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Treasures of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library: Early printed books

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Scot, Reginald (1538-1599). Discovery of Witchcraft.
London : printed by Richard Cotes, 1651
Discovery of Witchcraft

This is a copy of the second edition of 1651 of Scot's Discovery of witchcraft. First published in 1584, almost no copies of the first edition are known to survive. It has the honour of being not only the first book in English devoted to witchcraft but also the first major work to deny its reality. King James I found the work damnable, and on his accession to the throne in 1603 ordered all copies to be burnt, a circumstance that led to many owners removing the title pages. It was not to reappear until 1651. Both historically, and as a literary curiosity, it is a book of the greatest value. It was from Scot that Shakespeare got hints for his witches in Macbeth, and Thomas Middleton for his play The Witch.

Born of a Kentish country family, Scot attended Oxford, but left without a degree to live the life of a country gentleman. He briefly held government posts and was at one stage a member of Parliament. His only other published work deals with the growing of hops. Scot probably wrote the Discovery as a reaction to the trial and execution of the St Osyth witches, a trial notable for its suspension of the rules of evidence, and published the book on his own responsibility - it was not entered in the Stationers Register and no publishers name appears, only a printers name at the end. Scot thought the whole delusion the invention of the Inquisition.

Scot based his work upon that of Johann Weyer. Writing to ridicule the idea of witchcraft in the eyes of the general public, and to prevent the persecution of the poor, aged and simple persons who were popularly believed to be witches, Scot's book is easier reading than the works of the standard demonologists. It is this perhaps which enabled detractors such as Meric Casaubon to say about Scot whose "book, I must confess I never had, nor ever read" that he was an "illiterate wretch... a very inconsiderable man".

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