26 July 2019


Michelle D. Brock, Richard Raiswell and David R. Winter (Editors) Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits in the Early Modern Period. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

This book is a serious piece of academic research consisting of twelve chapters, each by different authors on different but related topics covering the genre of demons. Each page is carefully annotated with numerous footnotes. Already put off? Don't be. The reader will be agreeably surprised by the sheer readability of these academic contributions, as well as often fascinated by the contents.
For example one contributor (Stefan Hessbruggen-Walter) describes how a certain Scribonius was visiting the German town of Lemgo in 1583 when he happened to come across the enactment of the test of whether a woman is really a witch in the trial by water. The scene so familiar seems almost apocryphal so the account by Scribonius proves that such events did indeed occur. In this instance three women were trussed up, the right hand tightly bound to the left big toe and the left hand to the right big toe, rendering the victims immobile. They were then tossed into the river. If their bodies floated, this proved they were witches, but if they drowned they were innocent. In this case they floated on the surface "like logs", ensuring they would be burnt as witches. 

The shocking thing for the casual reader is the fact that not even the faintest glimmer of outrage at the spectacle is registered in the mind of Scribonius, who, from this point on, engages for several decades in a lengthy academic discussion with colleagues about the merits and demerits of the method. The contributor finds that the debate was conducted in an eminently logical fashion, so that we can discern the early emergence of a pre-scientific rationale in these dialogues, which ironically helped the development of European intellectual thought.

In another chapter Mairi Cowan describes how the Jesuit missionaries in New France (part of what is now Canada) adopted different approaches towards the natives. Some Jesuit missionaries were more enlightened than others. In the latter category was one Jesuit missionary who tried to force a death-bed conversion on a dying native, who however was not cowed by the threat of hellfire, since he felt it presented him with the opportunity of proving his courage, and so he entered the afterlife unbaptised. Whilst the Jesuits saw the spirits who guided the natives as mostly demonic, the Jesuits were themselves seen as "black robed demons" who brought death and destruction in their trail. This was indeed the case since many natives were dying as a result of the impact of European diseases to which they had no immunity.

Another contributor Richard Raiswell tells the extraordinary tale of Edward Terry who published his Voyage to East India in 1655. Astonishingly Terry's long sojourn in India convinced him that this was a land which God had handed over to the Devil, so that millions were destined to eternal damnation. The purpose of this act of divine hatred? Simply to provide a warning to true Christian believers! Terry's intellect had been so completely darkened by dogma that he was unable to discover the least hint of spirituality in Indian religious practices and mysticism, and indeed his experience and attitude seems to have characterised the British occupation of India for several hundred years, with few of the ruling class gaining any insight from the land which produced the Vedas and the teaching of non-duality.

The experience of reading this book has given me a better understanding not only of the beliefs of our ancestors and the inhabitants of the lands they conquered but also of our Western mind-set which has done so much to create the modern world. The book manages to be both educational and entertaining, and is well worth reading. – Robin Carlile.

No comments: