The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot (1584)

One topic that I’ve long had a fascination with is the history of skeptical and scientific thought.  Human beings are naturally endowed with the ability to reason, but that reason is a far cry from a belief in a world governed by immutable natural laws.  This is why I consider scientific education to be very important on a societal level; ignorance and fear combined with credulity can lead to devastating consequences: the bloody period of witch hunting in Europe resulted in somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 executions, a colossal waste of life and perversion of justice.  I’ve written before about the real human suffering these witch hunts inflicted.  It is frightening to note that such times are not completely behind us.

In the midst of such times of ignorance and superstition, however, there are always shining pillars of skeptical and rational thought that beat back the darkness, at least temporarily.  On such example is Reginald Scot (1538-1599), who took the incredibly bold step to not only defend accused witches against the charges laid before them, but to also prove once and for all that witchcraft does not exist!  His views were presented in his book The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), a lengthy tome which chronicles the supposed powers of witches and provides devastating arguments against them:


I’ve had this book in my collection for probably a decade, long before I was really interested in blogging or the history of science, but had not managed to get through it until now.  It is an extremely difficult book to read, being written in archaic Early Modern English and using many words and phrases which are outdated and virtually unknown.  I found it extremely rewarding, however, for its glimpses into the naturalistic thinking of the time, the utter absurdity of the witch hunter’s claims, and the wisdom and courage of its author.  I dare say I even found it inspiring.

Reginald Scot was born into a noble family with a long lineage and an estate in Brabourne, Kent, where he spent most of his life.  He attended college a short time at Hart Hall (which would later become Hertford College), though he left without a degree.  Nevertheless, he seems to have gained significant legal training and was a Justice of the Peace in Kent; he also worked as a subsidies collector for the government.  Much of his time seems to have been spent tending to gardens on the family’s estates.  After reading his The Discoverie of Witchcraft, I would say that he’s the sort of guy I would love to have a beer with, and it would probably be a damn good beer: Scot’s first book, A Perfect Platforme of a Hoppe-Garden (1574), led to Kent becoming the hop-producing center of England.

It is not entirely certain what generated Scot’s interest in witchcraft, though there is one event that is noted as a likely catalyst: the witch trials of St. Osyth.  In 1582, 14 women were charged with witchcraft in the village of St. Osyth, in Essex.  At least two were hanged in the outcry which followed, and the case caused a sensation throughout England.  Even before that, likely in his legal capacity, Scot in 1581 was involved in another witch trial.  In his own words:

But I will rehearse an example whereof I my selfe am not onlie Oculatus testis, but have examined the cause, and am to justifie the truth of my report: not bicause I would disgrace the minsters that are godlie, but to confirme my former assertion, that this absurd error is growne into the place, which should be able to expell all such ridiculous follie and impietie.

At the assises holden at Rochester, Anno 1581, one Margaret Simons, the wife of John Simons, of Brechlie in Kent, was araigned for witchcraft, at the instigation and complaint of divers fond and malicious persons; and speciallie by the meanes of one John Ferrall vicar of that parish: with whom I talked about that matter, and found him both fondlie assoted in the cause, and enviouslie bent towards hir: and (which is worse) as unable to make a good account of his faith, as shee whom he accused.  That which he, for his part, laid to the poore womans charge, was this.

His sonne (being an ungratious boie, and prentise to one Robert Scotchford clothier, dwelling in that parish of Brenchlie) passed on a daie by hir house; at whome by chance hir little dog barked.  Which thing the boie taking in evill part, drewe his knife, & pursued him therewith even to hir doore: whom she rebuked with some such words as the boie disdained, & yet neverthelesse would not be persuaded to depart in a long time.  At the last he returned to his maisters house, and within five or sixe daies fell sicke.  Then was called to mind the fraie betwixt the dog and the boie: insomuch as the vicar (who thought himselfe so privileged, as he little mistrusted that God would visit his children with sicknes) did so calculate; as he found, partlie through his owne judgement, and partlie (as he himselfe told me) by the relation of other witches, that his said sonne was by hir bewitched.  Yea, he also told me, that this his sonne (being as it were past all cure) received perfect health at the hands of another witch.

He proceeded yet further against hir, affirming, that alwaies in his parish church, when he desired to read most plainelie, his voice so failed him, as he could scant be heard at all.  Which hee could impute, he said, to nothing else, but to hir inchantment.  When I advertised the poore woman hereof, as being desirous to heare what she could saie for hir selfe; she told me, that in verie deed his voice did much faile him, speciallie when he strained himselfe to speake lowdest.  How beit, she said that at all times his voice was hoarse and lowe: which thing I perceived to be true.  But sir, said she, you shall understand, that this our vicar is diseased with such a kind of hoarseness, as divers of our neighbors in this parish, not long since, doubted that he had the French pox; & in that respect utterly refused to communicate with him:  untill such time as (being therunto injoined by M.D. Lewen the Ordinarie) he had brought fro London a certificat, under the hands of two physicians, that his hoarsenes proceeded from a disease in the lungs.  Which certificat he published in the church, in the presence of the whole congregation: and by this meanes hee was cured, or rather excused of the shame of his disease.  And this I knowe to be true by the relation of divers honest men of that parish.  And truelie, if one of the Jurie had not beene wiser than the other, she had beene condemned thereupon, and upon other as ridiculous matters as this.  For the name of a witch is so odious, and hir power so feared among the common people, that if the honestest bodie living chance to be arraigned thereupon, she shall hardlie escape condemnation.

