Elizabethan Skepticism: How “A Discoverie of Witchcraft” pushed back against a moral panic,Mark Horne,The Skeptic

Som saie [witches] can transubstantiate themselves and others, and take the forms and shapes of asses, woolves, ferrets, cowes, apes, horsses, dogs, &c. Some say they can keepe divels and spirits in the likenesse of todes and cats… 

They can go invisible, and deprive men of their privities, and otherwise of the act and use of venerie. They can bring soules out of the graves. They can teare snakes in peeces with words, and with looks kill lambes.

Hopefully there are few readers in 2022 who would give much credence to claims that there are real witches, who have done a deal with the devil to grant them the power to shapeshift into other animals, resurrect the dead, magically emasculate men, or kill with a single look. 

Yet in 1584, at a time when perhaps a thousand people – mostly women – were killed every year across Europe for witchcraft, there were few who did not believe such claims. It was a brave soul who would speak out in their defence, never mind publish a book questioning the very existence of witches. 

Written in Early Modern English (and so not an easy read for a modern audience) The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot stands as an early sceptical-ish tract that espouses a more reasonable understanding of supposed witches. Scot seeks to dissuade his contemporaries, and in particular the judges and those involved in the practice of law (in his preface he says he writes “for the undeceiving of Judges, Justices, and Juries”), from the irrational persecution and murder of innocent and often ill people by the courts. 

So controversial was his book at the time that King James VI of Scotland – the future King James I of England and a passionate believer in the supernatural – would in 1597 pen his own book Daemonologie as something of a refutation to Scot’s arguments, which had “for a time make great impressions on the Magistracy and Clergy”, at least according to 17th century sceptic Thomas Ady. After his ascension to the English throne in 1603, James would have Scot’s work burned by the common hangman and any influence his work had was – at least officially – suppressed. Thankfully for us, and for many sceptics such as Ady who followed in Scot’s footsteps, he didn’t catch them all. 

In life Reginald Scot was a politician, country gentleman and hopped-beer enthusiast, and his death in 1599  was (if any can be considered such) well-timed, coming shortly before James took the throne, potentially avoiding an unpleasant end for Scot. 

Trained as a lawyer, he seems to have been appalled by the mass accusations and executions of elderly women, and drawing on the work of authors such as occultists and physicians such as Johann Weyer and Cornelius Agrippa, he departed from the traditional beliefs of the time to write a lengthy explanation of why executions for witchcraft were cruel, illogical, absurd, and – importantly for the time – not in line with scripture. It is important to note that Scot was no “Skeptic” in the modern sense; much of Discoverie is taken up by discussion of why biblical passages prove that there is no such thing as witchcraft. He was also a man of his time, and his defence of the accused women is often patronising and sometimes misogynistic. He despised Roman Catholicism with a disgust that clearly informs his stance on witchcraft, pointing out “popeish reasons” for some of the beliefs around witchcraft, and his opinion of Jews is just as you’d expect coming from a man of the sixteenth century. 

For me, this does not detract from the core of the book – that Scot sees a gross injustice being done to some of the most vulnerable people in society, and is willing to risk his own reputation and indeed safety to speak out against it. I’ll leave discussion of his scriptural arguments against witchcraft – which take up some eight of the sixteen sections – to someone better versed in the gospels, but it is worth here elucidating some of his other arguments against the existence and punishment of witches.

‘Witchcraft accusations are implausible and illogical’

these crimes likewise are so absurd, supernatural, and impossible, that they are derided almost of all men, and as false, fond, and fabulous reports condemned

Scot points out that the same person will deny that a magician can do great enchantments, and yet believe that witches can fly: 

Erastus himselfe, being a principall writer in the behalfe of witches omnipotencie, is forced to confesse, that… that in ancient time, the learned were not so blockish, as not to see that the promises of magicians and inchanters were false, and nothing else but knaverie, cousenage, and old wives fables; and yet defendeth he their flieng in the aire, their transferring of corne or grasse from one feeld to another, &c.

He lists some of the feats of which witches are reputed to capable – turn invisible, summon spirits, harm people across an ocean, travel instantaneously – and then says his own enemies would call him a liar if he made the same claim: 

Witches may well saie they can doo these things, howbeit they cannot shew how they doo them. If I for my part should saie I could doo those things, my adversaries would saie that I lied. 

This gets towards the heart of it, and Scot returns to this obvious objection to witchcraft time and again: 

If witches could doo anie such miraculous things, as these and other which are imputed to them, they might doo them againe and again, at anie time or place, or at anie mans desire, for the divell is as strong at one time as at another.

And elsewhere: 

If witches confessions or witchmongers opinions were true… what creature could live in security? … No prince should be able to reigne or live in the land… One old witch might overthrow and armie roiall

I’m sure I’m not alone in watching TV and movie depictions of early modern witch trials and wondering why the people didn’t question the fact that if the accused witch was real, why was she cowering at her imminent execution, rather than anticipating a magical escape? That the authorities burned a book pointing out such basic logic gives me at least a partial answer. 

‘The accusation, investigation and trial are unfair’

The process, of course, was horribly unfair to the accused, and the circumstances that led to a trial or interrogation were totally inconsistent with the regular due process of law, such as it was at the time. 

Evidence was widely accepted from witnesses whose testimony would otherwise have been considered suspect at the time, from heretics and infants to “lewd” and “infamous” persons. In Scotland, initial accusations could even be made totally anonymously. 

If a woman was accused of witchcraft, or merely mistrusted, and then later they touched someone who died of unknown causes, that was enough to condemn them to death: 

If an old woman threaten or touch one being in health, who dieth shortlie after; or else is infected with the leprosie, apoplexie, or anie other strange disease… condemnation or death must insue, without further proofe; if anie bodie have mistrusted hir, or said before that she was a witch.

