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Public infidelity and private belief?

The discourse of spirits in Enlightenment Bristol

Jonathan Barry

This chapter is concerned with the possible divergence of public and private responses in 'the discourse of spirits' and the implications of this for understanding of the decline in the 'public discourse' of witchcraft, magic and the supernatural during the eighteenth century. In a relatively free society where public opinion and its correlate, market demand, were held to be superior to professional or state control, the discourse of empiricism and enlightenment was open for appropriation by all sides. The evidence presented in the chapter suggests instead both that public discourse may be only an approximate guide to private belief, dependent on the rules of public debate, but also that those very rules of public debate may themselves have moulded private belief, at least in the longer term.