Having always had an interest in all things magical, it is understandable that one of my favourite items in the collections of the SBT is a copy of Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft. The Discoverie of Witchcraft is considered to be the first published book on witchcraft, and is a wonderful record of superstition and belief in witchcraft, spirits, alchemy and magic in the 16th century.
Reginald Scot was born in or around 1538 in Kent into a landed English family. He married twice, having one child from his first marriage and one step child from his second. He left Oxford University without completing his degree and went hold to hold a number of posts and positions, including Member of Parliament for New Romney. He died in 1599.
When Scot published his book in 1584, almost everyone believed in witchcraft or magic in some form or another. These were ancient superstitions that were deeply ingrained in everyday life. However, this was also a time of great change, where people were beginning to think more rationally and old beliefs were starting to be questioned. It is in this mood The Discoverie of Witchcraft was published.
In The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Scot is speaking out simultaneously against the existence of witchcraft and in defence of accused witches. In 1581, Scot was involved in a legal capacity in a witch trial in which one Margaret Simmons was accused of witchcraft. Scot later wrote an account of his involvement in the trial, referring to the charge of witchcraft as “ridiculous”, writing that “...the name of a witch is so odious, and his power so feared among the common people, that is the honestest bodie living chance to be arraigned thereupon, she shall hardlie exacape condemnation”. It seems that the injustice of the witch trials struck a chord with Scot, and this trial was likely a catalyst for this book.
Scot took a real risk writing The Discoverie of Witchcraft, as at the time, witchcraft was recognised as a crime by both the church and state. Scot relies heavily on scripture to back-up his argument, and by doing so he protects himself from the worst of the criticism while, at the same time, meeting those who used the Bible to justify their actions against witches on a level pegging. Scot goes after everyone in his book, discrediting those who believe in witches as heretics, witch-hunters as corrupt, and those who claim to be witches as mentally ill. The second half of his book goes on to explain how tricks are carried out without the aid of any magic at all. Some of the tricks are still recognisable in the arsenal of today’s magicians, such as this classic card trick:
“When you have seene a carde 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 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 car already, and therefore may at anie time tell them what card they saw: which nevertheless would be done with great circumstance and shew of difficultie.”
Scot’s books were denounced by many who were firm believers in the existence of witchcraft. One particularly outraged believer was King James VI of Scotland, who was subsequently inspired to write his own treatise, Daemonologie, in 1597. A common legend says that when James took the English throne as King James I in 1603, he called for all copies of The Discoverie of Witchcraft to be destroyed, but there is no contemporary evidence supporting this statement.