Classic books: The discouverie of Witchcraft – Reginald Scot 1584

Classic books: I was checking a couple of things about Witchcraft on internet when my eye fell on this:


“The discoverie of witchcraft, wherein the lewde dealing of witches and witchmongers is notablie detected.”
Published by William Brome, London, 1584

FIRST AND ONLY EARLY EDITION of the definitive treatise denying the existence of witches, to such an extent that it is also considered the major source for early attitudes toward, and rituals of, witchcraft, citing no less than 212 authors as well as examples from the courts of law in England. Scot is as sharp as he is humane in his attack on “witchmongers” who seek “to pursue the poore, to accuse the simple, and to kill the innocent”, pointing out how unreasonable it is to accuse vulnerable persons of having “power which onelie apperteineth to God”.

The first four books list the procedures of identifying witches and using torture to procure confession, found in the Malleus Malificarum as well as Jean Bodin’s work. Scot quotes heavily form his sources, and refutes them only after. He suggests to his readers that they skip the next book, which discusses in detail the many “filthie and bawdie matters” that cling to belief in witchcraft, such as sex with the devil, “how maides hauing yellow haire are most comred with Incubus”, and including excerpts from Chaucer. Next, Scot attacks beliefs in transformation into animals, transportation by air, and control of the weather. References to the Book of Job in this section leads to lengthy discussion of witchcraft as mentioned throughout Scripture, working from the Old Testament to the pagan origins of augery and astrology.

(And so it begins…the title page of Reginald Scot’s 1584 edition of “The Discoverie of Witchcraft.”)

The twelfth book deals with the full gamut of charms and spells, from Hebrew to English, and book 13 follows up with an inventory of materials used in magic: animals (toads and cats), minerals, crystal balls, and more relevant to modern magicians, instructions on tying trick knots, every manner of juggling, how “to make one danse naked”, and how “to thurst a bodkin into your head without hurt” (these “trick” instruments including bodkins and knives are illustrated on the four unnumbered pages of woodcuts). The final portion, and the majority of the book, considers the art of conjuring devils and spirits, including woodcuts depicting the proper symbols and commands, used to command spirits, and cause or prevent demonic possession. This section also takes into account the history of exorcism, and the laws surrounding it, of the Catholic Church. The book ends with a chapter-by-chapter summary of topics.

(these “trick” instruments including bodkins and knives are illustrated on the four unnumbered pages of woodcuts).

Reginald Scot (1538? – 1599) never seems to have taken a degree from Hart Hall, Oxford, where he studied law, and he spent his life instead managing his property in the countryside of Kent. He was the author of only two works, both significant in their own right: the “Perfect Platform of a Hop-garden”, the first practical treatise of its kind in England, and this, the more celebrated of the two. The Discoverie elicited several heated responses from George Gifford and Henry Perkins, and even Meric Casaubon later wrote against Scot. Copies of this edition are rare, however, because King James I did not agree with Scot’s position.

While the book was well received on the continent and appeared in Dutch editions of 1609 and 1637, it was not printed in England again until 1651. STC 21864. Caillet III 10061. Graesse p. 58. “Many copies were burnt by order of K. James I an author on the other side of the question. This learned and curious work, with which Shakespeare was evident. (Bookseller Inventory # L1356)

A friend found a Dutch version – for sale at EUR 750: (The above English version was going for a mere US$ 79,644.10 🙂 )

Hekserij Scot, Reinald Ontdecking van tovery.
Beverwyk, Frans Pels, 1638. Geheel perkamenten band uit de tijd, (30)+351+(17) pag. Mist de titelpagina. Waller 1534; De Vries 443; Scheepers I 557; Hall, Old conjuring books pag. 47-62; Bögels, Govert Basson 1992 pag. 38 e.v.; Van Dorsten, Thomas Basson 1961 pag. 49 e.v.


(Proeve der Toveressen in ‘t vvater)

Nederlandse vertaling door Thomas en Govert Basson (1555-1613) van Reginald Scot, ‘The discoverie of witchcraft’ (1584). Beroemd boek tegen het geloof in hekserij. Het boek is opgedragen aan curatoren van de Leidse universiteit en aan de burgemeesteren van Leiden door Govert Basson (dd. Amsterdam 8-5-1637) en was een herdruk van de in 1609 door zijn vader Thomas Basson uitgegeven en vertaalde eerste editie. Behalve de vertaling van het werk van Scot bevat het boek een bijdrage over de in 1459-1461 te Artois omgebrachte tovenaars, over het daarop in 1491 gevolgde arrest, over het pleidooi van Louis Servijn over de proef van het water, een advies van professoren te Leiden over deze proef en de historie van Jeanne d’Arc. Voorts drempel- en slotverzen van P. Scriverius, G. Tuning, C. Pijn, H. Delmanhorst, S. Coster, J. v. K., A. van Gerwen en A. van Draeck.
Bestelnummer: C1724. € 750″

That Magical, Mystical Book On Witchcraft from 1584

We first ran this piece last year at Halloween. It proved so popular year-round that we reprint it this Halloween season. It was co-researched and co-written by digital library specialist Elizabeth Gettins, who also had the brilliant idea for the piece. An ancient tome delving into the dark arts of witchcraft and magic… a book of doom… yet it lives… at the Library of Congress.

