The Belief in Evil Spirits or Witchcraft in the 16th and 17th Centuries: Outcome in English Literature



 The belief in evil spirits, and in the power of witches  or Witchcraft to do harm by their aid, was wide-spread both among Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. Allusions to it are frequent in literature. Statutes were constantly passed against sorcery, and there are many accounts of the trials of persons suspected of the practice. The most interesting contemporary books on the subject are Harsnet's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603); and Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft. Harsnet's tract is an enquiry into certain cases of demoniacal possession alleged to have been cured by Parsons, the Jesuit: Scot's is a noteworthy attack upon the whole superstition, and is crammed with curious magical lore. It is said to have been publicly burnt, and was reprinted in 1651.

 Shakespeare seems to have borrowed learning from Harsnet for King Lear, and possibly from Scot for Macbeth. He must also have had in mind a group of cases of alleged witchcraft which took place in Scotland in 1590. These are distinguished from the English cases by the importance which the power claimed for the witches of ruling the elements assumed in them. In 1589 the royal fleet in which James VI was bringing home his bride, Anne of Denmar ,was dispersed by a sudden and violent storm. James I always intensely superstitious became convinced that this storm was due to supernatural influence, and in the next year commenced a vigorous campaign against witches. In the course of this the charge of raising tempests and wrecking ships recurred again and again.

The Scottish witches, also, unlike the English, appear to have been in the habit of going to sea in sieves. A full account of these proceedings may be found in a pamphlet called News from Scotland, declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian, a schoolmaster Sorcerer. Eight years later in 1599, James I published his Demonologie, which was intended largely as a counterblast to the skepticism of Reginald Scot. He came to the English throne in 1603, and in 1604 passed a new statute to suppress witchcraft. This may well have recalled public attention to the matter, and suggested to Shakespeare the production or revival of Macbeth.

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