Sceptical Publications - Attitudes to Witchcraft

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Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft, 1584


  • Part of a radical protestant sect - the family of love
  • Witch-trials at Chelmsford, 1582, 14 arrests and 2 executions

Main Argument

  • Supposed witched were suffering from melancholia or delusions
  • Those guilty of causing harm were mere tools of the Devil - and those who did harm did so through natural means (poison)
  • Catholic Church's sacraments were magic tricks to heighten fear of witches
  • Undiscovered elements of nature could explain unknown phenomena
  • Ultimately believed in witches but too often blaimed on witches with little/no evidence


  • First major work of English sceptism
  • James I ordered all copies to be burnt and published Daemonologie as a responce.
  • Re-published/became popular in 1651
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Harsnett's Fraudulent Practices of J. Darrel, 1599

Main Arguement

  • The practice of misleading people through magic is nothing new - back to ancient times
  • Catholic Priests perform miracles too easily
  • Prayer and Exorcism to cast out devils are Catholic tricks - only God can so they're frauds!
  • Darrell made William Sommers fake his possession. Harsnett = present at the examination of Darrell and George More.


  • His book started an important debate about the nature of witchcraft
  • Started "pamphlet war" - Darrell responded with publication in 1600
  • Two ministers (Deacon and Walker) questioned if possession was within the Devil's power & demanded proof from Darrell of exorcism (1601)
  • Darrell responded to minsters (1602)
  • But, Harsnett was still minority opinion - Bishop of Exeter and Norwich supported Darrell.
  • He was also deeply religous (conflicting religous views -CoE so hated CC but Catholic sympathies, Darrell= Puriran)
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Thomas Ady's A Candle in the Dark, 1656

Main Arguement

  • The actions of witchfinders and suspicions about witched cannot be found written in Bible
  • Wrote as too many wrongful executions as a result of accusations and ridiculous to think ordinary animals = witches familiars
  • Magician - false prophets or idolaters = Catholic priests guilty of witchcraft.
  • Critises Daemonolgie as no scripture referanced
  • Critcal of swimming test and of watching
  • Cathoics were first to kill for religion = unchristian! 


  • The only source Ady uses is the bible - the same as the witchfinders.
  • Crucially believed witches existed BUT the definition of a witch in bible isn't what witchfinders use. Witch = no superpowers, but led people to ungodly path - idolaters or through practices associated with CC.
  • Minister in Salem who was executed quoted this in his defence.
  • Steep decrease in witch trails and ^ in sceptism after 1660 = clear influence of Ady's work.
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Webster's Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, 1677

Main Arguement

  • Similar to Ady & written in responce to publications that claimed witch-hunts were legit.
  • Witches= existed, but no superpower, evil acts, but through own power and no help from Devil
  • Critical of Demon Drummer & comments on Pendle Swindle - went to see Edmund but father and uncle wouldn't let them talk + congregation was disturbed by boy's presence.


  • Relatively well recieved, and he engaged in public intellectual debates through pamphlets and books.
  • Scientific method taken seriously by Royal Society
  • Methoical apporach and thoroughh use of evidence- some first hand- set him apart.
  • Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper argues the origins of this work lay in Scot's publications and that the intellecutal debate had not progressed since then
  • Instead witchcraze declined as the power of the clergy over people's lives decreased in protetant countries - not a coincindence where CC or radical Purtians where influencial, witch craze lasted longer.
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Balthasar Bekker's The Enchanted World, 1691

Main Argument

  • Bible suggests Devil is in hell for ever and cannot operate on Earth
  • Devil = instrument of God's and those who believe the Devil has power is a heretic
  • Witches should not be blaimed for events that could be attributed to nature & he believed there was much unknown and so science would one day explain supernatural events


  • Undoubtly influenced by Scot, and historians call it the most influential critical work on witchcraft beliefs in the 17th century.
  • Witchcraft = impossible
  • Used Bible as primary source and tried an unbias approach
  • Bekker's work coincided with changes already happening from the new scientic approaches
  • End of c17 = crucial! advancements meant now could explain some of the mysterious events
  • 2 months- 4000 copies sold
  • Limited in England but worried German witch hunters - German towns banned it
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