as this lady to make sterling additions to our light literature, and influence opinion in more extended circles than her own.
Art. VIII.----Memoirs of extraordinary Popular Delusions. By
CHARLES MACKAY. 3 vols. 8vo. London: 1842.
E do not think that Mr Mackay has done justice to the very
interesting and extensive subject of his present work ; but he has, nevertheless, given us a book containing a great variety of curious information, in a convenient and not unattractive form. The chief fault which we are inclined to find with it is, that it touches upon too many subjects partially, and embraces too few completely; while it supplies no intelligible reason for the admission of many articles which appear foreign to its title, or for the exclusion of many others which clearly fall within it. It gives no exact definition, or distinguishing statement, of the subject which it is intended to embrace. Errors of every kind, and arising from every different motive, are indiscriminately mingled in its pages. Delusions in religious faith, in morality, in science, in commerce, and in taste, succeed each other without an interval or a distinction. The fanaticism of the crusader, the speculations of the gambler in tulips or South Sea stock, and the coxcombry of the longhaired or long-bearded courtier, are classed with the superstitious terrors of the demonologist, and the deceptive dreams of the alchymist and the astrologer. Nay, it includes several instances of popular crime and folly, which were no otherwise delusions than as every criminal or absurd practice is a delusion-such as duelling, secret poisoning, and the obstinate riots at Covent Garden theatre in 1806 !
We wonder that it did not occur to Mr Mackay, that twenty volumes might have been filled with such subjects, almost as readily as three. Where is the historical event to which a parallel cannot be found in the contents of his work? The Crusades, for instance, certainly took place because Urban II. and Peter the Hermit could not comprehend the right of a Mahometan prince to occupy Palestine. But in the same manner, the wars of the Guelfs and Ghibellines took place because the Pope and the Emperor could not agree about the temporal powers of the church ; and the English wars in France took place because Edward III. could not, or would not, comprehend the Salic law. The delusion was precisely similar in the three cases, if indeed a sincere delusion existed in either. It was undoubtedly a delusion, and a very popular delusion, which led Godfrey and Tancred to consider it ihe first duty of every Christian knight to deliver Jerusalem from the Saracens. But it was exactly the same delusion which inspired Omar and Mahmoud with the belief, that no follower of the Prophet ought to sheath his sword while a Heathen or Christian nation remained unconquered, and which convinced Philip Augustus that an Italian prelate could confer a valid title to the English throne. It was undoubtedly a delusion, though less popular and more innocent, which induced Anselm and Lanfranc to carry scissors in their sleeves, for the purpose of cropping the lovelocks of the contumacious Norman knights; but the same delusion led those realous prelates to shave their own heads, and wear sackcloth under their robes, in compliance with the ascetic discipline of the Romish church. Why, then, has Mr Mackay passed over the various wars, revolutions, and religions, of which delusion bas been the source or the pretext ? Why has he omitted the history of Islamism-of Romanism-of the German Anabaptists, the French Convulsionnaires, and the English Fifth Monarchists ? For no other reason which we can perceive, than that such is his own arbitrary choice. But we would not wish to be understood as derying all merit to his work, on account of its confused and
imperfect arrangement; for every one must be aware that a book written with a total absence of all system, may yet contain many. amusing and instructive details.
Mr Mackay would have acted more judiciously, and produced, probably, a more valuable if not a more entertaining work, had he confined himself to those delusions which are strictly included within the great head of practical superstitions. We should una doubtedly have advised him to reject all particulars, however curious, which properly belong to the political history of former times. Nor should we, on the other hand, have recommended him to include in his plan those popular fables, which, if they were ever seriously or generally believed, led to no practical result; and which are rather to be classed with the Romances of the Round Table or the Seven Champions, than with the banetul delusions of the Alchymist and the Demonologist. A sketch of the legendary superstitions of Western Europe, as compared with those of classical mythology and oriental romance, would indeed be a very curious, as it might undoubtedly be made a most striking and interesting, performance. Our readers will remember with regret, that the delightful writer whom nature and study had qualified above all men for such a task, bas left but a sliyht and hasty work upon the subject. The wild legends which, told with a taste and judgment so exquisite as to disguise their extravagance from the most sceptical readers, adorn so many of Sir Walter Scott's Romances, were, if we are rightly informed, but the overflowings of that vast fund of superstitious lore which bis antiquarian and poetical enthusiasm had collected. Much of this curious and interesting information has probably died with its compiler ; but much must survive in the sources whence he himself derived it, among the obscure and fast. vanishing traditions of the Highland and Border peasantry. It is not, however, in this direction that Mr Mackay's researches have been chiefly prosecuted. The most original, and we think the most interesting part of his work, is that which may be described as' comprehending those remarkable errors in science and domestic legislation which have arisen from a delusive blief in supernatural interference. This definition obviously excludes the innumerable crimes and follies which have originated merely in a mistaken idea of religious or moral duty; even where, as in the case of the Crusader and the Inquisitor, false miracles have been employed to confirm false morality, by adding the delusion of the senses or the imagination to that of the understanding: And still less does it include those mistakes in natural or political philosophy, however fantastic and pernicious, which are not connected with any superstitious belief; although, as has sometimes happened, they may have been supported by erroneous views of religion, or perverse interpretations of Scripture.
