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Glanvill And Webster And The Literary War Over Witchcraft 1660-1688
James I And Witchcraft
List Of Cases Of Witchcraft 1558-1718 With References To Sources And Literature
List Of Persons Sentenced To Death For Witchcraft During The Reign Of James I
Matthew Hopkins
Notable Jacobean Cases
Reginald Scot
The Beginnings Of English Witchcraft
The Close Of The Literary Controversy
The Exorcists
The Final Decline
The Lancashire Witches And Charles I
The Literature Of Witchcraft From 1603 To 1660
Witchcraft During The Commonwealth And Protectorate
Witchcraft Under Charles Ii And James Ii
Witchcraft Under Elizabeth

Reginald Scot

From the chronicling of witch trials we turn aside in this chapter to
follow the career of the first great English opponent of the
superstition. We have seen how the attack upon the supposed creatures of
the Devil was growing stronger throughout the reign of Elizabeth. We
shall see how that attack was checked, at least in some degree, by the
resistance of one man. Few men of so quiet and studious life have
wrought so effectively as Reginald Scot. He came of a family well known
in Kent, but not politically aggressive. As a young man he studied at
Hart Hall[1] in Oxford, but left without taking his degree and returned
to Scots-Hall, where he settled down to the routine duties of managing
his estate. He gave himself over, we are told, to husbandry and
gardening and to a solid course of general reading in the obscure
authors that had "by the generality been neglected." In 1574 his studies
in horticulture resulted in the publication of A Perfect Platforme of a
Hoppe-Garden and necessary instructions for the making and maintaining
thereof. That the book ministered to a practical interest was evidenced
by the call for three editions within five years. Whether he now applied
himself to the study of that subject which was to be the theme of his
Discoverie, we do not know. It was a matter which had doubtless
arrested his attention even earlier and had enlisted a growing interest
upon his part. Not until a decade after his Hoppe-Garden, however, did
he put forth the epoch-making Discoverie. Nor does it seem likely that
he had been engaged for a long period on the actual composition. Rather,
the style and matter of the book seem to evince traces of hurry in
preparation. If this theory be true--and Mr. Brinsley Nicholson, his
modern commentator, has adduced excellent reasons for accepting
it[2]--there can be but one explanation, the St. Oses affair. That
tragedy, occurring within a short distance of his own home, had no doubt
so outraged his sense of justice, that the work which he had perhaps
long been contemplating he now set himself to complete as soon as
possible.[3] Even he who runs may read in Scot's strong sentences that
he was not writing for instruction only, to propound a new doctrine, but
that he was battling with the single purpose to stop a detestable and
wicked practice. Something of a dilettante in real life, he became in
his writing a man with an absorbing mission. That mission sprang not
indeed from indignation at the St. Oses affair alone. From the days of
childhood his experience had been of a kind to encourage skepticism. He
had been reared in a county where Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of
Kent, first came into prominence, and he had seen the downfall that
followed her public exposure.[4] In the year after he brought out his
Hoppe-garden, his county was again stirred by performances of a
supposedly supernatural character. Mildred Norrington, a girl of
seventeen,[5] used ventriloquism with such skill that she convinced two
clergymen and all her neighbors that she was possessed. In answer to
queries, the evil spirit that spoke through Mildred declared that "old
Alice of Westwell"[6] had sent him to possess the girl. Alice, the
spirit admitted, stood guilty of terrible witchcrafts. The demon's word
was taken, and Alice seems to have been "arraigned upon this
evidence."[7] But, through the justices' adroit management of the trial,
the fraud of the accuser was exposed. She confessed herself a pretender
and suffered "condign punishment." This case happened within six miles
of Scot's home and opened his eyes to the possibility of humbug. In the
very same year two pretenders, Agnes Bridges and Rachel Pinder, were
convicted in London. By vomiting pins and straws[8] they had convinced
many that they were bewitched, but the trickery was soon found out and
they were compelled to do public penance at St. Paul's.[9] We are not
told what was the fate of a detestable Mother Baker, who, when consulted
by the parents of a sick girl at New Romney in Kent, accused a neighbor
woman.[10] She said that the woman had made a waxen heart and pricked it
and by this means accomplished her evil purpose. In order to prove her
accusation, she had in the mean time concealed the wax figure of a heart
in the house of the woman she accused, and then pretended to find
it.[11] It is some satisfaction to know that the malicious
creature--who, during the history of witchcraft, had many imitators--was
caught and compelled to confess.

