JAMES I vs REGINALD SCOT, or THE HISTORY OF AN AUTO-DA-FE
Censoring is the danger encountered by any form of reflexion, and the danger is all the greater when the thinker tackles the foundations of his society, whether they be social, political, economic or religious foundations. In this respect, the so‑called liberal regimes differ from the totalitarian regimes only in the form adopted by censorship: silence or obstacles to the circulation of information are discreet, soft forms of censorship; the interdict or the concentration camp are more evident, more aggressive. The auto‑da‑fé I'm going to deal with presents no ambiguity whatsoever.
Who are the people involved? On the one hand, James VI of Scotland, "the comic offspring of the tragic union of Mary, Queen of Scots, with Darnley" who reigned over England from 1603 to 1625, succeeding to Elizabeth's throne as James I; and, on the other hand, Reginald Scot, a self‑taught Esquire, who published in 1584 The Discoverie of Witchcraft. The word discovery should be taken in the sense of exposure or unmasking. Scot's book became the target of the royal anathema. Let me immediately add an important precision: Scot himself did not suffer from the attacks of James I for the simple good reason that he died in 1599, that is 4 years before James VI of Scotland became James I of England. So, being unable to order Scot's death or imprisonment, the King ordered that Scot's treatise should be burnt. To the best of my knowledge, it is impossible to date precisely the execution of the royal order as, apparently, there exists no official record of it. But in view of the rarity of the original 1584 edition of the book, all but a few copies were destroyed. And yet, it is both indisputable and ironical that the obscurantist enterprise of James I totally failed. Admittedly, most copies of the book were thrown into the fire but the very auto‑da‑fé consolidated the immortality of Scot's treatise: it was regularly republished as early as 1609 in Holland. That might have been different if James I had paid no attention to the book.
What does it contain? How can we explain that over 20 years after its publishing, James I was determined to destroy a book that had left the Elizabethan power totally indifferent? Highly simplified for the moment, the answer to the first of these questions is the following one: The Discoverie of Witchcraft is an early rationalist treatise which debunks witchcraft and its pseudo‑misdeeds. Now, James I happens to have also committed his reflexions to paper. In 1597 he published in Edinburgh Daemonologie, in Forme of a Dialogue in which he defends the most obscurantist views on witchcraft, the same views that so far one man only in England had questioned Reginald Scot. After mounting the throne, it was a great temptation for James I to settle for good his opposition to Scot's theories. And he did not resist the temptation. The whole story may seem banal considering that after all it is frequent to see two writers with contrasted opinions on the same issue. However, the very personalities of the protagonists (one being King of England!) and the very subject of the dispute (Reason vs Obscurantism) transform this banal story into an exciting episode belonging to the history of the evolution of the human thought.
The reigns of Elizabeth and later of James I, and also the whole of the 17th century, were a flourishing time for esoteric sciences: alchemy, magic, occultism exerted a great influence over the minds of people. Even Francis Bacon who speaks highly of the merits of observation and methodical experiments couldn't help believing in the old alchemist's dream: to turn lead into gold. Moreover, his sympathies for Rosicrucian doctrines also contribute to making him suspect. Witchcraft then, may be considered as the concrete, daily expression of the esoteric approach of all sorts of phenomena: a baby was stillborn, witchcraft! A crop was mysteriously destroyed, witchcraft! A man was impotent, witchcraft! An animal suddenly died for no reason at all, witchcraft! To put it briefly, all the inexplicable incidents or accidents of the daily lives of people had but a one and only cause: an act of witchcraft which was the evidence of a pact between someone and Lucifer. And please, keep in mind that those inexplicable events were probably numerous owing to the nonexistent schooling of most people and also to the relative lack of knowledge of most men of science of the time.
