Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation by Jan Machielsen (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation. By Jan Machielsen. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2015. 450 pp. isbn 978-0-197-26580-2.

The subject of early modern demonology has had an intriguing recent history. In the late 1920s the English Catholic priest Montague Summers produced a number of early modern demonological treatises as a means of counteracting the revival of paganism and witchcraft in his own day.1 For reasons unknown he did not include the Disquisitiones magicae of 1599–1600 by the Spanish Netherlander Martin Delrio, a work that Jan Machielsen argues in his brilliant new study quickly became the most important demonological treatise among Catholics. Perhaps Summers did not consider it useful, or he was daunted by its large size. Regardless, later scholars repudiated Summers's naïve position, instead blaming the rise of witch-hunting in part on these demonological works. Today they are viewed as the product of witch-hunts. In 1997 Stuart Clark's magnificent Thinking with Demons turned the field on its head. Focusing on the internal logic of demonology, Clark studied it without reference to direct causal connections to witch trials or to concerns about the writers' motivations.2 He concluded, too, that there was no such thing as a demonologist per se, for all these writers used the devil as merely one facet of comprehending the universe.

While indebted to Clark's analysis, Machielsen returns to the subject of motivation in his study of Delrio. To understand Delrio's demonological treatise, Machielsen turns to his subject's full literary corpus and life experiences. Such an approach has, for example, yielded enormous benefits in comprehending Heinrich Kramer's infamous Malleus maleficarum of 1486, such as Walter Stephens's argument that it was intended to dispel unspoken fears that the [End Page 180] author's entire belief system, especially the Catholic Church's sacramental system, was false.3 Or there is Tamar Herzig's analysis of Kramer's non-witch writings which reveals that his preoccupations were primarily with the dangers that heresy offered to the Catholic sacraments.4

Delrio, as Machielsen so adeptly reveals, provides another case in point, for while his long-term fame arose from his demonological masterpiece, the Disquisitiones magicae, in his own day he was admired more broadly as a humanistic scholar and anti-Protestant polemicist. As a Jesuit he wrote on a variety of topics, from ancient literature and philosophy to theology. Why then did he compose a work of demonology? Machielsen argues that Delrio and his fellows refashioned witchcraft "to fit the new religious preoccupations of an age riven by confessional violence and hatred" (10). He notes that the first demonological treatise of the sixteenth century was in fact the skeptical De praestigiis daemonums of Johann Wier (Weyer) of 1563, which, along with Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584, subtly critiqued Catholic practice and beliefs, something that Jean Bodin, the famed French jurist, realized when he published his De la démonomanie des sorciers as a rejoinder to Wier in 1580.5

Machielsen's work is a masterpiece of intellectual biography that aims "to embed witchcraft belief into a wider world of early modern scholarship" (vii). His archival research is stunning. By tracking down what appears to be every conceivable source relating to Delrio's life, Machielsen has dispelled many misconceptions about him, such as that he had actively promoted witchcraft trials in his home of Brabant. Machielsen's Delrio is a multidimensional character, with very human concerns and foibles. His life choices, including his decision to abandon his career as a civic official to join the Jesuits, were made in the context of his family's difficulties in the Dutch Revolt: as devout and pro-Spain Catholics, the Delrios had allied with the crown, but then the horrific sack of Antwerp in 1576 dramatically altered the Delrios' standing and prospects. While the Spanish governor Don John rewarded them with royal posts, such as Martin's promotion to vice chancellor of Brabant in 1578, these benefits were short-lived. Martin's post was not even a real one, and Delrio did not conduct any...