In The Discovererie of Witchcraft (1584), Reginald Scot dispels the notion of a witch. He states she is simply ‘a toothles, old, impotent, and unweldie woman’ incapable of doing the Devil’s work (Scot 8). While, in his prose dialogue Daemonologie (1597), James I aims ‘to resolue the doubting harts of many; both that such assaultes of Sathan are most certainly practized, & that the instrumentes thereof, merits most severly to be punished’ (James I “Preface” xii). Of course, one of those ‘doubting harts’ is ‘called SCOT an Englishman, [who] is not ashamed in publike print to deny, that ther can be such a thing as Witch-craft’ (James I “Preface” xii). The irony that Scot is an Englishman would have no doubt amused the writer of The Discovererie of Witchcraft, but the capitalised ‘SCOT’ indicates how serious James I takes the existence of witches.
What is fascinating is that both writers use the scriptures to aid their arguments, often quoting the same verses. For instance, Daemonologie begins its debate between Philomathes and Epistemon with a discussion on I Samuel 28. Epistemon argues that Saul believed that the unclean spirit the woman of Endor had contacted was Samuel because ‘Sathan can trans-forme himselfe into an Angell of light’ (2 Cor 11.14 cited James I 5). In a marginal gloss referring to I Sam. 28, Scot implies that the woman tricked Saul into believing she was speaking on behalf of a spirit. He suggests that the woman of Endor used a device called Ventriloqui – latin for the Pythonists who ‘spake hollowe; as in the bottome of their bellies’ (Scot 72). The deep voice created by Ventriloqui enables cosening wenches
to give oracles, to tell where things lost are become, and finallie to appeach others of mischeefs, which they themselves most commonlie have brought to passe: whereby many times they overthrowe the good fame of honest women, and of such others of their neighbours, with whome they are displeased (Scot 72)
These mediums are perilously close to be being called witches, and appear to do as much harm. Yet, in a true story that happened just six miles from his home, Scot shows how a cosening wench is treated differently to ‘honest women’ who are labelled witches:
But to make short worke with the confutation of this bastardlie queanes enterprise, & cousenage; you shall understand, that upon the brute of hir divinitie and miraculous transes, she was convented before M. Thomas Wotton of Bocton Malherbe, a man of great worship and wisedome, and for deciding and ordering of matters in this commonwealth of rare and singular dexteritie; through whose discreet handling of the matter, with the assistance & aid of M. George Darrell esquire, being also a right good and discreet Justice of the same limit, the fraud was found, the coosenage confessed, and she received condigne punishment. Neither was hir confession woone, according to the forme of the Spanish inquisition; to wit, through extremitie of tortures, nor yet by guile or flatterie, nor by presumptions; but through wise and perfect triall of everie circumstance the illusion was manifestlie disclosed; not so (I say) as witches are commonlie convinced and condemned; to wit, through malicious accusations, by ghesses, presumptions, and extorted confessions, contrarie to sense and possibilitie, and for such actions as they can shew no triall nor example before the wise, either by direct or indirect meanes; but after due triall she shewed hir feats, illusions, and transes, with the residue of all hir miraculous works, in the presence of divers gentlemen and gentlewomen of great worship and credit, at Bocton Malherbe, in the house of the aforesaid M. Wotton. Now compare this wench with the witch of Endor, & you shall see that both the cousenages may be doone by one art (Scot 74-5)
Scot demonstrates that the strong steadfast faith of the patriarchal kind is able to dismiss superstitious nonsense. More importantly, by handling the case discreetly sensibly and by implication fairly, the two judges are able to detect the fraud without guesswork or judgemental presumptions. Even the wench’s ‘condigne punishment’ appears civilised and wholesome. Therefore, by entertaining the good people of Bocton Malherbe with ‘hir feats, illusions, and transes’, the wench plays her jovial part in ridiculing witchcraft. The performance also helps Scot reveal how Saul was tricked by the so-called witch of Endor.
The ‘condigne punishment’ the ‘witch’ of Bocton Malherbe receives also illustrates how a fictitious label can have tragic consequences. The belief that Satan is using women to perform his nasty deeds fits neatly into early modern misogny perpetuated by Epistemon:
that sexe is frailer then man…so is it easier to be intrapped in these grosse snares of the Deuill, as was ouer well proued to be true, by the Serpents deceiuing of Eua at the beginning, which makes him the homelier with that sexe sensine. (James I II.V.44)
The close relationship between the serpent and Eve is transferred on to the Devil and all women. The Devil/woman association is conflated into the epithet ‘witch’, a euphemistic term for a woman thought ‘to be intrapped in these grosse snares of the Deuill’. Though, rather than being hapless victims, witches are thought to be more complicit agents as Epistemon explains:
I think they are not a haire the lesse guiltie: For the Deuill durst neuer haue borrowed their shaddow or similitude to that turne, if their consent had not bene at it: And the consent in these turnes is death of the law. (James I III.VI.79)
In Epistemon’s thinking ‘consent’ means easily persuaded, as women are considered the weaker sex. Epistemon’s circular logic feeds a misognistic desire to see women put to death ‘by fire’ (James I III.VI.77).
By contrast, Scot argues that it is not the Devil who tricks women into committing acts of ‘witchcraft’, but rather that ‘the complaint of anie one man of credit is sufficient to bring a poore woman to the racke or pullie’ (Scot 13). A reputable man is able to condemn any woman to torture, where a confession of witchcraft is eventually obtained. Unless the woman pays the torturer a handsome amount, so that
they take pitie upon them, and deliver them, as sufficientlie purged. For they have authoritie to exchange the punishment of the bodie with the punishment reape such profit, as a number of these seelie women paie them yeerelie pensions, to the end they may not be punished againe. (Scot 20)
Of course, following Scot’s reasoning, if these women are really witches they would not need money to escape but just disappear into thin air. More striking is that Scot uses early modern misogny to defend women:
The poore old witch is commonlie unlearned, unwarned, and unprovided of counsell and freendship, void of judgement and discretion to moderate hir life and communication, hir kind and gender more weake and fraile than the masculine, and more subject to melancholie; hir bringing up and companie is so base, that nothing is to be looked for in hir speciallie of these extraordinarie qualities; (Scot 21-2)
According to Scot, a ‘witch’ is simply a harmless woman sufffering from ‘melancholie’ or depression. Furthermore, she is uneducated, friendless and moves in limited social circles determined by poverty. Scot’s ‘poore old witch’ occupies the misogynistic extreme to James I’s more conventional bedevilled ‘witch’. While one is condemned to paucity and stupidity, the other is burnt to death.
King James I. Daemonologie. 1597. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25929/25929-h/25929-h.html, 2013.
Scot, Reginald. The Discovererie of Witchcraft. 1584. New York: Dover Publications: 1972.