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'Melancholic imaginations': witchcraft and the politics of melancholia in Elizabethan Kent.

The article examines the politics of melancholy in Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft. It suggests that Scot's knowledge of this condition, its symptoms and treatment, was indicative of enlightened Protestant thought. It argues that, in this text, the recognition of melancholy as an affliction was used to underpin the paternal responsibility of the juror, gentleman or neighbour to be compassionate towards the poor in Kent.

Keywords: Kent; melancholy; poor; Protestant; witchcraft


This article examines the complex role played by melancholia in Reginald Scot's refutation of witchcraft in his 1584 text The Discoverie of Witchcraft. As a recognized medical condition, melancholia was instrumental in the reassessment of evidence brought in witchcraft cases, for it located the confessed actions of witches within the realm of the fantastic and impossible actions that were characteristic of an unsound, melancholic mind. The article considers the implications of the use of this condition as the basis for judicial reform, but also examines its broader significance in relation to contemporary debates about relief of the poor and spiritual reform in Elizabethan Kent.

Scot asserted that the condition of melancholy was caused by an imbalance of the four humours and was a disease that was most likely to affect the malnourished and the elderly. Menopausal women were particularly susceptible, for 'upon the stopping of their monethlie melancholike flux or issue of blood' they were significantly weakened both in 'bodie and braine' (Scot, 1972: 31). Scot proposed that 'one sort' of those likely to be arraigned for witchcraft were also of the demographic most likely to suffer from this condition, namely women who were 'old, lame, bleare-eied, pale, fowle and full of wrinkles' (Scot, 1972: 4). In his diagnosis Scot contrasted the supernatural powers claimed by or alleged against the witch with the aged, poverty-stricken woman presented in court. Such women were brought to their confessions either through their own melancholic state or through the contriving of others named 'witchmongers' who convinced them of their powers. The accused were commonly the least able 'of all persons to speake for themselves' due to their 'base and simple education'. They had the least capacity to effect good or bad for themselves or others, 'their extreme age giving them leave to dote, their poverty to beg, their wrongs to chide and threaten (being void of any other way of revenge)' (Scot, 1584: B2v). Surely, noted Scot, if such women were able to make a pact with the devil they would 'at the leastwise' arrange to alter their material condition and instruct the devil 'to inrich them and also to enoble them and finallie to endue them with all worldie felicitie and pleasure: which is the furthest from them of all other' (Scot, 1972: 29). Was it not also likely that the Devil would choose better helpmates, 'For alas!' Scot concludes, 'what an unapt instrument is a toothles, old impotent and unweldie woman to flie in the aier?' (Scot, 1972: 8).

Scot juxtaposes a range of curious case studies of melancholy with the confessions of these witches. The examples include that of 'Theophilus, a physician [who] ... imagined that he heard and sawe musicians continuallie plaing on instruments in a certeine place of his house', another who believed that 'his nose was as big as a house', and a third who 'would spend a whole daie upon a stage imagining that he both heard and saw interludes, and therewith made himself great sport' (Scot, 1972: 30). In so doing, Scot uses the condition of melancholy to draw out the absurdity of the witch's claims. What was the difference, he asked, between 'the fansie of a melancholike person ... occupied in causes which are both false and impossible' and the claims by and accusations against witches 'when they sale they have made a reall bargaine with the divell, killed a cow, bewitched butter, infeebled a child or when she confesseth that she transubstantiateth hir selfe, maketh it raine or haile, flieth in the aire, or goeth invisible?' (Scot, 1972: 31, 33). Both the actions of the melancholic and the witch are united by the fact that they constitute claims which contain 'no truth of action'. They are allegations which no man could prove and are found to be false and insufficient when examined by 'divinitie, philosophie, physicke, lawe or conscience' for 'no reason can be yeelded for a thing so farre beyond all reason' (Scot, 1972: 33, 29). As such, one should no more convict a witch than a melancholic, 'For the lawe saith, that To will a thing unpossible is a signe of a mad man, or of a foole, upon whom no sentence or judgement taketh hold' (Scot, 1972: 8).