The monumental injustice and foolishness of witch-hunts seems to have struck a moral chord in Scot, leading to his book.  He was taking quite a big risk: witchcraft was a crime officially recognized by both the church and the government, and he risked being branded a traitor and a heretic with his views, if not a witch himself.  As we will see, he did make some powerful enemies.

The Discoverie of Witchcraft itself is a shotgun blast against the belief in witches and against the credulous and conniving people who promote that belief.  There are a number of angles from which Scot makes his attack; a list (by no means complete)  is given below:

  • He argues that belief in witches is inconsistent with a belief in scripture, even heretical
  • He points out the flawed and corrupt nature of the witch-hunter’s investigations, which are clearly designed to justify a guilty verdict
  • He presents evidence that mentions of “witches” in the Bible have in fact been mistranslated and misrepresented
  • He highlights how absurd the claims of witchcraft are, and how natural explanations exist for all of them
  • He argues that witchcraft has benefited its supposed practitioners so little that, if it were possible, still none would bother to make deals with the devil
  • He explains how people who believe themselves to be witches are certainly mentally distressed
  • He shows how con-men and entertainers can pretend to do seemingly miraculous tricks by sleight of hand, and gives detailed descriptions of these tricks

Scot by necessity had to rely quite heavily on scripture in his arguments.  Naturalistic philosophy was relatively unknown in Scot’s era: Galileo would not publish his work on the heliocentric solar system until 1610, and Isaac Newton would not unveil his groundbreaking work on mechanics and gravity for nearly a hundred years more.  Furthermore, Scot needed to protect himself from accusations of heresy himself, and using the Bible as justification for his arguments provided some shelter.  He was meeting the supposedly pious on their own terms, and devastated them.

Of the witch-hunters (“witchmongers”) belief in the power of witches, he writes:

But whatsoever is reported or conceived of such maner of witchcrafts, I dare avow to be false and fabulous (coosinage, dotage, and poisoning excepted ) neither is there any mention made of these kind of witches in the Bible.  If Christ had knowne them, he would not havepretermitted to invaie against their presumption, in taking upon them his office: as, to heale and cure diseases; and to worke such miraculous and supernaturall things, as whereby he himself was speciallie knowne, beleeved, and published to be God; his actions and cures consisting (in order and effect) according to the power of our witchmoongers imputed to witches.  Howbeit, if there be any in these daies afflicted in such strange sort, as Christs cures and patients are described in the new testament to have been: we flie from trusting in God to trusting in witches, who doo not onlie in their coosening art take on them the office of Christ in this behalfe; but use his verie phrase of speech to such idolaters, as com to seeke divine assistance at their hands, saieng; Go thy waies, thy sonne or thy daughter, &c. shall doo well, and be whole.

It will not suffice to dissuade a witchmonger from his credulitie, that he seeth the sequele and event to fall out manie times contrarie to their assertion; but in such case (to his greater condemnation) he seeketh further to witches of greater fame.  If all faile, he will rather thinke he came an houre too late; than that he went a mile too far.  Trulie I for my part cannot perceive what is to go a whoring after strange gods, if this be not.  He that looketh upon his neighbors wife, and lusteth after hir, hath committed adulterie.  And truelie, he that in hart and by argument mainteineth the sacrifice of the masse to be propitiatorie for the quicke and the dead, is an idolater; as also he that alloweth and commendeth creeping to the crosse, and such like idolatrous actions, although he bend not his corporall knees.

In like manner I say, he that attributeth to a witch, such divine power, as dulie and onelie apperteineth unto GOD (which all witchmongers doo) is in hart a blasphemer, an idolater, and full of grosse impietie, although he neither go nor send to hir for assistance.

This is an awesome argument, and truly a daring “throwing down the gauntlet” to the witchhunters!  Scot points out that witchhunters are basically attributing to witches the same powers that the Bible describes as the miracles of Jesus himself!  He argues that such belief in a witches’ power is no different than worshipping a false deity, even if one does not pray to said god!

Scot can hardly conceal his disdain for the famous witch-hunters in his era, such as the authors of the disgusting Malleus Maleficarium (1487), Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, and Jean Bodin, the author of La Démonomanie des Sorciers.  This disdain is clearly justified as Scot describes the cruel and unjust techniques by which the witch-hunters find suspects and obtain confessions.  He notes how the regular process of law does not apply to cases of witchcraft:

Item, the complaint of anie one man of credit is sufficient to bring a poore woman to the racke or pullie.

Item, a condemned or infamous persons testimonie is good and allowable in matters of witchcraft.

Itsem, a witch is not to be delivered, though she endure all the tortures, and confesse nothing; as all other are in anie criminall cases.