In 1563, under the reign of Elizabeth, a new act was passed against witchcraft: homicide by witchcraft was punished by death; in case of injuries the penalty was a year's imprisonment and a quarterly exposure to the pillory for the first offence; for a second offence the penalty was death. The records of the trials of the time clearly show that the new law was enacted with much severity. Incidentally, let me remind you that in England, unlike in Scotland or on the Continent, witches were not burnt: they were hanged. Of course, the stake did exist but was reserved for other crimes, like murder for instance. And in most cases the culprit was (gently!) strangled by the executioner before the stake was set on fire.
So it was unanimously admitted that sorcerers and witches were endowed with evil and magic powers whose diabolic origins could not be questioned. If I had to prove it more thoroughly, I would simply remind you of the important place occupied by wizards and magicians in the Elizabethan drama. Surely, it is the reflection of the popular beliefs of the time. In such a particular context, Reginald Scot took his pen and had the courage to dispute the validity of such beliefs.
Of the man, we know very little, not even his precise birth date: 1538 or shortly before. He probably came from a relatively rich family since he went to Oxford; however, he left his college "without the honour of a degree" and settled in Kent where he continued studying by himself. He was greatly encouraged by a cousin of his, Sir Thomas Scot, who was quite influential over the administration of the county of Rent since he was appointed Sheriff. Reginald also got involved in the life of his county in quite an original way. In 1574 he published his first book, A Perfect Platforme of a Hoppe‑Garden, in which he advocated the growing of hop in Kent, and indeed this crop developed in the South‑East of England from 1580 onwards. This work is certainly rather loosely related to the subject of witchcraft; however, it throws an interesting light onto Scot's turn of mind and bears witness to an approach that can be described as scientific and rationalistic. His recommendations were based on a precise analysis of the soil, of the climate, of the needs of the plant and of the benefits that could be derived from its cultivation. All the various stages of logical thought are present: close reasoning grounded on pertinent analysis leading to convincing conclusions. It is exactly the same method that Scot will apply to the study of witchcraft. But before dealing with this point, it is important to highlight one last facet of the original personality of this man.
Scot, we know, left Oxford with no diploma. However, his will written according to the rules of the art in his own hand, unmistakably shows that he possessed a deep knowledge of legislation and laws. Moreover, he occupied the official post of Collector of Subsidies for the district of Shepway in Kent. Besides, the Reverend Joseph Hunter even states that Scot was appointed Justice of the Peace at an approximate date situated between 1578 and 1584. Even more important, according to other sources, he might have been a Member of Parliament in 1588 and 1589. And finally, it has been ascertained that he was present at the trial of one Margaret Symons in 1581, that he even cross‑questioned the accused woman, which means he undoubtedly had some official capacity. Consequently, all those various elements (his will and his close association with Justice) prove that Scot had become an accomplished jurist, a self‑taught expert on law; his likely accession to the magistracy may be due to the help of his powerful cousin Thomas. It is pure speculation and it does not matter in the least. What does matter is to establish as a fact ‑ and I think I've done it ‑ that Scot did not study witchcraft between the four walls of his library but rather visited culprits, went to trials examined and cross‑examined witnesses. His methods of investigation were almost scientific because they were founded on scepticism, which is a scientific approach. Most trials were faked from their very beginning because witchcraft was taken for granted. Scot's courage was to say: before deciding upon someone's culpability let us see if the offence itself exists, I mean the accusation of witchcraft. As shown by the records, this accusation was often brought against people. It was a sort of automatic procedure whenever a case seemed particularly mysterious and difficult to clear up in a natural way: the supernatural was called forth and everything became crystal‑clear!
