On 21st August 1666, Samuel Pepys recorded a visit from “Mr Batelier and his sister Mary, and [they] sat chatting a great while, talking of Wiches and Spirits”. The subject of witchcraft appears in Pepys’s diary in multiple entries. Pepys bought books on witchcraft, read them aloud with his wife, and discussed such stories with his friends.
Throughout the early modern period, witchcraft beliefs were complex. Whilst there was broad and longstanding belief amongst all levels of society that witches were evil people who could do harm, there were many dimensions of what the crime of witchcraft constituted. Since the Middle Ages witchcraft had been seen as the practice of harmful magic (maleficium) that caused misfortune, illness and death. In the early fifteenth century, this belief expanded to include a witch’s ability to form a pact with the Devil, with whom they carried out malicious deeds. On these grounds, witchcraft could be defined as a crime against God. An intense period of witch trials swept across Europe, only declining in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Unsurprisingly, during the height of the witch-hunting phase, witchcraft became a hot topic for scholarly treatises. In these texts, lawyers, theologians and physicians explored the possible explanations behind the relationship between witches and demons. Known as demonologies, these tracts excited a new dialogue for debate.
Pepys owned a selection of renowned demonologies covering an array of arguments concerning witchcraft. One of the most notable is a Latin translation of De la démonomanie des sorciers (On the Diabolical Madness of Witches, 1580), written by Jean Bodin. The French jurist made a zealous case for witch prosecutions, arguing that the sinful nature of the witches’ crimes made them crimes against God, that should be prosecuted at all costs.
On the other hand, there were a number of commentators who questioned the reality of witches based on their sceptical view of witches’ ability to exercise satanic powers. On these grounds, sceptical demonologists contested the efficacy of witch prosecutions. One such sceptic was Sir Reginald Scot, an English minor gentleman. In his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), Scot strongly attacked Bodin, arguing that all misfortune explained through human interaction with demons, was actually attributable to God’s Divine Providence. Therefore, by accusing someone of witchcraft you were disputing God’s power to intervene in all of creation. In August 1667, Pepys recorded in his diary his purchase of Scot’s book: “to my bookseller’s there and did buy Scotts discourse of Witches”. Unfortunately, Pepys did not document his reflections upon reading Scot or Bodin, so we are left guessing. However, we can infer that Pepys wanted to educate himself on the different arguments surrounding the reality of witchcraft. It is likely that Pepys saw this reading as a form of historical practice, rather than a way of deciding if he believed such things.
Whilst the works of both Bodin and Scot were published well before Pepys’s time, one demonology owned by Pepys was written by a seventeenth-century commentator, who was still very much involved in the debating scene concerning witchcraft and spirits. Joseph Glanvill defended the reality of witchcraft, even at a time when witch prosecutions had begun to slacken in England. A natural philosopher, Glanvill was less concerned with demonic threats than with trying to discover the philosophical truths about the universe, particularly the spirit world. In his book A blow at modern Sadducism (1668), Glanvill cited witchcraft as evidence of the reality of spirits. Pepys was clearly intrigued by Glanvill’s arguments. On Christmas Day in 1667, Pepys listened to his wife read him Glanvill’s Palpable evidence of spirits and witchcraft: in an account of the fam’d disturbance by the drummer, in the house of M. Mompesson, which was an appendix to A blow at modern Sadducism. This account was Glanvill’s version of the story of the ghostly drummer in Wiltshire, which had recently become a famous phenomenon, blazoning numerous pamphlets. In his diary, Pepys noted that the account was “a strange story of spirits, and worth reading indeed.” Through this entry, it is hard to ascertain whether Pepys believed in the reality of the tale. However, his sceptical inklings are apparent in a diary entry a few years earlier in 1663, where he recalled a discussion with the Earl of Sandwich about spirits, of which “Sandwich is very skepticall.” Sandwich shared with Pepys why he was suspicious of the tale of the spirit drummer. He observed “that though he doth answer to any tune that you will play to him upon another drum, yet one tune he tried to play and could not”. Pepys agreed that it was “a good argument”. The fact that Pepys owned Glanvill’s 1681 edition, Saducismus Triumphatus, or Full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions, suggests that, despite his scepticism, he was keen to keep up to date with the latest debates surrounding witchcraft.
Discussions on witchcraft were not restricted to literature for elites. Stories of witch trials featured heavily in seventeenth-century popular print, such as pamphlets and broadside ballads. The average labourer or servant could afford to buy a printed ballad, which cost a penny or halfpenny. Arguments from demonologies were reproduced in pamphlets, ballads and sermons. Pepys owned two ballads featuring cases of witchcraft: one entitled The Injured Children […] and the other Damnable Practises […]. In his diary, Pepys tells us of several occasions when he had great fun reading sensational ballads with friends.
How can we account for Pepys’s long-standing fascination with witchcraft? This may have been in part fuelled by his interest in learning about past beliefs. However, his multiple references to discussions he had on witchcraft recorded in his diary, alongside his collection of material concerning witchcraft, suggests that despite his sceptism surrounding the reality of witches and spirits, Pepys’s curiosity was not diminished by his doubts.
By Isobel Renn
Library Assistant and Invigilator (Pepys Library & Special Collections)
Elmer, Peter, ‘Science and Witchcraft’, in Brian P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2013), https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199578160.013.0031 [accessed 16 Nov. 2022]
Levack, Brian P., ‘Introduction’, in Brian P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2013), https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199578160.013.0001 [accessed 15 Nov. 2022]
Pepys, Samuel, in Latham, R. and Matthews, W. (ed.), The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A New and Complete Transcription. (London: G Bell & Sons Ltd, 1971-83)
Williams, Gerhild Scholz, ‘Demonologies’, in Brian P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2013), https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199578160.013.0005 [accessed 16 Nov. 2022]
 Ibid.,Vol. 8, 1667 (London: G Bell & Sons Ltd, 1974), p. 383.
 Ibid., Vol. 4, 1663 (London: G Bell & Sons Ltd, 1971), p. 185.
 Ibid., p. 187.