Marcus Harmes and Victoria Bladen (eds), Supernatural and Secular Power in Early Modern England, Ashgate, Farnham, 2015.

Marcus Harmes and Victoria Bladen (eds), Supernatural and Secular Power in Early Modern England, Ashgate, Farnham, 2015. £60.00, ISBN 978-1-4724-2940-7 (hardback), pp. xii + 237

Reviewed by: Francis Young, Ely, May 2015


The chapters of this edited collection are something of an eclectic mix, but that does nothing to detract from the importance and quality of the individual chapters, and the editors have, on the whole, made a convincing case for including the pieces presented here. The book’s avowed intention is to provide ‘new insights on contemporary understandings of the intersections between the differentiated yet interrelated themes of the supernatural, whether diabolical or sacred, and the secular’ (p. 1). The editors’ suggestion that ‘The supernatural constitutes an area that is particularly likely to benefit from interdisciplinary exchange’ (p. 5) is amply justified by the content of this volume. The collection is divided into three parts: ‘Magic at Court’, ‘Performance, Text and Language’ and ‘Witchcraft, the Devil and the Body’.

Glyn Parry’s masterful chapter ‘John Dee, Alchemy and Authority in Elizabethan England’, makes a persuasive case for the role played by pro- and anti-alchemical propaganda in the controversy over whether Queen Elizabeth should accept the sovereignty of the Protestant Low Countries in the 1570s and ’80s. Supporters of alchemy argued that Elizabeth should take the first step in assuming the role of an apocalyptic world-emperor, while opponents saw alchemy as a politically and socially destabilising influence. Parry carefully situates the apocalyptic alchemy of John Dee within its broader historical context, influenced by medieval apocalypticism and the interests of spiritual Franciscans. Parry’s Dee is as much a careful collector and copier of medieval manuscripts as a Renaissance innovator. Parry pays particular attention to Dee’s early career, placing him in the context of mid-Tudor alchemy and noting that Dee already ‘applied kabbalistic and Joachimite techniques’ in his Monas hieroglyphicaof 1564 (p. 25). Parry notes that Elizabeth herself was an alchemist – creating a particular difficulty for alchemy’s critics – and he explores the campaign to smear Dee.

Parry adopts a sophisticated reinterpretation of anti-alchemical polemic, arguing that critics ‘developed arguments against alchemy less concerned with its irrationality than with its challenge to institutional authority’ (p. 18). Commenting on the imprisonment of one alchemist in the Tower, he notes that ‘Elizabeth and Cecil imprisoned him in the Tower not because he failed, but because they believed he was keeping the transmuted gold for himself’ (pp. 28–9). Christopher Hatton and Archbishop John Whitgift were opposed to ‘public alchemy’ rather than alchemy per se, because they believed it stirred up socially destabilising apocalyptic influences. Parry’s analysis of Elizabethan anti-alchemical polemic is highly significant, because it shows that deliberate marginalisation of alchemy from the public sphere long pre-dated the Enlightenment and was motivated by reasons quite different from those popularised in the eighteenth century. It would be an interesting exercise to re-evaluate later anti-alchemical literature in the light of Parry’s persuasive thesis.

Although it comes later in the collection, in the section entitled ‘Witchcraft, the Devil and the Body’, Marcus Harmes’s chapter ‘The Devil and Bishops in Post-Reformation England’ develops the theme of elite scepticism in Jacobean England and reinforces Parry’s thesis. Harmes turns to look at cases of bewitchment and possession from the bishops’ point of view (rather than the perspective of unauthorised Puritan and Catholic exorcists) and concludes that their reluctance to permit the practice of exorcism did not arise from ‘disbelief’, but rather a concern that proper authority in the church ought to be upheld. The bishops’ opponents identified them with the devil partly because they regarded episcopacy as unscriptural, but also because the established church aided the devil by withholding permission for fasts and dispossessions. Michael Devine’s chapter on the causes behind the 1563 ‘Witchcraft Act’ takes the story back to the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign when Catholics posed a different kind of threat. This is a much needed exploration of a series of intriguing magical plots involving the Pole and Hastings families in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, which supplies deficiencies in the only previous work on the subject by Norman Jones.[1]Devine sheds valuable light on the role of John Dee’s nemesis John Prestall in these plots and demonstrates that the intentions that lay behind the 1563 act had very little to do with malefic witchcraft, even though in practice this was the crime against which the statute was primarily directed in the courts.

Pierre Kapitaniak’s chapter ‘Reginald Scot and the Circles of Power: Witchcraft, Anti-Catholicism and Faction Politics’ is an excellent contribution to the growing literature on the man whom Phillip Almond describes as ‘England’s first demonologist’.[2]Kapitaniak begins by enquiring into the links between Scot and Dee, and asking why Dee is entirely absent from the pages of Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft(1584). Kapitaniak shows that Scot was, to a limited extent, influenced by actual witch trials in Kent, and makes a particular case for the negative influence of Jean Bodin on Scot, perhaps related to Bodin’s visit to England. Scot rails again and again at Bodin in the text. Kapitaniak argues that Scot’s interest in witch trials was not enough, on its own, to provoke him into writing Discoverie: a special dislike of Bodin was needed to set him going (p. 48). Fortunately, Kapitaniak’s chapter is informed by a more sophisticated reading of the relationship between witchcraft and anti-Catholicism than has prevailed in scholarship heretofore, and I am pleased that he adopts an approach similar to my own in English Catholics and the Supernatural(pp. 49–52). Even so, it is not quite true that ‘Catholicism became treason’ in the 1580s (p. 52). The substance of his argument is that witches were more likely to be papists, but papists were no more likely to be witches than anyone else.