It would be exaggerated to say that the accusation of witchcraft always prevailed, but for Scot it had become unbearable that it should even be mentioned. When he published The Discoverie of Witchcraft he had accumulated enough evidence to enable him to put forth a theory whose revolutionary aspect may look simple and even simplistic: witches, sorcerers and their likes do not exist. Of course, the various remarks that I shall pass on the treatise itself will complement and somehow soften down this lapidary résumé of Scot's thought. It is strange, though, to notice that this book was the object of no reprisal at all under Elizabeth's reign. In England under the Stuarts, the English historian Trevelyan offers an explanation when he mentions the scepticism of the Queen herself and, more generally, the relative indifference of many people towards witchcraft. The Reverend Montague Summers totally refutes this argument simply because the new law against witchcraft (in 1565) was indeed fully enacted. Moreover, let's not forget Scot's treatise itself which would have been virtually useless as long as no one believed in witchcraft any more. I agree with Montague Summers: Trevelyant's viewpoint is difficult to defend and the question has no solution so far. Perhaps The Discoverie of Witchcraft went totally unnoticed. Perhaps its content seemed so ludicrous that it automatically discredited the author as if today, for instance, someone wrote a book to prove that the earth is flat. Perhaps it is because Scot occupied such high functions that he felt totally safe and free to speak his mind? Whatever the right explanation may be, one man at least had read Scot's book, and that was James VI of Scotland, the future King of England.
James I is necessarily present in history books but certainly not because of his political skill. He was a pedantic person, full of his own importance and his reign is characterized by a certain number of blunders revealing paranoiac intolerance. He had no mercy either on the Catholics (cf the Gunpowder Plot of 1605) or on the Protestants (cf the story of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower in 1620). Immediately after his accession to the throne, James I had a new law against witchcraft voted in 1604. Broadly speaking, the new statute followed the provisions of the 1563 Elizabethan law with two exceptions: one element was added (capital punishment in case of disinterment) and another one was modified: all acts of witchcraft leading to corporal injuries were punished by death whereas the 1563 law stipulated imprisonment for one year and the pillory for three months, capital punishment being applied only for the second offence. Indeed, as Montague Summers says in the preface to The Discoverie of Witchcraft ( Dover edition, 1972) the new law is hardly more severe than the old one; but I think it is more sensible to remark that the new law cannot be more stringent because death is the penalty in all cases! Therefore, far from backing down, the power insists: witchcraft is a disease that must be eradicated. And I remind you that such a policy is based on precise ideology formulated by the King in person in Daemonologie in Forme of a Dialogue which necessarily became the book of reference, the work impossible to challenge without running the risk of high treason. James I holds both power and truth: let justice be passed and Scot's treatise be burnt!
But fortunately, sometimes history manages to rectify mistakes: Scot's book has outlived the flames and the wealth of the information it contains makes it occupy a respectable place in the hierarchy of the works that have contributed to the edification of human knowledge. Indeed, The Discoverie of Witchcraft occupies that position of reference that was briefly usurped by the stupid little book of James ; I say briefly because luckily those few years are nothing compared to four centuries.
For the contemporary reader Scot's treatise is somewhat inaccessible . In its latest edition, the book has 283 pages divided into 16 Books, themselves subdivided into numerous chapters (249 in all) going from a few lines (for the shortest) to a few pages (6 exactly) for the longest. This organization is rather disconcerting because it entails a rather disjointed reading which is certainly not made easier by inevitable archaic vocabulary and structures. Moreover, the text is rich in quotations from the Bible which probably were convenient landmarks for the 16th century reader but they do not have the same echo in the reader of today. Finally, besides the Bible, many other works considered as authorities on the subject of witchcraft are mentioned by Scot; and he is a conscientious writer, quoting and summing up his sources in notes written in the right or left margin of the text. Having said that, and despite some real difficulties , the overall approach chosen by Scot is crystal‑clear. One feels full of admiration in front of the immense erudition of the man. He quotes 224 foreign authors and 23 English authors. Quantity is by no means a criterion of quality but still, it contributes to show to the reader that he is holding an extremely well documented book. Moreover, from a purely strategic standpoint, it is a method that enables Scot to launch out into controversy because in most cases he takes the opposite view. This is, I think, particularly clever and, incidentally, Scot's treatise opens with ample evidence of his cleverness: it was of vital necessity for his person. Let me quote and then explain:
"The fables of Witchcraft have taken so fast hold and deepe root in the heart of man, that fewe or none can (nowadaies)
with patience indure the hand and correction of God. For if any adversitie, greefe, sicknesse, losse of children, corne,
cattell, or libertie happen unto them; by and by they exclaime upon witches. As though there were no God in Israel that ordereth
all things according to his will;"
Scot is using both a sword and a shield. The first thrust is given with the first word of the text: "The fables of Witchcraft...". The word leaves no doubt as to Scot's opinion on the subject but at the same time he must use a shield and protect himself against an enormous risk: that his credulity should be assimilated to heresy, in which case he might be considered as the accomplice of witches. Why such an assimilation? Simply because of one basic truth: when you deny the existence of the Devil, you are not far from denying the existence of God! Therefore, Scot cleverly reverses the possible accusation and the first chapter of Book I is entirely devoted to the development of his protecting postulate: believing in witchcraft amounts to turning away from God. And all along the text, Scot takes special care to remind the reader of his position through briefly formulated formulas like "...we flie from trusting in God to trusting in witches...". Such phrases will be repeated again and again.