In advancing the condition of melancholy as the factor which precipitated the delusions of 'witch', Scot endeavoured to prevent the wrongful conviction of the poor for an impossible crime. He called for a more compassionate response by those judges, justices and juries to whom the book was primarily dedicated, stating that 'Right understanding and good conscience' should prevail, and asserting that 'Physick, Food and necessaries should be administered to them'. 'For (God knoweth)', he continued, that 'many of these poor wretches had more need to be releeved than chastised' with 'a preacher to admonish them [rather] than a jailer to keep them', and a physician 'to helpe them [rather] than an executioner or tormenter to hang or burn them' (Scot, 1584: B3r).

Scot's concern for and 'travell [sic: travail[ in the behalf of the poor, the aged, and the simple', is traceable in his earlier published work, A Perfite Platforme of a Hoppe Garden. This text with its detailed woodcuts of the various stages of growing hops and simple language was specifically designed for the benefit of 'Countrie people ... placed at the frontiers of povertie' (Scot, 1973: B2v). His preoccupation with this sector of society also forms the grounds on which the dedication of The Discoverie is made. His patron Sir Roger Manwood is identified by Scot as a 'father to the poor' who 'is by nature wholly inclined and in purpose earnestly bent to relieve the poor, and that not onely with hospitality and alines but by divers other devises and waies tending to their comfort'. As a 'principal] person' in the commonwealth, Scot looks to Manwood for support as a pillar of the community, 'for a weak house requireth a strong stay' (Scot, 1584: Ar).

Manwood exemplified this paternal sentiment, not only in his beneficence to the poor at his death but also in his founding of significant institutions during his lifetime. These foundations coincided not only with key promotions in his career but swiftly followed the publication of Poor Law legislation in 1573 and 1576. As well as founding a school at Sandwich in the 1560s for the education of youth, Manwood established a row of alms houses in his parish of residence in 1573 and a house of correction in Canterbury in 1578. These institutions embraced two key sectors of the poor: those 'poore folkes ... as are counted to be honest and good" were selected to reside at the alms houses whereas the house of correction targeted the dissolute poor and was established 'for setting on work of middle age whereby they may eschew idleness'. All the institutions were designed for the education and reform of the poor and were striking in their provision of a disciplined daily routine of work and worship that was echoed in the foundations of other gentlemen such as William Lambarde (Bartram, 2003; Slack, 1988: 17).

Perhaps, as in parts of East Anglia, Kent was quicker than other counties to institute such social welfare programmes. There is certainly evidence to suggest that the influence of evangelical Calvinist Protestantism was apparent in Kent during this period which in part motivated the physical relief and moral reform of the poor (Slack, 1988: 49-50). However, the clannish community of the Kentish was also driven by a deep sense of responsibility to an extended family of kinsmen which potentially encapsulated the well-being of the whole shire (Fleming, 1984: 36; Everitt, 1973: 45). Such a sentiment displays similarities with the beliefs of religious groups such as the Family of Love with its stress on the love between friends, the ideal of 'communalitie' with its value on mutual support between believers and the need to give to the poor (Wootton, 2000: 131; Martin, 1989: 189).

In Kent, Scot suggests, the protection of the poor extended beyond the traditional beneficence of hospitality and alms, incorporating a 'speciall care for the supporting of their right, and redressing of their wrongs' by those that neither despise 'their calamity' nor forget 'their complaint', but seek 'all means for their amendment, and for the reformation of their disorder' (Scot, 1584: Ar). Underlying these sentiments was not just a concern to enforce Poor Law legislation but a more profound conviction in the vital protection of the 'innocent blood' of the poor (Scot, 1584: A4r). In his reassessment of witchcraft, Scot accuses witchmongers of being guilty of inciting bloodshed and involving magistrates in a cycle of violence that was directed against the poor. Magistrates, wrote another contemporary Kentish writer, were 'the Deputies and Lieutenants of God heer in Earth' with a duty to participate wisely in a process of justice that was an extension of the judgement of God (Bartram, 2003). In her last will and testament, another Kentish figure, Lady Golding, drew upon the image of God as a 'righteous judge' who 'will judge everyone according to that they have done'. 'But I know', she adds, 'as thou art a just judge so thou art a merciful father' (Bartram, 2003).

