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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

V. The Progress of Social Literature in Tudor Times

§ 21. Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft

Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, in 1584, is the first great English contribution to this European controversy. He had already given proof of the qualities of foresight, reflectiveness and common sense in a work on hops, designed to improve one of the industries of his country. The Discoverie, also, was primarily intended as a humanitarian protest—“A Travell in the behalfe of the poore, the aged and the simple.” But the primitive belief in magic and witchcraft had now become a matter for academic discussion, and Scot’s work is inevitably coloured by continual restatement of Agrippa’s and Weier’s arguments, and by counterblasts to Malleus and Jean Bodin.

It is essentially a work of investigation and exposition. In that uncritical and pedantic age, the great sources of knowledge seemed to confirm man’s natural belief in magic and sorcery. It was argued that Deuteronomy, the Twelve Tables, the Justinian code, recognised the existence of witches. In profane literature, no lesser authorities than Manilius, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Tibullus and Lucan had given credence to sorcery. A refutation of such contentions hinged on the interpretation of texts. Thus, much of the Discoverie is devoted to an academic examination of Hebrew and Latin words. But Scot was not only a scholar. In the administration of his inherited estates, he came into contact with the unprogresive population of rural districts, and he also seems to have acquired at Oxford a sound knowledge of law. He boldly criticises the legal methods of procedure with accused witches, and shows how melancholy and old age often cause women to incur the suspicion of sorcery. One feature of his book is its thoroughness. Witchcraft was involved in other forms of credulity; to believe in one manifestation of supernatural power was to admit all to be possible. So Scot explains the legerdemain which beguiled the simple; he detects the frauds and impostures of friars and priests who encouraged the belief in invisible spirits. Borrowing from the keen humour and intelligence of Erasmus, he exposes the tricks of alchemists, and discredits the practice of incantation and devil-conjuring by merely enumerating at full length the ludicrously elaborate charms then in use. With admirable skill he attributes the superstitions of witch-mongers to the influence of the Roman Catholic religion. He sums up the conclusions of his work in these words:

  • 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. It is incomprehensible to the wise, learned or faithfull, a probable matter to children, fooles, melancholike persons and papists.
  • But Scot’s Discoverie produced no permanent effect on the beliefs of his time. The treatise is too diffuse and ill-constructed to be read with pleasure. Furthermore, science was not sufficiently advanced to substitute reason for superstition. Melanchthon’s Initia Doctrinae physicae was based on a belief that the devil bore sway over natural phenomena. Paracelsus was infected with the same error; Reuchlin believed in witches. Cardanus contended that certain complaints and affections must be the result of magic and “the workyng of cursed sciences,” since physic and chirurgery knew of no remedy. Scot, also, had the limitations of his contemporaries. He still believed in a “naturall magicke” and he accepted many of the legends of classic lore, such as the belief that a certain river in Thrace makes white sheep produce black lambs, and a large number of folk-remedies, such as the belief that the bone of a carp’s head staunches blood.

    We have seen how prominent a part the middle classes played in forming the literature of the sixteenth century. While accepting the stories, satire and learning of the Middle Ages, they created a demand for English books that should reflect the tendencies of the present and embody the humour and wisdom of the past. One feature of their reading is its assimilation of French, Italian and German thought; another, its attractiveness for “clerks” and “gentlemen” as well as for “the commons.” This popular literature was not obscured by the “melodious bursts” of Elizabeth’s reign. On the contrary, social and fugitive tracts continued to develop along the same lines till the Civil War. Satires on folly and domestic discord, character studies, jest-books, broadside ballads, beggar books, treatises on cosmography, the cultivation of health, universal knowledge and witchcraft continued to flourish throughout the Jacobean period, and the great work of exposing abuses was bequeathed to not incompetent hands. Nevertheless, a change in the temper of the people begins to be noticeable during the last twenty years of the sixteenth century. Puritanism, which had long made itself felt, now became prominent; national sentiment took possession of the people; the conceits of pseudoclassicism became an almost universal fashion; style preoccupied readers and writers; the essay was developed; the gulf between popular and court literature began to widen; above all, London grew into a centre—or, rather, a hotbed—of professional writers. These changes were felt at once in the people’s literature. The tracts of Churchyard, Gilbert, Greene, Nashe, Gifford, Lodge, Chettle, Dekker, Thynne, Overbury, Jonson, Earle, Parrot, Wye Saltonstall, Breton, Brathwait, Peacham, Parker and Rowlands belong to a different era. Reginald Scot has been classed with Tudor writers because his work is a résumé of the thoughts of that time and his treatment has the rather clumsy earnestness of an earlier period. But the others mark a subsequent stage in popular English literature and are dealt with in later chapters of the present work.