Scot learned, indeed, by observing marvels of this sort[12]--what it is
strange that many others did not learn--to look upon displays of the
supernatural with a good deal of doubt. How much he had ever believed in
them we do not know. It is not unlikely that in common with his
generation he had, as a young man, held a somewhat ill-defined opinion
about the Devil's use of witches. The belief in that had come down, a
comparatively innocuous tradition, from a primitive period. It was a
subject that had not been raised in speculation or for that matter in
court rooms. But since Scot's early manhood all this had been changed.
England had been swept by a tidal wave of suspicion. Hazy theological
notions had been tightened into rigid convictions. Convictions had
passed into legislative statutes and instructions to judges. The bench,
which had at first acted on the new laws with caution and a desire to
detect imposture, became infected with the fear and grew more ready to
discover witchcraft and to punish it. It is unnecessary to recapitulate
the progress of a movement already traced in the previous chapter.
Suffice it to say that the Kentish gentleman, familiarized with accounts
of imposture, was unwilling to follow the rising current of
superstition. Of course this is merely another way of saying that Scot
was unconventional in his mental operations and thought the subject out
for himself with results variant from those of his own generation. Here
was a new abuse in England, here was a wrong that he had seen spring up
within his own lifetime and in his own part of England. He made it his
mission as far as possible to right the wrong. "For so much," he says,
"as the mightie helpe themselves together, and the poore widowes crie,
though it reach to heaven, is scarse heard here upon earth: I thought
good (according to my poore abilitie) to make intercession, that some
part of common rigor, and some points of hastie judgement may be advised

It was indeed a splendid mission and he was singularly well equipped for
it. He had the qualifications--scholarly training and the power of
scientific observation, a background of broad theological and scriptural
information, a familiarity with legal learning and practice, as well as
a command of vigorous and incisive language--which were certain to make
his work effective towards its object.

That he was a scholar is true in more senses than one. In his use of
deduction from classical writers he was something of a scholastic, in
his willingness to venture into new fields of thought he was a product
of the Renaissance, in his thorough use of research he reminds us of a
modern investigator. He gives in his book a bibliography of the works
consulted by him and one counts over two hundred Latin and thirty
English titles. His reading had covered the whole field of superstition.
To Cornelius Agrippa and to Wierus (Johann Weyer),[14] who had attacked
the tyranny of superstition upon the Continent, he owed an especial
debt. He had not, however, borrowed enough from them to impair in any
serious way the value of his own original contribution.

In respect to law, Scot was less a student than a man of experience. The
Discoverie, however, bristled with references which indicated a legal
way of thinking. He was almost certainly a man who had used the law.
Brinsley Nicholson believes that he had been a justice of the peace. In
any case he had a lawyer's sense of the value of evidence and a lawyer's
way of putting his case.

No less practical was his knowledge of theology and scripture. Here he
had to meet the baffling problems of the Witch of Endor. The story of
the witch who had called up before the frightened King Saul the spirit
of the dead Samuel and made him speak, stood as a lion in the path of
all opponents of witch persecution. When Scot dared to explain this Old
Testament tale as an instance of ventriloquism, and to compare it to the
celebrated case of Mildred Norrington, he showed a boldness in
interpretation of the Bible far in advance of his contemporaries.

His anticipation of present-day points of view cropped out perhaps more
in his scientific spirit than in any other way. For years before he put
pen to paper he had been conducting investigations into alleged cases of
conjuring and witchcraft, attending trials,[15] and questioning
clergymen and magistrates. For such observation he was most favorably
situated and he used his position in his community to further his
knowledge. A man almost impertinently curious was this sixteenth-century
student. When he learned of a conjurer whose sentence of death had been
remitted by the queen and who professed penitence for his crimes, he
opened a correspondence and obtained from the man the clear statement
that his conjuries were all impostures. The prisoner referred him to "a
booke written in the old Saxon toong by one Sir John Malborne, a divine
of Oxenford, three hundred yeares past," in which all these trickeries
are cleared up. Scot put forth his best efforts to procure the work from
the parson to whom it had been entrusted, but without success.[16] In
another case he attended the assizes at Rochester, where a woman was on
trial. One of her accusers was the vicar of the parish, who made several
charges, not the least of which was that he could not enunciate clearly
in church owing to enchantment. This explanation Scot carried to her and
she was able to give him an explanation much less creditable to the
clergyman of the ailment, an explanation which Scot found confirmed by
an enquiry among the neighbors. To quiet such rumors in the community
about the nature of the illness the vicar had to procure from London a
medical certificate that it was a lung trouble.[17]

