Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c.1650--c.1750

Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c.1650--c.1750

Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c.1650--c.1750

Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c.1650--c.1750


This book is about the significance of witchcraft in English public life (c.1650-c.1750), and deals with contemporary opinion regarding its theological, philosophical, and legal dimensions. Ian Bostridge discusses civil war politics, the writings of Thomas Hobbes, the debate about witchcraft at the time of the Glorious Revolution, and the disputes surrounding the repeal of Jacobean witchcraft legislation in 1736. He also examines the work of less familiar writers and propagandists such as Richard Boulton, Francis Hutchinson, and James Erskine of Grange, and balances this account of the gradual demise of witchcraft theory in Britain with a comparative case study of the debate in France. Finally, by asserting that witchcraft remained a serious topic of debate well into the eighteenth century, and that its descent into polite ridicule had as much to do with politics as with the birth of reason, Witchcraft and its Transformations offers a lively critique of current interpretations of English popular culture and political change.


the Devil is Gods Ape, and one that faines to imit[a]te him though in contrary ways. And therefore as God makes a Covenant of Grace with his: so does the Devil with his a Covenant of death.

(John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience (1646))


The political context of beliefs about witchcraft in the seventeenth century has been, on the whole, ignored. The ideological function of witch beliefs among the English élite has remained largely unexplored. An attempt to relate witchcraft and high politics, Reginald Trevor Davies Four Centuries of Witch-Beliefs, was published nearly fifty years ago, but, since then, the two subjects have been kept in separate compartments. This is unsurprising given Davies's eccentric, even monomaniac, conclusions. Arguing that the Pilgrim Fathers set sail because their desire to hunt witches was being frustrated by lax government, Davies saw the conflict between King and Commons in the 1640s not as a matter of taxation, foreign policy, or theological dispute, but as something which arose from concern about the persecution of witches; Oliver Cromwell took issue with his king because of his religious convictions, to be sure, but that these 'were affronted by Charles I's protection of witches is in a high degree probable, although no word of his can be quoted to this effect'. Easy ridicule should not, however, allow us to bypass the basic proposition which Davies advances: that the belief in witchcraft was rooted in political and ideological debate.

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