The patriarchal figure of the godly magistrate as just judge and merciful father evident in the representation of Sir Roger Manwood was replicated in other figures of authority. Using an example of a melancholic servant, Scot reinforces the paternal responsibility of the master to provide sustenance and spiritual guidance. The case study focuses on Bernard a poor servant who, although 'very simple and rude' of intellect, was a diligent and efficient servant to his master 'and in that respect dearly beloved'. Bernard was condemned to be burned on account of his confessed belief to be able to practise witchcraft, a belief which the threat of death was unable to diminish. His master, however, 'having compassion upon him' and perceiving that Bernard's belief that he 'knew all things and could bring any matter to passe' stemmed from melancholy, called for a twenty-day stay of execution, 'in which time ... his master bountifully fed him with good fat meat, and with four egs at a meale as also with sweet win which diet was best for so grosse and weake a body'. Recovering in strength, 'the humor was suppressed' and Bernard 'was easily won from his absurd and dangerous opinions and from all his fond imaginations, confessing his error and folly'. Receiving a pardon he 'lived long a good member of the Church whom otherwise the cruelty of judgement should have cast away and destroyed' (Scot, 1584: B3r).

Critically, Bernard is restored not just to health in body and mind but in his faith. The intervention of his educated master with its emphasis on the paternal responsibility of master for servant is of paramount importance in establishing the moral of this example. So too is the successful curing of Bernard through his master's addressing of the physical cause of his melancholia. As such the case of witchcraft is commuted to a question of welfare and is moved from the arena of the court room to the household, perhaps reflecting a pressure to maintain order within the household in the face of a series of social problems of vagrancy and absenteeism precipitated by the growing population (Clark, 1977: 156).

But the intervention of Bernard's master is crucial on another level. The master's actions prevent the 'cruel' and false judgement from being effected and innocent blood shed. The master, like Scot's legal patrons, judged the case without being 'carried away with the vain perswasion or superstition either of man, custome, time or multitude but moved with the authority of truth only' (Scot, 1584: A4r). If 'any admonish the Magistrate not to deale too hardly with these miserable wretches that are called witches', writes Scot in his dedication to Manwood, 'I think him a good instrument raised up for this purpose by God himself' (Scot, 1584: A4r).

The successful treatment of Bernard's melancholia also brings to the fore contemporary debates about the nature of disease and the efficacy of cures. According to conventional theology reflected in the Elizabethan Prayer Book sickness was God's visitation upon the sufferer and natural remedies would only work if God permitted (Thomas, 1971: 98). Sickness might well be the resultant punishment of some moral laxity on the part of the victim, but equally it might be visited upon them to be borne with patience and fortitude as a test of faith (Thomas, 1971: 94-5). Implicit in Bernard's treatment is the divine approval of God who allows Bernard's godly master to effect the cure.

Scot's diagnosis of melancholy is symptomatic of a broader interest in medicine within his social circle. Manuscript material belonging to William Lambarde reflected his interest in the treatment of ailments in cattle in particular, and his 'Booke of medycynes for diseased bullocks beynge approoved medicynes' was circulated amongst his neighbours. A kinsman of Scot, Barnabe Googe, translated the compendious Four Books of Husbandrie which included a section on herbal remedies for ailments including relief from the symptoms of fever and 'the dumpish heavinesse that proceedeth of melancholy'. On her death, Lady Golding took care to bequeath both her great Bible and her copy of Gerald's Herbal (Bartram, 2003).

Scot and his gentry associates in Kent display a keen interest in the collation and trial of herbal medicines, for God, claimed Scot, had not provided 'remedies to sickenesse of griefe by words or charmes, but by hearbes and medicines which he himself hath created upon earth and given men knowledge of the same; that he might be glorified for that therewith he doth vouch safe that the maladies of men and cattle should be cured' (Scot, 1584: B3r). Scot's interest in medicinal herbs is part of a broader programme of religious reform in the county which strove to overturn the culture of popular Catholicism (Clark, 1977: 155). Knowledge of the Bible and of the medicinal properties of herbs cut across a culture in which excerpts of scripture were worn as amulets rather than read and in which herbs were hung over thresholds to ward away evil spirits but were not administered to diseased cattle (Scot, 1972: 137, 163). Protestant reform strove to distinguish between religion and magic, denying the supernatural powers of miracle implicit in Catholic rituals of consecration, exorcism and transubstantiation (Thomas, 1971: 60). The protective rituals of superstitious charms and Catholic practices were replaced by an emphasis on prayer and fasting, but a steadfast faith in God could ensure the protection of the soul only and did not guarantee bodily health nor guard against damage to property and livestock (Thomas, 1971: 560, 591). Prayer should be accompanied, therefore, with an ability to administer physic to men and livestock.

