From Skeptic vol. 1, no. 4, Winter 1992, pp. 34-43.
The following article is copyright © 1992 by the Skeptics Society,
P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission
has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this
article in its entirety, including this notice.
SPIRITS, WITCHES, & SCIENCE: WHY THE RISE OF SCIENCE ENCOURAGED BELIEF
IN THE SUPERNATURAL IN 17TH-CENTURY ENGLAND
By Richard Olson
When Michael Shermer reviewed the second volume of my Science Deified
and Science Defied for the Summer, 1992 SKEPTIC, he began with an
interesting passage from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance (1974) which I would like to use as an introduction to this
essay on the status of beliefs in spirit phenomena and witchcraft during
the second half of the 17th century. In this passage Pirsig's
protagonist explains to his son why he does not believe in ghosts (1974,
They are unscientific. They contain no matter and have no energy
and therefore according to the laws of science, do not exist
except in people's minds. Of course, the laws of science contain
no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist
except in people's minds...It's best to refuse to believe in
either ghosts or the laws of science.
The reason this passage jars us into thought is that it applies
currently accepted criteria for what it means to be an object in the
world, and uses those to reject the existence of ghosts; then it plays a
mind game on us by somehow applying the same criteria to statements
which everyone is presumed to assent to and arguing that if we shouldn't
believe in ghosts, we shouldn't believe in science either.
The usual expectation among American intellectuals--certainly among
those who view themselves as in the least bit skeptical--is that anyone
who believes in "science" will not believe in such creatures of
superstition as ghosts, spirit phenomena, or
"witches." (For purposes of this paper, when I use the term "witch," I use it as it
was defined by Joseph Glanvill in his Saducismus Trimphatus: Or, Full
and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (1681),
which was probably the most widely read of all English language
demonological treatises: "A witch is one, who can do or seems to do
strange things, beyond the known power of ordinary art and ordinary
nature, by virtue of a confederacy with evil spirits." (p. 269) Though
some current scholars argue compellingly that this notion is a perversion
of a vital and viable spiritual tradition, it nonetheless accurately
reflects both the 17th-century perception among Christian apologists
and the meaning presumed by Garvin and McCain below.) Indeed, the
first paragraph of the first chapter of the first edition of Garvin
McCain and Erwin Segal's immensely popular The Game of Science, begins
with the claim that we no longer believe in witches precisely because we
believe in science:
Why don't you believe in witches? That question may seem
ridiculous but our ancestors, who were probably as bright as we
are, did believe in them, and acted accordingly. Why are we so
different and superior? The evidence for or against witches is no
better than it was 400 years ago. For us, it is almost impossible
to believe in witches; for our ancestors, it was equally difficult
to deny their existence. Our new beliefs exist, in part, due to
the development of "scientific attitudes" (McCain and Segal, 1969,
Though this statement certainly reflects what most American
intellectuals believe, there is a strange historical irony contained in
it and in Pirsig's intentionally perverse argument that if one doesn't
believe in ghosts, one shouldn't believe in scientific laws either.
What I want to argue, is that beliefs in witches, ghosts, and demons
were heavily under attack and on the wane in England at the very
beginning of the 17th century before the rise of what we would usually
identify as modern scientific attitudes. But witchcraft beliefs, and
beliefs in other spirit phenomena underwent a remarkable revival among
British intellectuals during the period after the Restoration of James
II to the throne in 1660; and this revival of demonological beliefs was
directly and self-consciously attached to the rise of modern scientific
attitudes among the men who were members of the Royal Society of London.
So at least for a time it may be true to say that men actually came to
believe in witches as a result of the development of scientific
attitudes. In this case, the reverse of Pirsig's argument was taken with
deadly seriousness by Joseph Glanvill, who argued that if one believed
in the methods of modern science, one should also believe in ghosts
and witches. It is probably also true (though here the issue is more
complicated) that certain arguments in favor of witchcraft made
mid-17th-century intellectuals more favorably disposed to the new science
than they would otherwise have been and that a general belief in spirit
phenomena, for which witchcraft stood as a symbol (Schafer, 1969, pp.
55-85). In order to explain how and why the rise of modern science
became tied to beliefs in spirit phenomena in mid-17th-century England,
I think we need to discuss briefly a continental phenomenon at the end
of the 16th century, and look at the impact it had on early 17th-century
English religious developments.
