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  • Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits in the Early Modern Period ed. by Michelle D. Brock, Richard Raiswell, David R. Winter
  • Julie Fox-Horton

Early Modern Europe, discernment of spirits, science, the supernatural, 1500-1750, superstition, reason, demonology, Enlightenment, Reformation, fairy lore, melancholy, popular culture, Protestantism, alchemy, Renaissance, Jesuits, angelology, mysticism

michelle d. brock, richard raiswell, david r. winter, eds. Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits in the Early Modern Period. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Pp. 317.

From the Reformation until the stirrings of the Enlightenment, among many religious, social, cultural, and intellectual changes taking place in Europe, there were important changes in the perception and knowledge of preternatural entities, for instance, demons. Although central epistemological questions often remained the same regarding preternatural beings, Michelle Brock and David Winter argue in their introduction to this collection of essays that it was primarily the "tools for addressing" these questions, such as printing, changes in scientific reasoning, geographical understanding, and peer critique, that brought about new developments in "the theory and practice of knowing demons and spirits" in early modern Europe (8).

Composed of twelve essays, Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits in the Early Modern Period is an interdisciplinary exploration of early modern people from across the social spectrum seeking to understand and navigate not only the fluctuating world around them, but also the supernatural world and the presence and place of preternatural forces they believed existed among them. Covering a broad geographical area and a time period spanning from 1500–1750, this collection of essays appeals to generalists and specialists alike. The book is divided into four parts, with all essays falling into the two middle sections, Part II, "Knowing in Theory" or Part III, "Knowing in Practice." Part I is a useful introduction, and part IV is an afterword. Dividing these essays into categories of "theory" and "practice" helps make a difficult topic more accessible.

Part I, the introduction, begins with a delightful satiric tale written by Laurent Bordelon, an eighteenth-century French abbot, who set about poking fun at contemporaries who believed in nonsensical superstitious beings. The protagonist of the tale, Monsieur Oufle, whose name Brock and Winter point out is an anagram meaning "the fool," becomes so consumed with his quest for knowledge of preternatural entities and superstitions that he eventually believes that he transforms into one himself, becoming a werewolf at one point (3–4). This tale by Bordelon is demonstrative of a particular genre of literature that started to circulate in the sixteenth century, growing exponentially by the Enlightenment, at the heart of which was the rejection of preternatural beings as early modern people understood them from their "selective and uncritical reading of various printed texts" (4). As this literature began to proliferate, people from various occupations, crafts, and social hierarchies set out to learn about and ultimately discern the true nature of preternatural [End Page 286] beings. The varying outcomes of some of these explorations is discussed throughout ten well-argued essays.

Part II of the book, "Knowing in Theory," contains five pieces, beginning in the sixteenth-century Netherlands, with an essay by Gary Waite. He argues that the "unusual demonology" practiced by Anabaptists—like the glass painter turned prophet David Joris, who believed that supernatural entities like demons and angels only existed within a person, serving as their "inner vice and virtues" (24)—sprang from the religious toleration and dubious attitudes toward things diabolic in nature as a consequence of the Reformation, but truly taking hold with the religious persecution carried out on religious dissenters by the state. Daniel Harms's essay on fairy lore in Cornwall looks at early modern ritual magic texts in search of "how these ephemeral beings were construed" by early modern peoples (57). Andrew Keitt, in his essay exploring preternatural phenomena in sixteenth-century Spain, particularly the xenoglossy of the rústico labrador, writes that many books were produced at this time creating a two-pronged discourse on superstition and melancholy, often using for their analysis popular traditions, such as divination and love magic, with the issue of melancholy following the tradition of demonic possession (81). Stefan Heßrüggen-Walter examines a philosophical debate between two Protestant philosophers regarding the "water...


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