The analysis conducted by Scot is so intelligent, clever and rigorous that the whole of Book I is a model of an introduction. In Chapter 3, for instance, Scot explains how the myth develops: in most cases, the witch is basically someone different. From her neighbours from various angles. She can be very old, or very poor, or disabled, or popish or with no religion...From the outset, such a woman will be suspicious to the eyes of the other villagers. If she is called a witch, strangely enough, she often will not defend herself because it may be profitable. People are afraid of her so‑called powers so they will not dare to refuse her the piece of bread or the potatoes she will beg for. But charity has its limits and one day someone will say "No". In response, the so‑called witch will have threatening words, malevolent prophecies. And since diseases and death are part of the natural order of things, a link will be artificially established between the curse and the unfortunate event. From now on, the witch‑hunt may start, spontaneous witnesses present themselves and all the mysterious events that have occurred in the village find a magical solution! Justice will blindly take over from collective hysteria and the executioner can get his tools ready: the days of the village idiot or of the crippled beggar or of the toothless old woman are counted. It is always a very simple matter to find a scape‑goat.
Scot's immense merit was to have taken to pieces the mechanism leading to the accusation of witchcraft; in most cases all would have been clarified if judges had gone deeper into things. In this respect the case of Margaret Symons is an exemplar illustration of Scot's work. In 1581 she appeared before the Court of Rochester on the charge of witchcraft. The witness for the prosecution was one John Ferrall, vicar of the parish of Brenchlie in Kent, whose son had fallen ill five or six days only after he had had an argument with Margaret Symons. Moreover, the vicar frequently lost his voice right in the middle of the service. That was quite enough to prove that father and son had been bewitched by Margaret Symons. Scot decided to cross‑examine her and she gave him so precise details that it became obvious that the voice problems of the vicar were purely physical. Scot's deduction was confirmed by two doctors from London who discovered that John Ferrall suffered from a lung disease. The vicar did not insist and Margaret Symons was released. This story is a perfect illustration of Scot's theory: witchcraft is only the cloak of ignorance. Unfortunately, in most cases no man of science was consulted and banal cases turned into tragedies. Instead of doctors, official books on witchcraft were consulted, such as Maleus Maleficarum by James Sprenger, very often quoted by Scot. Because of this book, hundreds of witches were condemned to death; it is a tissue of nonsense telling you, for instance, that witches can command over the wind and thunder, kill with their eyes, change the course of rivers or fly through the air! Indeed, we wonder, as Scot does, why such people, endowed with so many irresistible powers, are not openly ruling over the world.