Early Criticism of Belief in Demonic Procession
A serious and concerted attack on beliefs in witchcraft and demonic
possession had been launched at the end of the 16th century in
connection with a series of spectacular exorcisms that were quite
literally staged before thousands of witnesses in France between 1566
and 1599. The goal of the Catholic priests who carried out these
exorcisms was to promote the reconversion of French protestant Huguenots
to Catholicism by demonstrating the power of the true Catholic religion;
and they seem to have had substantial success.
Understandably, these Catholics' claims were widely challenged by
Protestant propagandists; but ironically, they were also strongly
challenged by the French Catholic Crown as well; for during the 1580's
and 1590's, public exorcisms were stirring up religious passions just at
a time when the French Crown, through the Edict of Nantes, was trying to
calm religious hostilities and establish official tolerance for
Protestantism. As a consequence, in 1598, Henry IV ordered the physician
Michael Marescot and a group of medical colleagues to investigate the
popular claims to demonic possession of one Marthe Brosier in the
expectation that they could establish that her "possession" was either a
mis-diagnosis of a natural disease such as epilepsy or hysteria, or that
they could prove it to be a deliberate fraud. Marescot's Discourse
veritable sur le faict de Marthe Brosier de Romorantin pretendue
demoniaque_appeared in 1599, to be translated immediately into English.
The overall verdict of Marescot's investigation was stated in a
memorable line: "Nothing from the devil, much counterfeit, a little from
disease" (Walker, 1981, p. 35).
Without totally denying the possibility of demonic possession,
Marescot and his colleagues were able to establish to their own
satisfaction, that of the king, and that of many readers, that in one of
the most celebrated cases of "possession," an initially deluded and
psychologically unbalanced woman had been exploited by her family and by
a group of Catholic clergy, for both financial gain and for the
seditious purpose of stirring up anti-Huguenot sentiment. In the
process, Marescot reviewed a series of experimental tests for legitimate
possession which had become widely accepted by the late 16th century:
Under investigation by Marescot and four other physicians, it was
shown that Marthe Brosier could understand neither Latin nor Greek, as
her advocates had claimed; that she had no reaction to holy water that
was passed off as ordinary water, but that she convulsed when she was
given plain water that she was told was blessed; that she showed no
special clairvoyant powers; and that when she was read passages from the
Aeneid, expecting them to be biblical passages, she showed dramatic
signs of disturbance. Finally, though during her fits Marthe could
withstand the pain of the "deep pricking of long pins" in her hands and
neck without showing discomfort, Marescot did find her responsive to
normal sources of pain when not in convulsions; and he identified her
reactions in this matter as typical of "melancholic" persons (Walker,
pp. 34-35, 38).
- possessed persons were supposed to be able to understand and speak
languages of which they had no prior knowledge;
- possessed persons were supposed to be able to discern secrets and
predict events of which they could have no natural knowledge--i.e.,
they had clairvoyance;
- possessed persons had abnormal bodily strength and insensitivity
to pain; and
- possessed persons expressed revulsion at holy things, especially
the reading of scripture or contact with holy water or other blessed
objects (Walker, p.12).
Just a few years later, the English physician Edward Jordan, who was
consulted in two cases of supposed demonic possession, published a
treatise whose title discloses its major conclusions: A briefe
Discourse of a Disease called the Suffocation of the Mother. Written
upon occasions which hath been of late taken therby, to suspect
possession of an evil spirit, or some such like supernatural power.
Wherein it is declared that diverse strange actions and passions of the
body of man, which in the common opinion are imputed to the Divell, have
their true natural causes, and do accompany this disease (1603). In
this work Jordan identified almost all of those symptoms that had been
traditionally identified with demonic possession and witchcraft--especially
insensibility, convulsions, and fits brought on by the
presence of particular persons or artifacts with symptoms of hysteria.
