Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640–1789. By Jonathan Barry. Palgrave Macmillan. 2012. 373pp. £65.00.


Barry's new book explores six cases of early modern witchcraft and demonology ‘as a conjunctional phenomenon … affected by the interplay of a variety of institutions, interests and languages’ (pp. 5–6). To facilitate this he adopts the micro-study model as the best and perhaps the only possible way in which to explore such a complex interrelationship. Largely eschewing the familiar emphasis on the cases' social, legal or gendered dimensions, Barry is more interested in the way they were understood, interpreted and used by particular people, both at the time and in later decades. This is achieved through the close interrogation of the trial records, pamphlets, treatises, newspapers, ballads, chapbooks, diaries and letters that recorded or commented on the selected incidents. Barry explores the reasons and context in which these sources were created, what they suggest about the authors' ideological and cosmological views, and how those views influenced what was written. This textual study illustrates how the written documentation was largely the product of an educated debate between clergymen, medical men, lawyers and scientists. Through this relatively narrow but articulate group of men Barry skilfully teases out the rich intellectual discourses that informed the development of provincial modernity in south-west England.

The first study looks at Somerset magistrate Robert Hunt's involvement in two witchcraft cases in 1658 and 1665 and dissects muddled contemporary notions of the witches' sabbath. The second explores the case of the Bideford witches in 1682, generally taken to be the last English witchcraft trial to have resulted in confirmed executions. Barry's close textual reading emphasizes how the case was shaped through a complex series of interactions between Bideford (where the accusations were made), Exeter (where the prisoners were held) and London's publishing industry; the local, regional and metropolitan all inflecting the evidence and narrative. In doing so he illustrates how different local factions offered contending interpretations of witchcraft which advanced their own agendas.

The third and fourth case studies develop these themes through a focus on the spirit world. While one examines the political and religious contestations surrounding Richard Bovet's Pandaemonium, or the Devil's Cloyster (1684) the other focuses on John Beaumont, a Somerset geologist and Fellow of the Royal Society who became better known for a 1705 treatise on spirits. In refuting the notion that Beaumont simply shifted from being an enlightened man of science to someone deluded by spirits Barry explores the links between the provincial and metropolitan, and convincingly demonstrates how the early eighteenth-century worlds of spirits and science were still very much entangled.

The last two cases are genuinely absorbing pieces of historical analysis. Barry's rigorous interrogation of the Lamb Inn case in Bristol in 1761–2 illustrates rival public interpretations of this evolving episode of poltergeist and witchcraft activity and complicates the divergence between public discourse and private responses. Inverting the familiar idea of popular credulity and elite scepticism, he demonstrates how Bristol's intellectuals still believed in providence and spirits whilst the general public were more inclined towards disbelief. Interestingly, that scepticism was founded on a tradition of exposing fraudulent supernatural claims that dated back to Reginald Scott's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), whilst it was the believers who positioned themselves as promoters of Enlightenment ideals by emphasizing the empirical evidence of poltergeist activities. The final case focuses on George Lukins, a Bristol man supposedly possessed by seven devils who underwent an exorcism conducted by Reverend Joseph Easterbrook and six Methodist lay preachers in 1788. Situated within localized religious conflicts, the Wesleyans presented the exorcism as evidence of the power of prayer, whilst Anglicans dismissed it as the superstitious fraud and nonsense that brought religion into disrepute in an increasingly ‘modern’ age.

Throughout Barry adopts a highly tentative tone to his interpretation of the evidence and his book offers a valuable insight into how historians work by comparing sources, thereby formulating and dismissing various interpretative possibilities along the way. By muting his own authoritative voice and by restricting his analysis to well-documented micro-studies he successfully exposes the conflicting discourses and agendas that motivated contemporaries to pen the evidential record upon which historians now rely. His case studies demonstrate the multiple fault-lines and fractures within contemporary educated perspectives. Throughout the period of his study scepticism contended with a persistent providentialism, while a desire to prove the existence of a spirit world stood in opposition to a developing secular materialism. For Anglican churchmen the issue was further complicated by trying to navigate a narrow course between belief and disbelief. To be seen to believe in spirits and witches appeared to endorse Catholic superstition or nonconformist evangelical enthusiasm, whilst outright denial verged dangerously close to atheism and a rejection of biblical precedents. As Barry nicely states, ‘If there was a danger of believing too much, there was an equal danger of believing too little’ (p. 231). This dilemma hampered the struggle to dispel witchcraft beliefs for another century after Barry's study. By exposing these issues Barry reiterates why contemporary public debate is an unreliable barometer of changing private beliefs, not least because those debates often failed to result in a clear victory for one position over another.

At times Barry risks losing his overview in his detailing of shifts and gaps within and between contemporary and subsequent documentation. This is redeemed by an impressive conclusion, which convincingly complicates and destabilizes many of the dichotomies through which we tend to think about witchcraft and demonology in this period: the provincial versus the metropolitan, reason versus superstition, public versus private, even belief versus scepticism. His case studies repeatedly demonstrate that such positions were neither static nor absolute and that there was frequently interdependence between seemingly dichotomous viewpoints. While historians have increasingly come to suspect and appreciate these complexities, this book's intensely focused and sustained documentary analysis categorically proves the point. In discrediting these neat conceptual dichotomies Barry performs a powerful exorcism on our familiar historical assumptions.