Reviewed by:
The Devil and Demonism in Early Modern England. By Nathan Johnstone (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006) 334 pp. $85.00

Despite its focus on Protestant demonism (and more specifically on the role of diabolical temptation) in England from Reformation to Restoration, Johnstone's book probably holds little interest for most readers of this journal because it offers few interdisciplinary insights and essentially recycles old-fashioned religious history with relatively modest methodological dressing. It never engages with theology, either Protestant or Catholic. Johnstone quickly acknowledges that there was no reformation of demonic theory during the Reformation (29), that English Protestantism never tackled the problem of theodicy or explored what might be called demonic political geography (that is, the names, ranks, and numbers of demons). Those who wish to learn about the devil's preternatural powers in early modern England should read Clark's work.1 Although Johnstone describes diabolism as a "language of negotiation" (17), he insists repeatedly that demons possessed an "agency that was experienced rather than speculated about" in Protestant England (30), a "profound experiential reality" that revolved around temptations in various forms.

In addition to shunning theology, this account never engages with English literature. William Shakespeare's Othello and Macbeth are compressed into a footnote alongside two minor playwrights (171 n. 97); John Milton appears once (235), but only to justify regicide. Because he stops abruptly at the Restoration of 1660, Johnstone mentions neither of the greatest English Protestant masterpieces built around Satanic temptations—Milton's Paradise Lost (1677)—a Summa of Thomas Aquinas–like proportions about Johnstone's topic—and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678–1688).

Johnstone's work thus offers a largely familiar portrait of England's internecine Protestant struggles mainly from the Elizabethan era through the Civil War, drawn from the almost inexhaustible well of tracts and pamphlets and employing a recipe that might be uncharitably described as "add Devil, season with a large dash of temptation, stir, and print." Diabolical temptation certainly forms a locus communis of Protestant—indeed, Christian—experience, but its very ubiquity makes it slippery and difficult to contextualize effectively. For this reason, we have, for example, no history of blasphemy. The enterprise seems even more futile when the perspective is as relentlessly insular as Johnstone's is in this book.

A few memorable nuggets stick in the memory—the wonderfully evocative adjective "ugglesome" (131), or the early Restoration comedy (which, notes Johnstone, was too brief to be actually performed), in which Nicolo Machiavelli presides over a squabble in Hell among Oliver Cromwell, Gustavus Adolphus, and Jules Cardinal Mazarin about which of them had served Satan best (248). This is the only sentence in [Page End 106] the book that mentions as many as three non-English personages, but it is also one of very few that does not derive from an earnest Protestant.

William Monter
Northwestern University


1. Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons (New York, 1997).

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.