Thus, by the early years of the 17th-century there was a substantial
medical literature which simultaneously denied the existence of
possession and attacked virtually all of the traditional tests for its
Anglicans Attack Demonology To Defend Their Religious Interests
Early 17th-century Anglican attitudes toward demonic possession and
witchcraft were shaped primarily by the existence of this medical
literature, in response to the Continental Catholic propaganda, and in
response to a series of cases in which both an English Jesuit priest,
William Weston, and a Puritan preacher, John Darrell, claimed to have
cast demons out of a number of possessed children between 1585 and 1598,
(Walker, pp. 43-73). Weston's activities were commenced in 1585, but it
was not until 1602 that a formal inquiry was held regarding his
exorcisms. Darrell's castings out of devils began in 1596; but in 1598,
he was tried in London, condemned for fraudulent practices and both
deposed from the ministry and sent to prison for at least a brief stay
In fact, Darrell's case seems to have been part of a major
anti-Puritan campaign by Archbishop John Whitgift, his Bishop in London,
Richard Bancroft, and Bancroft's chaplain, Samuel Harsnett. Like the
French Catholic exorcisms of the late 16th-century, Darrell's
spectacular success casting out devils was drawing much favorable
attention for his religion; but Darrell's demonics did most of the
French examples one better by using their clairvoyance to name witches
whom Darrell subsequently had arrested (Walker, p. 63). As a popular and
visible Puritan, Darrell drew Whitgift and Bancroft's serious attention;
and they apparently decided to discredit him by trying him for fraud.
According to evidence given by William Sommers, the last of those he had
dispossessed, Darrell taught several of his demonics how to simulate
their symptoms, and at least in one case, i.e., that of Sommers, he even
suggested the fraud to the victim (pp. 62-64). Sommers later recanted
his evidence and there were apparently any number of irregularities in
the trial, including a refusal to allow Darrell to speak; so the "trial"
was continued in a series of publications for the next five years.
The major Anglican arguments were presented in Harsnett's A
Discovery of the Fraudulent Practices of John Darrell (1599) and in
John Deacon and John Walker's Dialogical Discourses of Spirits and
Devils (1601-1602). In The Trial of Maist Darrell (1599), the
Puritans responded by offering a largely scriptural defense of their
claim that possession was possible and that it could be eliminated by
appropriate prayers to God (Walker, pp. 67-68). But they also complained
about the procedures used in Darrell's trial and they argued (quite
rightly at the time) that the Anglican prosecutors of Darrell were more
interested in destroying Puritanism than in eradicating Catholicism,
otherwise they would have tried Weston the Jesuit. To this claim,
Whitgift and Bancroft responded by ordering an investigation of Weston's
claims and Harsnett responded by publishing A Declaration of Egregious
Popish Impostors, to withdraw the Harts of Her Majesty's Subjects from
the Truth of Christian Religion Professed in England, Under the Pretense
of Casting out Devils Practiced by Edmunds, Alias Weston, a Jesuit
(1603). Circumstances had conspired to give middle-of-the-road Anglican
apologists an opportunity to simultaneously discredit both the Catholic
and Puritan opposition by attacking their claims of dispossession. But
in order to do so, the Anglicans had to act incidentally to undermine
belief in both demonic possession and in witchcraft by almost completely
accepting the medical views of Marescot, Jordan, and their colleagues.
One of their most important converts was James I, who had defended
beliefs in possession and witchcraft in his famous Daemonology of
1597, but who had turned into a strong opponent of witch persecution by
1616 (Shapiro, 1983, p. 199). Technically, neither Harsnett nor Deacon
and Walker denied the possibility of witchcraft or dispossession,
although Harsnett probably doubted the existence of either. What they
did do was offer an explanation of how melancholia and hysteria might
cause persons to believe in both as well as a demonstration that in many
cases, men like Weston and Darrell exploited those beliefs and used
fraudulent techniques to delude people into believing in their power to
exorcise or to dispossess persons who were possessed. The major concern
which had held Harsnett and others back from taking an even stronger
stance against belief in witchcraft and possession at the beginning of
the 17th century was laid out in the dedication of The Trial of Mr.
Atheists abound in these days and witchcraft is called into
question. Which error is confirmed by denying dispossession and
both these errors confirm atheists mightily....If neither
possession nor witchcraft (contrary to what has been so long
generally and confidently affirmed), why should we think that
there are devils? If no devils, no God. (Walker, pp. 71, 72).
Puritans thus warned the readers of Anglican tracts that demonology
and witchcraft were proof against atheistic materialism.