Item, though in other cases the depositions of manie women at one instant are disabled, as insufficient in lawe; bicause of the imbecillitie and failtie of their nature or sex: yet in this matter, one woman, though she be a partie, either accuser or accused, and be also infamous and impudent (for such are Bodins words) yea and alreadie condemned; she may neverthelesse serve to accuse and condemn a witch.

Item, a witnesse uncited, and offering himselfe in this case is to be heard, and in none other.

Item, a capitall enimie (if the enimitie be pretended to growe by meanes of witchcraft) may object against a witch; and none exception is to be had or made against him.

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

Item, 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.

Item, Bodin saith, that bicause this is an extraordinarie matter; there must heerein be extraordinarie dealing: and all maner of waies are to be used, direct and indirect.

In other words (and ignoring the offensively sexist view of women), Scot notes that the witchhunters believe that witchcraft is such a dangerous and deadly crime, that the rule of law must be suspended in such cases.  It is left to the reader to compare this opinion to modern-day “extraordinary rendition” and “military tribunals” for terror suspects.

Also relevant to modern politics is Scot’s discussion of torture: it was obvious to him, and clearly to many reasonable people of the 1500s, that one can extract any confession, true or false, through the use of torture:

He that readeth the ecclesiasticall histories, or remembreth the persecutions in Queene Maries time, shall find, that manie good men have fallen for feare of persecution, and returned unto the Lord againe.  What marvell then, though a poore woman, such a one as is described elsewhere, & tormented as is declared in these latter leaves, be made to confesse such absurd and false impossibilities; when flesh and bloud is unable to endure such triall?  Or how can she in the middest of such horrible tortures and torments, promise unto hir selfe constancie; or forbeare to confesse anie thing?  Or what availeth it hir, to persevere in the deniall of such matters, as are laid to her charge unjustlie; when on the one side there is never anie end of hir torments; on the other side, if she continue in hir assertion, they saie she hat charmes for taciturnitie or silence?

Peter the apostle renounced, curssed, and forsware his maister and our Saviour Jesus Christ, for feare of a wenches manaces; or rather at a question demanded by hir, wherein he was not so circumvented, as these poore witches are, which be not examined by girles, but by cunning inquisitors, who having the spoile of their goods, and bringing with them into the place of judgement minds to maintaine their bloudie purpose, spare no maner of allurements, thretenings, nor torments, untill they have wroong out of them all that, which either maketh to their owne desire, or serveth to the others destruction.

Scot blasts and even mocks the accusations of the witch-hunters and the reasoning behind their extraordinary methods:

If more ridiculous or abhominable crimes could have beene invented, these poore women (whose cheefe fault is that they are scolds) should have beene charged with them.

In this libell you dooe see is conteined all that witches are charged with; and all that also, which anie witchmoonger surmiseth, or in malice imputeth unto witches power and practise.

Some of these crimes may not onelie be in the power and will of a witch, but may be accomplished by natural meanes: and therefore by them the matter in question is not decided, to wit; Whether a witch can worke woonders supernaturallie?  For manie a knave and whore dooth more commonlie put in execution those lewd actions, than such as are called witches, and are hanged for their labour.

Some of these crimes also laid unto witches charge, are by me denied, and by them cannot be prooved to be true, or committed, by any one witch.  Othersome of these crimes likewise are so absurd, supernaturall, and impossible, that they are derided almost of all men, and as false, fond, and fabulous reports condemned: insomuch as the very witchmoongers themselves are ashamed to heare of them.

If part be untrue, why may not the residue be thought false?  For all these things are laid to their charge at one instant, even by the greatest doctors and patrones of the sect of the witchmongers, producing as manie proofs for witches supernaturall and impossible actions, as for the other.  So as, if one part of their accusation be false, the other part deserveth no credit.  If all be true that is addedged of their dooings, why should we believe in Christ, bicause of his miracles, when a witch dooth as great wonders as ever he did?

I find Scot’s arguments fascinating because he seems to be espousing a naturalistic philosophy but arguing it on the grounds that God is in control of all forces and does not allow them to be used maliciously or arbitrarily by humankind.  This is perhaps no more explicitly stated than in a chapter entitled “That miracles are ceased”:

Although in times past, it pleased God, extraordinarilie to shew miracles amongest his people, for the strengthening of their faith in the Messias; and againe at his comming to confirme their faith by his wonderfulll dooings, and his speciall graces and gifts bestowed by him upon the apostles, &c : yet we ordinarilie read in the scriptures, that it is the Lord that worketh great wonders.  Yea David saith, that among the dead (as in this case of Samuel) God himselfe sheweth no wonders.  I find also that God will not give his glorie and power to a creature.

