Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1651)


        The majority of people who lived prior to the 18th century considered magic to be an integral part of daily life.  The world was a mysterious and frightening place — since people were unable to explain what caused disease and other natural phenomena, they turned to the supernatural for explanation.  The uneasiness towards witchcraft surged because of the “pervading fear [that] women [were] agents of Satan and weapons against the state and church” (Fear of Stuff).  The Bible and many cultures expected women to be pure, innocent, and virtuous, and anyone who defied those set doctrines were more apt to be labelled as witches.

Reginald Scot and Joseph Glanvil

        Reginald Scot and Joseph Glanvil were born in 1538 and 1636 respectively, and their published works both related to witches, albeit their opinions opposed each other tremendously.  Although they were born within 100 years of each other, Scot attempted to disprove and explain witchcraft logically, while Glanvil attacked its skepticism and affirmed its existence.

        It is believed that Reginald Scot was born in 1538 in England, near Kent (Carney 319). Records show that Scot entered Hart Hall at Oxford when he was seventeen, however he never completed a degree at the university (“Reginald Scot”). Wikipedia and a number of other sources speculate that he may have had some knowledge of law, but never worked in the courts. Over the course of his life, he held a number of vocations, ranging from the construction of the Seawall at Romney to managerial duties for his cousin, Thomas Scot, and is described as a “country gentleman” (Almond “England’s first Demonologist”). England’s First Demonologist also posits that Scot was not independently wealthy, rather the majority of his wealth came from either his brother or his wives. Scot was first married in 1568, to a woman named Jane Cobbe, and they had a daughter, Elizabeth (“Reginald Scot”). He was later remarried to Alice Collyar, who had a daughter from a previous marriage (“Reginald Scot”).

        Scot was a member of the “Family of Love,” a sect of the protestant religion, which states that Satan’s influence in the world was physical, rather than mental (Almond “England’s First Demonologist” 187).  While a strong superstitious belief overcame Europe in the 16th Century, Scot stood out as a skeptical and rational being who defended “accused witches against the charges laid before them” (Dr. SkySkull) and attempted to disprove witchcraft theories.  The Discoverie of Witchcraft served as an exposé of early Modern witchcraft that was published during the peak of witch trials.  It provided logical evidence against the existence of witches, as well as touched on astrology, alchemy, and divination.


        While Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft was originally published in 1584, the copy contained in the UBC’s Rare and Special Books Collection is a 1651 second edition of the Scot’s work. The significance of this detail is that all copies of the first edition were supposedly ordered to be burned by King James I in 1603 (Almond “King James I”). As Scot passed in 1599, the production and circulation of this second edition was taken on by other individuals. Specifically, Richard Cotes is stated as the printer and Giles Calvert as the book folder of this copy. Cotes worked in a printing partnership with his brother Thomas Cotes, who was notable for printing one of Shakespeare’s work (“Thomas Cotes”). By the time this second edition issue of Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft was printed, Thomas Cotes had passed away, leaving the printing of this book to be Richard’s sole responsibility. Calvert, who is titled on The Discoverie of Witchcraft as the book folder, was also a printer notable for printing texts which expressed controversial opinions in relation to religion, particularly a catalogue of notable preachers (Mandelbrote, 1). Calvert is most likely responsible for the distribution of the book as his shop, the Black Spread-Eagle at the West End of Pauls (Mandelbrote, 1).  Mandelbrote suggests that Calvert provided a path to success for a plethora of radical authors in the 17th century (1). When this copy of the book was reissued, it was folded in quarto by Giles Calvert. This style of folding books was already outdated in the 17th century (Aldus Manutius“). While no binder is cited in the book, it can be assumed that Calvert assumed that responsibility as well. This original covering has since then been replaced by WHSmith  and Son LTD, sometime between 1846 and 1928 (“History of WHSmith”). This is indicated by a purple imprint on the back cover of this book.

Dissemination of Ideas

        Scot’s book attracted widespread attention abroad that remained relevant to scholars in the following decades – for example, a Dutch translated version circulated in the early 1600s. Gutenberg’s printing press invention resulted in an era of mass communication which permanently altered the structure of society: increased literacy rates broke the monopoly the literate elite held on education, and simplified the wide circulation of information and ideas that could transcend borders.   The printing press “provided people with a new communication medium thus allowing political and religious views to be disseminated widely” (Arthur).  

        Our colleagues in Colorado discussed Joseph Glanvil’s book Sadducismus Triumphatus (1681).  Glanvil was fascinated with the possible existence of supernatural powers and considered human judgement to be more fallible than sensory data, so empirical evidence was stressed and of great importance to his methodology.  Despite Scot and Glanvil living on opposite sides of England, Glanvil used a copy of The Discoverie of Witchcraft to debate many of the claims presented in Scot’s book in an attempt to justify supernatural forces.  

        Though Reginald Scot stirred controversy with his publications, he also created and curated an important discussion about the supernatural that inspired many publications to come, including the work of Joseph Glanvil. The Discoverie of Witchcraft, though created to be an exposé, instead led to Glanvil’s discovery of the supernatural and the Massachusetts state government’s discovery of 20 supposed witches in the Salem witch trials. This copy of the book is an especially important artifact from the 17th century as an example of the understanding of the world that was prevalent for several hundred years.

Mariah, Rosanna, Shania & Silken

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