Dr Roy Booth, senior lecturer in the English department at Royal Holloway University of London, recalls a recent visit to Senate House Library where he and his students took part in a special session looking at early printed books on witchcraft held in the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature.
If it is an exaggeration to say that all old books have a story to tell, perhaps a majority at least hint at a story: it might be in an owner inscription, a bookplate, an annotation, an auction house slip. Even a binding can reveal something to an expert’s eye, as Dr Karen Attar [Senate House Library’s curator of rare books and university] demonstrated during our visit.
On this occasion, I also wanted to follow up on some hints and leads picked up from a simply outstanding doctoral thesis I had read over Christmas, Simon Francis Davies’ 2013 University of Sussex doctorate, ‘Witchcraft and the book trade in Early Modern England’. He reads, methodically, the stories told by books, and assembles those stories into larger narratives. The doctorate is available on the BL Ethos database; I was slow to pick up on it and see its value to scholarship. It ought to be on every serious witchcraft-related bibliography. It is a pity it didn’t become a monograph; maybe the material sounded too recondite for a publisher to take it on.
Witchcraft as an academic subject goes sprawling over history, anthropology, theology, literature, folklore. Its documentation is both profuse, and patchy. The subject – or coven gathering of subjects – is always in need of facts, and a straight assessment of those facts. This doctorate provided that much-needed commodity, with a consistently graspable and level-headed attitude to the material surveyed.
The author visited the major research libraries, and looked systematically through their relevant holdings, turning the pages of multiple copies. The Harry Price Library was of course one of the collections he visited and I was able to look at the same books on my trip to the library.
On that sample, his scholarship was exact, and attentive. A faint and wavering mark down the side of a page of print, a tiny cross in a margin, may not look like anything much, but when a scholar has recorded the same passage marked in other copies, then those elusive early readers start to tell us something about themselves. This doctorate offers a refutation of all hand-me-down accounts of the reception of Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft.
Davies explains that it is the work about witchcraft that was most commonly annotated by its early readers. While Malleus maleficarum seems (Davies surmises) to have been collected merely as a notorious book, with little indication of use, the three editions of Scot all found some engaged readers. Some apparently sympathetic early readers of Scot reacted to the same passages. Scot’s description of the witch stereotype is apparently marked in multiple copies, as it is in SHL HPL [Scot] RBC, at book 1, chapter 3, as though it triggered recognition and sympathetic assent.
Alongside these, the author records annotations which suddenly bring into focus the possibility that Scot’s sustained derision for the ‘witchmongers’, an aspect of his book which is so appealing to us now, was harder for early readers to tolerate: “What needes these bitter wordes. prove or disp[rove] and so have don[e]”, remonstrates one early annotator. As Stuart Clark emphasised, demonologists were theologians first of all, Scot’s scorn was perhaps considered inappropriate to the status of the authors he tasked. While Scot largely seems to have won over his readers, some read against the text, apparently so eager to try some magic for themselves that they used their copy of Scot as a grimoire, marking charms.
Davies suggests one early reader may have gone further. “Most tantalisingly of all in this respect is a copy of the second edition in the Wellcome Library: the pages are stained throughout, but pages 178–86, part of Book 12, are particularly soiled and stained, much more heavily than the rest – is it possible this is because they were kept open whilst a reader practised such charms as ‘to drive away spirits that haunt any house’ or ‘to know what is spoken of us behind our backs’?”
It is easy to imagine the early modern period as a time when more people shared books, so reader annotations might be dialogic in nature. There’s credit to be had in a smart annotation in a book passed on to a friend and fellow spirit. But Davies has discovered some extraordinary reader eruptions. A strong defence of magical practices in – of all places – a copy of the revered William Perkins’ book of demonology: “this reader suggests that it is ‘rather a matter of caution than of unlawfulness’ to meet and talk with the Devil, and that Satan’s services may be used without fear, as long as it is for a good end and no explicit contract is made.” This same copy later passed into the hands of a boy, as a gift from his mother. Davies has a simply fascinating section on child readers, and is properly aware of how demoniac children were encouraged to read pamphlets about cases of possession by exorcists who wanted to improve the faith-confirming spectacle.
The European witchcraft panic began alongside and was fuelled by the new medium of printed books. Demonologists built their works out of the authority of earlier books, and books were written to answer books. As the author acknowledges, dialogic form was often used in works about witchcraft, in a partial acknowledgement of that this was difficult material that needed to be argued through. Maybe only Stuart Clark has had more books of demonology in his hands than Dr Davies.
From the jaw-dropping tome that is Thinking with Demons, Davies has derived a strong propensity to reassign witchcraft writings to larger categories. He says, for instance, that his “study will question whether these works can be considered a coherent body of discourse at all – whether there can even be said to have been such a thing as ‘witchcraft writing’ (recall that English writers are his subject).
This message is consistent: “These were not examples of witchcraft theory but of providential theory, of which witchcraft was merely an illustrative example. Witchcraft did not have any special ideological prominence within these wider publishing programmes” (of clerical authors in England). Both scholars are systematisers, organised thinkers, and put their case well.
But this is perhaps an unexpected stance from Davies, who is looking at readers in dialogue with the books they owned or had borrowed. Non-clerical sceptics in England had to re-invent themselves as theologians, and argue against their print adversaries on the clerical home territory of bible texts (sometimes, like John Webster, they stooped to casting doubt on inconvenient authorships “Mr. Perkins (if that Book of Witchcraft, that goeth under his name, be truly his”).
Aiming to influence opinion among the magistracy, demonologists and sceptics had the same target readership. In this part of the subject, there may be more cohesion than Davies allows. But it is difficult to squirm away from his forthright account of that over-confident slew of books and articles about ‘witchcraft plays’ which blithely assume that there is a theatrical genre there at all.
Dr Davies worked in the Harry Price Library – and everywhere else that his research took him – in a purposeful and successful way. Since he wrote, materials one would have liked to hear his view about have appeared, such as when the Bodleian acquired late 17th century letters exchanged between Lady Jane Gerard and the bookseller Edward Millington. (Jane Gerard, a ‘virtuosa’, wanted “an exact account of all the English authors of witchcraft both for and against”, and to have copies of these books for her own researches.)
But Dr Davies did not pursue an academic career. This thesis, his academic legacy, is very considerable work. If only it had wider existence as a physical object, it could be on shelves beyond Sussex, and make its way onto bibliographies. Maybe the Harry Price Library can print out the pdf, for it is the perfect fusion of subject, library collection(s), and writer. As you see, I strongly recommend it to all scholars interested in this subject area.
Dr Roy Booth’s work focuses on Renaissance poetry and drama. He has completed a study of the misogynist figure (the marriage-hater) in English Renaissance comedy, provisionally entitled Married and Marred. This covered plays by Shakespeare, Fletcher, Heywood, Chapman, the Duchess of Newcastle and others. His most recent research subject has been literary responses to the 1652 ‘Black Monday’ solar eclipse.
Image: Wood Engraving 4 from the Compendium Maleficarum (Wikimedia Commons)