Can we wonder that a student at such pains to discover the fact as to a
wrong done should have used barbed words in the portrayal of injustice?
Strong convictions spurred on his pen, already taught to shape vigorous
and incisive sentences. Not a stylist, as measured by the highest
Elizabethan standards of charm and mellifluence, he possessed a
clearness and directness which win the modern reader. By his methods of
analysis he displayed a quality of mind akin to and probably influenced
by that of Calvin, while his intellectual attitude showed the stimulus
of the Reformation.

He was indeed in his own restricted field a reformer. He was not only
the protagonist of a new cause, but a pioneer who had to cut through the
underbrush of opinion a pathway for speculation to follow. So far as
England was concerned, Scot found no philosophy of the subject, no
systematic defences or assaults upon the loosely constructed theory of
demonic agency. It was for him to state in definite terms the beliefs he
was seeking to overthrow. The Roman church knew fairly well by this time
what it meant by witchcraft, but English theologians and philosophers
would hardly have found common ground on any one tenet about the
matter.[18] Without exaggeration it may be asserted that Scot by his
assault all along the front forced the enemy's advance and in some sense
dictated his line of battle.

The assault was directed indeed against the centre of the opposing
entrenchments, the belief in the continuance of miracles. Scot declared
that with Christ and his apostles the age of miracles had passed, an
opinion which he supported by the authority of Calvin and of St.
Augustine. What was counted the supernatural assumed two forms--the
phenomena exhibited by those whom he classed under the wide term of
"couseners," and the phenomena said to be exhibited by the "poor doting
women" known as witches. The tricks and deceits of the "couseners" he
was at great pains to explain. Not less than one-third of his work is
given up to setting forth the methods of conjurers, card tricks,
sleight-of-hand performances, illusions of magic, materializations of
spirits, and the wonders of alchemy and astrology. In the range of his
information about these subjects, the discoverer was encyclopedic. No
current form of dabbling with the supernatural was left unexposed.

In his attack upon the phenomena of witchcraft he had a different
problem. He had to deal with phenomena the so-called facts of which were
not susceptible of any material explanation. The theory of a Devil who
had intimate relations with human beings, who controlled them and sent
them out upon maleficent errands, was in its essence a theological
conception and could not be absolutely disproved by scientific
observation. It was necessary instead to attack the idea on its a
priori grounds. This attack Scot attempted to base on the nature of
spirits. Spirits and bodies, he urged, are antithetical and
inconvertible, nor can any one save God give spirit a bodily form. The
Devil, a something beyond our comprehension, cannot change spirit into
body, nor can he himself assume a bodily form, nor has he any power save
that granted him by God for vengeance. This being true, the whole
belief in the Devil's intercourse with witches is undermined. Such, very
briefly, were the philosophic bases of Scot's skepticism. Yet the more
cogent parts of his work were those in which he denied the validity of
any evidence so far offered for the existence of witches. What is
witchcraft? he asked; and his answer is worth quoting. "Witchcraft is in
truth a cousening art, wherin the name of God is abused, prophaned and
blasphemed, and his power attributed to a vile creature. In estimation
of the vulgar people, it is a supernaturall worke, contrived betweene a
corporall old woman, and a spirituall divell. The maner thereof is so
secret, mysticall, and strange, that to this daie there hath never beene
any credible witnes thereof."[19] The want of credible evidence was
indeed a point upon which Scot continually insisted with great force. He
pictured vividly the course which a witchcraft case often ran: "One sort
of such as are said to bee witches are women which be commonly old,
lame, bleare-eied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles; ... they are leane
and deformed, shewing melancholie in their faces; ... they are doting,
scolds, mad, divelish.... These miserable wretches are so odious unto
all their neighbors, and so feared, as few dare offend them, or denie
them anie thing they aske: whereby they take upon them, yea, and
sometimes thinke, that they can doo such things as are beyond the
abilitie of humane nature. These go from house to house, and from doore
to doore for a pot of milke, yest, drinke, pottage, or some such
releefe; without the which they could hardlie live.... It falleth out
many times, that neither their necessities, nor their expectation is
answered.... In tract of time the witch waxeth odious and tedious to hir
neighbors; ... she cursseth one, and sometimes another; and that from
the maister of the house, his wife, children, cattell, etc. to the
little pig that lieth in the stie.... Doubtlesse (at length) some of hir
neighbours die, or fall sicke."[20] Then they suspect her, says Scot,
and grow convinced that she is the author of their mishaps. "The witch,
... seeing things sometimes come to passe according to hir wishes, ...
being called before a Justice, ... confesseth that she hath brought such
things to passe. Wherein, not onelie she, but the accuser, and also the
Justice are fowlie deceived and abused."[21] Such indeed was the epitome
of many cases. The process from beginning to end was never better
described; the ease with which confessions were dragged from
weak-spirited women was never pictured more truly. With quite as keen
insight he displayed the motives that animated witnesses and described
the prejudices and fears that worked on jurors and judges. It was,
indeed, upon these factors that he rested the weight of his argument for
the negative.[22]

