6 August 2023


Tony McAleavey, The Last Witch Craze: John Aubrey, the Royal Society and the Witches, Amberley Publishing, 2022.

Navigating the foreign country that is the past can be tricky. The way our forebears thought is part-familiar, part-strange, and so often appears contradictory. In The Last Witch Craze, Tony McAleavey explores one such apparent anomaly: some of Britain’s most respected pioneering scientists, who were involved in the founding years of the Royal Society, were also ardent believers in the reality of witchcraft. 
As McAleavey puts it, they ‘combined their convictions about witchcraft with a wholehearted commitment to the new experimental science’. This set included Robert Boyle, Elias Ashmole, Henry More and John Aubrey – best remembered an antiquarian but with a wide range of interests and who, as the subtitle indicates, McAleavey singles out for attention - as well as a number of less well-known individuals. All applied the new scientific method to witchcraft, aiming to amass empirical data to prove that it was real.

Paradoxical though ‘witchcraft science’, as McAleavey terms it, might seem to us today, in a historical context it’s not so surprising. After all, scientists in the way we understand them now – hard-headed sceptics in all things supernatural – were hardly going to emerge fully-formed overnight. And much of the apparent incongruity comes from the way history has been written: ‘During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a narrative developed that the birth of the Royal Society signalled a new rationality and modernity, which swept away the superstition of the past. This orthodoxy prevailed for much of the twentieth century. However, this view does not stand up to scrutiny.’

So The Last Witch Craze adds to the trend of challenging the old image of the Enlightenment as stemming from the split between science and magic, although McAleavey doesn’t go as far as the likes of John V. Fleming and John Henry whose work emphasises the positive impact the magical tradition had on Enlightenment science.

Another common misconception is that witch hunts were a medieval thing, whereas their heyday was in the early modern period, basically the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. While past their peak in the British Isles in the period McAleavey’s concerned with – the English Civil War, Cromwell’s Commonwealth and, particularly, the Restoration - he shows that witch trials continued throughout. In the majority of cases the accused – mostly but not exclusively women – were acquitted (which perhaps makes the ‘craze’ in the title a bit of an overstatement), but those who were found guilty were sentenced to death, the last execution in England being in 1682 and 1727 in Scotland.

The proponents of witchcraft science not only aided investigations into alleged witches but had no problem with those found guilty being put to death. Indeed, some seemed to regard the spectacle as entertainment: Ashmole, for example, made a special trip to Kent in 1652 to watch the hangings of six ‘witches’. As McAleavey points out, ‘Within the scientific literature of witchcraft there is a consistent lack of interest in the lives of those accused of being witches. The writers either ignored the suspects as individuals or were openly contemptuous of them and their social background.’

McAleavey presents detailed accounts of investigations and trials of alleged witches, such as Joan Peterson, the ‘Witch of Wapping’, a cunning woman investigated by Aubrey and hanged in 1652. He also devotes a chapter to showing how the witchcraft science literature coming out of England had a big influence on America’s infamous Salem trials of 1692, which resulted in the execution of twenty people, via the works of father and son Increase and Cotton Mather: ‘Like the English authors they admired, they believed that the principles of experimental science were entirely in keeping with the reality of witchcraft.’

McAleavey shows that there was more to all this than just proving witches were a real and present danger: it was ‘part of a much bigger argument concerning the relevance of the spiritual dimension to explanations of physical phenomena.’ There were other big names, such as John Webster and Thomas Hobbes, who were just as fervent in their opposition to witchcraft and the supernatural having any basis in reality, and it became the subject of heated debate within the new Royal Society.

Advocates of the reality of witchcraft were predominantly Christians – several being clergymen – who regarded proving the reality of witches, and therefore of the Devil, as an important way of countering the increasingly trendy atheism. The polymath Sir Thomas Browne even declared that disbelief in witches was being spread by the Devil as part of, in McAleavey’s words, his ‘wicked master plan to destroy all faith in the truth of Christianity’.

As well as the folk beliefs associated with witchcraft, McAleavey goes into the era’s wider debate over astrology and forms of ‘elite’ magic. Some thought they were just as evil (or delusional) as witchcraft, others that they were distinct and acceptable practices.

Much space is devoted to John Aubrey, who emerges as a hypocritical and thoroughly unpleasant character, especially where women were concerned. McAleavey shows from Aubrey's magical notebook, now in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, that he ‘promoted and undertook ritual angel magic, and appears to have gone even further and dabbled in black magic activities that involved using the power of demons’ – then a crime, like witchcraft punishable by death, as had been the case with Joan Peterson who Aubrey’s investigation had helped to the gallows.

What’s striking from McAleavey’s account is that the evidence for witchcraft put forward by the likes of Boyle rarely consisted of what we’d expect from a scientific investigation, for example examining a witch casting a spell under controlled conditions. It was primarily cases of apparent possession – which today would be seen as a mental health issue – or what would now be labelled parapsychological phenomena, particularly poltergeists.

Outbreaks of poltergeistery were popularly attributed to spirits or devils conjured up by witches, and when these were investigated and the evidence found to stand up, it was taken as proof of witchcraft on the grounds that a witch must have been involved – a bit of a leap. Such cases included the ‘Devil of Mâcon’ in Burgundy, which Boyle, who organised the translation of a French book on the haunting, argued ‘met the highest standards of proof and credibility’. McAleavey also cites the Phantom Drummer of Tedworth, publicised by Joseph Glanvill, a leading advocate of the scientific method, and the Devil of Glenluce, discussed by Scottish scientist and mathematician George Sinclair in a study of atmospheric pressure.

Others, such as Increase Mathers, included as the work of witches bizarre happenings that seem to go against the laws of nature – what we’d call Fortean phenomena. McAleavey doesn’t consider that there might be something non-witchy to any of this, or to magic, but it’s not that kind of book.

There’s a lot of fascinating material in The Last Witch Trial, not on just its central theme but related subjects, covering the history of magic and of science, as well as folklore and social and cultural history. It’s deeply researched, drawing almost entirely on contemporary sources - books and pamphlets written by those on all sides of the witchcraft debate, as well their personal writings now in archives - and engagingly written. Well worth a read!
  • Clive Prince

1 comment:

Robert Sheaffer said...

In my book "UFO Sightings" (Prometheus, 1998)I have a chapter titled "The Scientific Study of Witchcraft." It is about the belief in witchcraft among members of the Royal Society, specifically centering on Joseph Glanvill, whose book "Saducismus Triumphatus" (1681) argues for the reality of witchcraft on purely empirical grounds, 'credible persons reporting incredible things.' I note that this is the same argument used by Hynek and other contemporary UFOlogists.