Accusations from a single person of standing could lead to an accused witch facing the rack, and testimony of three witnesses, even if they were not present at the same supposed magical event, could condemn a woman to death. Even the testimony of known liars was accepted: 

although the proofe of perjurie may put backe a witnesse in all other causes; yet in this, a perjured person is a good and lawful witnesse.

Furthermore, even an accused witch’s own lawyer could be forced to testify against them: 

the proctors and advocats in this case are compelled to be witnesses against their clients, as in none other case they are to be constrained there unto.

Even in the 16th Century, the above was not the norm in criminal proceedings. 

This leads us to an interesting reversal of Carl Sagan’s maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; in defence of this derogation from legal standards of the time, 16th Century legal scholar Jean Bodin is quoted as saying that “bicause this is an extraordinarie matter; there must heerein be extraordinarie dealing” when investigating witchcraft. Scot, it should go without saying at this point, is not impressed with Bodin’s argument.

Scot also condemns the means of interrogation, including torture: 

if they have charmes for taciturnitie, so as they feele not the common tortures, and therefore confesse nothing: then some sharpe instrument must be thrust betwixt everie naile of their fingers and toes : which (as / Bodin saith) was king Childeberts devise, and is to this daie of all others the most effectuall. For by meanes of that extreme paine, they will (saith he) confesse anie / thing. 

I don’t know whether this is Scot’s intent, but this is, of course, also a rational argument against any use of torture.

‘Witchfinders are corrupt and seeking convictions rather than the truth’

It is quite clear that the process is grotesquely unfair. Why, then, do these witchfinders and others pursue these trials? Scot mentions their incorrect interpretation of scripture, personal vendettas, malice, and a general lust for blood, but one suggestion stands out: 

There is no waie in the world for these poore women to escape the inquisitors hands, and so consequentlie burning: but to gild their hands with monie, wherby oftentimes they take pitie upon them, and deliver them, as sufficientlie purged. For they have authoritie to exchange the punishment of the bodie with the punishment of the pursse, appheng the same to the office of their inquisition: whereby they reape such profit, as a number of these seelie women paie them yeerelie pensions, to the end they may not be punished againe.

Why? Extortion, greed and money. 

‘The deal with the devil is rubbish and makes no sense’

Scot points out that other criminals such as thieves do not need to do a deal with the devil to accomplish their nefarious activities, and he points out that some alleged witches’ crimes, like poisoning, are already regular crimes and should be punished as such. But it is worth dwelling on the deal with the devil and the induction of the witch, which depending on the source involves everything from child sacrifice and kissing Satan’s buttocks, to rather more wholesome activities like frolicking on moonlit hillsides. 

While the precise physical nature of the deal varies, the result is well known: 

what creature being sound in state of mind, would (without compulsion) make such maner of confessions as they do; or would, for a trifle, or nothing, make a perfect bargaine with the divell for hir soule, to be yeelded up unto his tortures and everlasting flames

Scot adds that the accused are typically elderly women, so eternal hellfire is not some distant threat, but an imminent and specific result. For Scot, nobody in their right mind would make such a deal, even if it were possible to do so. 

‘People accused of witchcraft were much more likely suffering from mental illnesses’

Why, then, does Scot think that accused witches confess? 

these old women being daunted with authority, circumvented by guile, constrained by force, compelled by feare, induced by error, and deceived by ignorance, doo fall into such rash credulitie, and so are brought unto these absurd confessions. Whose error of mind and blindnes of will dependeth upon the disease and infirmitie of nature…

Scot believes that those witches who confessed voluntarily  were “of an unsound mind” – particularly when considering “poore melancholike women,” rather than those who purported to be witches in order to con people or seek personal gain. 

He suggests a range of reasons for their behaviour and confessions, from advanced age and infirmity to menopause and mental illness, and advocates for their care rather than condemnation: 

manie of these poore wretches had more need to be relieved than chastised; and more meere were a preacher to admonish them, than a gailor to keep them; and a physician more necessarie to helpe them, than an executioner or tormentor to hang or burne them

‘Witchcraft can be faked’ – an early guide to street magic

Scot also explains how confidence tricksters could deceive people into believing that magic exists. Complete with explanations of coin tricks and sleight of hand to more elaborate and visceral illusions, this section of the book was apparently widely plagiarised in 17th and 18th century books explaining how to do street or stage magic. 

Some of the card tricks will be familiar to anyone who has used a primary school magic set: 

When you have scene a card privilie, or as though you marked it not, laie the same undermost, and shuffle the cards as before you are taught, till your card lie againe below in the bottome. Then shew the same to the beholders, willing them to remember it: then shuffle the cards, or let anie other shuffle them; for you know the card alreadie, and therefore may at anie time tell them what card they saw: which neverthelesse would be done with great circumstance and shew of difficultie.

Others are rather more gruesome and stagier, but of course still have the natural, rather than supernatural explanation that Scot is keen to press home. “To cut off ones head, and to laie it in a platter: which the jugglers call the decollation of John Baptist” is probably best explained by the illustration that accompanies it: 

There is so much more of interest than I could recount in a single article, from a logical critique of a far-fetched tale about an Englishman being transformed into a donkey in Cyprus, to supposed cures for sexual dysfunction involving urinating through a wedding ring. For those willing to navigate the somewhat archaic language, A Discoverie of Witchcraft is a fascinating read. 

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While still a product of it’s time, Reginald Scot’s “A Discoverie of Witchcraft” in 1584 offered common-sense challenges to the moral panic around witchcraft
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