A belief in a non-demon-haunted world is argued throughout the book in a variety of ways.  An absolutely hilarious example is Scot’s indirect refutation of a case of lusty devilry:

When (if their assertions were true) concerning the divels usuall taking of shapes, and walking, talking, conferring, hurting, and all maner of dealing with mortall creatures, Christs argument to Thomas had been weake and easilie answered; yea the one halfe, or all the whole world might be inhabited by divels, everie poore mans house might be hired over his head by a divell, he might take the shape and favor of an honest woman, and plaie the witch; or of an honest man, and plaie the theefe, and so bring them both, or whome he list to the gallowes: who seeth not the vanitie of such assertions?  For then the divell might in the likenes of an honest man commit anie criminal offense; as Lavater in his nineteenth chapter De spectris reporteth of a grave wise magistrate in the territorie of Tigurie, who affirmed, that as he and his servant went through certeine pastures, he espied in a morning, the divell in the likenes of one whome he knew verie well, wickedlie dealing with a mare.  Upon the sight whereof he immediatlie went to that fellowes house, and certeinlie learned there, that the same person went not out of his chamber that daie.  And if he had not wiselie boolted out the matter, the good honest man (saith he) had surelie beene cast into prison, and put on the racke, &c.

Emphasis mine!  In a side note, Scot comments: “I marvell for what purpose the magistrate went to that fellowes house.”  Maybe I’m misinterpreting what “wickedlie dealing with a mare” means, but I find it hard to believe that someone might be put on the rack for beating a horse!

Such stories appear often in Scot’s book, often involving some lecherous member of the clergy.  This suggests yet another reason why the religious order would have an interest in keeping witch belief alive:

You shall read in the legend, how in the night time Incubus came to a ladies bed side, and made hot loove unto hir: whereat she being offended, cried out so lowd, that companie came and found him under hir bed in the likenesse of the holie bishop Sylvanus, which holie man was much defamed therebie, untill at the length this infamie was purged by the confession of a divell made at S. Jeroms toombe.  Oh excellent peece of witchcraft or cousening wrought by Sylvanus!

Scot adds, in a side note, “Saincts as holie and chaste as horsses & mares.”  Sexual frustration and repression plays a big role in witch hysteria, a point that Scot seems very aware of.  Further discussing the real purpose of the Incubus legend, he writes,

Thus are lecheries covered with the cloke of Incubus and witchcraft, contrarie to nature and veritie: and with these fables is mainteined an opinion, that men have beene begotten without carnall copulation (as Hyperius and others write that Merlin was, An. 440.) speciallie to excuse and maintaine the knaveries and lecheries of idle priests and bawdie monkes; and to cover the shame of their lovers and concubines.

On a more serious note, Scot takes time to address the claims of those people who truly believe that they are witches and have supernatural powers.  The result is a fascinating look at the views on mental illness of the time:

If anie man advisedlie marke their words, actions, cogitations, and gestures, he shall perceive that melancholie abounding in their head, and occupieng their senses: I meane not of coosening witches, but of poore melancholike women, which are themselves deceived.  For you shall understand, that the force which melancholie hath, and the effects that it worketh in the bodie of a man, or rather of a woman, are almost incredible.  For as some of these melancholike persons imagine, they are witches and by witchcraft can worke woonders, and doo what they list: so do other, troubled with this disease, imagine manie strange, incredible, and impossible things.  Some, that they are monarchs and princes, and that all other men are their subjects: some, that they are brute beasts: some, that they be urinals or earthen pots, greatlie fearing to be broken: some, that everie one that meeteth them, will conveie them to the gallowes; and yet in the end hang themselves.

Along with mental illness,  a fundamental misunderstanding of correlation vs. causation can not only lead people to believe in witches, but can lead people to believe that they themselves are witches:

And further, in tract of time the witch waxeth odious and tedious to hir neighbors; and they againe are despised and despited of hir: so as sometimes she cursseth one, and sometimes another; and that from the maister of the house, his wife, children, cattel, &c. to the little pig that lieth in the stie.  Thus in processe of time they have all displeaseed hir, and she hath wishes evill lucke unto them all; perhaps with cursses and imprecations made in forme.  Doubtless (at length) some of hir neighbors die, or fall sicke; or some of their children are visited with diseases taht vex them strangelie: as apoplexies, epilepsies, convulsions, hot fevers, wormes, &c. and their opinions and conceits are confirmed and maintained by unskilfull physicians: according to the common saieng; Inscitiæ pallium maleficium & incantatio, Witchcraft and inchantment is the cloke of ignorance: whereas indeed evill humors, & not strange words, witches, or spirits are the causes of such diseases… Then they, upon whom such adversities fall, weighing the fame that goeth upon this woman… do not onelie conceive, but also are resolves, that all their mishaps are brought to passe by hir onelie meanes.

The witch on the other side exspecting hir neighbours mischances, and seeing things sometimes come to passe according to hir wishes, cursses, and incantations (for Bodin himselfe confesseth, that not above two in a hundred of their witchings or wishings take effect) being called before a Justice, by due examination of the circumstances is driven to see hir imprecations and desires, and hir neighbors harmes and losses to concurre, and as it were to take effect: and so confesseth that she (as a goddes) hath brought such things to passe.  Wherein, not onelie she, but the accuser, and also the Justice are fowlie deceived and abused; as being thorough hir confession and other circumstances persuaded (to the injurie of Gods glorie) that she hath done, or can doo that which is proper onelie to God himselfe.

