- Witchcraft and Folk Belief in the Age of Enlightenment: Scotland, 1670–1740 by Lizanne Henderson
Michelle Brock, Lizanne Henderson, witchcraft, early modern magic, Scottish magic, Scottish witchcraft, Scottish folklore, early modern Scotland
Historians of European witchcraft have, with some important exceptions, focused their attention on witch-hunting during its heyday in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The traditional narrative, a testament to Keith Thomas's profound influence on the field, has maintained that after the witchcraft prosecutions reached their early modern apex, belief in witches (and the supernatural in general) faded as European worldviews grew "disenchanted" and more rational. In recent years, however, historians have begun to complicate and challenge this teleology by tracing how ideas about witchcraft evolved and endured in the generations after the witch hunts had ended. Lizanne Henderson's Witchcraft and Folk Belief in the Enlightenment places Scotland at the center of this historiographical conversation by examining what Scots from across the social spectrum believed about witchcraft in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The central message of this complex and insightful study is that despite attempts by some elites to eradicate the beliefs of ordinary folk, such beliefs survived and even shaped learned interest in witches and the supernatural more broadly.
At once a hotbed of Reformed Protestantism, the site of deadly witch hunts, and an incubator for some of the most important intellectual developments of the Enlightenment, Scotland provides an excellent opportunity to examine familiar questions about Weber's theory of an increasingly disenchanted world in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Throughout, this book investigates what appears, on the face of it, to be a paradox: that during the era of the Enlightenment, defined here as the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, interest in the supernatural increased across Scottish society. As Henderson demonstrates, what this interest actually meant in terms of belief in witches varied. Among the educated elite, some espoused genuine skepticism about the efficacy or reality of witchcraft, while others defended the existence of witchcraft as part and parcel of their larger theology (one thinks here of a "no witches, no God!" variation on James VI's famous remark about bishops and kings). Among the common folk, popular belief in [End Page 402] witches, the Devil, and other supernatural entities and occurrences persisted throughout the eighteenth century and beyond.
Before delving into specific examples of Enlightenment-era witch-beliefs, Henderson devotes the first two chapters to defining terms such as folk belief, magic, and witchcraft, as well as tracing the historiography of witchcraft from the seventeenth century to the present. While at first glance such prefatory material may seem superfluous, it proves a crucial framework for Henderson's interdisciplinary approach to examining a topic as complex and slippery as belief in the supernatural. Chapter 3 gives an overview of witch-hunting in Scotland from its medieval origins through the eighteenth century, covering some well-trodden ground while also providing new analysis of the intersections and distinctions between charming and witchcraft.
Chapter 4 discusses the role of the Devil in the Scottish witch trials and beyond, assessing where the demonic does and does not show up in the trial records and how this changes over time. Henderson rightly acknowledges that the absence of Satan in many trials doesn't necessarily imply a lack of belief, and may instead suggest an unspoken assumption of his influence in cases of witchcraft. At the same time, however, she notes that by the turn of the eighteenth century, the Devil had become increasingly divorced from the idea of the witch, as more quotidian concerns about maleficium took center stage in witchcraft accusations. This is an interesting and novel observation, and one that bears further investigation. The fifth chapter asks why there was very little debate about witchcraft in Scotland until the late seventeenth century, especially compared to England and the Continent. As Henderson suggests, this may have been due to the influence of zealous Scottish Covenanters over the Kirk during the mid-seventeenth century...