The man who fought the witch hunts

During the darkest days of the witch persecutions, Reginald Scot was among the few voices of reason to be heard. In 1584 he self-published The Discoverie of Witchcraft, in which he refuted many of the beliefs concerning the power of wItChes and denounced their persecution as the “extreme and intolerable tyranny” of the InquIsItIon. Scot was drawn to the subject of wItChCrAFt not by profession—he was not a judge, scholar or demonologist—but by his own sense of personal outrage at the torture and execution of people, he considered to be innocent of any wrongdoing. In the 1886 edition of Discoverie, Dr. Brinsley Nicholson writes in the introduction that Scot saw himself

. . . engaged in a righteous work, that of rescuing feeble and ignorant, though it may be too pretentious and shrewish, old women from false charges and a violent death, and in a noble work endeavoring to stem the torrent of superstition and cruelty which was then beginning to overflow the land.

Scot was born to the genteel family of Sir John Scot near Smeeth in Kent, in or around 1538. He was sent to Oxford at age 17 but left school without earning a degree and returned to the family lands. He was thoughtful, bright and reflective, and he enjoyed studying “obscure authors that had by the generality of Scholars been neglected,” according to Nicholson.

He worked for a time as a subsidies collector for the government, served a year in Parliament and tended to hop gardening, which was the subject of his first book, The Hop Garden, published in 1574. He married in 1558, but his wife, Jane, died and left him childless.

A second marriage also yielded no children. Scot was supported by his cousin, Sir Thomas Scot, whose estate he managed. In composing Discoverie, Scot drew upon his knowledge of superstition in rural life, the law and literature. He also drew upon the writings of numerous scholars, theologians and experts in various fields, even those who disagreed with his own views.

He was heavily influenced by the writings of Johann Weyer, a German physician who opposed the witch-hunts. Scot’s book became a compendium of the beliefs of the day, a classic in witchcraft literature, covering such topics as ghosts, possessIon, Charms, divination, Fairies, spells, magic, witchcraft itself and the practices of the Devil.

Scot defined four categories of witches:

1. the falsely accused innocent;

2. the deluded and crazy who convinced themselves they were in a pact with Satan;

3. the true, malevolent witch who harmed by poisoning but not by supernatural power; and

4. imposters who collected fees for false spells, cures and prophecies. Scot allowed that the last two categories were those that the Bible had said should not be suffered to live.

But he resolutely denied that any witch derived supernatural power from the Devil, whom he said had no physical power of his own. Scot also maintained, among his various arguments, that the manifestations of spirits were delusions due to mental disturbances in the beholder and that the incubus was a natural disease.

He denounced the Pope, who “canonized the rich for saints and banneth the poor for witches.” He included his own beliefs, such as the healing powers of unicorn horns and precious gems, and the power of a carp’s head bone to staunch bleeding. Scot was not alone in his condemnation of the witch persecutions; his writing was part of a continuing skepticism about witchcraft that persisted in England.

Discoverie did have a favorable impact upon the clergy in England, but King James I was violently opposed to it. He ordered copies burned and wrote his own refutation, Daemonologie.

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