Self-delusion can be a powerful force, and sometimes even a beneficial one.  In arguing against the power of magical charms and amulets, Scot gives an account of the placebo effect as understood by the physicians of the time:

Argerius Ferrarius, a physician in these daies of great account, doth saie, that for somuch as by no diet nor physicke anie disease can be so taken awaie or extinguished, but that certeine dregs and relikes will remaine: therefore physicians use physicall alligations, appensions, periapts, amulets, charmes, characters, &c, which he supposeth maie doo good; but harme he is sure they can doo none: urging that it is necessarie and expedient for a physician to leave nothing undone that may be devised for his patients recoverie; and that by such meanes manie great cures are done.

Marie M. Ferrarius (although he allowed and practised  this kind of physike) yet he protesteth that he thinketh it none otherwise effectuall, than by the waie of constant opinion: so as he affirmeth that neither the character, nor the charme, nor the witch, nor the devill accomplish the cure; as (saith he) the experiment of the toothach will manifestlie declare, wherein the cure is wrought by the confidence or diffidence as well of the patient, as of the agent; according to the poets saieng:

Nos habitat non tartara, sed nec sidera cœli
Spiritus in nobis qui viget illa facit.

Not hellish furies dwell in us,
Nor starres with influence heavenlie;
The spirit that lives and rules in us,
Doth every thing ingeniouslie,

This (saith he) commeth to the unlearned, through the opinion which they conceive of the characters and holie words: but the learned that know the force of the mind and imagination, worke miracles by meanes thereof; so as the unlearned must have externall helps, to doo that which the learned can doo with a word onelie.

This is a wonderful description of the placebo effect, and illustrates that doctors were well aware of the effect long before its formal definition in medicine.  Even though they had no notion of the germ theory of disease in Scot’s era, it seems that the best doctors had, at the very least, learned to separate superstition from medicine.

Scot clearly had a very good grasp of the human psyche, no doubt in large part from spending so much time studying how con-men (“cooseners”) could abuse it.  He spends much time blasting various prognosticators, such as the oracles, diviners, and augurs.  He has rather harsh and insightful words to say about the astrologers:

If you marke the cunning ones, you shall see them speake darkelie of things to come, devising by artificiall subtiltie, doubtfull prognostications, easilie to be applied to everie thing, time, prince, and nation: and if anie thing come to passe according to their divinations, they fortifie their old prognostications with new reasons.  Nevertheles, in the multitude and varietie of starres, yea even in the verie middest of them, they find out some pleaces in a good aspect, and some in an ill; and take occasion hereupon to saie what they list, promising unto some men honor, long life, wealth, victorie, children, marriage, freends, offices; & finallie everlasting felicitie.  But if with anie they be discontent, they saie the starres be not favourable to them, and threaten them with hanging, drowing, beggerie, sickenes, misfortune, &c. And if one of these prognostications fall out right, then they triumph above measure.  If the prognosticators be found to forge and lie alwaies (without such fortune as the blind man had in killing the crow) they will excuse the matter, saieng, that Sapiens dominatur astris, whereas (according to Agrippas words) neither the wiseman ruleth the starres, nor the starres the wiseman, but God ruleth them both.  Corn. Tacitus saith, that they are a people disloiall to princes, deceiving them that beleeve them.  And Varro saith, that the vanitie of all superstitions floweth out of the bosome of astrologie.  And if our life & fortune depend not on the starres, then it is to be granted, that the astrologers seeke where nothing is to be found.  But we are so fond, mistrustfull & credulous, that we feare more the fables of Robin good fellow; astrologers, & witches, & beleeve more the things that are not, than the things that are.  And the more unpossible a thing is, the more we stand in feare thereof; and the lesse likelie to be true, the more we beleeve it.  And if we were not such, I thinke with Cornelius Agrippa, that these divinors, astrologers, conjurors, and cousenors would die for hunger.

Though many people who do amazing things  claim to be witches, there are also people who have learned skills so outside of society’s understanding that they are accused of being witches.  In one of the most fascinating parts of the book, Scot addresses the provenance of  “naturall magicke”:

Certeinlie, God indueth bodies with wonderfull graces, the perfect knowledge whereof man hath not reached unto: and on the one side, there is amongst them such mutuall love, societie, and consent; and on the other side, such naturall discord, and secret enimitie, that therein manie things are wrought to the astonishment of mans capacitie.  But when deceit and diabolicall words are coupled therewith, then extendeth it to witchcraft and conjuration; as whereunto those naturall effects are falselie imputed.  So as heere I shall have some occasion to say somewhat of naturall magicke; bicause under it lieth hidden thte venome of this word Hartumim.  This art is said by some to be the profoundnesse and the verie absolute perfection of naturall philosophie, and shewing foorth the active part thereof, & through the aid of naturall vertues, by the convenient applieng of them, works are published, exceeding all capacitie and admiration; and yet not so much by art, as by nature.  This art of it selfe is not evill; for it consisteth in searching foorth the nature, causes, and effects of things. As farre as I can conceive, it hath beene more corrupted and prophaned by us Christians, than either by Jewes or Gentiles.

