Book Review: Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons

By March 7, 2010

Stuart Clark. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

So I though I’d post a summary of a few really great books I’ve read recently that I see as being useful to those studying Mormonism.

Thinking with Demons focusses on what intellectuals said about witchcraft and demons during the witch-hunt era (1400-1700). In some ways the topic is much bigger than witchcraft since demons were central to how early modern people saw the world operating generally. This is a work of intellectual history and Clark makes it clear that he is only looking at what elites thought (the people who could write). Yet the amount of people that Clark examines is huge and I agree with the quote on the cover from History Today: “one of the most impressive works of intellectual history for many years.”

In addition to only looking at the thought of the elite, Clark also makes it clear that he is avoiding what he calls “realism,” meaning that he is only interesting what the intellectuals thought was going on, not in trying to figure out what was actually going on. Clark breaks his nearly 700-page book up into 5 sections: language, science, history, religion, and politics. Because of the length of the book (well worth it) I’ll only focus on what I consider the two most important sections: science and religion.

First though, “Language” is a useful introduction, in which Clark demonstrates the dualist thinking of the early moderns. Clark argues that early modern thought, drawing upon a long tradition, was steeped in notions of binaries and inversion. Binaries between good and bad and that evil would cause disorder by inverting societal roles. ?There can be no better way to know God than by the contrarie,? (138) Clark quotes King James I saying. Thus the witch was the inversion of the good in society, who mimicked holy rites and inverted all roles. Clark?s analysis reaches its peak in this section when he discusses the issue of women and witchcraft. Clark challenges the notion that witchcraft accusation were simply attacks on women despite the fact that women were the majority of witchcraft accusation and that witchcraft treatises were often grossly misogynistic. Clark notes that early modern thinkers really did believe in witchcraft and that those who challenged the notion were often as misogynistic as the witchcraft writers. Instead Clark proposes that the woman as witch was all part of the binary and inversion model in which witchcraft fit. Women were the opposite of men who were deemed superior; thus the witch, the antithesis, needed to be female. ?Witches were women on top par excellence? (132). Yet women as witches were just the ideal; in reality many men were accused of witchcraft.

In “Science” Clark challenges the idea that witchcraft disappeared as the result of the triumph of science over superstition because 1) many leading scientists were witchcraft believers and 2) because it was more a shift in worldview, one cultural fashion to another.

I wish to combat the conceit that early modern intellectuals attributed effects to devils only so long as their true causes were unknown to them and that the only story worth telling about these attributions concerns their overthrow. On the contrary, to attribute effects to devils was to know their causes?to know them perhaps uncertainly and fragmentally (for such was the problem with occult causes), but still to know them. Thoroughgoing scepticism, when it finally came, was not a victory over ignorance but a corollary of knowing nature according to different rules. Until that point came, demonology worked as well as any other branch of physics?and it therefore seems important to find out how this was so (160).

How this was so, Clark explains was that the devil and his demons were a part of nature and worked according to natural causes. Yet these were occult causes, things that were not fully understood. The devil was the great magician, knew how to manipulate nature to his own ends. The devil did not work supernatural effects, only God could do that, but preternatural ones. Demonology was thus related to early modern notions of magic, which Clark reminds us was not a pejorative term in the era. Instead Clark works to understand how natural magic was understood that the time. ?In these circumstances, its later connotations are quite out of place, along with the many modern attempts, from Frazer and Malinowski to D. L. O?Keefe, to define just what magic essentially is. Magic is not, essentially, anything; it is what, in particular cultural settings, it is construed to be? (216). This is an extremely important statement. Magic at the time was believed to be the whole of all knowledge, knowledge that the devil had access to. Thus demonology was a branch of physics and most of the leading scientists of the late seventeenth century defended the belief. They were often skeptical of most witchcraft stories, but demonology fit their view of how nature worked, though most of them were against witchcraft trials. Quoting Simon Schaffer, ?there was ?no correlation between endorsement of the reality of spirits and support for witch trials? (310). To Clark the decline of witchcraft belief was the product of pluralism of thought brought about by the Reformation (144-47).

In “Religion,” Clark lays out his most powerful arguments. Building on the work of Jean Delumeau and Robert Muchelbled, Clark argues that the early modern reformers undertook a program that they believed to be the ?Christianization? of the laity. Under attack by these reformers was the common people?s ?superstition,? defined as false practices attributed to false causes. Like “magic,” “superstition” must be understood in its cultural context, and cannot be used as a scholarly descriptor. To early modern intellectuals, when the common people attempted to ward off demons through various unofficial means, they were in actuality calling upon the power of the devil, who would lead their souls to destruction. Worse still were the white witches who aided the common folk and protected against witchcraft. To the reformers, white witches were worse than the black witches, because there were so seducing. The program that the reformers instead hope to implement was based on the Book of Job. God allowed the devil to torment Job and Job bore his afflictions with resolution and was ultimately blessed. To the reformers, misfortune and even maleficium, were signs of God?s providence and opportunities for introspection, and they were not to be subverted through ?popular magic.? Those who would not be as Job often made the errors of Saul in seeking after witches.