Demonic Power becomes a Natural Phenomenon
In order to protect themselves from the claim that their attacks on
possession and witchcraft were simultaneously denials of the fallen
angel and of God, early 17-century Anglican apologists insisted that the
devil might indeed involve himself in human affairs, but that if he did,
it must be through the use of natural rather than supernatural powers
(Shapiro, pp. 200 204). In John Cotta's words:
Though the divel indeed, as a spirit, may do, and doth many things
above and beyond the course of some particular natures: yet doth
he not, nor is able to rule or command over general Nature, or
infringe or alter her inviolable decrees in the perpetual and
never interrupted order of all generations; neither is he
generally master of universal Nature, but Nature [is] master and
commander of him. For Nature is nothing else but the ordinary
power of God in all things created, among which, the divel being a
creature, is contained, and therefore subject to that universal
power (Clark, 1984, p. 360).
One critical consequence of the "naturalization" of presumed demonic
powers was that it brought the study of demonic activities clearly
within the realm of natural knowledge. Thus, Francis Bacon argued in
De Argumentis Scientarium that well established "narratives of
sorceries, witchcrafts, charms, dreams, divinations, and the like"
should be included as legitimate data in natural histories in order to
establish "in which cases and how far effects attributed to superstition
participate in natural causes" (cited in Clark, p. 355).
Even though he remained formally open-minded regarding the existence
of witches and demons, when Bacon chose to discuss particular issues,
he, like other Anglicans, explained beliefs in witchcraft as arising out
of the misinterpretation of natural phenomena. Thus, for example, in the
Sylva sylvarum, he argued that the hallucinogenic effects of some
ointments produced a mistaken belief in real transvection (human flight)
and metamorphoses; so that when women charged as witches confessed to
being transformed into animals and transported to witches sabbaths, they
were mistakenly reporting their hallucinations as reality.
For most of the first half of the 17th century, while the twin
threats of Puritanism and Catholicism seemed more immediate and critical
to the Anglican cause than philosophically-based atheism, Anglican
intellectuals continued to express strong skepticism regarding specific
claims of spirit phenomena and to insist that what had traditionally
been attributed to supernatural influences was actually accomplished
through natural ones. This was particularly true because as Puritanism
and dissent became ever stronger, popular attempts at witch persecution
intensified, and established authorities became ever more fearful of the
religious enthusiasm which underlay them.
Atheism Reverses Attitudes About Spirit Phenomena
The problem faced by Anglican religious figures changed dramatically
with the publication of a series of frightening works by Thomas Hobbes.
Philosophical materialism and atheism had been a minor, though growing,
problem in early 17th-century England. But the publication of Hobbes's
Leviathan in 1651, De Corpore in 1655, and A Physical
Dialog, or a Conjecture about the Nature of the Air in 1661,
deflected attention from Catholicism and Sectarianism alike, and made
Hobbesian Atheism the new chief target of moderate Anglican apologetic
Whether Hobbes was really an atheist is a topic on which scholars
might differ--though just for the record, I believe he was--but no one
can doubt that he was a bitter enemy of what he called priestcraft--or
the authority of religious persons. Hobbes believed that priests had
usurped power that rightly belonged to the secular sovereign. In order
to justify his attacks on priestcraft he turned to a set of arguments
that had been used by materialist philosophers, such as the atomist,
Epicuros, in antiquity. According to the ancient materialists and
Hobbes, priests exploit a natural human fear of the unknown to convince
people that invisible powers and agents are at work in the world and
that they (the priests) alone have the power to intercede on people's
behalf to control these "spirits." "Who," wrote Hobbes, "that is in fear
of ghosts, will not bear great respect to those who can make the holy
water that drives them from him" (cited in Shapin and Schaffer, 1985, p.
96). Similarly, he wrote: "By their demonology, and the use of exorcism,
and other things appertaining thereto, the priests keep, or think they
keep, the people in awe of their power and lessen the dependence of
subjects on the sovereign power of their country." Since it was the
false belief in spirits, made possible by ignorance about the causes of
events, that gave the clergy its power, according to Hobbes, the most
effective way to fight the power of the clergy was first, to demonstrate
that spirits, or "incorporeal substances" do not exist; and second, to
demonstrate that all phenomena can and indeed, must be explicable solely
in terms of matter in motion.