Emphasis mine.  “Naturall magicke” seems to be Scot’s way of referring to the study of nature itself, or what we would today simply call “science”.  He specifically gives as an example of such “naturall magicke” the understanding of agriculture, i.e. planting and sowing times.  This may seem to be a rather mundane form of magic, but as Scot recounts elsewhere, it was enough to bring at least one man to trial:

Although among us, we thinke them bewitched that wax suddenlie poore, and not them that growe hastilie rich; yet at Rome you shall understand, that (as Plinie reporteth) upon these articles one C. Furius Cressus was convented before Spurius Albinus; for that he being but a little while free, and delivered from bondage, occupieng onlie tillage; grew rich on the sudden, as having good crops: so as it was suspected that he transferred his neighbors corne into his fields.  None intercession, no delaie, none excuse, no deniall would serve, neither in jest nor derision, nor yet through sober or honest meanes; but he was assigned a peremptorie daie, to answer for life.  And therefore fearing the sentence of condemnation, which was to be given there, by the voice and verdict of three men (as we heere are tried by twelve) made his appearance at the daie assigned, and brought with him his ploughs and harrowes, spades and shovels, and other instruments of husbandrie, his oxen, horsses, and working bullocks, his servants, and also his daughter, which was a sturdie wench and a good huswife, and also (as Piso reporteth) well trimmed up in apparell, and said to the whole bench in this wise; Lo heere my lords I make mine appearance, according to my promise and your pleasure, presenting unto you my charmes and witchcrafts, which have so inriched me.  As for the labour, sweat, watching, care, and diligence, which I have used in this behalfe, I cannot shew you them at this time.  And by this meanes he was dismissed by the consent of that court, who otherwise (as it was thought) should hardly have escaped the sentence of condemnation, and punishment of death.

Scot was remarkably insightful regarding the perception of common people towards natural magic:

In this art of naturall magicke, God almightie hath hidden manie secret mysteries; as wherein a man may learne the properties, qualities, and knowledge of all nature.  For it teacheth to accomplish maters in such sort and oportunitie, as the common people thinketh the same to be miraculous; and to be compassed none other waie, but onelie by witchcraft.

The latter sentence is remarkably similar to Arthur C. Clarke’s “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and Scot said it nearly 400 years earlier!  (To be fair, Clarke’s statement is pithier.)

In order to prove this point, however, Scot needed to show that the seemingly miraculous tricks by magicians and supposed witches could be done by very ordinary and natural means.  The second half of his book is devoted to detailed explanations of magicians’ tricks, many of which will be extremely familiar to modern readers.  For instance, here is a very old description of a very classic card trick:

How to tell one what card he seeth in the bottome, when the same card is shuffled into the stacke.

When you have seene 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 nevertheless would be done with great circumstance and shew of difficultie.

With a confederate’s assistance, performing psychic tricks is an almost trivial operation:

Lie a wager with your confederate (who must seeme simple, or obstinatelie opposed against you) that standing behind a doore, you will ( by the sound or ringing of the monie) tell him whether he cast crosse or pile: so as when you are gone, and he hath fillipped the monie before the witnesses who are to be cousened, he must saie; What is it, if it be crosse; or What ist, if it be pile: or some other such signe, as you are agreed upon, and so you need not faile to gesse rightlie.  By this meanes (if you have aine invention), you may seeme to doo a hundreth miracles, and to discover the secrets of a mans thoughts, or words spoken a far off.

More gruesome and shocking acts can be performed with the right tools:

To thrust a bodkin into your head without hurt.

Take a bodkin so made, as the haft being hollowe, the blade thereof may slip thereinto as soone as you hold the point upward: and set the same to your forehead, and seeme to thrust it into your head, and so (with a little sponge in your hand) you may wring out bloud or wine, making the beholders thinke the bloud or the wine (whereof you may saie you have drunke verie much) runneth out of your forehead.  Then, after countenance of paine and greefe, pull awaie your hand suddenlie, holding the point downeward; and it will fall so out, as it will seeme never to have been thrust into the haft: but immediatlie thrust that bodkin into your lap or pocket, and pull out an other plaine bodkin like the same, saving in that conceipt.

To thrust a bodkin through your toong, and a knife through your arme: a pittifull sight, without hurt or danger.

Make a bodkin the blade thereof being sundred in the middle, so as the one part be not neere to the other almost by three quarters of an inch, each part being kept a sunder with one small bought or crooked piece of iron, of the fashion described hereafter in place convenient.  Then thrust your toong betwixt the foresaid space; to wit, into the bought left it the bodkin blade, thrusting the said bought behind your teeth, and biting the same: and then shall it seeme to sticke so fast in and through your toong, as that one can hardlie pull it out.  Also the verie like may be doone with a knife so made, and put upon your arme: and the wound will appeare the more terrible, if a little bloud be powred thereupon.