Clark is sympathetic to Muchelbled?s argument that these reforms were at the heart of inspiring the witch-hunts and that the whole program may be terms ?acculturation? by the elites with a number of similarities to colonization of foreign countries. Clark acknowledges the problems with this view but nonetheless argues for what he calls ?acculturation by text?; that is they sought to impose the worldview described above on the masses. For my purposes, the “acculturation by text” and attacks on “superstition” of the early modern era is fundamental to understanding the clashes between the religiosity of the elites and common people in the nineteenth century. I would argue that popular prophets like Joseph Smith not only rejected the disenchantment of the enlightenment but also the whole “acculturation” program of the Protestant reformers.

Clark then examines Catholic and Protestant attitudes toward witchcraft, finding them similar. Protestant saw Catholicism as full of demonic superstition, while Catholics equated heresy with witchcraft. Finally, Clark notes that the real division in confessional beliefs about witchcraft was between the church- and sect-types. Sectarians displayed little belief in witches and England?s most prominent witch skeptics (Reginald Scot and Weyer) had sectarian associations. Clark argues that this skepticism was a result of the sectarian worldview that did not link their religiosity to the state, thus the witch was not seen as a social evil. ?One of the reasons,? Clark reiterates ?for the decline of witchcraft prosecutions and of witchcraft beliefs in general was the coming of a religions pluralism that permitted the members of all types of churches to coexist and spelt the end of the confessional state? (545).

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. Thanks for the write-up Steve. In some ways, I think, popular Mormon thought trends toward that medieval scientism you describe. Except that not only are demonic actors using natural means, but so is God. Furthermore, there is a long standing tendency to extrapolate analogically because of the believed existential continuity between human and God.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 8, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

  2. The elites complained that the common people thought the devil was too powerful; popular medieval practices revolved around exorcism of people and things. John Bossy argues that baptism was essentially exorcism. Basically the common people saw themselves as under attack from demons and thus wanted ways to combat them. The elites wanted the common people to understand the providential purpose in their trials and bear them like Job. Anyway, I see the popular worldview persisting, though perhaps combining with the elite view also.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 8, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  3. In this context, does popular trend toward Catholic? Its been a while since I looked at this, but it seems like the the preparation of baptismal waters along with baptism itself (with other popular sacraments and rituals) had had an excorcistic valence for a very long time.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 8, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

  4. Thanks for the review. I haven’t read Clark’s book and my research has dealt with witchcraft only at its extreme margins. At first glance I don’t agree with Clark in every detail you mention, but that may be because I’m looking only at a few particular cases rather than at the big picture.

    I would guess that the best parallel in current popular LDS belief to early modern belief in demons, and where you find a similar collision and tense co-existence of natural scientific and older or folkloric ideas, can be found in ideas concerning blood and descent. Both demons and lineage are ways to explain cause and effect within a particular model of how the world works (and just because we use different words today doesn’t mean that we never make use of the same habits of thought). I don’t know if the gap between popular and elite discourse is any wider or narrower.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — March 8, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

  5. Thanks for this, Steve. I dredged through Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment last semester, which covers the period immediately after Clark’s scope, and I was amazed at how belief in demons was at the center of many of the debates of the 18th century. It seems that whenever there was a major intellectual paradigm shift introduced, some perspective of demons/demonology came under question and/or was revised. This is most likely due to an apt point you single out:

    In some ways the topic is much bigger than witchcraft since demons were central to how early modern people saw the world operating generally.

    Demonology/angelology is hardly an isolated topic, but it often touches on and is representative of a culture’s larger worldview; I have an article coming out next month that argues that engaging how early Mormons understood angels/demons is an especially fruitful lens through which to chart Mormonism’s developing theology.

    Comment by Ben — March 8, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

  6. Nice review, I remember reading this book in graduate school some year ago and it helped to spark my ongoing research on Mormon demonology and diabology. A perceptive take on a very good book.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 8, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

  7. J., on Catholicism, I think a lot survives and that popular religiosity changes slowly, but it’s a complicated issue. And I’m sure your right about medieval baptism.

    Jonathan, interesting. I’m sure SC would point out that demon belief is still around though.

    Ben, where’s the paper coming out. I’ll definitely need to read it. I’d really recomend Clark not only for the topic but also for how to do great intellectual history. His newest book Vanitie of the Eyes, is another great example.

    Where are you in your research SC, it reminds me that I need to send you a story.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 8, 2010 @ 10:01 pm


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