Knowledge of the natural world contained within it an implicit process of worship as man revered God and his works, for 'certainly it is neither a witch, nor the divell, but a glorious God that maketh the thunder. I have read in the scriptures that God maketh the blustering tempests and whirlewinds ... and that they blowe according to his will' (Scot, 1972: 2). This assertion of the sovereignty of God, 'who onely is the Creator of all things ... who neither giveth nor lendeth his glory to any creature' was conjoined with an understanding of the pattern of divine providence for '(if we keep his ordinances) [God] will send us raine in due season and make the land bring forth hir increase and the trees of the field to give their fruit' (Scot, 1584: A2r; Scot, 1972: 2). Providence denied the possibility of demonic intervention in a corporeal form, emphasizing misfortune as resulting from some breach of moral behaviour, a point which Scot reflects in his assertion of personal accountability: 'we ourselves are the cause of our afflictions' he states and as such we should 'not exclaim upon witches' but 'call upon God for mercie' (Thomas, 1971: 76; Scot, 1972: 2).

The significance of prayer is explored in another case study of Ade and Simon Davie of Sellinge in Kent. Throughout the case study Scot insistently records the melancholic symptoms of Ade. The disease manifested itself 'suddenlie' and Ade became "somewhat pensive and more sad than in times past'. She was 'brought lowe and pressed down from the weight of the humor' and, unable to sleep, her 'fansies' were 'troubled and disquieted with despaire'. On demanding the cause of her 'extraordinarie' mourning, 'she fell down ... on hir knees' before her husband 'desiring him to forgive hir, for she had greevouslie offended both God and him'. She confessed she had "bargained and given her soule to the divell to be delivered unto him within short space', and further that she had bewitched both Simon and their children. So convinced was Ade of her pact with the devil and her capacity to bewitch her family 'that she judged hir selfe worthie of death'. If she saw a passer-by carrying a bundle of fire wood, 'she would saie it was to make a tier to burne hir for witcherie' (Scot, 1972: 32).

In response to her confessions Simon offers her comfort, saying 'Wife, be of good cheere, this thy bargaine [with the Devil] is void and of none effect: for thou hast sold that which is none of thine to sell; sith it belongeth to Christ.' 'Be content', he continues, "by the grace of God, Jesus Christ shall unwitch us: for none evill can happen to them that feare God.' Simon's resolve is matched by his spiritual guidance of Ade, for as the 'time approched that the divell should come and take possession of the woman according to his bargaine, Simon watched and praied earnestlie and caused his wife to read psalmes and praiers for mercie at Gods hands'. However, Ade's confessions are given credence by the apparent arrival of the devil, 'suddenlie about midnight there was a great rumbling beelowe under his chamber windowe, which amazed them exceedinglie. For they conceived that the divell was beelowe though he had no power to come up bicause of their fervent prayers.' When Scot reveals the fate of Ade and Simon he describes the tale as 'a comicall catastrophe'. 'As for the rumbling', he says, 'it was by occasion of a sheepe' which, slaughtered and jointed, had been hung in the room below and was easy pickings for a local dog which came and devoured it, 'whereby grew the noise which I before mentioned' (Scot, 1972: 32).