To undermine belief in immaterial spirits, Hobbes developed a
logical argument that depended very heavily on ideas which owe their
existence to Aristotelian philosophy. The meaning of the term
substance, he argues, is derived from our experiences of physical
bodies or "corps." The term "incorporeal substance," or "immaterial
substance" is thus self-contradictory. To accomplish the second part of
his goal, Hobbes purported to be able to give a completely materialist
account of all natural philosophy. But in doing so he departed from
ancient atomism in a way that turns out to play a major role in linking
witchcraft and the experimental philosophy of the royal society.
The ancient atomists had posited the existence of atoms and void
space, claiming that atoms move freely through the void. Descartes,
however, defined Matter as that which has dimensions; and from this
definition--which Hobbes accepted--it followed that there can be no
void; because any space, no matter how small, has dimensions and
therefore must contain matter.
Note here for future reference, Hobbes uses precisely the same kind
of argument to deny the possibility of spirits and to deny the
possibility of empty space. The question of whether empty space exists,
like the question of whether immaterial spirits exist is not to be
answered empirically. Both questions are to be answered by a purely
rational analysis of definitions.
Hobbes's claim regarding spirits was, quite rightly, seen as an
attack on almost all fundamental Christian beliefs, for it denied not
only the existence of demons and witches, but also the immateriality and
hence the immortality of the human soul. And if this weren't enough,
Hobbesian Materialism took on an additional troubling aspect during the
later civil war period when it was adopted by Richard Overton, a
notorious political radical and one of the founders of the Levellers
Joseph Glanvill and the scientific defense of witches
This now brings me to the central events of my story--events connected
with a moderate Anglican apologist who became both a defender and a
member of the Royal Society of London in 1662--a man by the name of
Although Glanvill had a longstanding interest in spirit phenomena
stemming from his commitment to the Cambridge Platonist doctrine of
pre-existent souls, and though he had begun his investigations into the
appearances of apparitions as early as 1662, it was not until 1666 that
he published the first version of his often improved and expanded
treatise on witchcraft, Some Philosophical Considerations touching on
Witches and witchcraft. A friend, Justice of the Peace Robert Hunt, had
tried to prosecute a coven of witches during 1664 in Somersetshire; but
the local gentry were so skeptical that they mocked his efforts. In
response, Hunt, who knew of Glanvill's interests, sent the depositions
from the accused witches along with a description of the gentry's repose
to Glanvill, and Glanvill responded with a refutation of the most common
reasons for disbelief (Jobe, 1981, pp. 346-347).
Glanvill begins by explaining what is at stake if the belief in
witches should be abandoned. Borrowing his theme from the earlier
anti-Anglican defenders of Robert Darrell, he writes:
He that thinks there is no witch, believes a devil gratis,
or at least upon inducements which he is likely to find himself
disposed to deny when he pleases. And when men are arrived at this
degree of dissidence and infidelity, we are beholden to them if
they believe either Angel or Spirit, Resurrection of the Body or
Immortality of Souls. These things hang together in a chain of
connection, at least in these men's hypotheses; and it is but
a happy chance if he that has lost one link, holds another
(Glanvill, 1676, p. 2).
The central doctrines of religion are thus being endangered by those
who do not believe in witches.
Secondly, Glanvill immediately seeks to identify the disbelief in
witches with the Hobbesian attack on experimental philosophy. The
question of whether witches exist or not, he argues, is a question of
fact; and as such it can only be settled by appeal to authority or
sensory evidence. There are thousands of eye- and ear-witnesses who
have attested to "things done by persons of despicable power and
knowledge, beyond the reach of art and ordinary nature," and these
include not only "vulgar" persons, but "wise and grave discerners...when
no interest could oblige them to agree together in a common lie."
Unfortunately, he argues, no amount of empirical evidence could convince
those who do not believe in witches, "since those that deny the being of
witches, do it not out of ignorance of these heads of argument...but
from an apprehension that such a belief is absurd, and the things,
impossible....Upon these presumptions they condemn all demonstrations of
this nature, and are hardened against conviction" (Glanvill, 1676, p.
For Glanvill, then, the key issue was whether one placed greater
confidence in well attested experiences or in metaphysical claims
regarding the possibility of the existence of certain kinds of entities.
