- Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, and: Witchcraft and Its Transformations c.1650–c.1750, and: The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762–1800, and: Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England
The relationship between the natural and the supernatural has been a subject of continuous study since the Greeks associated the physical world with ideal spiritual truths and the early Christians learned through the Scriptures about the existence of witches, demonic possession, and human communion with spirits. The study of witchcraft has provided a means of explaining the inexplicable, and scholars past and present have understandably been attracted to it. The recent publication of four books on the occult, all of which treat their subjects with proper seriousness, attests to the continuing fascination and importance for this topic. Literary scholars and historians alike, whether their particular interests lie in culture, politics, religion, science, or intellectual history from the Middle Ages to the Romantic period, will find several of these books among the best modern studies of witchcraft.
Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe breaks new ground. It is a meticulously researched intellectual and cultural history of demonology with an introductory sequence of ten chapters on Language, followed by thirty-four chapters divided into four “subject categories”—Science, History, Religion, and Politics (ix). These contain “discussions about the workings of nature, the processes of history, the maintenance of religious purity, and the nature of political authority and order” in relation to witchcraft (vii). In general, the same texts are repeatedly discussed, though different aspects of those texts are highlighted within each of the four subject categories. As Clark notes in the postscript, his discussions of the texts written by early-modern intellectuals provide the reader with “a synchronic, not a diachronic, study of demonology” (683). Such a method of analysis is unique in witchcraft studies, but it also has potential drawbacks. Clark’s study is not a book for the novice, for whom the blending together of literally hundreds of dissimilar texts could raise more questions than it professes to answer. Clark demonstrates an astonishing familiarity with such diverse texts as those written by superstitious medievalists and contemporary anthropological and linguistic theorists; his vast range of knowledge is reflected most graphically in a well-organized bibliography of at least two thousand works, nearly half of them primary sources. A major reconstruction and revaluation of demonology from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, Clark’s intellectual history contextualizes the subject of early-modern witchcraft as no one has done before.
Equally ambitious and innovative, although much narrower in its scope, is Ian Bostridge’s Witchcraft and Its Transformations c.1650–c.1750. This study of the intellectual demise of the concept of witchcraft dovetails neatly with Clark’s concluding chapters on politics. Neither Bostridge’s nor Clark’s book, however, is simply about the rise and fall of witchcraft. Bostridge purports “to discover when witchcraft theory ceased to be credible; when it became ridiculous; [and] when it was so marginalized as to be neither argued for nor argued against within society” (3). But he does much more. He examines the use of witchcraft theory in the political and philosophical works of prominent seventeenth-century writers, and in Daniel Defoe’s propaganda and most popular fiction. As Bostridge points out, Filmer, Hobbes, Locke, and other [End Page 585] eighteenth-century intellectuals subscribed to witchcraft beliefs as part of their way of seeing the natural world. Scholars have rarely explored these connections between witchcraft theory and the ideologies with which it became associated, or for which it...