The case study rehearses a familiar scenario evident in witchcraft cases. Indeed the voluntary confessions of Ade alone would have been sufficient to convict her: 'any judge in the world if she had been examined; and have confessed no lesse' would have cried 'guiltie and would hasten execution upon hir'. However, Scot asserts firmly that Ade makes a full recovery and 'remaineth a right honest woman, far from such impietie and shamed of hir imaginations which she perceiveth to have growne through melancholie' (Scot, 1972: 32). Ade is saved by the spiritual convictions of her husband. It is his knowledge of the word of God which maintains in his mind the impossibility of her confessions and which in turn keeps her out of the law courts. This belief in God's providence is reiterated in the prefatory address to the Reader, for 'if there be no affliction nor calamity but is brought to passe by him [God], then let us defie the devil, renounce all his works and not so much as once think or dreame upon this supernatural power of witches' (Scot, 1584: B3r).

Scot's use of the medical condition of melancholia to account for the delusions of alleged witches provides a means of asserting orthodox Protestant beliefs and practices. The example of Ade and Simon demonstrates the value of a steadfast belief in the sovereignty of God. Both case studies demonstrate the importance of knowledge of the word of God, which according to Scot could be enhanced by exploring physic and the natural world. For Scot, knowledge was inextricably linked with salvation for 'whosoever forsaketh ... ignorance ... is promised life everlasting' (Scot, 1584: Aa2r). The banishing of the ritual magic of charms or the superstitious practices of the Catholic Church was instrumental in assuring the salvation of the soul, for it established God only as the epicentre of religious belief and practice. As such, the recognition of melancholia as a medical condition that could be treated through herbal remedies, diet or borne with the example of 'Job's patience before your eies' was one aspect of a Protestant agenda to educate and reform the beliefs of the country people of Kent at both a spiritual and practical level (Scot, 1972: 161).

Equally significantly, Scot's assertion of the affliction of melancholy enabled him to define and reassert the concept of charity in a social context in which poverty was increasingly viewed by some as contemptible and alms were refused (Slack, 1988: 19). The perception of melancholy changed a witch's crime from demonic possession to physical affliction and necessitated a merciful and compassionate reaction on the part of the magistrates reinstating the poor as deserving of charity. In a society in which attitudes to the poor were being formalized in Poor Law legislation at the expense of the traditional values of neighbourliness and mutual help, Scot recomplicates charity as a provision not just of alms but in diverse forms which embraced material and spiritual concerns (Thomas, 1971: 662). This concept of charity was embodied in Sir Roger Manwood, Scot's chosen patron, whose 'divers ... devises and waies' to bring comfort to the poor included a concern for their spiritual welfare and education alongside the traditional giving of alms and hospitality. The condition of melancholia allowed Scot to argue that the witches' confessions were 'vaine, idle, false, inconstant and of no weight; except in their contempt and ignorance in religion', which he comments 'is rather the fault of a negligent pastor, than of a simple woman' (Scot, 1972: 28). In this respect both Scot and Manwood advanced a concept of evangelical charity which sought to educate, reform and ultimately to save the souls of the poor.


Bartram, C. (2003) 'The Construction of Gentry Identity in Elizabethan Kent'. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Kent.

Clark, P. (1977) English Provincial Society from the Reformation to the Revolution: Religion, Politics and Society in Kent, 1500-1650. Brighton: Harvester.

Everitt, A. (1973) The Community of Kent and the Great Rebellion 1640-60. Woking: Unwin.

Fleming, P. W. (1984) 'Charity, Faith and the Gentry of Kent 1422-1529", in T. Pollard, ed., Property and Politics: Essays in Late Medieval English History. Gloucester: Sutton, pp. 36-58.

Martin, J. W. (1989) Religious Radicals in Tudor England. London: Hambledon. Scot, R. (1584) The Discoverie of Witchcraft.

Scot, R. (1972) The Discoverie of Witchcraft. New York: Dover.

Scot, R. (1973) A Perfite Platforme of a Hoppe Garden. New York: Da Capo Press.

Slack, P (1988) Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Longman.

Thomas, K. (1971) Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Belief in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Wootton, D. (2000) 'Reginald Scot/Abraham Fleming/The Family of Love', in S. Clark, ed., Languages of Witchcraft. London: Macmillan, pp. 119-38.

Claire Bartram is a postgraduate student in the Centre for Medieval and Tudor Studies at the University of Kent. Address: Centre for Medieval and Tudor Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury CT2 7NX, UK. [email:]
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Author:Bartram, Claire
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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