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 e
fectively 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.