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  • Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation by Jan Machielsen
  • P.G. Maxwell-Stuart

Jan Machielsen, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, Martin Delrio, demonology, demons, Satan, Satan in the counter-reformation, witchcraft in the Counter-Reformation, Hell

jan machielsen. Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 450.

One cannot say of Martin Delrio, as was said of his fellow Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher, that he was a man who knew everything. But it was said, and acknowledged all over Europe, that he was a man of quite extraordinary learning. Machielsen's biography concentrates on illustrating and elucidating this aspect of a remarkable character who lived in remarkable times and was thoroughly informed by them, although Machielsen's account of him spreads well beyond the confines of pen, book, and lamplight.

Delrio (1551–1608) was born in Antwerp of well-to-do parents, and spent his formative years and much of his young adulthood in the thick of the religious and social upheavals of the Counter-Reformation in general and Dutch Wars in particular, some of whose losses and tragedies neither he nor his family escaped. He had an extensive university education, attending Leuven, Paris, Douai, and Salamanca before, having had a short secular career as a magistrate, he applied to enter the Society of Jesus. Thereafter, he was employed by the Society as a lecturer in both Netherlander and Spanish universities. His pen and increasingly considerable erudition then divided their time in textual scholarship, his editions of Seneca's tragedies in particular [End Page 132] stimulating both admiration and criticism. Here Machielsen introduces us to Delrio's complex relationships with the great humanist figures of Europe's intellectual world—Justus Lipsius, Joseph Scaliger, and Isaac Casaubon—and in doing so illuminates with remarkable acuity the practices and theory of early modern textual scholarship. The popularity of Senecan tragedy may be explained partly by its survival, (these plays were more or less the only examples of the genre available in Latin), and partly because of the belief that it could be and was read not only as literature, but also as a kind of history whose lessons and messages were therefore decipherable and thereafter applicable to contemporary understanding and interpretation of the world (for which, see Machielsen, chapter 8).

But in Senecan tragedy, especially in the person of the witch Medea, according to Machielsen's reading of Delrio, may be found one of the sources of Delrio's interest in pursuing the topic of magic, and witchcraft in particular. Machielsen emphasises that Delrio's personal experience of magic was extremely limited, and of witchcraft trials quite likely non-existent. The Disquisitiones Magicae, (published 1599–1600), he points out, "was not a work actually based on inquisitorial experience" (236), and while I agree with this assessment, one has to bear in mind, perhaps, available second-hand sources of information, such as local gossip, pamphlet accounts of trials, interchange of letters between priests and missionaries, and the confessional itself. Nevertheless, Machielsen's point is significant, especially in view of the contemporary and subsequent fame of Delrio's voluminous study of magic and the allied occult sciences, and the later misreading of the work as a kind of latter-day Malleus Maleficarum. The Disquisitiones, the work for which Delrio is most famous, in spite of the large body of his other textual and devotional publications, are divided between six Books, and were originally published in three volumes, but Delrio continued to embellish, extend, revise, and refine them until his death. Further editions continued to be published as late as 1755, and the work was generally regarded as the most authoritative if not the last word on the subject.

This extensive, but carefully constructed overview—Delrio, for all his prolixity, does not ramble—Machielsen deconstructs and explains brilliantly in an exercise which could be imitated and applied in studies of other treatises on magic, too. He sees the Disquisitiones as a work of Catholic synthesis of different kinds of knowledge, based partly on the methodology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and partly on the common contemporary practice of commonplacing—hence Delrio's ability to quote...


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