Another merit of Scot ‑and not a small one‑ was to have clearly criticized the judicial system of his days. The 12 chapters of Book II are devoted to this problem and they are full of frightening precisions on the judicial ways and means: public denouncement is largely encouraged, young children (if properly handled) will witness against their mothers, judges are advised to simulate sympathy to draw the culprit's confessions and, if nothing else works, the instruments of torture are near at hand and will do the job. If you complete that sordid array of means by saying that evidence given by only one man of repute was enough to confound a witch, it is almost a miracle that all the trials did not end up with the conviction of the accused. In most cases they were cornered on all sides, trapped by calumnies, betrayed by the judicial system, and they finally confessed everything or anything and preferably what others wanted to hear. Let's not forget that Scot was a jurist; he did not report all that unthinkingly and all the precise detail he mentions concerning judicial procedures are overwhelming. They amply demonstrate that the end ‑the eradication of witchcraft‑ justified the means, however contemptible they might be. Other chapters of the treatise, in particular in Book III also deal with the problem of justice. It is clear that Scot's only ambition was to open the eyes of his fellow‑men and particularly of the judges since their functions led them to take decisions. Indeed, this didactic dimension of The Discoverie of Witchcraft is so visible that in several later editions, including that of 1651, the title page was modified. Under the title proper and after a brief outline of the content of the book, the following sentence was added:
"With many other things opened that have long lain hidden:
though/very necessary to be known for the undeceiving of Judges,
Justices,/and Juries, and for the preservation of poor, aged, deformed,
ignorant/people; frequently taken, arraigned, condemned and executed
for/Witches, when, according to a right understanding, and a good/conscience,
Physick, Food, and necessaries should be/administered to them."
Let us notice, incidentally, that yet another merit of Scot's treatise was to suggest alternative solutions and not only to denounce the practices of an iniquitous system. This allusion to medicine, that is to Science which indeed is omnipresent in the treatise, seems today incredibly modern (heretic in his time?) since Scot implies that the course of events can be changed by man when he thinks and analyzes. Given that turn of mind, what was Scot's precise position on the existence of witchcraft?
Broadly speaking, as already mentioned, Scot does not believe in witchcraft. However, he does not deny the spirit of evil; he just says that it can't have any physical reality and therefore cannot live in someone or even inspire them. For Montague Summers, Scot's position is only a disguise serving to hide his unconfessed atheism. In other words, Scot did not have the courage to follow his ideas to their logical conclusion: God does not exist, therefore the Devil does not exist, therefore witches do not exist. But Montague Summers, being a churchman, is obsessed by Scot's real or imaginary atheism; in my opinion, the final offence to Scot was to have asked Montague Summers to write that preface; in many respects it is irrelevant and shows that the clergyman totally misunderstood the treatise. The ultimate purpose of The Discoverie of Witchcraft is not to convince people that God does not exist but only that witches have imaginary or explicable powers that have nothing to do with Satan. That God should exist or not is not the hidden question of Scot's treatise , as suggested by M. Summers. Scot was not a cold theorist: he was a human being who wanted to stop the useless tortures of other human beings. To this purpose he carried out a very fine and complete analysis of that strange phenomenon called witchcraft.
So, after explaining how the myth develops (Book I, mainly), how it is amplified by the judicial system (Book II, mainly), Scot comes to the heart of the matter: who are those pseudo‑witches or sorcerers and why are they more pitiful than blameworthy?
For Scot, there are three categories of wonder‑workers. In the first one, we find all the people who find themselves accused out of pure spite: they deny the facts but finally confess them under torture. Their case is clear: they are innocent victims. The second category concerns all those who spontaneously confess their crimes because they sincerely believe (or they're induced to believe) in their supernatural powers. For Scot, they are only sick people suffering from ‑ what he calls melancholy. The modern psychiatrist would instead use the word hysteria or mythomania to show that those sorcerers are victims of themselves, of their mental condition. In this respect, Scot, among other examples, tells the story of one witch who was condemned and executed after freely confessing that the terrible winter or 1565 was due to her spells!