The affirmative opinion was grounded, he believed, upon the ignorance of
the common people, "assotted and bewitched" by the jesting or serious
words of poets, by the inventions of "lowd liers and couseners," and by
"tales they have heard from old doting women, or from their mother's
maids, and with whatsoever the grandfoole their ghostlie father or anie
other morrow masse preest had informed them."[23]

By the same method by which he opposed the belief in witchcraft he
opposed the belief in possession by an evil spirit. The known cases,
when examined, proved frauds. The instances in the New Testament he
seemed inclined to explain by the assumption that possession merely
meant disease.[24]

That Scot should maintain an absolute negative in the face of all
strange phenomena would have been too much to expect. He seems to have
believed, though not without some difficulty, that stones had in them
"certaine proper vertues which are given them of a speciall influence of
the planets." The unicorn's horn, he thought, had certain curative
properties. And he had heard "by credible report" and the affirmation of
"many grave authors" that "the wound of a man murthered reneweth
bleeding at the presence of a deere freend, or of a mortall enimie."[25]

His credulity in these points may be disappointing to the reader who
hopes to find in Scot a scientific rationalist. That, of course, he was
not; and his leaning towards superstition on these points makes one ask,
What did he really believe about witchcraft? When all the fraud and
false testimony and self-deception were excluded, what about the
remaining cases of witchcraft? Scot was very careful never to deny in
toto the existence of witches. That would have been to deny the Bible.
What were these witches, then? Doubtless he would have answered that he
had already classified them under two heads: they were either
"couseners" or "poor doting women"--and by "couseners" he seems to have
meant those who used trickery and fraud. In other words, Scot distinctly
implied that there were no real witches--with powers given them by the
Devil. Would he have stood by this when pushed into a corner? It is just
possible that he would have done so, that he understood his own
implications, but hardly dared to utter a straighforward denial of the
reality of witchcraft. It is more likely that he had not altogether
thought himself out.

The immediate impression of Scot's book we know little about. Such
contemporary comment as we have is neutral.[26] That his book was read
painstakingly by every later writer on the subject, that it shortly
became the great support of one party in the controversy, that King
James deemed it worth while to write an answer, and that on his
accession to the throne he almost certainly ordered the book to be
burned by the common hangman,[27] these are better evidence than
absolutely contemporary notices to show that the Discoverie exerted an

