As it’s Halloween I went hunting for our copies of The discoverie of witchcraft, wherein the lewde dealing of witches and witchmongers is notablie detected, written by Reginald Scot and first published in 1584. Unlike the majority of 16th century works on the subject of witches and witchcraft, Scot’s Discoverie takes a predominantly sceptical view and reveals how the superstitious public were often fooled by charlatans and frauds.
Scot believed that the prosecution and torture of those accused of witchcraft, most often the elderly or simple-minded, was un-Christian and irrational. He set out to prove that belief in magic and witchcraft could not be justified by religion or observation, and that many reported experiences of the supernatural were either wilful attempts to defraud or illusions caused by mental disturbance. The book includes chapters on contemporary beliefs about witchcraft, magic, alchemy, ghosts, devils and other spirits, and was a heavy influence on later works about the occult, including Shakespeare’s portrayal of witches for Macbeth.
Publication of the book caused great controversy, with many clergymen writing in defence of their concerns about witches. Scot in fact placed most of the blame for these superstitions on the Roman Catholic Church, but King James I, an enthusiastic witch hunter, ordered all copies of the first edition of the Discoverie to be burnt. Among the sceptical minority however, Scot’s work remained authoritative. In 1593 Gabriel Harvey wrote that “Scotte’s discoovery of Witchcraft dismasketh sundry egregious impostures, and in certaine principall chapters, and speciall passages, hitteth the nayle on the head.”