Scot helpfully supplies illustrations of the necessary tools for these gruesome tricks:


In Scot’s era, even optical effects produced by lenses and the like could seem miraculous to an uninformed observer, and Scot spends some time discussing these effects:

But the woonderous devises, and miraculous sights and conceipts made and conteined in glasse, doo farre exceed all other; whereto the art perspective is verie necessarie.  For it sheweth the illusions of them, whose experiments be seene in diverse sorts of glasses; as in the hallowe, the plaine, the embossed, the columnarie, the pyarmidate or piked, the turbinall, the bounched, the round, the cornered, the inversed, the eversed, the massie, the regular, the irregular, the coloured and cleare glasses: for you may have glasses so made, as what image or favour soever you print in your imagination, you shall thinke you see the same therein.  Others are so framed, as therein one may see what others doo in places far distant; others, wherby you shall see men hanging in the aire; others, whereby you may perceive men flieng in the aire; others, wherein you may see one comming, & another going; others, where one image shall seeme to be one hundred, &c.  There be glasses also, wherein one man may see another mans image, and not his owne; others, to make manie similitudes; others, to make none at all.  Others, contrarie to the use of all glasses, make the right side turne to the right, and the left side to the left; others, that burne before and behind; others, that represent not the images received within them, but cast them farre off in the aire, appearing like aierie images, and by the collection of sunne beames, with great force setteth fier (verie farre off) in everie thing that may be burned… And (as Pompanacius saith) it is most true, that some for these feats have been accounted saints, some other witches.  And therefore I saie, that the pope maketh rich witches, saints; and burneth the poore witches.

Scot’s book is a treasure trove of fascinating arguments and historical insights, and I could probably have written a dozen blog posts on these subjects.  Let me mention one other very strong argument Scot makes against the existence of witches: the supposed bargain made with the Devil is such a lousy one, that it is hard to imagine anyone would actually take it!

Alas! 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, and that within a verie short time; speciallie being through age most commonlie unlike to live one whole yeare?  The terror of hell fire must needs be to them diverslie manifested, and much more terrible; bicause of their weaknesse, nature, and kind, than to any other: as it would appeere, if a witch were but asked, Whether she would be contented to be hanged one yeare hence, upon condition hir displeasure might be wreked upon hir enimie presentlie.

Most accused witches were sickly old women, and gained no apparent benefit from their witchcraft than to be able to hurt their neighbors.  If we are willing to believe that these women are crazy enough to make such bargains, shouldn’t we also believe that they’re crazy enough to make up all their stories about witchcraft?

Reginald Scot’s book was a wonderful light of moderation and reason in an era which was in short supply of both.  Sadly, his work did not make a strong impact on the superstitions of the people and government.  James the 1st became King of England in 1603, and brought with him his fervent belief in witches and the necessity of witch-hunting, including his own book on the subject, Daemonologie (1597).  (This is the same King James of the King James Bible.)  Daemonologie was written in large part as an answer to Discoverie, and on coming to office James ordered that all copies of The Discoverie of Witchcraft be burned, which was a rule that was fortunately not efficiently enforced.   In a sense, Scot himself got off lucky, having died in 1599: if he had lived during James’ rise to power, one shudders to imagine what might have been done to him personally.

The Dover edition of Discoverie is a reprint of the 1930 John Rodker edition, and the introduction to this edition is also of historical interest.  It was written by Montague Summers (1880-1948), the most knowledgeable scholar on the history of witchcraft of his time.  This was, however, an unintentionally hilarious choice: Scot’s two major targets in his book are witchcraft and Catholic superstition, and Summers was a Catholic convert and a serious believer in witchcraft and the need for witch-hunts.  It seems as ridiculous as having Ken Ham write an introduction for P.Z. Myers’ upcoming book (or, come to think of it, having Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort write an introduction for The Origin of Species).

The introduction itself is quite bizarre: it starts with an apology for James’ witch-hunting tendencies, arguing that he wasn’t that bad because he never burned people at the stake and his only change to the existing witch law was to make it punishable by death on a first offense, rather than the second.  (I was reminded of this recent apology while reading Summers’ essay.)  Of Scot himself, Summers throws the biggest criticism he can muster:

Upon a careful investigation it appears that the flaw in Scot’s argument is not that admitting the existence of evil spirits he declared that we know nothing of them or in relation to them save that they do not and cannot intermingle with the affairs of men, a sufficiently illogical position, but rather that although for caution’s sake covering his atheism with the thinnest veneer, in fact he wholly and essentially denies the supernatural.

Accordingly we are not surprised to encounter a heap of irrelevant matter in his treatise.  Surely the first chapter of his Eighth Book is a clear announcement of atheism: That miracles are ceased… Yet the treatise is valuable; it gives us the complete armoury of the atheist.  But, Good Lord! what feeble rusted weapons!

Yes, Summers attacks Scot with his own feeble and rusted weapon:  SCOT’S AN ATHEIST!!! BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA!!!

Certainly we cannot know for certain if this is the case; I have my doubts, however.   Scot speaks so passionately about the Scriptures and the idolatry of witch-hunters that he seems to be a man who believes both in a God and a rational world ruled by natural laws.  It is perhaps not surprising that a fanatic like Summers cannot comprehend such a creature.

