This book is the first published edition of a previously unknown manuscript treatise on the theological underpinnings of witchcraft belief in late sixteenth-century England. The treatise comprises a point-by-point response to the most famous early modern English work on witchcraft, Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). It was written by a personal friend of Scot’s, and internal evidence demonstrates that it offers critical feedback on a now-lost draft version of the Discoverie prior to the publication of that book, providing a rebuttal to Scot’s arguments in much greater detail than any other extant text, and showing precisely why his views were so controversial in their own time. The treatise is also a highly original and sophisticated theoretical defence of witchcraft belief in its own right, and the author’s position is based on detailed scriptural and theological arguments which are not found in any other English writings on the subject. The treatise’s arguments connect witchcraft belief to Reformed Protestant ideas about conscience, the devil, and the correct interpretation of scripture, and demonstrate the broader significance of witchcraft belief within this intellectual framework. It thereby provides evidence that the debate on witchcraft, as represented by the more dogmatic and formulaic printed works on the subject, shied away from the underlying issues which the author of the treatise (in a work never intended for publication) tackles explicitly.
However, the word ‘sceptic’ is much more commonly used to
denote a denier, certainly in relation to witchcraft. Histories of
English witchcraft written in the early twentieth century tended to
categorise authors on witchcraft as either sceptics or believers,
celebrating the former, in particular ReginaldScot, while condemning
or apologising for the latter.17 More recently, however, the validity
of a clear distinction between authors in terms of scepticism and
belief has been called into question by historians of witchcraft,
notably Peter Elmer and Stuart Clark.18 Using
, required of all Christians. Part of the treatise’s value is that it was not intended for publication, but as a private communication within a particular scribal network: it was written for the benefit of a friend. This explains the candour and openness of the treatise, and allows its author to deal with sensitive topics in much greater depth than is usual.
In addition to this, as I have discovered, the treatise is a response to a pre-publication draft of a much more famous work: ReginaldScot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). It is evident from the text that it was
corpse, they bled fresh bloud presently, in the presence of all’. Potts comments that the bleeding of a corpse ‘hath ever been held a great argument to induce a Jurie to hold him guiltie that shall be accused of murther and hath seldome or never fayled in the Tryall’. King James in his Daemonologie had called the gushing of blood from a dead carcase which a murderer had touched ‘a secret supernaturall signe, for tryall of that secrete unnaturall crime’. 3 That belief was general. Even ReginaldScot and Francis Bacon, writers in general sceptical about witchcraft
intellectual coherence as a belief system, Satan’s ability to intervene in the temporal world.
It was this debt to traditional demonology that made most sceptical
works concern themselves with refuting specific instances of witchcraft
or with the legal or scriptural bases of witchcraft belief. Only two writers
broke free of these intellectual constraints, and for their trouble were
regarded by their contemporaries as extremists: ReginaldScot, who
challenged the prevailing patterns of the sceptical tradition by depriving
the devil of the ability to influence the workings of
It is natural to unnatural people, and peculiar unto witchmongers, to pursue the poor, to accuse the simple, and to kill the innocent . 1
This assertion, that those in poverty were particularly vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, was the view in 1584 of the Kentish JP and witchcraft sceptic ReginaldScot. If he was correct to link witchcraft and the poor, it might be assumed that the Lancashire witch trials of 1612 and 1634 were only to be expected, given that they followed
One experience inspiring generically divergent publications
Amy G. Tan
industry to produce this public defence.
In his defence, Bernard carefully situated
Guide against the views of ReginaldScot, who in 1584 had
published the strongly sceptical Discouerie of Witchcraft . As
Simon Davies has suggested, Scot’s view was not always so far divorced, in terms of practice, from
the views of more mainstream demonological writers. In that regard,
Ralph Knevet's Supplement of the Faery Queene (1635) is a narrative and allegorical work, which weaves together a complex collection of tales and episodes, featuring knights, ladies, sorcerers, monsters, vertiginous fortresses and deadly battles – a chivalric romp in Spenser's cod medieval style. The poem shadows recent English history, and the major military and political events of the Thirty Years War. But the Supplement is also an ambitiously intertextual poem, weaving together materials from mythic, literary, historical, scientific, theological, and many other kinds of written sources. Its encyclopaedic ambitions combine with Knevet's historical focus to produce an allegorical epic poem of considerable interest and power. This new edition of Knevet's Supplement, the first scholarly text of the poem ever published, situates it in its literary, historical, biographical, and intellectual contexts. An extensive introduction and copious critical commentary, positioned at the back of the book, will enable students and scholars alike to access Knevet's complicated and enigmatic meanings, structures, and allusions.
Shakespeare wrote in, and for, an enchanted world but one that was on the cusp of change, with the emergence of observational methods, proto-empiricism and sceptical discourses, as exemplified by works such as ReginaldScot's The
Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) and Francis Bacon's Novum Organum (1620), which reflected the impact of Protestant scepticism.
Scot argued that the time for miracles, oracles and prophecies had ‘ceased’, and that the preaching of a reformed faith had done away with
order. This claim suggests
that ReginaldScot’s work on witchcraft – entirely orthodox in
its declarations of Protestant faith, opposition to superstition, and
10 John Hall, A Poesie in Forme of a Vision (London, 1563), sigs A7v, A8r,
11 SP xv.25, fol. 212 (5 November, 1578).
Witchcraft in Elizabethan drama
anti-Catholic rhetoric – might also have been seen as troubling, and
even politically subversive, in its main conclusions.
Witchcraft prosecutions in Elizabethan England overwhelmingly
targeted women, but magic in general was far from being a female