Reginald Scot (ca. 1538–1599) was an English writer who was one of the few outspoken critics of witch hunts. Reginald Scot was openly derisive of prevailing beliefs that witches were servants of the Devil and committed abominable acts in his name. He was skeptical of the ability of Demons and spirits to interfere in the lives of the living. Scot was not a Demonologist, clergyman, or lawyer, but rather an outraged citizen.
He was born in or around 1538 in Kent. His father was Richard Scot, the youngest of three sons of Sir John Scot, a wealthy landowner. Young Scot was sent to Oxford at age 17, but he left without earning a degree and returned to Kent, settling in Smeeth. He worked as a subsidies collector for the government, served a year in Parliament, and tended to hop gardening. He was supported by a wealthy cousin, Sir Thomas Scot, whose estate he managed.
He married twice. His first wife was Jane Cobbe, whom he married on October 11, 1568. They had one daughter, Elizabeth. Jane died (the date is unknown), and Scot married a widow named Alice, who had a daughter, Marie, by her first marriage.
Scot spent much of his time reading, and he especially enjoyed obscure topics such as the occult and superstitions. On his own, Scot studied law, superstitions, folklore, and the contemporary literature of antiwitch Demonologists. He grew increasingly angry at the tortures and executions of witches, who in his view were innocent people falsely accused. He wrote a refutation of the assertions of the witch hunters, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, and published it in 1584, during a time of intense antiwitch activity. His opening statement reflects his disdain for witch hunters: “The fables of Witchcraft have taken so fast hold and deep root in the heart of man, that few or none can (nowadays) with patience endure the hand and correction of God.” Many of his comments were directed against the Demonologist Jean Bodin and the Malleus Maleficarum, the leading inquisitors’ handbook, written by two Dominican priests.
In composing Discoverie, Scot drew upon his knowledge of superstition, the law, and literature. He also drew upon the writings of numerous scholars, theologians, and experts in various fields, even those who disagreed with his own views. He was influenced by the writings of Johann Weyer, a German physician who also was a strong opponent of the witch hunts. However, unlike Weyer, who at least believed in the supernatural, Scot denied the supernatural altogether.
Scot defined four categories of witches: innocents who were falsely accused; deluded people who imagined themselves to be in Pacts with the Devil; evil people who did harm others, but not by Sorcery; and frauds and imposters who pretended to cast spells and make prophecies. Storms and crop failures were not caused by witches, but by God, he said.
Scot believed that it is not possible for a pact to be made between a living person and a spirit. “Confessions” of pacts were made under torture and in desperate attempts to avoid execution. There is nothing about satanic pacts in the Bible, he observed.
In particular, Scot believed that the appearances of Demons and spirits were delusions caused by mental disorders, and that sexual encounters with incubi were a “natural disease.” Stories of incubi covered up all-too human lecheries, he said. Spirits were incapable of physical lust. Some experiences of incubi were due to nightmares, or “the mare,” a physical condition caused by a thick vapor that arose from the “crudity and rawness” of the stomach and rose to the brain, oppressing it. Again, he cited a lack of references in Scripture to prove the existence of the Incubus and Succubus.
Scot derided the use of Charms against the Devil, witches, and evil and pointed out that there is no evidence that Jesus or the apostles ever had need of holy water, inscriptions and Bible verses on parchment, objects hung about the neck or in a house, and so forth, in order to drive away evil.
One section of Discoverie delves into an inventory of Demons, their appearances and duties, and how they are conjured and commanded through the use of magical ritual. Detailed instructions are given for how to capture a Demon in a crystal stone for the purpose of doing one’s bidding. Scot called these magical activities “notorious blasphemy” and “blind superstitious ceremonies” that were nothing but falsehood. Only the gullible and credulous believe the lies of conjurors and necromancers who claim they could summon Demons out of Hell, he said. He questioned the difference between magical conjurations and the “popish conjurations” of Catholic ritual, as well as the difference between conjurations and charms. According to the church, charms were lawful because they contained nothing superstitious, whereas magical conjurations were said to be based on false superstition.
Scot was not alone in his condemnation of the witch persecutions; his writing was part of a continuing skepticism about witchcraft that persisted in England. Despite its lack of originality, Discoverie was well received by the clergy in England. King James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England) was violently opposed to it and ordered copies to be burned. He wrote his own refutation, Daemonologie.
Montague Summers described Scot as a “myopic squireen” who was “utterly without imagination, a very dull, narrow, and ineffective little soul.” Scot died in Smeeth on October 8, 1599. There are different accounts of where he was buried. According to one, he was interred in a family plot in the churchyard at Smeeth; in another, he was buried beside Sir Thomas Scot’s tomb in Brabourne Church.
- Scot, Reginald. The Discoverie of Witchcraft. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1989.