Perhaps the most damning case against Summers can be made from his concluding remarks:

Of Scot a cautious and circumstantial investigator has written: “In 1584 there came from the press his Discoverie of Witchcraft, a subject which he seems to have studied, and concerning which he had in a somewhat desultory fashion been collecting notes for a long period… His mind was naturally sceptical, and in religion he would be now-a-days a pseudo-scientific modernist.  That is to say, he was utterly without imagination, a very dull, narrow, and ineffective little soul.  When he has exposed certain egregious impostures of contemporary date, enlarged upon card tricks and prestidigidation at inordinate length, attributed the appearance of Samuel in the cave of Endor to ventriloquism, and more than hinted that possession in the New Testament merely means disease, this myopic squireen deems that the matter is settled once and for all… Had he dared, Scot would have openly denied the supernatural, of that there can be no doubt; and to-day he might have shone in the company of Mr. Clodd and Mr. McCabe.”

This is temperately and fairly stated.

There isn’t a citation to the author of this exceedingly harsh assessment of Scot’s work; I was not surprised at all to find that Summers is actually quoting himself, from his Geography of Witchcraft.  To be fair, Summers was perhaps trying to be somewhat humorous, but it is hard to shake the impression that he is trying to pull a fast one by lauding the “temperately and fairly stated” opinion.

I’m not sure I would remove Summers’ introduction from any later edition of the book.  Scot’s Discoverie is a true monument to human reason, and an indicator of how far we’ve come since those dark times; Summers’ introduction shows how far we yet have to go.


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18 Responses to The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot (1584)

  1. Awesome post. I’m a fan of the history of witch trials/hysteria and I’d never heard of this guy. Thx! 🙂

    • Jennifer: Thanks! I’m also fascinated by the history of witch hunts, and the relevance of such hysteria to modern times.

      I would guess that Scot doesn’t come up very often in discussions of witch hunts because his work (unfortunately) wasn’t as influential as the “pro-witch hunt” books such as Malleus Maleficarium.

  2. Alan Levine says:

    Summers not only believed in witchcraft, but vampires!

    • Alan: Yeah, Summers was a weird fellow. He’s sort of an unusual case in that he was the leading expert in the history of witchcraft at the same time he was a fervent believer. In my experience, most people who believe in really weird things are also stunningly ignorant on the same topics.

  3. Pingback: Giant’s Shoulders Blog Carnival #16 | Quiche Moraine

  4. judithweingarten says:

    How I wish that the Pentecostal witch hunt was the last, but no, it’s just the latest dribble of a still virulent belief. See my post on the Saudi Witch”Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali who was sentenced to be beheaded for witchcraft in 2006. I have tried to discover her fate but never found out more, not even from HRW.

    • Indeed. It’s truly sad, but I think the threat of witch-hunting hysteria will always be with us. Society must always be vigilant and ready to push back against such irrational fear-mongering and superstition.

  5. jenna mcbroom says:

    do u ahve the bibliograahy or footnotes 4 this? wat pages did u use in reginald scots book?

    many thanks

    • Jenna: I didn’t keep track of the pages I used for the post, though the book is relatively short and you should be able to track down the quotes with a minimum of pain. Any other source I used for the post is hyperlinked.

  6. Charon Ferryman says:

    I hope all of you know that The Discoverie of Witchcraft was actually a book on magick itself (well, parts of it anyway). It provides detailed conjurations to a fair few spirits, shews knowledge of planets and angels, among other things.

    When you consider the time (the Inquisition), publishing the rest of the stuff (i.e. juggling) could be considered as a type of misdirection. Make them think it’s not about magic, then throw magic in there.

    The strong references to ritual magic contradict what everyone’s talking about. Reginald Scot, by the way, looked like he was trained in Kabbalistic teachings and ceremonial evocation. Don’t believe me? Look it up. The book is riddled with effective, magickal ritual. Even a procedure to make “holie water”.

    Surely not what meets the eye.

  7. LowOnProzac says:

    Fascinating read. Would that I could see through the fallacies of my own time as well as he did in his.

  8. liyam says:

    Actually, Reginald Scot is a mysticist. His idea of trying to prove witchcraft does not exist is the most brilliant thing ever to do to defend the witches. As once the craft to be proven non-existent, acquits all who are accused of witchcraft that time.

    And I would agree with Charon Ferryman. I’ve read the book as well. That’s why I don’t understand that you have claimed there is no such thing in the book about the magickal rituals and procedures like creating the holie water.

    This book is even considered to be a textbook on conjuring spirits

    • Sure, Scot mentions and describes plenty of rituals — to debunk them. Saying the book is filled with “effective, magickal ritual” is like saying the Harry Potter book is filled with working magic.

      “His idea of trying to prove witchcraft does not exist is the most brilliant thing ever to do to defend the witches. ”

      You seem to be implying that he himself believed in witches and that his arguments were all a sham. Hopefully you have some evidence to prove your case. The descriptions of magical ritual themselves do not make Scot a follower of magic, any more than my description of Scot’s book makes me one.

  9. Ciaran says:

    Me fail early modern English? That’s unpossible.

  10. David says:

    There is a typo in the fifth paragraph. The date 1852 should instead be 1582. Just a heads up.

  11. moderate says:

    Yes — and this can be a big one.

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