This book situates witchcraft drama within its cultural and intellectual context, highlighting the centrality of scepticism and belief in witchcraft to the genre. It is argued that these categories are most fruitfully understood not as static and mutually exclusive positions within the debate around witchcraft, but as rhetorical tools used within it. In drama, too, scepticism and belief are vital issues. The psychology of the witch character is characterised by a combination of impious scepticism towards God and credulous belief in the tricks of the witch’s master, the devil. Plays which present plausible depictions of witches typically use scepticism as a support: the witch’s power is subject to important limitations which make it easier to believe. Plays that take witchcraft less seriously present witches with unrestrained power, an excess of belief which ultimately induces scepticism. But scepticism towards witchcraft can become a veneer of rationality concealing other beliefs that pass without sceptical examination. The theatrical representation of witchcraft powerfully demonstrates its uncertain status as a historical and intellectual phenomenon; belief and scepticism in witchcraft drama are always found together, in creative tension with one another.

The discourse of spirits in Enlightenment Bristol

7 Beyond the witch trials Public infidelity and private belief? Public infidelity and private belief ? The discourse of spirits in Enlightenment Bristol Jonathan Barry Recent work on the history of witchcraft and magic has identified three themes or approaches as of particular importance in our understanding of a subject which, although it has been centre stage since the publication of Religion and the Decline of Magic in 1971, has continued to trouble historians. The first problem, acknowledged as ‘the most baffling aspect of this difficult subject’ by Thomas

in Beyond the witch trials

TMM5 8/30/03 5:40 PM Page 91 5 Witchcraft: the formation of belief – part one Ambrosius de Vignate was a well-respected magistrate and legal scholar, a doctor of both canon and civil law, who lectured at Padua, Bologna, and Turin between 1452 and 1468. On several occasions he participated in the trials of accused witches: he tells us that he had heard men and women alike confess – both freely and under torture – that they belonged to the sect of witches (“secta mascorum seu maleficorum”) and that they, and others whom they implicated, had done all sorts of

in The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft
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Jonathan Barry, Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640–1789 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) summarises the key issues (p. 5). 2 Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama description of what a witch was, only a description of what a given person or group of people imagined a witch to be. Assuming that witches did not exist in the sense that they were often believed to, it is hardly surprising that early modern society did not reach a consensus on what witchcraft was; the subject was debated for centuries and eventually faded from public

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681
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credulity about witch-hunting in another sense. It is a play which proudly displays the kind of outlook that is often thought of as distinctively modern – that is, a materialist outlook – and one that is intolerant of what it depicts as superstition. And yet, not coincidentally, it is at the same time a highly credulous play, in that it seeks to encourage belief in improbable claims about the world for ideological reasons. Indeed, the play refuses to entertain any doubt about some claims, and this refusal is expressed in a manner that is reminiscent of some of the more

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681

5 The Late Lancashire Witches The pioneering journalist and poet Joseph Addison once commented on the subject of witchcraft. Directly addressing the question of belief and scepticism, Addison wrote: In short, when I consider the Question, whether there are such Persons in the World as those we call Witches? my Mind is divided between the two opposite Opinions; or rather (to speak my Thoughts freely) I believe in general that there is, and has been such a thing as Witchcraft; but at the same time can give no Credit to any particular Instance of it.1 Addison does

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681

TMM6 8/30/03 5:37 PM Page 122 6 Witchcraft: the formation of belief – part two In the previous chapter we examined how motifs drawn from traditional beliefs about spectral night-traveling women informed the construction of learned witch categories in the late Middle Ages. Although the precise manner in which these motifs were utilized differed between authorities, two general mental habits set off fifteenth-century witch-theorists from earlier writers. First, they elided the distinctions between previously discrete sets of beliefs to create a substantially

in The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft

to be fatal to witchcraft belief – and this appears to have been the dominant view of most historians of witchcraft in the early twentieth century. Support for such a view is not entirely lacking: the Aristotelian natural philosophy that was gradually eroded by sceptical thought has frequently been linked to witchcraft belief,4 and Thomas Aquinas was a vital authority for later witchcraft theorists.5 Furthermore, some writers on witchcraft explicitly rejected epistemological scepticism as part of their argument in favour of witchcraft persecution, among them Jean

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681

6 Witchcraft in the Restoration By comparison with the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, there were very few prosecutions and executions for witchcraft during the Restoration. But despite the decline in formal indictments and convictions, lively debate about witchcraft began again during the civil war and continued, and if anything intensified, during the Restoration. Witchcraft belief, at least at the level of educated debate, had become divorced from the issue of witchcraft persecution.1 Belief in the existence of witches as agents of the devil had

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681
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excessive focus on the character of Elizabeth Sawyer.2 It may seem eccentric to downplay Elizabeth Sawyer’s importance in a study of the dramatic representation of witchcraft. But the marginality of the witch character, even in the play in which she is at her most central, is itself revealing. By providing a thoughtful, sensitive, and sympathetic depiction of the village witch, the playwrights take witchcraft beliefs as seriously as any other text of the period. However, two other aspects of the play are crucial in making its representation of a witch plausible: first

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681