It would, we need not say, be utterly impossible to supply what have seemed to us the great deficiencies of Mr Mackay's work within the compass of such an article as the present; but we shall endeavour to lay before our readers a brief sketch of what might have been used as materials for an essay upon the plan we have stated.
It may fairly be doubted whether the barbarism of former ages was most effectually prolonged by the blind fanaticism of the vulgar, or by the perverse ingenuity of the deluded philosopher. The two causes, widely distinct as they were in their nature and mode of operation, certainly acted and reacted upon each other with the precision of a mechanical contrivance. It is curious to observe the manner in which each superstition inflamed the other--to watch the bigoted Churchman alarmed into persecution by the enthusiastic dreams of the Alchymist, and the Alchymist turning charlatan and poisoner under the proscription of the Church. But whichever delusion was the most disastrous in its immediate effects, there can be little doubt which was the most inveterate and deeply-rooted evil. There can be little doubt that the trial by ordeal, and the penal laws against sorcery, were the mere superficial symptoms of that universal ignorance which the strongest intellects of the day wilfully encouraged, by associating every advance in useful knowledge with the practice of forbidden arts. The simplicity of Scott's Angus, who thanked the Saints that, except the Bishop of Dunkeld, none of his sons could sign their names, is no exaggerated specimen of what most laymen would have felt a century or two earlier; though few, perhaps, so late as the reign of Henry VIII. Nor was this the mere barbarous prejudice which we are accustomed to consider it. How could a devout Catholic feel otherwise, when he saw all the learned men in Europe pretending to foretell the future, to raise the dead, and to hold communication with familiar spirits ? The physical evils inflicted by vulgar fanaticism are soon enumerated—it is easy to estimate the number of innocent persons who were put to death for witchcraft; but it is impossible to determine the progress which the human race might have made, if the wisest men of ten generations had not thrown away their energies in the hopeless pursuit of evanescent phantoms.
The prediction of future events, and the manufacture of the precious metals, were the two chimeras which, for at least three centuries, proved so fatal to the advance of European civilization. Neither of these attempts deserves to be stigmatized as in itself superstitious. In an age when the heavenly bodies were sup
posed to be luminous meteors, wandering at random over the concave surface of an immense sphere, the idea that their motions might be in some mysterious manner connected with the destinies of the great globe, as whose satellites they were regarded, might deserve to be thought an ingenious conjecture. In the same manner, an age almost wholly ignorant of science and genuine philosophy, might well believe it possible to make gold and silver. An impartial and judicious series of experiments with reference to either of these two questions, would, so far from deserving to be stigmatized as a visionary waste of time, have conferred honour upon
persons engaged in them; and the philosopher who had devoted his life to test the power, or expose the fallacies of Astrology or Alchymy, would justly have been remembered as one of the benefactors of mankind. But unfortunately these delusions were not of a kind to be refuted by reasoning. The occult sciences, though in their objects sufficiently intelligible, were early interwoven with such a multitude of grotesque superstitions, and unintelligible mysteries, that they more than deserved their distinguishing title. No instance of failure, could possibly occur which the jargon of their votaries was unable to explain away. One adept was disappointed in his experiments because his life had been deficient in sanctity-another, because he had not succeeded in propitiating the elementary spirits-a third, because a hostile intelligence had obtained power over his natal star. And thus the mystic fraternity, like travellers bewildered in a desert, kept moving in perpetual circles, under the delusive belief that they were advancing straight to their destination.
Mr Mackay has enumerated no less than sixty distinct methods by which it was formerly thought possible to pry into the secrets of futurity. Few of them are known even by name to the present generation ; and even these few have lost all their scientific accuracy, and have become vague and confused superstitions, The interpretation of dreams, for instance, which was in former days, strange as it may appear, reduced to a complete system, has been almost entirely forgotten. A few indistinet and unconnected maxims still remain, to disturb the sleep of village matrons and maidens ; but they have been so imperfectly preserved, that, according to Mr Mackay's statement, they differ in different countries; and the same dream which delights the peasant in England, terrifies him in France or Switzerland. Palmistry, which was necessarily a more simple science, has been more completely preserved, : it is said to have been of oriental origin, and was certainly introduced into Europe by that wandering and mysterious race to whom its practice is now confined, and whose traditions claim for them an Egyptian origin. Our readers will