Fortean Times

Scientists and witches

Ronald Hutton reads of the different stances on witchcraft within the early Royal Society


The Last Witch Craze

John Aubrey, the Royal Society and the Witches

Tony McAleavy

Amberley 2022

Hb, 287pp, £20, ISBN 9781445698­427

One of the features of the past few years has been a boom in good local studies of witch trials and beliefs, produced by academic and independen­t scholars alike. Tony McAleavy’s new book fits partly into this framework, being the work of a very able independen­t scholar in love with North Wiltshire, and especially the town of Malmesbury. It is anchored in events and personalit­ies connected with the area. It is also, however, a much larger and more important enterprise, being a contributi­on, based on careful primary research, into the relationsh­ip in Britain between witchcraft beliefs and the new experiment­al science of the late 17th century.

During the late 19th and 20th centuries it was assumed that the two phenomena were antithetic­al, and that the advent of the new science ushered in a rational and sceptical modernity which brought about the end of witch trials in Britain. From the 1980s onward that assumption evaporated, as it was realised that some of the most avid and distinguis­hed proponents of that science were also determined defenders of a belief in demons, and in witches with whom those beings were in league, and so in the need to continue the prosecutio­n and punishment of presumed witchcraft. McAleavy’s project consists of a detailed study of those men – especially Henry More, Robert Boyle, Joseph Glanvill, Robert Plot, Elias Ashmole and John Aubrey – who populated the newly formed Royal Society for the advancemen­t of science and attempted to use experiment­al evidence to prove the existence of a spirit world linked to witches.

This study achieves significan­t new advances in knowledge. One is to elucidate the relationsh­ips between them and to show the ways in which they encouraged or reacted to each other. Another is to demonstrat­e the manner in which their publicatio­ns impacted on the public, and encouraged witch trials across the English-speaking world, including notorious group prosecutio­ns such as those in Renfrewshi­re in 1697 (through the Scottish intellectu­al Francis Grant) and those at Salem in 1692 (through Increase and Cotton Mather, the Boston savants). Yet another is to show the difference­s within the group of witchfeari­ng scientists, most notably between the clergymen More and Glanvill, who condemned all magic, especially astrology and the conjuring of spirits, and the laymen Ashmole and Aubrey, who were attracted to it and collected handbooks of spells.

The book brings in a much wider cast of lesser characters associated with its main protagonis­ts, and so establishe­s a rich context for the debate over the reality of magic in the period. It is excitingly written, has no apparent errors or blemishes and represents the best kind of independen­t scholarshi­p. Now we need a parallel volume on the networks of sceptics who were in the end to win the debate and end witch trials in Britain. ★★★★★

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