As for the third group of sorcerers, it symbolizes in itself the immense originality of Scot's treatise whose title takes more than ever its full significance: " The Discoverie...", that is the exposure. Indeed, with astonishing lucidity, Scot analyzes the methods used by witches to make people believe in their supernatural powers. Their aim is either to get money or to exert some sort of influence over their victims. At all times credulity has been a source of profit for devious and unscrupulous persons. So, Scot very methodically deals with all the swindles that are unduly assimilated to witchcraft. Book VI deals with poisons and magic philtres: Scot explains that their effectiveness, if any, is due to their chemical nature and not to Satan. In Book VII Scot deals with ventriloquism often used by swindlers to impress their victims: Scot explains how a voice always comes out of a real body and not out of a ghost or a spirit. In Book X, he deals with dreams that sometimes may be premonitary but should not be considered as evidence of clairvoyance. In Book XI he denounces astrologers and their likes whose numerous false predictions (chapter 9) should suffice to discredit them. In Book XIV the very deep‑rooted myth of alchemy goes flat, like a balloon! And finally, the very Book that Montague Summers finds "interesting" but "irrelevant", I mean Book XIII which is perhaps Scot' greatest contribution. It is nothing but a small treatise of white magic, that is a handbook of conjuring exposing the tricks used by charlatans to impress the people around them. Book XIII is not "interesting" or "irrelevant" (to quote M. Summers again): it is simply , and I'm weighing my words, unique because, to the best of my knowledge, no such thing had ever been published before except for one very short little book of 64 pages, written in 1581 by one Thomas Hill, the title of which is: A Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatise intituled Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions. This booklet has by no means the scope of Scot's work because only a few chapters of it are devoted to experiments that are much more recreative than magic. Scot did not say that all witches were conjurers but simply that magic was not synonymous with witchcraft because many so‑called "miracles" accomplished by those wonder‑workers could perfectly be explained. Among other things , we learn how to change Aces into Jacks, how to guess a card that has been thought, how to vanish a coin (or make it reappear), how to use a confederate and give the illusion you can manipulate him like a puppet, how to thrust (painlessly) a knife into your arm and many, many other things that we discover with delight. Let me add that most of these tricks are nowadays still explained in magic books or can be found in the catalogues of magic shops. I forgot to say that Scot had a practical knowledge of magic. He had been initiated to the art of illusion by a French street magician, by the name of Cautares, who performed in the area of St Martins, in London.
From Scot's treatise, it clearly stands out that " Witchcraft is in truth a cousening (= deceiving in modern English) art". When there is witchcraft, it is because somewhere in the chain of events there is a sucker, whether it is the sorcerer himself, the victim, the witness or the judge. If only one of the parties were informed, and preferably the one that has authority, the myth and its host of stupidities and cruelties would vanish into thin air. If any criminal offence is committed, it has of course to be punished but let it be so without looking for some diabolical explanation!
Has Reginald Scot been listened to? We can hope that until his death in 1599 he did his best to make truth and reason triumph. The auto‑da‑fé of James I did not improve the situation of course. In this fight between Reason and Obscurantism there is a quixotic aspect in Scot's personality which, I think, is very attractive. Does his book belong to another time, to another world? Partly, yes of course; but fundamentally, no. The Middle Ages witchcraft has its modern equivalent. I don't know the situation in Britain but I can tell you that in France it is difficult to read a paper with no horoscope, to follow a radio or TV programme of light entertainment with no astrologer. Pseudo‑sciences like numerology or graphology are supposed to help an employer to chose between several people applying for a job. To put it in a nutshell, parapsychology is today's witchcraft, which doesn't mean that traditional witchcraft has disappeared. In each French diocese there still is an official exorcist. Parapsychological phenomena are, in my opinion, particularly pernicious because they use the cloak of Science and we find otherwise sane scientists naïve enough to testify to the existence of such things as telepathy, mind‑reading, spiritualism, levitation or psychokinesis. I consider it is a quest of the irrational and, after all I have no right to object to it but I strongly reject all scientific pretensions of parapsychology, let alone its fraudulent exploitation.
Reginald Scot paved the way under, probably, difficult circumstances. We should never forget The Discoverie of Witchcraft, that early effort of a man, shining like a candle in the dark.
The author of the above article is Alain Tsédri, a French retired Senior-Lecturer in English and an amateur magician. Please feel free to write to : firstname.lastname@example.org