It is not reasonable, he insists, "first to presume the thing
impossible, and thence to conclude that the fact cannot be proved: On
the contrary, we should judge of the action by the evidence, and not the
evidence by our fancies about the action. This is proudly to exalt our
own opinions above the clearest testimonies and most sensible
demonstrations of fact: and so to give the lie to all mankind, rather
than distrust the conceits of our bold imaginations" (Glanvill, pp.
5-6). Given his belief in the limitations of human reason and the
inability of humans to possess more than probable knowledge of any
causal account of any phenomenon, Glanvill says that humans have no
right to insist upon the impossibility of anything. The most they can
legitimately claim is that they cannot conceive or imagine how the
actions in question take place, and this inability to conceive, "only
argues the weakness and imperfection of our knowledge and apprehensions;
not the impossibility of those performances" (Glanvill, p. 7).
Precisely the same kind of argument was being carried on
simultaneously between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes regarding the
evacuated space created by Boyle in his air pumps. Hobbes denied that
the space could be empty because he was committed to a conception of
space derived from Descartes. According to this conception, matter, or
body, is defined by extension, so that any extended region must contain
matter, and a vacuum is literally impossible. Boyle, whose notion of
matter and space were derived from atomist notions, was unwilling to
fight on Hobbesian ground. Whether or not extension could exist without
a material substance underlying, it was technically an undecidable
question and therefore beyond the bounds of natural philosophy for
Boyle. The key question was whether well attested experiments justified
the claim that the evacuated region was empty of ordinary corpuscles of
air; and he and his allies were
convinced that they did. (A full account of the conflict between Boyle and Hobbes is given in
Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump:
Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1985).)
The resolution of the problem of how to decide whether witches exist
and how to decide whether the receiver of an air pump could be evacuated
were understood by all parties to the 17th-century debates to be clearly
linked with one another. No one, least of all Glanvill and Boyle,
doubted that every reader convinced by Glanvill's arguments about
witches would also be driven to toward acceptance of Boyle's arguments
about the phenomena of the air pump, and vice versa.
Neither Glanvill and his allies, nor Boyle and his allies, wanted to
encourage credulity and a lack of critical analysis of experience or
experiments. To have argued that any individual's factual claims should
be blindly accepted would have been, in their common view, to play into
the hand of religious enthusiasts and philosophical charlatans. Instead,
both sought to encourage "diffidence and backwardness of assent" to any
such claims and to encourage the careful empirical investigation of all
(Boyle, 1772, vol.1, pp. ccxx-ccxxii).
As early as January 19, 1663, Glanvill had begun to investigate
claims of spirit phenomena when he and a gentleman friend traveled to
Tedworth in Wilshire, where a "drumming" spirit was said to haunt the
house of a Mr. Mompesson. The two men first interviewed the servants and
several neighbors, including two local ministers of impeccable
reputation, all of whom had been present when the spirit made noises or
threw objects about the house. Then they themselves experienced the
noises that the spirit produced and tried to discover, "if there were
any trick, contrivance, or common sense of it," but they could find
nothing; so Glanvill was persuaded that, "the noise was made by some
Daemon or Spirit" (Glanvill, 1689, p. 329). Glanvill delayed
publication of his account of the "Drummer of Tedworth" at Mr.
Mompesson's request until the strange phenomena ceased. (He was
concerned that the spirit would become angered by the books!) In 1668,
however, it became the first of 28 different detailed accounts of
spirits and witches which Glanvill published as appendices to his
philosophical treatments of witchcraft and demons in order to reliably
establish the evidence for their existence. Summarizing his account of
the drummer, Glanvill lays out a litany of criteria which such an
account ought to have in order to be credible support for the belief in
[The phenomena] are strange enough to prove themselves effects of
some invisible extraordinary Agent, and so demonstrate that
there are spirits, who sometimes sensibly intermeddle in our
affairs. And I think they do it with clearness of evidence. For
these things were not done long ago or at a far distance, in an
ignorant age, or among a barbarous people. They were not seen by
two or three only of the Melancholic or superstitious, and
reported by those that made them [to] serve the advantage and
interest of a party. They were not the passages of a day or night,
nor the vanishing glances of an apparition; but these transactions
were near and are public, frequent, and of diverse years
continuance, witnessed by multitudes of competent and unbiased
attestors, and acted in a searching and incredulous age: Arguments
enough, one would think, to convince any modest and capable reason
(Glanvill, 1689, p. 338).
