Witchcraft and Demonic Possession in Early Modern England

Although accounts of witchcraft and demonic possession can be found from virtually all cultures around the world, in the wake of the Reformation and the European wars of religion in the fifteenth century, accusations of witchcraft and instances of demonic possession reached fever pitch. This was particularly the case in early modern England.

Philip Almond discusses such phenomena not by providing any “slick” answers which explain them in simple sociological terms, but by looking at the “familiar cultural script” that played out in most instances of possession, and by keeping in mind the broader social context in which accusations of witchcraft were made (including the “strategic interests” of many accusers).

This interview is a distillation of Professor Almond’s recent publications on religious history in early modern England, and also includes discussion of his newly released work: The Devil: A New Biography.

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2 replies
  1. Avatar
    Richard Saville-Smith says:

    Given that the social script of witchcraft is a pan-European phenomenon, I’m always a bit baffled as to the value of treating English (which excludes Scottish) witchcraft in isolation from Continental practice. Malleus Maleficarum was translated into English and I would have found it interesting to hear whether Reginald Scot had read Johann Weyer etc.

    It seems to me that, as in all cases of non-ordinary states of mind simply denying the direct/simplistic translation between 21st century and 17th century concepts doesn’t solve anything – there must be other possibilities. Of course there is no possibility of ‘direct translation’/mapping because (for example) Schizophrenia is also a socially scripted phenomenon which affects the actors as well as the people who apply/develop the script. Once the idea of translation/mapping is abandoned it is possible to begin thinking about how to not lose the ‘thing in itself’, the Disruptive experience just because there are a few epistemological difficulties! We need better theory.

    • Avatar
      Jack Tsonis says:

      Hi Richard – I think you raise some good points here. I’m not exactly sure what better theory would look like for these issues, but there is always room to refine our perspectives on questions like this. Thanks for your thoughts – apologies that this is a bit of a cop out reply. Just a little too busy to give your idea the time it needs right now. Jack.


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