In 1584, Reginald Scot – a country gentleman and MP from Kent – published The discoverie of witchcraft, a sceptical treatise recording and debunking popular and scholarly beliefs about witchcraft, magic and other superstitions. Scot argued that belief in magic was both irrational and un-Christian. He suggested non-magical reasons and causes for both magical phenomena and accusations of witchcraft. These included psychological and sociological causes. For example, Scot argued that the social tension and guilt felt by those who denied charity to poor women sometimes led the deniers to accuse these women of witchcraft. Scot maintained that those who had been accused and executed for witchcraft were innocent and blamed the Catholic Church for encouraging these superstitious beliefs.
The discoverie of witchcraft was very widely read in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It was a central text in witchcraft debates and there were numerous challenges to Scot’s beliefs (not least from King James VI and I in his own book on witchcraft, Daemonologie) as well as a smaller number of defences. Because of the comprehensiveness of The discoverie of witchcraft, it was a useful source of information on supernatural beliefs and practices, regardless of whether the reader agreed with Scot’s scepticism or not. However, it is also important to note that Scot was not a folklorist researching and accurately recording popular beliefs for posterity; he was using these stories to support his own agenda of persuading the reader against belief in the supernatural.
It is widely believed that Shakespeare had read Scot and that the book is one possible source for the witches of Macbeth, the mock trial of King Lear, and for Bottom’s transformation and the hobgoblin character Puck or Robin Goodfellow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
pp. 7–11: on witches
pp. 85–86, 152–54: on Robin Goodfellow
pp. 94–97: on transformation of men into asses
pp. 408–10: a spell for invisibility
p. 420: a diagram for summoning spirits