From the comments of Samuel Pepys, who had found the earlier
versions of Glanvill's Witchcraft essay "unconvincing," it is fairly
clear that the accounts of actual spirit events increased the impact of
his arguments, making them in Pepys' view, "worth reading indeed"
(Cope, 1956, p. 14). Whatever other impact they had, these "ghost
stories" certainly made best sellers out of numerous editions of
Glanvill's Saducismus Triumphantus and stimulated a whole tradition of
dramatic and fictional treatments of spirit phenomena.
In the 1668 A Blow at Modern Saducism, which saw the first
appearance of Glanvill's account of the drummer of Tedworth, Glanvill
also attempted to recruit the Royal Society to help in investigations of
spirits and thus in support for the true religion:
Did the Society direct some of its wary and luciferous
enquiries towards the world of spirits, believe we should have
another kind of Metaphysics, than those [that] are taught by men
that love to write great volumes and to be subtle about
nothing? For we know not anything of the world we live in, but
by experiment and the phenomena; and there is the same way of
speculating immaterial nature, by extraordinary events and
apparitions, which possibly might be improved to notices not
contemptible, were there a cautious and faithful history
made of those certain and uncommon appearances. At least it would be
standing evidence against SADDUCISM, to which the present age is
so unhappily disposed, and a sensible argument of our
Immortality (cited in Prior, 1932, p. 182).
While the Royal Society offered no official response to Glanvill's
request, many members contributed directly to Glanvill's collection of
Spirit relations. Boyle sent a report of an Irish Witch, who he had
investigated and confirmed his first-hand support of an earlier account
of a demonic possession at Mascon in France, for example. And John Beale
sent him letters on the possible effects of witchcraft on butter
production. Perhaps more importantly, many Royal Society members began
to incorporate spirits into their laboratory world (Schaffer, 1987, pp.
It is not clear to me which group benefitted more from the mutually
supportive arguments of Anglican demonologists and experimental natural
philosophers after 1666. On the one hand, Glanvill and his Anglican
colleagues, such as Henry More, reached a far wider audience; and many
persons who welcomed Glanvill's "defence" of traditional Christian
beliefs in the immortality of the soul, were probably swayed toward a
sympathy for experimental philosophy. On the other hand, experimental
philosophers, as a group, probably had a more profound impact in
legitimizing Glanvill's views among intellectuals. In any event, for at
least a couple of decades after the Restoration, the belief in ghosts
and witches--which had begun to decline in the late 16th and early 17th
century--returned as a serious and popular topic for polemical
discussions; and those who argued in favor of beliefs in spirit
phenomena simultaneously drew arguments from and promoted experimental
science (Jobe, 1981, pp. 343-356).
- Boyle, Robert, 1772. The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle,
ed., Thomas Birch. Six Volumes, 2nd ed., London, J. & F. Rivington.
- Clark, Stuart, 1984. "The Scientific Status of Demonology," in Brian
Vickers, ed., Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance.
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
- Cope, Jackson I., 1956. Joseph Glanvill: Anglican Apologist. St.
Louis, Washington University Studies.
- Glanvill, Joseph, 1676. Essays on Several Important Subjects.
London, S. Lownds.
- Glanvill, Joseph, 1689. Saducismus Triumphatus: or, Full and Plain
Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions. London, S. Lownds.
- Jobe, Thomas Harmon, 1981. "The Devil in Restoration Science: The
Glanvill-Webster Witchcraft Debate," Isis, 72, 343-356.
- McCain, Garvin, and Segal, Erwin M., 1969. The Game of Science.
- Pirsig, Robert M., 1974. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An
Inquiry into Values. New York, William Morrow and Company.
- Prior, Moody E., 1932. "Joseph Glanvill, Witchcraft, and Seventeenth
Century Science," Modern Philology, 30, 167-193.
- Shapin, Steven, and Shaffer, Simon, 1985. Leviathan and the Air Pump:
Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, Princeton
- Shapiro, Barbara, 1983. Probability and Certainty in
Seventeenth-Century England. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
- Walker, D.P., 1981. Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France
and England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.