We cannot better suggest how radical Scot's position must have seemed to
his own time than by showing the point of view of another opponent of
witchcraft, George Gifford, a non-conformist clergyman.[28] He had read
the Discoverie and probably felt that the theological aspect of the
subject had been neglected. Moreover it had probably been his fortune,
as Scot's, to attend the St. Oses trials. Three years after Scot's book
he brought out A Discourse of the Subtill Practises of Devilles by
Witches, and followed it six years later by A Dialogue concerning
Witches,[29] a book in which he expounded his opinions in somewhat more
popular fashion. Like Scot, he wrote to end, so far as possible, the
punishment of innocent women;[30] like Scot, he believed that most of
the evidence presented against them was worthless.[31] But on other
points he was far less radical. There were witches. He found them in
the Bible.[32] To be sure they were nothing more than pawns for the
Devil. He uses them "onely for a colour,"[33] that is, puts them forward
to cover his own dealings, and then he deludes them and makes them
"beleeve things which are nothing so."[34] In consequence they
frequently at their executions falsely accuse others of dreadful
witchcrafts. It is all the work of the Devil. But he himself cannot do
anything except through the power of God,[35] who, sometimes for
vengeance upon His enemies and sometimes to try His own people,[36]
permits the Evil One to do harm.[37]

Gifford of course never made the impression that Scot had made.[38] But
he represented the more conservative position and was the first in a
long line of writers who deprecated persecution while they accepted the
current view as to witchcraft; and therefore he furnishes a standard by
which to measure Scot, who had nothing of the conservative about him.
Scot had many readers and exerted a strong influence even upon those who
disagreed with him; but he had few or none to follow in his steps. It
was not until nearly a century later that there came upon the scene a
man who dared to speak as Scot had spoken. Few men have been so far
ahead of their time.

[1] Where George Gifford, who wrote a little later on the subject, was
also a student.

[2] Discoverie of Witchcraft, Nicholson ed., introd., xxxv.

[3] That at least a part of it was written in 1583 appears from his own
words, where he speaks of the treatise of Leonardus Vairus on
fascination as "now this present yeare 1583 newlie published," ibid.,

[4] Elizabeth Barton (1506-1534) suffered from a nervous derangement
which developed into a religious mania. She was taught by some monks,
and then professed to be in communion with the Virgin Mary and performed
miracles at stated times. She denounced Henry VIII's divorce and gained
wide recognition as a champion of the queen and the Catholic church. She
was granted interviews by Archbishop Warham, by Thomas More, and by
Wolsey. She was finally induced by Cranmer to make confession, was
compelled publicly to repeat her confession in various places, and was
then executed; see Dict. Nat. Biog.

[5] Illegitimate child.

[6] That is, very probably, Alice Norrington, the mother of Mildred.

[7] Discoverie of Witchcraft, 130.

[8] Ibid., 132.

[9] See The discloysing of a late counterfeyted possession by the devyl
in two maydens within the Citie of London; see also Holinshed,
Chronicles, ed. of 1807-1808, IV, 325, and John Stow, Annals ... of
England (London, 1615), 678.

[10] Discoverie of Witchcraft, 258, 259.

[11] The spot she chose for concealing the token of guilt had been
previously searched.

[12] For another see Discoverie of Witchcraft, 132-133.

[13] In his prefatory epistle "to the Readers."

[14] An incidental reference to Weyer in "W. W.'s" account of the
Witches taken at St. Oses is interesting: "... whom a learned
Phisitian is not ashamed to avouche innocent, and the Judges that
denounce sentence of death against them no better than hangmen."

[15] E. g., Discoverie of Witchcraft, 5.

[16] Ibid., 466-469.

[17] Ibid., 5-6.

[18] Ibid., 15: "Howbeit you shall understand that few or none are
throughlie persuaded, resolved, or satisfied, that witches can indeed
accomplish all these impossibilities; but some one is bewitched in one
point, and some is coosened in another, untill in fine, all these
impossibilities, and manie mo, are by severall persons affirmed to be

[19] Discoverie, 472.

[20] Ibid., 7-8.

[21] Ibid., 8.

[22] It was one of the points made by "witchmongers" that the existence
of laws against witches proved there were witches. This argument was
used by Sir Matthew Hale as late as 1664. Scot says on that point: "Yet
I confesse, the customes and lawes almost of all nations doo declare,
that all these miraculous works ... were attributed to the power of
witches. The which lawes, with the executions and judicials thereupon,
and the witches confessions, have beguiled almost the whole world."
Ibid., 220.

[23] Discoverie, 471, 472.

[24] Ibid., 512.

[25] Ibid., 303.

