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The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii February, 1996)


Most magicians know—or should know—that the first English language text containing conjuring methods appeared in 1584. The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot, is actually one of two books concerning conjuring published in the West that year, along with La Premiere Partie des Subtiles et Plaisante Inventions, written by Jean Prevost. (It remains a matter of continuing speculation as to which volume preceded the other.) Scot's work, however, is also considered a classic of Elizabethan literature in circles wider than those concerned with conjuring. The author didn't intend to write a manual of magic tricks. Instead, he intended to debunk the witch trials and executions—"discoverie," in Elizabethan usage, meant "explanation of—that were increasingly popular at the time, thus ushering in a longstanding relationship between conjuring and skepticism. One might even say that lives were at stake.

Unfortunately, we haven't had a quality edition of Scot's Discoverie available for quite some time. Most contemporary magicians who have read Scot—and I'll bet their numbers are few—have had to make do with the Dover paperback reprint of the limited, 1930 John Rodker edition. This is the only one I previously owned, although I have had the pleasure of handling two first editions and a number of other editions of extremely early vintage. (The recently published Milbourne Christopher antiquarian bibliography demonstrates that even that great collector lacked a vintage copy of Scot.) Those early editions are truly beautiful, and about a year ago I spent an afternoon in the reading room of the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress, reading Harry Houdini's own first edition. The parchment paper and vibrant print, more than 400 years old and inscribed by Harry himself, carried me back on a voyage of time travel far more compelling than any reading of H. G. Wells' Time Machine ever could. Our collective history lives in those pages.

Although Scot was not a conjuror himself, it may be a fair guess that he had a passing interest in the subject. Most rational minds delight in the experience of good magic, and Scot was certainly possessed of a rational (and in fact remarkably modern) mind. He relied on conjurors' of his acquaintance, including one Jean Cauteres (a magician of French origin then living in London), for the information contained in the twenty-two pages of his book devoted to magic tricks and related stunts. A careful reading can help us paint a reasonably vivid portrait of the magic of four centuries ago, as performed at fairs and in public houses of the time.

Scot addresses a variety of props and tricks, much as a modern compendium might, and current readers may find it a rather bracing experience to discover so many contemporary standards in these ancient pages. Beginning with the cups and balls—already old in Scot's time—the author works his way through a variety of tricks with coins, cards, handkerchiefs and knots, mental effects, a version of the paddle trick, a cut and restored lace, the Grandmother's Necklace trick, an early version of the venerable mouth coil, the Buddha Papers, the burned and restored thread, the Coloring Book, and the Ring on Stick (with some, uh, juicy additions unfortunately rarely seen today). Amid the coin material, we find a double-faced coin (with an application not dissimilar to the use of the yet-to-be invented shell coin), and a bit with a knife and a coin that would later be mentioned in Sachs' Sleight-of-Hand, and later still used to excellent effect when reinvented by David Williamson. Herein we also learn something of the use of the lap as a servante.

In the card section we find the fan force, an early version of the glide, a mention of observing the spectator's gaze to determine his mentally selected card, and the jog shuffle, including the injog and the outjog. All in all, not a bad catalog of material. So good, in fact, that much of Scot's work would be repeated—sometimes with additions and improvements, and sometimes virtually unchanged—throughout the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century conjuring literature. Some habits die hard, don't they?

While the descriptions often lack detail, Scot bemoans the difficulty of the writer's task, when in his description of what later came to be known as the Grandmother's Necklace he comments that "...these things are so hard and long to be described, that I will leave them; whereas I could shew great varietie."

"This conveiance must be closelie doone: Ergo it must be no bunglers worke."—Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft

Scholars widely believe that Shakespeare consulted Scot as a source about the supernatural, as most vividly realized in the characterizations of the witches of Macbeth, Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Ariel in The Tempest— each representing different facets of the supernatural personality. Ghosts and spirits also appear in Macbeth, Richard III, Julius Caesar, and of course, Hamlet. Shakespeare never made his own position on such matters entirely clear, but rather used them as dramatic devices; the bard's ambivalence might have had something to do with the fact that King James I was not only a patron of Shakespeare's theater company, but also, upon ascending the throne in 1603, declared Scot's work to be heresy, and ordered all copies burned. Like all book burners, he ultimately failed.

Kaufman & Greenberg have done a lovely job producing this elegant volume. Whereas the Dover reprint was reduced in size, the present edition returns to the larger format of the original Rodker edition, which helps to make the Old English easier to read. As well, the publishers have repeated the three-piece, two-color cloth binding of Rodker. This is a handsome text, printed on high quality paper. The publishers, having chosen to model their version on this edition, have also reproduced the rather bizarre, 1930 introduction by Montague Summers. This is a curious choice, as the Summers document is of negligible historical importance. Summers was a cleric, a zealot, and something of a crackpot; his introduction weaves a roundabout defense of James I, who, according to the writer, wasn't quite as bad a guy as some would make him out to be. Summers proceeds from this loony premise into what eventually becomes an outright attack on Scot for his "railing against popery" and his alleged, albeit purely speculative, atheism—an apparently mortal flaw that the writer clearly cannot abide. Writing less than seventy years ago, Summers insists that when it comes to matters of the devil, demons, and witches, "Hysteria, hallucination, account for much; but there is a horrid foundation of fact, of evil and sorcery." Praise the Lord and pass the exorcism!

What is perhaps even odder than the presence of the Summers introduction is the absence of a contemporary introduction that intelligently discusses Scot for the conjuring readership. A number of present-day historians and experts might have given this volume its due consideration, as Stephen Minch did in his superb 1991 monograph, From Witchcraft to Card Tricks. Instead, Richard Kaufman provides a one-page foreword which, after briefly recounting some history and providing some valuable tips on coping with the Old English, ends on a glib joke, unbefitting of a work of this nature and substance. Of course, Mr. Kaufman's personal relationship with this text far precedes the current volume, as his 1979 work, Cardmagic, made frequent if sophomoric reference to Scot, Shakespeare, and indeed several other literary classics. Readers will no doubt recall Mr. Kaufman's closing words in Cardmagic: "Erdnase is old and obsolete, and Hofzinser... [is] even older and more boring!" No doubt Mr. Kaufman now feels differently about these matters, but at least no copies were ordered burned, so that his timeless prose will linger on for future generations to appreciate, much as Scot still does today.

8 - 1/2" X 11" 3-piece clothbound with gold stamping; 320 pages; 1584; Published by Kaufman & Greenberg