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Occult Science & Philosophy in the Renaissance

Science or Sorcery?

Daniel Defoe. A System of Magick; or, A History of the Black Art. Oxford: D. A. Talboys, 1840.
Rare BF1601 .D3 1840

Originally published in 1728, Defoe’s System of Magick is one of the first books to deal with sorcery and the supernatural in a purely historical context. Defoe, best known today as the author of the classic adventure novel Robinson Crusoe, includes many entertaining anecdotes in this work, but his overall approach to the history of magic is skeptical, reflecting the new scientific thought of his time.

As one of his biographers has written, Defoe “depicted the prophets of the past as the equivalent of contemporary scientists—Newton, Halley, and Whiston—and suggested that those who possessed some knowledge of science often had to disguise it under a form of magic that would please the ignorant.” Conversely, medieval witches, Defoe suggests, were probably just frauds and swindlers who used a basic knowledge of chemistry to trick people into believing they had supernatural powers.

Joseph Glanvill. Sadducismus Triumphatus: Or, A Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions. London: A. Bettesworth, 1726.
Rare BF1581 .A2 G53 1726

Though a proponent of the new scientific method that was being developed in his lifetime, the English Puritan clergyman Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680) held that full knowledge of the universe cannot be deduced by reason alone. Whereas skeptical scientists largely dismissed the idea of witchcraft and sorcery, Glanvill asserted the reality of a supernatural world filled with evil spirits—a world, he believed, some humans had figured out how to interact with.

Despite famous cases such as the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, belief in the power of witches was fading in the late seventeenth century. Glanvill, however, thought that the tide of skepticism could be turned back if the existence of spirits could be scientifically proven. This book, a compendium of case histories relating to witchcraft and other supernatural phenomena, is Glanvill’s attempt to provide such proof. First published in 1681, Sadducismus Triumphatus (“The Sadducee Triumphant”) takes its title from the Jewish sect which, around the time of Jesus, was said to have denied the immortality of the soul. This is a reference to the skepticism of modern scientists, philosophers, and other writers such as Daniel Defoe.

Dismissed by some as folklore rather than science, Glanvill’s work nevertheless strongly influenced the American Puritan minister Cotton Mather, whose Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) was written to justify the Salem witch trials.