[26] Thomas Nash in his Four Letters Confuted (London, 1593) refers to
it in a non-committal way as a work treating of "the diverse natures and
properties of Divels and Spirits." Gabriel Harvey's Pierces
Supererogation (London, 1593), has the following mention of it:
"Scottes discoovery of Witchcraft dismasketh sundry egregious
impostures, and in certaine principall chapters, and special passages,
hitteth the nayle on the head with a witnesse; howsoever I could have
wished he had either dealt somewhat more curteously with Monsieur
Bodine, or confuted him somewhat more effectually." Professor Burr
informs me that there is in the British Museum (Harleian MSS. 2302) an
incomplete and unpublished reply to Scot. Its handwriting shows it
contemporary or nearly so. It is a series of "Reasons" why witches
should be believed in--the MS. in its present state beginning with the
"5th Reason" and breaking off in the midst of the 108th.

[27] See Nicholson's opinion on this, pp. xxxvii-xxxix of his
introduction to Scot's book.

[28] George Gifford was a Church of England clergyman whose Puritan
sympathies at length compelled him to identify himself publicly with the
non-conformist movement in 1584. For two years previous to that time he
had held the living of Maldon in Essex.

[29] A second edition of this book appeared in 1603. It was reprinted
for the Percy Society in 1842.

[30] Dialogue, ed. of 1603, prefatory letter and L-M 2 verso.

[31] Discourse, D 3 verso, G 4 verso; Dialogue, ed. of 1603, K 2-K 2
verso, L-L 2. See also ibid., K 4-K 4 verso: "As not long since a
rugged water spaniell having a chaine, came to a mans doore that had a
saut bitch, and some espied him in the darke, and said it was a thing as
bigge as a colt, and had eyes as great as saucers. Hereupon some came to
charge to him, and did charge him in the name of the Father, the Sonne,
and the Holy Ghost, to tell what he was. The dogge at the last told
them, for he spake in his language, and said, bowgh, and thereby they
did know what he was."

[32] Discourse, in the prefatory letter.

[33] Ibid., F 4 verso, F 5.

[34] Dialogue, ed of 1603, K 2 verso.

[35] Ibid., D 3 verso; Discourse, G 3 verso, H 3 verso.

[36] Ibid., D 2 verso.

[37] Gifford grew very forceful when he described the progress of a case
against a witch: "Some woman doth fal out bitterly with her neighbour:
there followeth some great hurt.... There is a suspicion conceived.
Within fewe yeares after shee is in some jarre with an other. Hee is
also plagued. This is noted of all. Great fame is spread of the matter.
Mother W. is a witch.... Wel, mother W. doth begin to bee very odious
and terrible unto many, her neighbours dare say nothing but yet in their
heartes they wish shee were hanged. Shortly after an other falleth sicke
and doth pine.... The neighbors come to visit him. Well neighbour, sayth
one, do ye not suspect some naughty dealing: did yee never anger mother
W? truly neighbour (sayth he) I have not liked the woman a long tyme. I
can not tell how I should displease her, unlesse it were this other day,
my wife prayed her, and so did I, that shee would keepe her hennes out
of my garden. Wee spake her as fayre as wee could for our lives. I
thinke verely she hath bewitched me. Every body sayth now that mother W.
is a witch in deede.... It is out of all doubt: for there were which saw
a weasil runne from her housward into his yard even a little before hee
fell sicke. The sicke man dieth, and taketh it upon his death that he is
bewitched: then is mother W. apprehended, and sent to prison, shee is
arrayned and condemned, and being at the gallows, taketh it uppon her
death that shee is not gylty." Discourse, G 4-G 4 verso. And so,
Gifford explains, the Devil is pleased, for he has put innocent people
into danger, he has caused witnesses to forswear themselves and jurymen
to render false verdicts.

[38] But his views were warmly seconded by Henry Holland, who in 1590
issued at Cambridge A Treatise against Witchcraft. Holland, however,
was chiefly interested in warning "Masters and Fathers of families that
they may learn the best meanes to purge their houses of all unclean
spirits." It goes without saying that he found himself at variance with
Scot, who, he declared, reduced witchcraft to a "cozening or poisoning
art." In the Scriptures he found the evidence that witches have a real
"confederacie with Satan himself," but he was frank to admit that the
proof of bargains of the sort in his own time could not be given.

Next: The Exorcists

Previous: Witchcraft Under Elizabeth

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