- Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation by Jan Machielsen
As the author of the massive Disquisitionum magicarum libri sex, Martin Delrio is now known mainly as one of the leading demonologists of the early-modern era. Jan Machielsen wants to restore his status as an important humanist scholar and post-Tridentine Catholic intellectual. In doing so, Machielsen also seeks to expand our understanding of early-modern demonology, situating it within a much wider intellectual landscape. He acknowledges the inspiration of Stuart Clark’s magisterial Thinking with Demons (New York, 1997), which demonstrated how demonologists regularly engaged with major political, religious, scientific, and other issues. However, Machielsen argues that in the nearly twenty years since that seminal publication, the traditional image of demonologists as deranged witch-hunters rather than sober scholars has endured.
Whereas Clark surveyed the full range of early-modern demonology, Machielsen opts to study just one author, but to take into account the full range of his writings rather than just his demonology. The resulting book is something of an intellectual biography of Delrio, although the emphasis is definitely on intellectual rather than the biographic. Machielsen begins with a few chapters on Delrio’s early life during the tumultuous revolt in the Spanish Netherlands, which he argues shaped the young man’s subsequent outlook on almost all issues and forged his lifelong devotion to the authority of the Catholic Church. Thereafter, the book becomes almost exclusively a study of Delrio’s written works. The picture we are given is of a citizen of the Republic of Letters who is only secondarily an inhabitant of the real world.
Delrio’s accomplishments in the Republic of Letters are certainly impressive enough to warrant a book. Machielsen devotes chapters to his scholarship on Senecan tragedy, to his complicated relationship with Justus Lipsius, and to his visceral criticisms of Joseph Scaliger, among other topics. He places Delrio, in terms of intellectual significance, below the great triumvirate of Lipsius, Scaliger, and Isaac Casaubon, but argues that he was still a leading humanist figure and needs to be remembered as such, not just as an overly credulous demonologist.
When discussing the Disquisitiones, Machielsen stresses that they encompassed far more than just witchcraft, and he is quick to note that Delrio probably never encountered a witch directly. All his engagement with magic, superstition, and witchcraft was purely “textual.” Machielsen then links Delrio’s demonology to his humanism. Having examined how humanists went about the work of correcting ancient texts, he argues that Catholic intellectuals generally tended to favor textual authority. Delrio, in particular, was loath to discount any passages of ancient texts simply because they conflicted with modern sensibilities, and he criticized those humanists who felt free to emend texts based on their own instinctive “conjecture.” In terms of demonology, this mean that Delrio tended to accept accounts of magical [End Page 941] or wondrous activities, provided the textual tradition behind them seemed solid. This earned him his reputation for credulity once skepticism about witchcraft became more widespread, but Machielsen shows how it was fully a part of the intellectual currents of the time and helped to keep the Disquisitiones in circulation long after other demonological texts has ceased to be of interest to scholars.
Delrio would have been confused to be labeled a demonologist, a term that did not exist in his time. To study him as one is not wrong. Like early-modern humanists, modern scholars can sometimes properly emend the past via categories of our own conjecture. But it is very enlightening to approach Delrio in terms he would have understood—as a humanist, Jesuit, Catholic, and scholar.