- The Devil in Disguise: Deception, Delusion, and Fanaticism in the Early English Enlightenment
Knights’s book has all the merits and one or two faults of microhistory. Three trials—one for murder, one for fanatical opinions, one for witchcraft—and two marriages—one bigamous, the other described by the wife as little better than slavery—provide a zesty narrative typical of the genre, pieced skillfully together from the extraordinary papers of the Cowper family of Hertford. Between them these episodes touch on enough of the themes of England’s postrevolutionary culture to turn them into plausible guides to an entire age. Indeed, there is little about public and personal life at the time that is not brought into this book at some point, which makes it a very good exposition of the interrelatedness of things; but there is also a risk of overargument. Every detail under the microscope is made to yield its macrocosmic significance, as if nothing could be merely ordinary or indifferent. As justification, Knights presents the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as a time of unusual dispute and speed of change, which are claims that historians habitually make about their favored periods of history. More thought provoking are his reflections on the emergence of an English Enlightenment, confronting all the typical “enlightenment” issues, though visible, in this instance, not in the arguments of intellectuals but in the rivalries and partisanship of the local and the familial.
Stuart Clark is professor emeritus of history at Swansea University and a fellow of the British Academy. His books include Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern History, and (as editor) Languages of Witchcraft.