Kapitaniak advances an intriguing and convincing argument that Scot shifted his loyalties to Whitgift and the conservative party in 1583, as a result of which he shared their fear of turning Catholics into victims by accusing them of witchcraft (p. 58). Yet in spite of what Kapitaniak calls the ‘Whitgiftian shift’ (p. 61), Scot seems to have remained loyal to Dee by choosing not to criticise (or even mention) him in Discoverie. This may have been partly owing to a lingering loyalty to Leicester’s old circle but it was motivated primarily, as Kapitaniak successfully argues, by the ambiguity of the Queen’s continuing favour towards Dee.

Another demonological text considered in this collection is the English version of Ludwig Lavater’s Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Nyght(1572) in a chapter by Catherine Stevens, who argues that Lavater’s strict Protestant interpretation of apparitions is undermined by the sheer weight of exemplars he included in the treatise. By not offering an interpretation for many of these stories, Lavater allows the reader to make up her own mind: his ‘approach creates a shifting framework of interpretation that provides little means by which his audience might accurately assess spectral phenomena’ (p. 149). Indeed, some of Lavater’s exemplapositively invite interpretation as the souls of the dead returning to earth, such as stories of hauntings ended by decent interments, and such tales create ‘structural breaches and slippages’ in his account (p. 152). Indeed, Stevens points out that Lavater is actually quite ambiguous when it comes to the location of the dead, and ‘His argument becomes increasingly haunted by the failure of the dead to remain confined within their proper home’ (p. 159) – wherever that might be.

Victoria Bladen’s chapter on the late Jacobean play The Witch of Edmontonbegins the second part of the book, on literary portrayals of the supernatural. Bladen observes that the play ‘presents a more complex construction that embodies alternative perspectives in witchcraft, reflecting aspects of early modern debates on its very existence’ (p. 96). She argues that the drama ‘establishes a subtle questioning of the labelling of the demonic and thus [the main character’s] designation as a witch’ (p. 106). For Bladen, the play portrays a community’s collective creation of the witch’s social identity, and she makes the case that the main character is ‘an agent of self-reflexivity’ (pp. 110–12) in a work that is ‘inherently metafictional’ (p. 115), insofar as it draws on a real pamphlet but also internally questions the premise of its own status as a play about witchcraft.

Fiona Martin’s study of another seventeenth-century play, The Vow Breaker(1636) by William Sampson, focusses on the supernatural significance accorded to suicide and the souls of ‘self-murderers’. Martin observes that suicide was intrinsically linked to the supernatural, since the soul of the suicide mysteriously acquired the power to fulfil its vengeful intent (p. 119). Senecan tragedy served as a model for ‘an uneasy juxtaposition of Christian and pagan elements’ in early modern dramatic representations of suicide (p. 125). Thoughts of suicide were believed in early modern Europe to open up the soul to the devil’s influence, while the breaking of solemn vows also permitted ‘an influx of the supernatural into the world of the living’ (p. 127). Martin argues for parallels between Sampson’s play and Ophelia in Hamlet, and maintains that the play’s most remarkable feature is the author’s evasion of theological issues that we might otherwise expect to be prominent in the text. By contrast, Martin Dawes in his chapter ‘The Politics of Supernatural Wonders in Paradise Lost’, argues that Milton brings theology to bear on politics by exploring Milton’s presentation of ‘shock and awe’ in the war in heaven, especially the chariot of the Son of God. Dawes deftly draws out themes of free will, consensual rule and autonomy, linking these with Milton’s opposition to the Restoration of Charles II. In particular, Dawes develops the argument (pp. 171–3) that Milton set the glories of God’s reign in heaven in opposition to the pomp and circumstance of Charles II’s earthly coronation in 1662.

The final chapter in the collection, Charlotte-Rose Millar’s ‘Sleeping with Devils’, is a piece of quantitative research into the prevalence of different kinds of sexual practices in English witchcraft pamphlets of the seventeenth century. Although I was not entirely convinced by Millar’s argument that familiars sucking at teats in the genital area was ipso factosexualised imagery, her overarching thesis that the sexual element in English witchcraft has been missed is undoubtedly true, and this is an interesting contribution to the debate. Overall, this collection is a valuable addition to the literature on ghosts, exorcism, witchcraft, magic and supernatural literature in the period, and I would single out the chapters by Glyn Parry, Pierre Kapitaniak and Marcus Harmes as especially important, offering as they do new perspectives on what we mean by ‘scepticism’ in the early 1600s.

[1]Norman Jones, ‘Defining Superstitions: Treasonous Catholics and the Act against Witchcraft of 1563’, in C. Carlton et al. (eds), State, Sovereigns and Society in Early Modern England: Essays in Honour of A. J. Slavin(Stroud: Sutton, 1998), 187–204.

[2]Phillip C. Almond, English’s First Demonologist: Reginald Scot and ‘The Discoverie of Witchcraft’(London: I. B. Tauris, 2011).