You’re forgiven if you think we’re talking about H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional book of magic, “Necronomicon,” the basis for the plot device in “The Evil Dead” films, or something Harry Potter might have found in the Dark Arts class at Hogwarts.

But, as the darkness of Halloween descends, we’re not kidding. A first edition of “The Discouerie of Witchcraft,” Reginald Scot’s 1584 shocker that outraged King James I, survives at your favorite national library in the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room. (The Library has a copy of the original edition, as well as a 1651 edition.)

It is believed to be the first book published on witchcraft in English and extremely influential on the practice of stage magic. Shakespeare likely researched it for the witches scene in “Macbeth”. It was consulted and plagiarized by stage magicians for hundreds of years. Today, you can peruse its dark secrets online. How could your wicked little fingers resist? Scot promises to reveal “lewde dealings of witches and witchmongers”! The “pestilent practices of Pythonists”! The “vertue and power of natural magike”!

Also, juggling.

It is one of the  foundational examples of grimoire, a textbook on magic, groundbreaking for its time and nearly encyclopedic in its information. Scot’s research included consulting dozens of previous thinkers on various topics such as occult, science and magic, including Agrippa von Nettesheim’s “De Occulta Philosophia” in 1531 and John Dee’s “Monas Hieroglyphica” in 1564. The result is a most impressive compendium.

(The heavens, as used in witchcraft. “The Discoverie of Witchcraft,” p. 283. Rare Book & Special Collections.)


But Scot wasn’t lurking about in a hooded cape, looking for eyes of newts and toes of frogs to bewitch mortals. A skeptic, he wrote to make it plain that “witches” were not evil, but instead were resourceful and capable women who practiced the art of folk healing as well as sleight of hand. Their apparently miraculous feats were in no way wicked. He wrote: “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch’ or ‘she is a wise woman.’ ”

Born in 1538 in Kent under the rule of Henry VIII, Scot was landed gentry. He was educated and a member of Parliament. He admired, and may have joined, the Family of Love, a small sect comprised of elites who dismissed major Christian religions in favor of arriving at spiritual enlightenment through love for all. By publishing “Witchcraft,” he meant to expose it as superstition, hoping to better England by forwarding knowledge. Since most people who were accused – and often hanged – for it were impoverished women on the margins of society, he hoped to garner social empathy for them and other scapegoats.

He also hoped to dispel the common belief in magic tricks performed on stage before gasping audiences. To do this, he researched and explained how magicians carried out their illusions. Beheadings? See the diagrams!


(To cut off ones head, and to laie it in a a platter, which the jugglers call the decollation of John Baptist.” p. 282, “The Discoverie of Witchcraft,” Rare Book & Special Collections Division.)


How to appear to “thrust a bodkin (needle) into your head” and survive? See page 280!

(Detail on how to use a false bodkin. P. 280, “The Discoverie of Witchcraft.” Rare Book and Special Collections Division.)


This noble effort, as the kids say, went left.

The book was blasted by the religious faithful, according to “The Reception of Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft: Witchcraft, Magic and Radical Religion”, a study by S.F. Davies in the Journal of the History of Ideas, published in 2013. The King of Scotland, James VI, was outraged. Like many of his subjects, he was convinced that witches worked in concert with the devil. He thought a coven of witches was trying to kill him. He published “Daemonologie” in 1597, in part to refute Scot’s work. He also became King James I of England in 1603. There’s a legend that he ordered all copies of Scot’s book burned, but the historical record is silent on the subject. Still, it’s clear James I loathed the book. There was growing concern at the time that women’s use of so-called magic was counter to the aims of the state and church. Thus, James sought to instill fear in female communities and spoke out directly against witches and their perceived occultisms.

“Almost every English author who subsequently wrote on the subject of witchcraft mentioned Scot disparagingly,” Davies writes of the period. Scot died in 1599; the book was not republished during his lifetime. There was an abridged Dutch translation published in 1609, Davies notes, but was not republished in England until 1651, nearly three quarters of a century after its initial publication.

Still, the book survived, “mined as a source on witchcraft and folklore”, and his material on practical magic and sleight of hand “found a large audience”, Davies writes. For Scot’s original aims, that wasn’t good. Rather than debunking stage magic for the masses as he’d hoped, “Discoverie” became a handbook for magicians in Europe and America, well into the 17th and 18th centuries. Famous works such as “Hocus Pocus” and the “The Juggler’s Oracle” drew heavily on “Witchcraft”, thus spreading the very mysteries that Scot had hoped to quell. Davies: “[I]t travelled in directions Scot himself may never have imagined”.

Today, 435 years after it was published, the book sits on the shelf, silent, patient, having done the work its author did not want it to do. It’s almost as if… the thing had a hex on it.


Abe books: book details (…all links accessed Dec 2020)

The discouverie of Witchcraft PDF version

Dutch version Ontdecking van tovery, Volume 1 By Reginald Scot: Ontdecking toverij

Catalogus ‘Criminaliteit en justitie’ van Antiquariaat van der Steur, 2017

Over Morgana

"Morgana is Anglo/Dutch and lives in the Netherlands. She is a practising Gardnerian HPS. Over the years, she has facilitated a variety of Wiccan groups. She is co-editor of the international and bilingual "Wiccan Rede" magazine, which was launched in 1980 and is coordinator of Silver Circle, a Wiccan network in the Netherlands. As International Coordinator for PFI she travels extensively giving talks and workshops about Wicca and Paganism."
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